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A Waking Nightmare

Scare readers with the perfect setting and characters in your horror fiction.

Undoubtedly, you've had the experience of picking up a novel at the end of the day, telling yourself you'll read a chapter before going to sleep, and then—a surprised glance at the clock. It's 5 a.m.! What happened? You'd taken no notice of time passing, not here in the real world. Instead, your time became the time of the novel, with perhaps a day depicted in 13 pages, or 11 months flashing by in three tightly constricted paragraphs. Nor while time passed on Earth were you thinking about such here-and-now concerns as the cluster of mosquito bites on your forearm, that difficult choice between paying the car-repair bill or the pediatrician's child-repair bill, or your chances of winning the lottery.

As you read, your body occupied space in RealityLand. But you—the thinking, feeling, imagining, real you—were somewhere else. You were walking the suburban streets or city alleys, the forest paths or sandy beaches of a fictional world, as you shared the adventures and thoughts and emotions of that world's people, people you'd come to know and to care about. The late John Gardner, a fine writer and teacher of writing, called fiction a "waking dream." When you sleep and dream, you experience the dream as real. And when you enter the waking dream of a well-written short story or novel, it's just as real.

Of course, you're reading this because you're interested in creating not waking dreams but waking nightmares. You want to set spines a-shivering and souls a-shaking—and sometimes stomachs a-spasming.

How to do that?

Perhaps you expect me to answer my rhetorical question by saying something like, "Use your imagination. Dredge up the dreads in the corners and basement of the brain. Set free the imagination to go on a scythe-swinging, chain-saw slashing, Roto-Rooter rooting rampage—and you've got a horror story." Sorry. Imagination will give you an idea for a horror story, but you're a long way from having the waking nightmare that will envelop and encompass readers.

The reality base

It's reality's "what is?" not imagination's "what if?" that can transform horror premise into horror story. It takes reality—heaps of it—to create and populate a story realm that gives readers the frights royale. It takes settings that have the reality of Lincoln, Neb.; Tucson, Ariz.; or Grenada, Miss. It takes breathing, thinking, feeling, story folks who are as real as your Uncle Albert, who always gets drunk and sentimental at family reunions; as real as Mr. Schlechter, your high school English teacher who nearly flunked you for not handing in your term paper on "Washington Irving's Use of the Comma in Rip Van Winkle"; as real as your first puppy-love paramour or your last meaningful-relationship partner.

Good fiction, by definition, is credible. It's a lie that can be believed. Readers should be able to say of a contemporary or mainstream work of fiction, "Yes, given these circumstances, this could really happen." Readers should able to say that of a Western, romance, mystery, suspense, you-name-it work of fiction.

And readers must be able to say the same of a story of the supernatural, the paranormal, the occult, the horrific, the weird, the wild and the off the wall, if they're to enter into and be held by a waking nightmare. The key to credibility in fright-fantasy fiction is setting and character. Your readers, after all, are already meeting you more than halfway, as they implicitly agree, "I want to be scared, and so I choose to willingly suspend disbelief to accept your imaginative premise: a manacle-rattling, saber-waving or ice-cream-cone-licking ghost; a werewolf, were-panther, were-bear, were-whatever; a 200-year-old transvestite vampire who needs root canal work on his fangs. OK, I'll go with that. I'll stretch my credulity that far."

But that's it. With one such leap of imagination/acceptance of the incredible, readers have given you all you have a right to expect. That means everything else in your waking nightmare must be true to life so readers are never thinking they're being lied to.

What's everything else? Everything else is setting and characters. OK, fiction has setting, characters and plot. Correct. But if your principal characters respond to their problem/conflict situations in credible ways, plot happens almost automatically.

Write know

How do you make settings real? Bring out the old chestnut: Write about what you know.

It's hardly surprising that Robert R. McCammon's evocative and frightening-as-hell novel Mystery Walk is set in Dixie. A graduate of the University of Alabama living in Birmingham, Ala., McCammon knows the territory.

J.N. Williamson often chooses Indianapolis as the setting for his fictive frights. Indianapolis-born, Indianapolis-dwelling Williamson knows Indianapolis and depicts it so you know it, too.

