30 November 2022
Louise Carey, co-presenter at WM's virtual supernatural fiction conference, runs through top tips from the online writing workshops
1. Want to unsettle your readers? Start by casting doubt on your narrator
In her brilliant workshop, ‘Setting an Unsettling Tone’, Man Booker shortlisted author Alison Moore gave us some great advice on how to unnerve and perturb your readers from the very start of your ghost story. Many classic spooky tales begin with a narrator whose experiences or judgement we can’t entirely trust – maybe they’ve recently recovered from an illness that can cause hallucinations or delusions, or perhaps they just protest their own sanity a tad too much. Moore pointed to Edgar Allan Poe’s iconic The Tell-Tale Heart as an example of this. Poe’s narrator, who suffers from an unspecified ‘disease’, declares at the start of the story: ‘I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. How, then, am I mad?’, wild claims that can’t help but put us on edge by making us uneasy about his state of mind.
2. If you’re looking for the perfect spooky setting, make it liminal
Gothic thriller writer Rhiannon Ward highlighted the importance of the liminal in her excellent talk on atmosphere in the ghost story. Liminal spaces can be defined as those that are neither one thing nor another – thresholds or boundaries that represent a transition between places or states, but are home to no one. Used as settings, such spaces – airport terminals, offices at closing time, an empty motorway service station – can be uniquely creepy and atmospheric.
3. Writing across different forms can boost your career
Bram Stoker Award winning writer Stephanie M. Wytovich gave a fascinating workshop on writing speculative poetry, in which she told us all about how she has made poetry work for her. Poetry writing is not usually the most lucrative of careers, but Wytovich has found that her willingness to write across different forms – she writes poetry collections, novels, and articles – has helped her to keep her creative output consistent and continue building her relationship with readers in between longer fiction projects. She has also noticed significant ‘cross-pollination’ between her different bodies of work: fans who mostly read her horror novels will sometimes pick up one of her poetry collections, and lovers of her poetry are often curious about her prose. This has brought huge benefits for her platform and profile as an author.
4. Every character should be an iceberg
This useful analogy comes to us courtesy of award-winning author Ronald Malfi’s workshop on developing realistic characters in horror fiction. Malfi made the point that believable characters are always more than what you see on the page – beneath their surface lurk secrets, desires and fears that the reader may only see in brief glimpses. Part of writing characters who feel plausible and well-rounded is being able to hint at these hidden depths without spelling them all out explicitly – let your reader do the work of putting the little details together!
5. The secret history of Bram Stoker
One of the last talks of the day was a brilliant session on the life and times of Bram Stoker, delivered by none other than his great grand-nephew, author and filmmaker Dacre Stoker. In ‘Stoker on Stoker’, we learnt many fascinating facts about the great horror writer’s life, the historical context in which he was writing, and the legacy of Dracula. Here’s one to pique your interest: did you know that Dracula is the second most adapted book character of all time? He’s been featured in film and TV adaptations more than any other fictional character except one – Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes.
Louise Carey is a science-fiction and fantasy author. Her debut solo trilogy, the Inscape series of cyberpunk thrillers, is available now from Gollancz. She’s online at www.louise-carey.com, and repped by Meg Davis of Ki Agency.
Read Winter Haunts organiser Alex Davis's top spooky takeaways from the event here