WiHM 2023: Reading for Writing Inspiration
Reading for Writing Inspiration
Some of my fave horror writers disclose their go-to’s for inspiration.
By Shelly Lyons
“Ability is what you’re capable of doing. Motivation determines what you do. Attitude determines how well you do it. ” ― Raymond Chandler
While deep into the second draft of my first novel, Like Real, I got stuck. Not quite debilitating, but circling that territory, and no amount of brainstorming or power walking could free me from this one-way ticket to complete story paralysis. What I’d written so far had a workable structure, some fine set pieces and good dialogue. The problem had become a seemingly unending debate about whether some details were persnickety versus essential. Was I telling or showing? Were my words stilted and/or derivative? I’d written screenplays before, but screenplays are bare bones critters, and I needed to add some flesh—but not too much—into a story that demanded more interiority, depth and detail.
It was too much! I’d lost control! If you’ve read my essay on the writing of the book, you’ll know my need for personal control is why I failed as a drug user and liquor imbiber, and why my favorite Universal Horror Monster is The Wolfman, who loses control through no fault of his own. I don’t mind zig-zagging through a maze, but I prefer having the end of it in mind as I voyage.
So, as much as I adore editing, I paused, overwhelmed by how much work I’d yet to do. Also, as many of you might relate, feelings of inadequacy ran at me like a bunch of angry linebackers. “Your dialogue isn’t ‘good’ it’s bullshit”—blam! WTF is this sentence construction made with, popsicle sticks?”—blam! “You’re a fraud!”—blam!
At the time, I was workshopping pages with my mentor and teacher, Mr. John Skipp, splatterpunk progenitor and writer of many great stories that fuse beautiful truths with literary elegance and smart-alecky colloquialisms—a brilliant beast of a dude who also employs this winning combination for his music and films. I’d already taken his class, along with Brian Asman (speaking of brilliant beasts), and I had a first draft of a novel based on a first draft of a screenplay.
If I’m being honest, there was probably more than a smattering of self-pity in my voice when I told John I was stuck. He did this combination of nodding both vertically and horizontally—’no’ to my pity and ‘yes’ to a potential solution—and then he suggested I find a copy of William Goldman’s Control. The book is sadly out of print, but there are copies to be had. I got mine from Thriftbooks.
It helped! Goldman is the boss! I’d read Magic and Heat and several of his screenplays, but this was new to me, and so very brilliant and weird. Since I was writing something semi uncategorizable—a mix of sci-fi, romantic comedy, and horror—how could I not find inspiration in a sci-fi tale that’s also a crime thriller packed with suspense and vibrant, (deceptively) simple language?
Now, four years later, my book has entered the world and I’m writing an article about inspiration, and so I went to the Facebook activity archives to hunt down the post I made on the subject:
As you’ll find later in this article, Control is also Mr. Skipp’s inspiration, not just his prescription for mentees.
I wondered if other authors turned to particular works or authors for inspiration, whether it’s an ongoing, always go-to text or one specific to a particular work of theirs. So I asked some writers whose work I admire and here’s what I got…
Max Booth III:
“While putting together my first story collection, Abnormal Statistics (March 23, Apocalypse Party), I kept returning to the collections of Stephen King—particularly, Skeleton Crew. I did this for a few reasons. One, as a kid, I always loved reading the “story notes” in all of his collections, so I found myself going back and re-reading them before writing my own story notes for Abnormal. But also, I wanted to remind myself that beginning a collection with a long-ass novella (“The Mist” in Skeleton Crew) was a super cool thing to do, even if it’s a little insane, because I wanted to begin my collection with a long-ass novella of my own (Indiana Death Song).”
I frequently go back to the Circe or Walpurgisnacht episode of Ulysses. It was really helpful on my book Charcoal because there were scenes that required me to crash layers and layers of consciousness against each other. There’s a mindfuckery in Joyce and an intense transgression against what we call reality. It helped me look at Horror and Bizarro in a fresh way and I go back there when I know I have to rip up consensus reality in a way I haven’t tried yet.
John Keel’s book The Mothman Prophecies was a clear influence for Below. I’d already wanted to write about Mothman, but reading the book gave me a lot of inspiration for the other more obscure elements and some of the atmosphere. In addition to that, the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark series by Alvin Schwartz has been a source of inspiration a number of times, specifically because of Stephen Gammel’s disturbing illustrations. A novella I finished last year particularly drew on some of the uneasy pictures in it—I only hope I managed to infuse a tenth of the nightmares those books gave me.
One inspiration I chose specifically when writing my novel It Will Just Be Us is Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Her crisp prose, delightful weirdness, and strong sense of character have made this one of my most-read books. While I don’t think I can hope to achieve her elegance of prose, her character Merricat helped me find and revel in the weirdness of my own character, Sam Wakefield.
