A Spooky Cover Reveal: Sarah Cannon’s TWIST!

Sarah Cannon has a new book coming, February 11, 2020, and we’re here to show you its full awesomeness below!!

Here’s the flap copy:

Oklahoma, 1983:

Eli has a dream. He’s going to be the next Stephen King, and he’s just created his best monster yet!

Neha has a secret. Her notebook is filled with drawings of a fantasy world called Forest Creeks, and it’s become inhabited by wonderful imaginary creatures. But her new friends are in danger…

Court has a gift, both for finding trouble and for stopping it. And when she accidentally ends up with one of Neha’s drawings, she quickly realizes that the monsters raiding Forest Creeks are coming from Eli’s stories. 

When these three creative kids come together, they accidentally create a doorway from Forest Creeks into the real world, and now every monster that Eli ever imagined has been unleashed upon their town!

Now for a short interview and then the amazing cover…

Janet: What inspired the book? And why is it set in 1983?

Sarah: 1983 was an amazing year for pop culture and music, and it was pivotal in another way, too. It was the last year before the 1984 Cable Act was passed, after which cable TV became a standard fixture in American households. Running cable nationwide was the largest private construction project since WWII, can you believe that? At the same time, television content was being deregulated, so it was much easier to cross-market toys to kids through shows. It changed a lot about the way kids play and the way they pretend, and since I was a middle grader in 1983, the “before” and “after” are very distinct in my memory. A lot of the kids’ pet projects in TWIST are things me and my friends did, too, and naturally I always wondered what would happen if we “crossed the streams,” Ghostbusters-style, between one kid’s hobby and another’s. That’s how TWIST was born!

Janet: Tell us more about your protagonists. Give us a feeling as to what they’re like!

Sarah: Eli, Court, and Neha are pretty representative of the dozens of kids in my Tulsa neighborhood back in the early 80s. They’re biking-around-getting-into-things kids, two of them are latchkey kids, and they’re also nerdy kids back before being nerdy was cool. But what I love most about them is the way they complement each other. Court is well-intentioned and brash but sometimes awkward, Neha is passionate in the defense of the people and things she loves, and Eli is a somewhat beleaguered older brother who cares about his sister but would seriously kill for some quiet time to write. Kids were unsupervised and unscheduled a LOT more often in the 80s, and when you found a group of friends you clicked with the way Eli, Neha and Court click, life was 8000 times more interesting. I’ll add that I know many people who don’t think of diversity or cities when they hear the word “Oklahoma,” so it was important to me to reflect the diversity of the neighborhood I grew up in. That said, I want to point out, as I have before, that writing an inclusive cast is not the same as writing with a diverse lens, so while I hope you’ll love TWIST, I also hope you’re reading the amazing surge of Own Voices fantasy out there right now!

Janet: I love STEAM books. What’s “STEAM-Y” about TWIST?

Sarah: This is another thing that’s so important to me about this book. I moved around a lot as a kid (Neha and I have that in common), and I found that various aspects of intelligence were valued differently in different places. I was a bookworm and a writer, and some schools offered me special opportunities because of that– while passing over some of my peers. In other places, I was grandfathered into math- and science-based programs where I was totally in over my head, but there didn’t seem to be any designated space for kids whose primary talents were in the arts. And of course, we know that kids in the margins are under-identified for any kind of enrichment opportunity. For all of these reasons, I did my best to write an adventure that’s not an either/or proposition, but one in which both the arts and sciences are important, and kids work together on a common problem.

Janet: Tell readers a bit about you and your other books.

Sarah: Sure! TWIST is my second novel. The first is ODDITY, which is set in New Mexico and centers around Ada Roundtree’s quest to find her missing sister, Pearl. This process is complicated by how very weird (and often dangerous) Oddity is. Think zombie rabbits, giant spiders, and a city council composed of evil puppets. In short, it’s a lot of spooky fun. As to the “more about me” part, I’m obviously fairly odd myself. I live in a part of my city that’s named after the author of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, and we have a local “Haunted Neighborhood” tour. I love gardening, cooking/baking, and knitting.

Now for this wonderful cover (drumroll, please):

Twist_ARE_CVR Crop

Sarah: I love this cover so much. I had to show the full wrap, because look at the gorgeous baby snakes! The cover artist captured them perfectly! Court calls them “The Serpenteens,” and they’re some of my favorite “Creeps” (the friendly creatures who live in Neha’s sketchbook.) Geneva Benton was so thoughtful about the cover illustrations, including the 80s elements, like the ribbon barrettes Neha is wearing! You should all follow Geneva at @gdbeeart and check out more of her gorgeous art at https://gdbee.store/ ! She has stickers and prints and all kinds of things. (I may have already placed an order myself!) Her art is joyous and makes me smile every time I see it.

