Category Archives: The Writing Life

Where Did You Come Up With That?


Spooky dark forestPeople always tell young authors, “Write what you know.”

How does that work if I’m writing about a serial killer? Or writing about domestic violence? Or writing about sexual perversions? Or writing any excellent, creepy, messed-up-in-the-head villain? Does writing those types of genres or characters mean that I, as the author, must also be evil, creepy, or otherwise messed up in the head?

Many people seem to think so when they ask, “Where do you come up with this stuff?” Sometimes they say it in a tone of awe, but more often they whisper it in a fear-laced voice while nervously shuffling farther away.

Horror stories are popular, and the best bad guys are the complex, creepy ones that make you shudder to read about or view on the big screen. Does that mean Mary Shelley was really a mad scientist so that she could invent Frankenstein? Or that Thomas Harris, the writer of The Silence of the Lambs, was a psycho killer?

Of course not.

That’s like asking, was Steven Spielberg really an alien, or George Lucas a Jedi Knight? As much as we want to believe they might be, of course they’re not.

So how can you write what you know and at the same time write something there’s no way you could know?

That’s where the artwork and the imagination come in, where the mastery of craft and vision meld with experience.

To write great horror, an author needs to understand what scares people. We’ve all felt fear. A good author knows how to trigger that fear, make the reader feel like they’re in the dark woods with the hero, smelling the scent of decaying leaves crackling underfoot, hear the soft moaning of the wind clacking dead branches together overhead, sense movement in the shadows nearby, and feel absolutely sure that something is out there . . . watching.

If they can do that, they can write good horror. Or fantasy. Or whatever other genre they decide to pursue. Because writing draws from the human condition, and that is something writers need to know. Coupling that understanding with a powerful imagination and a willingness to step into the shadows of the mind to give life to a truly creepy villain is what produces memorable moments in fiction.

Is it a challenge as a writer to consider evil and not be tainted by it? Perhaps. But it’s not really different from the challenge faced by actors who portray villains or other deviant behavior. They have to act out the evil deeds. Writers need to talk about it, delve into the mind, try to imagine what might motivate a ‘bad’ person to do what they do. In both cases, the actor or author who is well grounded in their own life need not worry about getting sucked into the darkness they’re exploring for their fans.

Those cases where they do slide into darkness are usually caused because they lack that grounding, that strong sense of self. It’s seen most often among popular child actors who haven’t had a chance to discover who they are before being forced to pretend to be someone else. That’s got to be tough, and I think that’s why a lot of child actors have so much trouble as they get older.

Most authors begin really writing as adults, and we usually need other careers to support us for the difficult first years as we perfect our craft and develop the skills to break out as a writer. That time and experience helps ground us.

Mysterious door

So study the human condition, explore the boundaries of your imagination, and know your own heart so you can always find your way back home.

Then when someone asks you, “How can you write such evil people so well?”

You can give them a slow smile and shrug. “I write what I know.”

About the Author: Frank Morin

Author Frank MorinFrank Morin loves good stories in every form. When not writing or trying to keep up with his active family, he’s often found hiking, camping, Scuba diving, or enjoying other outdoor activities. For updates on upcoming releases of his popular Petralist YA fantasy novels, or his fast-paced Facetakers alternate history fantasy series, check his website:

Using What Scares You

I went to a publishing conference in New York some years ago, and an agent said that a great author is a great storyteller. You can have all the craft and technique in the world, but if you aren’t a good storyteller, you won’t become a true success. Alternately, you can have the worst craft and know nothing of technique and be the next huge star of the publishing world. Yet, she could not define what made a good storyteller, like it’s some nebulous thing that cannot be truly understood. She was in the “you can’t learn it, you just have to be born with it” camp, a believer in which I am not.

But what is good storytelling if it’s not the expert use of craft and technique? I’ve been puzzling over it for years and I think I finally figured out a rather large component—a good storyteller is one who can tap into emotion with every word.

We humans, above all else, are creatures of emotion. We like to think we are creatures of intellect and reason and morality, but these things are constructs we’ve created to put limitations and controls over the nasty, hind-brain, instinctual animal side that is human emotion. Emotion motivates us in pretty much everything we do. Our desire to feel happiness, love, safety, pleasure all shape our choices. Our desire to not feel pain, sorrow, grief, all push us to move in a particular direction, even if it’s subconsciouly. Every choice we make is rooted in our emotional health, or lack thereof. Our need to feel one emotion over another.