Another inspiration of mine is The Winter People by Jennifer McMahon. The way she wove a story connecting an historical tale with a present-day one helped me envision how to do this in my novel When the Night Bells Ring, which goes between a near-future timeline and a story in the Old West, both of which end up converging.
Kevin J. Kennedy:
For inspiration I have go-to authors rather than particular books. While I have a load of favourite authors, there are certain ones that always come up if I am in the mood to read something in a certain sub-genre or if I am looking for some inspiration. If I want something funny, it’s Jeff Strand. If I want something mental, it’s Carlton Mellick III. Something brutal but engaging, it’s Edward Lee. Schlocky B-movie horror is Richard Laymon or Bryan Smith. I’ve been reading these guys for over twenty years, and I’ve only been writing for seven, so I feel they will have had an impact on my work. I’m sure lots of other authors have played a part in shaping my mind, too. Some others that I’ve read a lot of work by are Brian Keene, Ray Garton, Wrath James White, John R. Little, Irvine Welsh, Anne Rice (Just the Vampire Chronicles), Tim Curran & Iain Rob Wright.
I’ve always preferred indie to mass market. While some of the names I have listed are well known in the horror community now, some were just starting out when I picked up a book by them. House of Blood by Bryan Smith and The Memory Tree from John R. Little were both debut releases when I read them. It’s been a great journey, following them. I love loads of the new indie authors from the last decade, but I feel the authors named have been most influential to me.
“A book I constantly return to for inspiration is Poppy Z. Brite’s Exquisite Corpse. Not only does the book capture a perfect unsettling tone, but it reminds me to be fearless with my own writing—to write authentically and to never hold myself back with regard to content.”
The Grip of It by Jac Jemc – I took inspiration from this book when I was writing Conjuring the Witch. The book has an amazing atmosphere where you’re never quite sure what’s honest. You feel like things are off-kilter in the most horrible way. It’s genuinely unsettling. I wanted to bring that overall feeling of wrongness into my book.
Whenever I’m writing a new novel, I tend to read widely both in genre and realism, whatever feeds the beast. So my books are always in conversation with present day books, books in the genre or realism that deals with relationships similar to those I’m writing about (my books seem to center on love relationships, long term friendships or family). I’ve annotated a large number of those novels at Annotation Nation. (https://annotationnation.wordpress.com/)
But short stories are an area in which I feel somewhat insecure, so I tend to go back to touchstones for inspiration. Shorts tend to inform my novellas, as well, which I’m obsessed with of late. I have a duo of novellas Bleak Houses: Safer & Family Solstice coming out from Raw Dog Screaming Press this summer. Again and again, I go back to short stories from Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and other Parties, particularly “Eight Bites,” a master class in revelation, and “The Husband Stitch,” which reimagines a ghost story that most remember but through a new lens which creates a new shudder. I often return to Ken Liu’s eponymous story from The Paper Menagerie for the way it compresses time while maintaining a swift overall emotional arc and to Nicole Sconiers’ hilarious and haunting “Here Come the Janes,” from Escape from Beckyville, Tales of Race Hair and Rage for permission to dig into what bugs me. Jeffrey Ford’s A Natural History of Hell has so many artful shorts in it; one story about a home exorcism treated like a home baptism is just brilliant.
One big source of inspiration for my novel Curse of the Reaper was the Arthur Miller play Death of a Salesman. The delusional Willy Loman, stuck between past glories and a present decline, was a major reference point for my washed-up method actor Howard Browning. Reading plays can be incredibly useful for character development because they’re driven by no-frills human drama. Another one that’s directly referenced in my book is Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, wherein the faded Southern belle Blanche DuBois plummets out of touch with reality. I guess I have a soft spot for tragically insecure characters teetering on the edge of madness, but I can’t imagine why.
Whenever I need inspiration, regardless if I’m writing poetry or prose, horror, sci-fi, or young adult, I turn to Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman. The poem “Song of Myself,” in particular. No matter how many times I read it, that book never fails to remind me how much inspiration exists all around me, in nature, in humanity, in the ballooning of love, in the collapse of death, and how lucky I am to be alive to feel it all, even if only through others’ and my own art. Once I’m filled with the notion that “my voice goes after what my eyes cannot reach, with the twirl of my tongue I encompass worlds and volumes of worlds,” I am ready to write.
First one that comes to mind is The Childrens’ Blizzard by David Laskin, an account of the actual historical events of January 1888. Fantastically written, totally harrowing, all the more so because it was real. As soon as I read it, I knew I had to write something based on it, with pioneers and weather-horror and survival and human drama … but, being me, I also had to add snow monsters, and thus my book White Death was born.