I love this cover, too, and can’t wait to read TWIST!! Sarah adds:

I’d also like to announce a giveaway, in honor of TWIST’s cover reveal! Comment on this post with either:

  1. One thing you love about the 80s, or
  2. One Own Voices book you’ve loved this year!

I’ll randomly select a winner and send you an ARC of TWIST and a treat from the cover artist’s store, and I’ll make a $25 donation in your name to We Need Diverse Books, which supports diverse authors and publishing interns with grant funding, among other good works. I also want to point out that Paypal users can set up their account to make a recurring $1 donation to WNDB every time you make a purchase!

Links:

https://www.amazon.com/Twist-Sarah-Cannon/dp/1250123305/

https://www.indiebound.org/book/9781250123305

https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/twist-sarah-cannon/1130769015?ean=9781250123305

 

A Spooky Summer Throwback!

Someone recently asked me where I got my love of all things spooky. I thought on this for a while and realized that the answer is books! I read a ton as a child (still do!) and while I didn’t read exclusively scary books, I did read a few that stand out to me still today. One was THE DOLLHOUSE MURDERS by Betty Ren Wright. The book released in 1983 when I was seven, but I don’t recall reading it until a few years later when I was ten or so. While it has had several different covers, here’s the one I most vividly remember.

Dollhouse Murders

While it isn’t the most terrifying cover image I’ve seen, it did the trick. One summer, Little Lindsay snatched this up and read it until the wee hours of the night. The basic premise of the book is that the main character, Amy, desperately needs a break from her own stressful life and therefore moves in temporarily with her Aunt. In the attic of her aunt’s home, she finds a gorgeous dollhouse – a dollhouse that is an exact replica of the home she’s staying in! Now, that idea alone was enough to put ten-year-old Lindsay on edge, but what happens next really sealed the deal.

The dollhouse comes alive at night. *cue shivers*

Yes, playing with the dollhouse causes the dolls to move at night and Amy soon realizes though a serious of terrifying encounters, that they are re-enacting the grisly murders of her great-grandparents some 30 years earlier.

Guys, this book terrified me. It was well-written and so suspenseful that I could not put it down. I’m pretty sure it also created a healthy fear of my own dollhouse. Even more than that though, it taught me that I like to be afraid! Not for real, of course, but within safe confines, a little fear is exhilarating. Challenging!

I credit THE DOLLHOUSE MURDERS with a lot of things, but especially with inspiring me to write my own spooky books for middle-grade readers. I want others to experience the same rush I did back in 1986, to hide under the covers late at night and read even though their heart is racing and their hands are clammy. I want others to feel the thrill of finishing a spooky book and knowing they survived, and maybe even managed to solve part of or all of the mystery!

If you have time this summer and want to read a throwback to 80’s middle-grade horror, pick up THE DOLLHOUSE MURDERS. Then get yourself a good nightlight. You’re gonna need it.

*Heads-up, friends: one storyline in this book deals with mental illness. Since it was written in the 80’s, it’s quite possible that the representation is different and outdated. Keep this in mind if you choose to read. My love of this book stems from how well Betty Ren Wright handled the suspense/thriller elements, so that’s what I’ve chosen to focus on for this post.*

Making Spooky Scenes Movie-able

Readers often tell me my writing is very cinematic and that as they read, they can see the scenes like a movie in their head. I didn’t set out to write in a cinematic way–it’s how I see the story in my head–but it got me thinking about how to make a book memorable like a movie (or, in my made-up word, more movie-able 😉 ).

I studied writing for the stage when I was in college then writing for film while I was working within the entertainment industry while I lived in Los Angeles, many years ago, and the two forms are very different from writing a novel. As a playwright or a screenwriter, your primary focus is story and character. You choose settings, like “Garden” but you don’t design them any more than what is necessary for the plot. And with film, you might offer suggestions of camerawork, like “We pull in on the letter”, but the director and cinematographer determine how that pull in is done, and they can and often do change what’s in the script dramatically. Even the editor can make the flow of a story completely different from what the screenwriter originally intended with a snip of the film–or click of their mouse today.

But writing a novel, you take on every job: You are the location scout, set designer, director, cinematographer, actor, sound technician, visual effects artist, editor… You even get your own craft services (yes, I’m talking about your fridge).

Call me controlling, but there’s something so fun about being able to create on all these different levels while writing a novel. And the more I can do to make my scenes movie-able, the closer I’m getting to what I see in my head.

