Monday 10 June 2013

Novel Idea: Dark Side

ghosts of a chance

Heads-up: this post contains links and topics some may find disturbing. It's a discussion on the darker side of writing. 

Nice little coincidence happened yesterday: passed the 35,000 mark and the 100 page mark together. Now the middle of the fourth week of my 1k a day regime.

In an attempt not to bore you senseless with a breakdown of wordcount stats (plenty of time for that), I thought I'd tackle another question.

My dear mumsy once asked me, after reading Butterfly's Predator, 'where does all the darkness come from?'

Well, partly it's innate. My mode of expression growing up was often a little on the macabre side. I recall one English teacher struggling to deliver both praise and concern at a short story in which my lead character, a young mother, returned home to find that her own mother, who she had taken in from a mental asylum to aid her recovery, had seen fit to repay her kindness by murdering her child and leaving its entrails across the bed. Entrails she only discoverers when she fell on the bed in the dark, because - as has to happen in the plot of all good horror stories - the electricity had been cut.

There are countless articles on writing, creativity and depression. Having been no stranger to the latter in adolescence, it's tempting to say 'perhaps that's it?' Authors like Stephen King often cite their emotional state as the driving force behind some of their most fearsome works. Then again, there are plenty of authors who talk about being able to tap exactly the same level of darkness whilst classing themselves as perfectly cheerful. Recently departed Iain Banks is one example in his five minute interview with the BBC:

Q: When you're writing about dark material, is it in any way strange writing in the first person?

A: Not really, no. It's a technique you get used to as a writer, you know? You don't really think about it, you just get on with it. It's an answer to a technical problem, if you like, and so it's something you adopt quite naturally and easily. It has no real bearing on your own psyche. 

Q: I know when you ask an actor 'are you a baddie in real life?', of course they're not baddies in real life, but, as I say, there's some dark stuff. Where does that come from? What do you draw on?

A: I don't know, I've just got an overactive imagination gland or something... It's just something I seem to be able to tap. I'm actually quite a nice, bright and breezy person.

Regarding my own early efforts, I think one of our great mistakes as a society, after the infantilisation of women, is probably our self-delusional propensity towards this image of childhood as something innocent and 'good'. Elements of it certainly are, and should be. But in expecting all of childhood to be that way, we miss the vital turning points in psychological development. Childhood, as well as being magical, is also a confusing, cruel and uncertain time. Stories about princes and happy-ever-afters are fine, but do you notice how many kids also scramble to get their hands on Horrible Histories and Point Horror? How many of the good old fairy tales revolved around a bogeyman or a wicked witch?

I certainly grew up with some wonderfully dark fairy tales on the bookshelf, alongside Mr. Bump and Puddle Lane.

So, that's me. I like dark things, I think dark things help to make sense of other things, and, as many actors and artists will attest, playing the villain can be so much more fun than playing the princess.

As far as where ideas come from - usually observation.

Stuck for horrific imagery? Turn on the news, open a paper, or even pay on demand.

I think where people get a little edgy about it with authors is that, often, they are not just describing an event happening to someone else, but explicitly writing about it in first person - as though they are the perpetrator or the victim.

There's a couple of examples that spring to mind. For me, Stephen King absolutely nailed the discomfort factor in his short story Apt Pupil. One of the most disturbing stories I've ever read, and one in which I found myself marvelling at the braver and willingness of the author to 'go there', when many who might be capable of such would be too afraid to write it. Another is probably Ian McEwan's short story Butterflies. I'm sure you know the kind of thing I'm on about?

It is sometimes difficult to separate authors from the characters they have written. I found this when watching Lionel Shriver speak. I could practically sense Kevin sitting behind her. Those characters come from somewhere, as I'm sure people close to me sometimes look and wonder about Adrian Roy.

I can't speak for other writers, but for me I feel very in control of Adrian. I can evoke him, but I own him. He is my creation, and I know exactly what he is and what makes him tick. Crime writer Andrea Maria Schenkel said something similar about her baddie when asked how she managed to sleep at night. You know them and you are in complete control of them, so you can turn off the light and rest easy. I think the ones that keep you awake at night are the ones you read and you can believe they're out there somewhere, coming for you.

So, why am I bringing this up?

Well, because I'm now entering the middle part of my story. I face a bit of a schism in that I'm now technically halfway towards 70k, but there's another way of dividing the count: not words, but pages.

For me:
  • <100 = Beginning
  • 100-200 = Middle
  • 200-300 = End

That's extremely rough. It's just another way of measuring how things are progressing. The end is usually a bit shorter, because the pace is quicker. Things crescendo towards the finale.

I'm transitioning from the book's early years to the thick of it. In this story, the thick of it is a a realm of torture, power and abuse, wrapped up in court intrigue, lust, and some fairly funky costumes.