The first go-to read that popped in my mind was The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon by Stephen King, in conjunction with My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George, an old favorite that I read in middle school. Both stories stayed with me long after I read them, so much so that when I wrote my first novel, Breach, they served as the basis for my guide in writing the story.
The sense of isolation, fear, and courage that are found within both books has always resonated with me. My main character, Laraya deals with these things and more in her journey through a living nightmare. The second novel, Beyond The Breach, also draws upon these elements as a driving focus through her story.
King has always been a major influence for me, but before I discovered his work, I was already enamored by the work of Edgar Allan Poe, H. P. Lovecraft, H. G. Wells, and Hitchcock. Some of my more modern influences and must-read authors include Jonathan Janz, S. A. Cosby, Ronald Malfi, Josh Malerman, Mary San Giovanni, Laurel Hightower, Caitlin Marceau, Aron Beauregard, and Kristopher Triana.
For novels, it’s much more complex, but every time I’m stuck on a short story, I take a pause and I go back to Ray Bradbury’s Stories: 100 of His Most Celebrated Tales. Every single time, I’m able to get where I need to get after spending some time with Bradbury.
When I was working on Soft Places I was inspired by Sam Kieth’s comic series The MAXX. Specifically the way he used people’s subconscious landscapes as real places they could shift to was something I wanted to play with when I wrote Soft Places.
There are dozens of writers who inspire me enormously just because I love their voice, or the company of their characters, or their razored turn of phrase, or twist of plot, or the sensual warmth of their poetic flow. I love writers, most of all, who write like themselves and no one else. But the only book I ever turned to repeatedly, just before I’d start a major work, was Control by William Goldman. I happened to read it just before starting to write The Light At The End. And for the next several years, I’d read it just before starting every novel. Why? ‘To remember how the big boys do it.’ Cuz that book has it all.
When I was working on my upcoming debut horror novel, Bless Your Heart (Minotaur Books, 2024)—which is set in set in a fictionalized version of my rural Texas hometown in 1999 about four generations of women who run a funeral parlor as a cover for putting down the restless dead—I reread several novels that really captured that southern spirit (The Southern Book Club’s Guide To Slaying Vampires by Grady Hendrix being a recent favorite). I also wore out my copy of Steel Magnolias (Robert Harding) play script, and picked through lots and lots of research on undead mythologies. A fun late edition (as I’m working on the sequel) was Tom Holland’s recent Fright Night novelization—that hit both tone notes and a good bit of nostalgia for me!
When working on anthologies, I tend to reread novels that helped inspire the anthology’s theme. For example, I’m currently collecting submissions for Mother Knows Best, a women-in-horror anthology (shelly note: deadline 3/31/23) about bad mothers, so I’ve gone back and read some of my favorite Bad Moms Books, among them: A House With Good Bones (T. Kingfisher), Motherthing (Ainslie Hogarth), Sharp Objects (Gillian Flynn), This Is Where We Talk Things Out (Caitlin Marceaux), Misery (Stephen King—which is not exactly on theme, but I’m counting it), Mothered (Zoje Stage).
Michael J Seidlinger:
Every time I start a new book project, I gather a stack of books, between four and eight, that doesn’t necessarily act as on-topic for the book I’m writing but rather they all tap into the tone and/or vibe of what it is I’m trying to do. With Anybody Home, for example, I had Italo Calvino’s If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler in the stack among other books like Chuck Palahniuk’s Rant. The full stack is now lost on me but those were definitely in there. I tend to keep the stack on my writing desk, there as sort of a totem, as I write, though I seldom actually return to the texts. They sort of rest there, keeping watch as I write.
Kurt Vonnegut is the person who made me want to become a writer, so to some degree or another his work is a part of all of my work as well. At least half his oeuvre I’ve read three times. What I find striking about his work is how he juggles disparate tones simultaneously. His books are often funny, sad, weird, enlightening, and terrifying in equal measure. It’s the same kind of balancing act I try to bring to my own work. My favorite Vonnegut novel has changed multiple times over the years but the one’s I find myself referring to the most are Cat’s Cradle, The Sirens of Titan, Breakfast of Champions, and Galapagos.
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Shelly is a Los Angeles townie who has made peace with both its traffic and pizza. Her stories have appeared in several anthologies, including Peculiar Monstrosities, The Dead Unleashed, and Just a Girl: Badass Women of Horror. Another story is featured at the end of Brian Asman’s novella, Return of the Living Elves. Her debut novel, a body horror rom-com called Like Real, entered the world in February 2023, courtesy of Ghoulish Books. Find her at shellylyons.com.