A Maine native, Stephen King has lived in Castle Rock and Salem's Lot—even if those towns have other names on the Auto Club map.

I've lived in Crete, Ill., one of Chicago's south suburbs, for nearly 20 years. I slide behind the wheel of my Ford Escort, and within 20 minutes, I'm at Lincoln Mall, an under-one-roof shopping center that always smells of caramel corn; or Prairie State College, which in two years can provide you an associate's degree in English or air-conditioning repair; or Suburban Heights Medical Center, a modern facility with a large staff of professional health care workers. I can drive through Park Forest, a long-established middle-class planned community; or Ford Heights, as poverty-stricken and dangerous a ghetto as you shouldn't be able to find in our proverbial land of plenty; or Swiss Valley, where my poor compact car's ego dies as we pass driveways in which are parked Cadillacs, Mercedes and Jaguars.

You can understand, then, how I came up with a suburb called Park Estates for the setting of my horror novel The Strangers. You know why my protagonist's wife signed up for a psychology class at Lincoln State College. You now have the inside info on the protagonist's daughter, struck by a car, winding up in the emergency room of the South Suburban Medical Center. Here's a brief passage from The Strangers:

Two Park Estates Police Department officers and the paramedics arrived without sirens, their whirling lights fragmenting the neighborhood into coldly iridescent expressionist objects and angles: a bird-bath, jumping shadows cast by the limb of a tree, an advertising circular blowing across a lawn, the eyes of a prowling cat...

To write that, I employed zero imagination. Instead, I relied on memory and knowledge, and found words to let my readers see what I can see every day.

I hear a protest: "But I live in North Nowhere, Kan., where there are three churches, four taverns and a trailer park. Our big cultural event is the annual VFW show when the guys dress up as women. How's a fictionalized North Nowhere going to grab and keep readers' interest?"

I maintain that North Nowhere is interesting—if you set out to discover the interest. Maybe I'm not exactly a wild and crazy guy, but I note all sorts of "local color" events in Crete that grab me (and, fictionalized a bit, often wind up in my writing): The eclectic Old Town Restaurant adds something new to a menu that already offers Mexican burritos, Chinese egg rolls, Italian ravioli and Greek dolmaches. Crete Hardware features a sign, "Thanks for your patronage for the past 30 years," not because the store is going out of business or anything, but just to say thanks. The high school cheerleaders slow traffic at the Main-and-Exchange intersection (the town's only stoplight) by holding a "Sucker Day" to raise money for new uniforms.

Granted, reality-based settings are prosaic and commonplace. The very ordinariness of such settings works for you in two ways. First, readers are familiar with the ordinary; they live there. Readers relate to the ordinary without your having to work at establishing that relationship. And thus readers will find your settings credible, as they must.

Then, i f you have an ominous, thickly atmospheric setting—the phosphorescent-fog-shrouded swamp, the torture chamber of a crumbling castle, the burial ground of a satanic church—you'll be hard-pressed to spring a surprise on your readers, who anticipate an awful or nasty occurrence in such a foreboding place.

But consider: "Summer. A few minutes past sunrise. Birchwood Lane, a quiet suburban street. Mailbox on the corner. A parkway torn up to repair a broken sewer file. A squirrel zips up a tree, fleeing a gray tomcat..."

Ho-hum, humdrum—until something sinuous, gleaming with slime, slithers from the mailbox's slot.

Consider also: "The squirrel, safe on a limb, chatters defiance at the cat below and then, from the thick leaves behind the squirrel, a furry arm shoots out and a knobby-knuckled, four-fingered hand encircles the squirrel's neck."

When the ordinary is invaded by the terrifying extraordinary, horror happens.

And thus it's the intrusion of the extraordinary, the appalling unusual into the lives of ordinary, credible, for-real characters that makes for compelling shock fiction.

People like us

A good horror story character is a fictional someone who's every bit as alive and as much a unique individual as anyone we know really well out here in RealityLand. He must be for readers to care about him. If readers don't care, they'll not give a rap about what the character does or what happens to him. Characters your readers know must inhabit the real world of your waking nightmare.