One of the protagonists is taken from another work, which is now in the public domain. It's a bit of a spin-off, with a fresh angle. This particular character, Vachon, suffers a severe deformity. Imagination, whilst being the key tool of a writer's trade, is not enough in this instance. With historical fiction, you really have to do your research.

My debut, Angorichina, was also historical. I knew that I needed a soldier with a debilitating physical or psychological condition. I stumbled across both of these things in shell shock.

I'd heard about the condition, but never really read much about it. The Black Adder sketch faded to images of a person sat at a table, oblivious to all sights and sounds, simply shocked to a level of introversy that no one is able to penetrate. That was what I thought it meant, and I could have written Chip Redfern that way. Instead, I did my research. 

Watching footage from Verdun was fairly atrocious (don't follow that link unless you really want to). It shocked me so much that I immediately launched into writing a descriptive, so that the immediacy of it was not lost:

Have you ever seen someone with shell shock? It's a sight you never forget. They walk like jelly, their legs and arms wobbling like there aren't any bones in there holding them up. Each muscle in their body spasms independently, with no co-ordination or cohesion. Their eyes are wide and wild, staring around in all directions, looking for the next bomb falling out of the sky, suspecting a man with a bayonet behind every curtain, every door, under every bed.

That last bit directly influenced by the poor man at point 0:42 in the video. I could never have written chapter seventeen without it. As uncomfortable as it was to research, it's a fundamental principle that if art wishes to imitate life, it must first look upon life.

The major difference between films and books is that films, be they documentaries or Hollywood blockbusters, can make you see things in graphic detail that you might not ordinarily have been able to imagine. Film hijacks your imagination. As I mentioned in my rant on age certificates for books, the written word only works to the extent your own imagination is capable of engaging with it. I couldn't realistically have written Chip as a victim of shell shock, because I couldn't imagine shell shock. I needed to observe it first.

Over the past week, I have been steeling myself once again for some fairly difficult images. This time, it's been investigative. I mentioned that one of my characters suffers a deformity. It's a fairly well known character, and there has been much theorising in forums over the years as to what the specific condition might have been. Thus far, porphyria, amniotic band syndrome, facial dysplasia and hemangioma are all in the running.

The problem with incorporating a character that already exists into something you're writing, is that you have a duty to readers to get it right. Being a work of historical fiction, I don't need to name the issue in medical terms, because doctors wouldn't have known what it was. However, it is very important that I am able to see the character clearly enough in my own mind to describe him in a way that fits within the constraints of what is already known about him.

It's a fairly forensic process, which begins with scouring the original text in which the character first appears; piecing together every detail that is mentioned of his appearance; sifting through online forums debating the issue, looking for strong theories and judging reader expectation; then digging through Wiki and Google Image for something that fits, in order to fill in the missing details.

At first, I felt my stomach twist as I set out to decide what Vachon's issue might be. There is quite a natural physical response to seeing things like porphyria. It is a primal reaction, rather than an empathic one; meaning that it is an instantaneous physical response, rather than a reasoned and sympathetic one.

As time went by, I found that I was less and less affected. This happened parallel to the amounts of frustration I started to feel at not being able to find a condition that completely matched what I knew the character should look like. By the time I started to mix and match diseases in order to get the right combination of features, I think I had drifted close to that clinical mindset surgeons must enter, where they see the problem and not the person.

A fascinating and slightly random addition to this was a recent documentary I was watching on the legend that is David Bowie. They played a clip of him starring as Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man, in a stage production. The way that they did it was stunningly clever. He played Merrick with absolutely no makeup or clever costuming at all. It was unmistakable who he was portraying, yet the lack of makeup lumbered the audience with the inescapable fact that, first and foremost, Joseph Merrick was a human being.

The beauty of writing is that you can deliver the full descriptive of what someone looks like, but then you can also go beyond that, to what someone feels and thinks.

Thankfully, this sort of research is not something I do a lot of. I devoted one full day to it on both books. So far, I've never had a nightmare about anything I've looked at. I think remembering that these things are born of genetics and accident, and that they happen to perfectly normal people, goes a long way to dispelling the bogeyman.

The difficulty in writing something authentic is that you do have to allow your mind to cross a boundary. One that we're usually taught not to approach, and one that society does a great deal to distract us from with shiny new car ads and primetime cuddly meerkats.

Then, when you do go there, you have to believe that others will wish to follow you.

Funnily enough, they generally do.


  1. Lucky you. In my daytime I am a medical translator and spend many hours researching and looking at more or less horrifying conditions. As time goes by, you really develop thicker skin - my new colleagues are squeamish, but with the last one I had a "terrible image of the week" contest going on...

    On the upside, all this knowledge really IS good for my writing. Although it can take the fun out of reading if the other writer has not done his research...

  2. Now that's a game that could catch on ;)