So, how do I write a scene that reads like a movie? Here are three tips:

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Photo: FreeImages.com

Think Like a Cinematographer

Have you ever watched a movie where the scene shows a character hurrying out of the door then the camera pans over to their glasses on the coffee table? We immediately understand what the movie is trying to show us: The character is going to be in big trouble soon because they’ve left behind their glasses and won’t be able to see the danger ahead. In movies, shots will move in close to an object to tell the viewers it’s important, and in novels we can use cameras in the same way.

Imagine you’re writing about a person going to a haunted house for the first time. You might start out by describing the house as the character sees it from the outside (the wide angle shot), then give a bit of foreboding when the character thinks they see a flutter of a curtain in a upstairs window. As they move closer, they see more intimate details, like the grime on the brick, the crushed can hiding under the bushes. Then we move the camera even closer to focus on the scratches on the doorknob and the character’s hand hesitating before they press their palm on it and turn.

Use your descriptions to show wider views of scenes and closeups of important details to pull your readers into the action.

 

Photo: FreeImages.com

Think Like a Set Designer

 

Screenwriters can simply put “Int: Living room” to describe the setting of their scene, maybe adding “A large bookcase is against one wall,” if one of the characters will need to use that bookcase in the action of the story. It’s the set designer’s job to dress that set, decide the colors of the walls, whether there are curtains or blinds, whether they’re open or closed, the style of the furnishings, whether they’re new or worn, the artwork that’s hanging on the walls. All these things must show the time period of the story, the economics of the owner, and the taste of the owner, but also support the tone of the scene.

As novelists, we do all that plus we have the added benefit of using the sense of smell to describe a setting. Let’s go back to our character going to the haunted house. Perhaps when they open the door, the stink of stale air slams into them and they step back to take a breath before proceeding through the door. Inside, they notice the peeling flowery wallpaper that hasn’t been in style for thirty years. They walk down the hall and run their fingers over the top of a table against the wall, revealing a thin line in the thick layer of dust. Below their feet, the carpet looks orange, even though under the table it’s still a darker red, plus there’s a line in the center of the hallway that’s threadbare from years of being trodden on.

One caution for novelists here: Just like a set designer will choose a few choice items to standout to signify the mood and/or time, we’ll do the same. We want to describe some big items and some smaller but choose just the right ones that show what we’re trying to get across the best way. We might not include the World’s Best Dad mug that we see sitting on the coffee table if it does nothing to help our readers learn about our characters and world. We don’t want to give every single detail, because we want to leave some for our reader’s imagination. Maybe in their minds, there’s a water bottle on the coffee table or a vase of flowers. Novels are collaborative efforts between the writer and the reader and we want our reader to be able to fully participate by filling in the rest of the set. Give them a few good, solid, specific details so they can start to see that scene in their head, then let them do the rest.

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Photos: FreeImages.com

Think Like an Actor

Good directors will tell you that their job is to guide the actor so they can do their best performance. It’s the actor’s job to get across all the nuances of the emotion of the scene through their actions and voice, trusting that viewers will know what it means when they raise one eyebrow while saying, “Really?” To get the best performance, an actor must become the character. They must understand what the character wants in this scene and for the whole story, whether they’re shy around other people, scared or angry.

Novelists must be actors too. We must be able to get into the heads of not just one but ALL of our characters. We must know their motivation, how they move, the nervous ticks they might have and the ways they express themselves. We also need to know why they do all these things and how it affects them. Let’s go back to our haunted house, but this time we’ve got three friends walking down that hallway when suddenly, a cat leaps into their path. Character A screams and runs away. Character B freezes then shakes their hands their hands in front of them like they’re trying to catch their breath. Character C furrows their brow then laughs at their friends. From their reactions we can see their individual personalities without them even saying a word.

Use these tools to make your spooky scenes more movie-able.

Samantha M Clark is the award-winning author of the spooky and mysterious middle-grade novel THE BOY, THE BOAT, AND THE BEAST (Paula Wiseman Books/Simon & Schuster). Find her on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram or her website.

A Chat with Lisa Schmid, author of the new #mglit release Ollie Oxley and The Ghost: The Search For Lost Gold!

You know when you wait for something and it seems it will never get here? That’s what it’s been like for me to keep this interview under raps!

I met Lisa – in the cyber way – back before Christmas and knew Spooky Middle Grade blog readers would love her and her brand new book baby!

