Monday, November 24, 2008

Write What Scares You Most.

I read a riveting piece by Toni McGee Causey at Murderati. The article is called COMFORT READING and its listed under November 23, 2008. It's the kind of article that will wrench your heart and pull you in so tightly that you're breathing the same air as the character.

Few writers can truly pull that off. Toni is one of them. And what's so remarkable is she can do it in so few words.

To paraphrase, in COMFORT READING, Toni asks you to imagine the most horrendous situation a character could experience, and then to write that character's story. The purpose is to provide an antidote for writer's block. But it also asks: how would you escape such pain? Would you pick up a book? If so, which one?

Interestingly, I read the article and realized I don't read to escape. I write. I use those low, desperate moments to show a character at their most vulnerable. In Dead Witness, when Valerie decides to commit suicide to save her children, I listened to Dire Strait's Brother in Arms. The music and lyrics reduced me to the point of desperation that I believe Valerie felt at that precise moment. While, as a mother, I can imagine myself preparing to give my life for my children, Brothers in Arms transposed me into the moment instantly. All I had to do was close my eyes, listen to the music and experience life as Valerie knew it. Every time I hear that song now, I'm back there with Valerie, broken, defeated and yet prepared to die.

It sounds so noble to hear a parent say that they'd be willing to make the biggest sacrifice; and while it's easy for me to assume, until I am in that situation, who knows. Still, I can't count how many times I've seen parents outside their burning house, screaming for someone to rescue their son or daughter. Or what about the mother who races down the beach, yelling for someone to save her drowning child? Why isn't she in the water? And why did those parents escape the house without their children?

Ah, but that's a story for another time. The point is to write that nightmare, the scene that tears at your heart and renders you a blubbering idiot, you have to separate yourself from the character and yet still write it from their perspective. You have to be as deep inside that character as humanly possible without subjecting yourself to the horrors of what they're experiencing.

Not an easy task.

Case in point:

In Dead Witness, Valerie is stalked by a killer with the means to destroy everyone she cares about. The authorities can do little to stop him. When Valerie realizes this, when she accepts that her children will never be safe until she's dead and no longer a threat to the killer, she sees no alternative but to end her life. He's not going to stop hunting her. He has strong motivation: self-preservation. Either he stops her or her testimony sends him to the electric chair.

That would motivate a lot of people.

To write that scene as convincingly as I was capable of doing, I listened to Dire Straits, and jumped inside Valerie, then wrote what I experienced. It wasn't enough to simply report what I saw. I had to believe it.

Afterward, when I knew I couldn't write anymore, I put down my pen, had a good cry, then went and watched my teenage sons play touchball in the front yard.

Seems like yesterday. But it was September 1991.

Which book would you pick up?


  1. I'd read Harry Potter. Or I'd watch a Disney movie.

    I think survival kicks in when you're so despondent that you need an outlet.

    Good points made, Joylene. I've always wondered about mothers that won't go into the water after their children either. If they can't swim what the hell are they doing taking their child to the beach.

  2. I love Disney Movies. Kids' movies, period. One of my favourites is The Polar Express. Oh, and ET.

    Thanks for stopping by, Sam.

  3. Toni made quite an impact with her comments. There were links to them on several sites.

    For me escape is an instinct more than a desire. As Sam has said, survival kicks in when you reach a certain level of desperation. Until that point my brain just tends to shut down so "escaping into a good book" as some suggest just doesn't happen.

    But I did leave a note for Toni that said Jane Kirkpatrick's "A Burden Shared" was a source of comfort to me. It's a very short book. I've since enjoyed others of hers -- historical fiction based on real people pioneering in the 1850's. Any difficulties I may have pale in comparison to theirs. I'm a fan of Barbara Delinsky's more recent books, too; just ordinary people dealing with everyday situations. I still watch "Little House on the Prairie", too!

  4. There aren't enough hours in the day to follow all the blogs I want to read. I was impressed with Toni too. I've been mulling the topic over ever since.

  5. In different stories, I've written what scares me most in a supernatural sense and in a personally emotional sense. I think the latter was much more powerful. Hearing about how you got inside Valerie's head, I'm really looking forward to reading Dead Witness.


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