The crazy thing is, everyone human being past, present, or future feels the same emotions. Emotion is the one, true universal language. It is the one thing we all as a species, share, and no emotion is more familiar to us all than fear. Writing our fear, more than any other emotion, can truly raise a writer’s prose to new heights.

There’s two ways of writing what frightens us, and both are equally beneficial. The first is the obvious definition—if we want our audience to fear something, start with what we, ourselves, are the most afraid of. J.K. Rowling once said that she decided to put giant spiders in the Forbidden Forest in Harry Potter and Chamber of Secrets because she herself was afraid of spiders. Similarly, Peter Jackson’s rendering of Shelob in the Return of the King was built off his personal arachnophobia. Think of it as a mind hack. It’s easier to write what we know, how we personally feel about a particular thing or situation when we write about something that makes us feel the emotion we want to invoke. It’s easy to make spiders terrifying if the author is terrified of the creepy bastards, but harder to make a horse frightening if they make the author all warm and fuzzy on the inside.

It doesn’t necessarily have to be a monster. It can be a fear of rejection, a fear of success, a fear of fear itself. It’s making the fear personal that’s the key, no matter what genre or sub-genre we are writing. Every genre deals with some sort of fear, and the more we make that fear our own, the easier it is to make the reader feel it with us.

The second way of looking at writing what one fears isn’t so obvious, and it’s something we all face at one point or another. It’s taking on those scenes that make us cringe. You know those scenes, the ones that make us uncomfortable or leave us at a loss. Wether its fight scenes or sex scenes or scenes of moral uncertainty, we all have a scene somewhere that tempts us to just skip it and have it happen off screen. After all, the worst fear of any writer is that an important, necessary scene will suck and bring the whole piece down.

But nine times out of ten, that seemingly impossible scene will become one of the more powerful moments in a story. Dan Wells once said that a scene in I Am Not a Serial Killer, where the protagonist draws a knife on his mother, was an especially difficult scene to write, but the final product is one of the most emotionally impactful moments in the book. Alternately, I have a friend who kept skipping over scenes where people were fighting (verbally or physically) because he wasn’t comfortable with violence, but it left his work lacking conflict and the story suffered because of it.

Part of why this is so effective, I think, is that the struggle to get the scene written and fear that it won’t work makes us slow down and take a long, hard look at what we’re doing, much more so than a scene that just plops itself down on the page. Difficult scenes force us to pull out all the stops, to dig deep and give it our all, thereby forcing us to put our best work on the page because anything less would just prolong the torture. Also, fear is conflict, and whether it’s felt by the character or just subconsciously by the author, it puts an edge, an undercurrent in the scene that can lift it above simple prose. It’s always the scenes I didn’t want to write, the ones that kick my ass, that I always end up the most satisfied with, and I think it’s because of the fear. If I wasn’t afraid of what I was writing, the writing would not be as good. Period.

Use the fear, share it. It won’t be easy, but more likely than not, your readers will feel it, and what they feel is what will stay with the reader long after they finish the story.

My Muse is Dead

I’ve been facing an empty page, the character prompt flashing like a tiny rusted pin wielded by a sadistic acupuncture dropout, jabbing my impotent writing ego over and over.

There is nothing to write about. Well, nothing horror-related, which means the same thing to me. My haunted laptop taunts me, the keys pale and slick, letters worn to the point where they remind me of Celtic tombstones – still around to remind us of the glorious departed, but insufficient to read the names of the dead carved upon the monument.

I decide to take a break from the self-torture, tired from the creaking springs in my chair pushing against my spine. One of these days, I won’t be able to get out, and they’ll find me with the coils twisted around my ribs and through my vitals, flailing around like a spring-loaded clown doll.

My wife made a juicy, still-oozing steak, and left it by the crazy stove. I hate that stove; I’ve found it turned on in the middle of the night, belching flames and a curious brimstone odor. Our cat disappeared that night too, an odd coincidence.