And that means you'd better know those characters. How well? You've not only fathered and mothered these characters, but you've also been their closest confidant and their psychiatrist. There's nothing they've kept hidden from you, including things they might've been able to keep hidden from themselves.

That's how well you know them.

That's how well I know my important characters, anyway. My readers might never need to know if my protagonist prefers real mayo to Miracle Whip, if his first car was a cherry-red 1967 Ford Mustang, if he likes Willie Nelson's songs but can't stand looking at the singer, if he had a pet collie named Lizzie when he was 5, etc., but I have to know if I'm to present this character as a three-dimensional, well-rounded human being, as I must.

In "And of Gideon," my novelette in the John Maclay-edited collection, Nukes: Four Horror Writers on the Ultimate Horror, my protagonist, Gideon, is a murderous psychopath. I wanted my readers to fear Gideon, to realize anew that such human aberrations do exist. I wanted my readers to pity him, as well, this loser who'd been "programmed for pathology."

But more than that, I wanted readers to see Gideon as a credible human being, one who'd elicit the wide range of emotional response that only real people can evoke.

Here's some of what I knew about Gideon and what I wanted readers to know: father a drunk, had no love for my mother, another drunk, she none for him, and neither for me. (From) my early years, I cannot recall a single hug...My father would beat me, not with the flat of his hand or a belt but with his fists. In kindergarten, I could not color within the lines, could not catch a basketball thrown to me from a distance of two feet, nor hang by my knees from the monkey bars...I was always in trouble: for not coming to school on time, for not even trying on tests, for not doing this, for not doing that, always in trouble with the teachers, those despairing head-shakers, "Gideon, don't you want to learn? Don't you want to amount to anything? Don't you want to grow up and be somebody?"

Because your characters must have their own distinct personalities, you can't people your story with stereotypes. Your credible fiction is based on reality, and if you've ever been friends with a truck driver in RealityLand, you realize there's so much more to him than can be described by "Truck Driver Type," more to the wife-beating drunk than "Wife-Beating Drunk Type," more to you than "Writer Type." Stereotypes aren't permitted to have unique personalities as do real people; they're limited in thought, emotion and action by the terribly confining mold that created them.

In an earlier era, we had such stereotypes, offensive generalizations thinly disguised as human beings, as the Irish cop with the whiskey nose and the "faith and begorra" accent, and the shuffling African-American who, eyes-rolling, yelled, "Feets, do yo' stuff!" when confronted by "them haints." You can think of many others, I'm sure. I'm afraid horror fiction these days has its own stereotypes: The Ugly Duckling with the Paranormal Wild Talent and The Dedicated Psychic Researcher who's so icily intellectual that he continues to take copious notes as Satan's personal imps disembowel him. You have The Catholic Priest Suffering Doubt and The Twins—One Good, the Other Evil. Still yet, you have The Yokel Preacher, who speaks in tongues and would quote more frequently from the Bible if it didn't have so many multisyllabic words, as well as The Helpless Female, who, although she's vice president of a New York advertising agency, is totally incapable of dealing with a supernatural menace.

Don't use any of these stereotypes. Instead, apply that previously mentioned writing rule: Write about what you know. You know people. You know what you think/how you feel when someone you counted on lets you down, so you know what your story character thinks/feels when someone he's counted on lets him down. You've experienced disappointment, joy, hate, love, so you can create credible characters that experience disappointment, joy, hate, love. You've been embarrassed, you've felt pride, you've felt everything a human being can feel.

Your characters—animated by your knowledge of self, others and the world—given your breath of reality as vital force and placed in authenticity-imbued settings, will come to life on the page.

They'll hold out a welcoming hand and yank readers into your waking nightmare—and keep them there.

This article was excerpted from On Writing Horror, New Edition, copyright 2006 by The Horror Writers Association (on sale November 18, 2006). Used with permission of Writer's Digest Books, an imprint of F+W Publications, Inc. To obtain a copy, visit your local bookseller or call (800)448-0915.

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