How to ‘write what you know’ if you’re a horror author – from author Mark West

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To celebrate the publication of his novella ‘Drive’ I’ve invited Mark West onto the blog today to talk about something that has always interested me:

what makes authors write horror and how do they go about it?

I’d like to thank Sue for allowing me to guest post on her blog and assure those amongst you who are squeamish that this little essay with contain no blood or guts. Or not many, anyway…

As a writer, you’re always told to write what you know and so – as you can imagine – when you write horror, that earns you plenty of odd looks. The first writers group I belonged to (I joined it in 1998 and it’s where I first met Sue), I was the only one who dabbled in the glorious horror genre and I chose to read a story about a kid getting chased by a sabre-toothed tiger. Which went down well. Building on this complete inability to read my audience, my next story was a little flash-horror piece called “Toes” (which you can read on my website now for free) and that, as you can perhaps imagine, went down a storm.

Back to the topic though and the truth is that, like any other genre, you write about what you know until you step over the line into fantasy (which is as true for writers of romantic fiction as it is for those horror lovers out there) and that’s when your imagination or research steps into play.

drive cover finalIn order to illustrate this, I’ll use my latest publication as an example. “Drive” (just released by Pendragon Press) is an ‘urban chiller’, that I think is nicely frightening without ever once resorting to a supernatural element. In it, our hero David is taking a woman called Natasha home from a party in a town he doesn’t really know and they cross paths with three droogs in a stolen car who decide they want to have some fun and start up a terrifying game of cat-and-mouse.

The initial germ of the idea came to me as I was driving down the M1 at 3am – I was on my way to Luton airport, to fly off on business and I was almost the only person on the road. My mind began to ‘what if’ wander – as it often does – and I wondered what would happen if somebody started to chase me. By the time I’d come off the M1, I had it clear in my head who the heroes were, a pretty good idea of the baddies and the fact that it’d take place almost in real time, over an hour or so of a very late night/early morning.

Meanwhile, at the time, my company was based in an office attached to a Morrisons warehouse in Northampton. A lot of their contract staff were Polish and the majority of them drove big cars with blacked out windows. One such was a big Audi A8, sleek and grey with a stereo you could feel in your guts from two hundred yards away. That, I decided, could be scary of an evening and was the perfect vehicle for my villains (who I called droogs all the way through the drafts, even naming the characters after the actors in “A Clockwork Orange”).

Since the novella is a ‘chase’, I had to draw the reader into that environment to make it work, to keep up the suspense and place as many logical (and realistic) obstacles in David and Nat’s path as possible. One of the bains for modern horror/suspense writers is the mobile phone – hey, you’re in trouble, ring someone – though it was easier than I expected to get rid of this element and I played it in the story as it would happen in real life, that you need the phone but it doesn’t have any battery life.

But the main thing to maintain suspense and realism was to “write what I knew” and firmly locate the story into a place. Almost all of my writing is set in a fictional town called Gaffney which is clearly in the middle of Northamptonshire and takes most of its cues from Rothwell (the town I now live in) and Kettering (the town I used to live in). Elements of Northampton and Leicester are sprinkled liberally over this place but the geography is constant, so whatever stories of mine you read there is always a brook at the bottom of the Rec, the bandstand is on the common and the old cinema is always on Russell Street.

The tour of Gaffney that our heroes undertake is, essentially, a trip around a night-time Kettering with a few liberal uses of fiction to make my tale work better. The Audi runs through the town centre causing havoc before latching on to the goodies and Nat lives on London road (though in real life there’s a church where her house should be and the police station – some distance away in the book – is across the road). In pursuit, David is forced onto the A14 and even though the geography and junctions don’t quite work, it’s very much the distance between Rothwell and Kettering and even includes the BP garage on the eastbound side (though I’m sure the people who work there in real life are nicer than in my story). The climax takes place on a road that really exists too, though I’ve made it a cul-de-sac and incorporated it with a farm at nearby Cranford.

So that’s how you “write what you know” to make the story flow, you incorporate real events and locations that people can identify with and then take them a step or two over a line they wouldn’t normally cross. I’ve never been pursued by three thugs in an Audi (and hope I never am) but I’ve made sure that my characters react the way I think me and my friends would do. I’ve never done the things that David & Nat have to do at the farm but I’ve made my goodies normal human beings, who experience pain and fear and a sense of self-preservation, as I’m sure I’d feel. And all the time, they are in locations that read and feel real because, well, they pretty much are.

I’m too close to know if it works properly or not, but if you’re writing anything and you need the reader to willingly suspend their disbelief, you have to give them a reality (or elements of it) to properly ground them.

Just, clearly, don’t use this kind of idea to excuse a trail of willful civil unrest across town and pretend it’s all in the name of research…

BLURB: David Moore has one night left in Gaffney and is at a party he doesn’t want to attend. Natasha Turner, at the same party, is lost for a lift home.

Meanwhile, three young men have stolen a car, and as the night darkens and the roads become deserted, David and Nat enter into a terrifying game of cat-and-mouse. . .

Mark West writes horror stories – sometimes they’re supernatural, sometimes they’re not – and they often have a bleak thread running through them. He’s written two novels – “In The Rain With The Dead” and “Conjure” – a collection – “Strange Tales” – a novelette – “The Mill” – and his chapbook from Spectral Press – “What Gets Left Behind” – sold out four months before publication. He’s also published over seventy short stories and has several novellas awaiting publication.

drive cover finalMark’s latest novella “Drive” is available now from Pendragon Press as a limited edition paperback (with an exclusive afterword) and as an ebook across platforms.

Mark can be contacted through his website at www.markwest.org.uk

Mark can be found on Twitter at @MarkEWest

You can check out his fetish flash-horror tale “Toes” at http://markwestwriter.blogspot.co.uk/p/toes-by-mark-west-free-fiction.html

 

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5 Comments

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5 responses to “How to ‘write what you know’ if you’re a horror author – from author Mark West

  1. markewest

    Thanks very much Sue!

    Like

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