The steak looks inviting, lying next to the garlic cloves and in a ring of mashed potatoes that acts as a dam to hold in the blood and juices. No fork for some reason, only a silver-handled knife embedded in the meat. I don’t mind. Even though I yell at my kids when they feast on flesh using their fingers, I personally like the feel of blood running down my arms as my teeth rip apart the muscle fibers.

After devouring the steak, I poke my head into the fridge, moving aside several random opaque containers my wife uses to store things. One of these days I need to look in them – no telling what she’s been up to. Behind the carton of thick nightcrawlers, some of which escaped into the strawberry pudding yesterday, there’s a jar of thick brownish liquid with a couple of round objects drifting around the bottom. I can’t make out what they are, but I get a flash of blue-green, perhaps hazel, when I swirl the container. Maybe it’s a leftover from some past dinner, who knows. Further digging reveals a container of cherry lemonade, which I chug right out of the pitcher. If my wife caught me, she’d embed a cleaver in my neck.

My hunger sated, thirst quenched, I head back to my little nest, surrounded by ancient whispering books and papers. The chair springs welcome my old bones, the laptop slides over like a glowing coffin lid, and I’m back to this damn torture of having my eyeballs assaulted by the stark, veil-colored blank page, the cursor blinking ghost-like, playing hide-and-seek with my consciousness. I wish I could think of something to write.

You know, if only my muse was undead, I’d have something to write about.



About the Author:DeMarco_Web-5963

Guy Anthony De Marco is a speculative fiction author; a Graphic Novel Bram Stoker Award®; winner of the HWA Silver Hammer Award; a prolific short story and flash fiction crafter; a novelist; an invisible man with superhero powers; a game writer (Sojourner Tales modules, Interface Zero 2.0 core team, D&D modules); and a coffee addict. One of these is false.
A writer since 1977, Guy is a member of the following organizations: SFWA, WWA, SFPA, IAMTW, ASCAP, RMFW, NCW, HWA. He hopes to collect the rest of the letters of the alphabet one day. Additional information can be found at Wikipedia and

Need a Dark Fiction Fix?

Ah, October. Leaves turn different shades of death and fall to the earth. A sudden chill takes flight with the wind and cools down a scorched land. Families take out warm blankets and put away their shorts and tank tops. The night comes sooner, the morning later. All to set the mood for some spectacularly creepy fiction. Please allow me to recommend some of my favorites. Let me know your favorites in the comments, and if you picked up any of these recommendations!


Nightmare Magazine: Horror & Dark Fantasy.

Editor John Joseph Adams sure knows how to pick the stand-out short stories and non-fiction pieces for this magazine, not to mention the spectacular and vivid art. It’s worth subscribing to this periodical, but you can also read it online for free:

The Dark Magazine.

A relatively newer magazine of two years old, The Dark focuses on dark, surreal, and speculative fiction instead of straight horror. I look forward to my copy every quarter. Again, a subscription is worth every penny, but you can also read parts of each issue on their website for free:

Short Stories

“The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson.

Before there was Young Adult dystopian, there was this masterpiece by Shirley Jackson. If you enjoyed The Hunger Games, read it’s great grandmother: “The Lottery.”

“A Good Man is Hard to Find” by Flannery O’Connor

This classic will leave you uneasy, that’s for sure. You can find this short story in O’Connor’s popular short story collection The Complete Stories. All of them are worth your time, especially this one.

Creepy Presents: Bernie Wrightson

This is a fantastic compilation of short comics/short stories illustrated by the incomparable artist Bernie Wrightson. Read it for the art, stay for the creepy stories. Perfect for Halloween.


Geek Love by Katherine Dunn

Carnies. Need I say more? Okay, I will. This near-perfect novel by Katherine Dunn explores a world where being a freak is commonplace. Sibling rivalry and the question of what is beautiful are just a few themes rolled into the mix.

Doctor Sleep by Stephen King.

C’mon. What’s a list about creepy books without Stephen King? While it’s helpful to read The Shining prior to reading this book, it’s not absolutely necessary. But you should read The Shining anyway, because it’s fantastic. Doctor Sleep focuses on Dan Torrance as an adult, and while he escaped the Overlook Hotel all those years ago, demons of all sorts still haunt him.