9781631632891
PURCHASE

OLLIE OXLEY AND THE GHOST: The Search For Lost Gold by Lisa Schmid

Release Date: June 18, 2019                                         Publisher: North Star Editions/Jolly Fish Press

Twelve-year-old Ollie Oxley is moving — again. His mom is starting another new job, this time at the Bingham Theater in Granite City, California. Moving all the time means Ollie has struggled in the making friends department, but he quickly connects with a boy named Teddy. To Ollie’s surprise, though, his first friend in town is a little more… unique than those he’s made in the past. Teddy is a ghost.

Befriending someone who lived during the famous California Gold Rush sure does make things interesting for Ollie. But when the school bully, Aubrey, targets Ollie, and it looks like the Bingham Theater might close, the stakes couldn’t be higher. Can Teddy and Ollie work together to take down Aubrey, save his mom’s job, and solve a mystery years in the making?

Hi Lisa! Welcome to our spooky abode. Let’s start with one of my favorite parts of writing – character names. Was there a specific reason or influence that moved you to name your main character Ollie Oxley and his new friend Teddy?

My son’s name is Oliver, so I thought it would be fun to name my main character after him. It turned out to be a great decision in that the name Ollie proved to be highly useful in one of my plot points.

Teddy started as a Toby, but for whatever reason, it just never felt right. I wanted something more playful and loving. After all, what’s more loveable than a Teddy Bear?

What was the hardest part of moving for Ollie this time? What made it different from any of the other times his mom had moved them around?

Moving all the time has always been difficult for Ollie. His mother and sister share a love of the theater which gives them a special bond. Unfortunately, this adds to his feelings of isolation. And now that he’s in middle school the stakes are higher, and the angst is real.

What is your favorite thing about Ollie? About Teddy? About the world you created?

Ollie is sarcastic, but he is also brave and kind. Even though he gets bullied, he never sinks to their level.

Teddy is loyal. He may be a ghost, but he’s got Ollie’s back. He’s not going to let anybody mess with his new best friend. He’s also very mischievous and quite funny. Sometimes I would laugh out loud when writing his dialogue.

I love the tension between the two boys. Over the years, Ollie has built up walls. Teddy is determined to tear them down. It takes a while, but he can be quite persuasive.

I LOVE that you used history—the California Gold Rush—within this story! How hard/easy was it for you to thread information about the gold rush throughout Ollie and Teddy’s journey and, for our young writers reading this, how did you go about doing that?

I live in Folsom, California which is central to the Gold Rush of 1849. When I first started writing Ollie Oxley, I lived in the Historic District. At the time, my son was a baby, so I spent a lot of time on walks. History would present itself in ways that would lend to my story. For example, one day I met a man standing in front of his house. We started talking, and it turns out his home served as the town courthouse in the 1800s. Prisoners were tried on the first floor and if convicted taken to the basement to be hanged. This story, of course, made it into my book!

What about research? How much did you do on the California Gold Rush and ghosts before you began to write this story?

I visited the Folsom History Museum on several occasions. It’s jam-packed with useful information. And of course, what would a writer do without the internet? My browse history is filled with ghost and graveyard searches.

Ollie finds himself in a bullying situation, which some readers will relate. Without giving too much away, how does Ollie handle this at first? From Ollie’s perspective, how can kids his age deal with being bullied?

As the perpetual new kid, Ollie is used to getting bullied. Even though he’s not in show biz, he can put on a good act. He uses sarcasm to deflect bullies and shield himself from their taunts. Also, he is smart enough to understand that when someone is unkind, it’s never about him, it’s more about how they view themselves. Because really, how could someone he just met have it out for him?

What message do you hope young readers will gain from reading Ollie’s story? There’s always a light at the end of the tunnel. Just keep moving forward. And above all, be kind.

Such a wise and important message for readers to take with them. Thank you for sharing yourself, Ollie, and Teddy with us! I can’t wait to see where they’ll go next.

And here’s a little something special for you:

lisa post!

About the Author_greenskulls

lisa head_edited_edited

Lisa Schmid is an author, a stay-at-home mom, and a pug wrangler. When she is not scaring up ghostly adventures, she is most likely scaring up fun with her husband and son. She lives in Folsom, California, home of the 1849 Gold Rush.

Find Lisa: Website | Twitter | Goodreads

Readers, to you have a favorite ghostly adventure? Did it happen to you? By all means, please share!

SpookyMG_Signature

Spooky Summer Writing Contest

Greetings fellow ghouls! Welcome to our first-ever Spooky Middle Grade Summer Writing Contest. Do you have what it takes to scare the pants off our spooky authors? Here are some quick rules:

  • Must be ages 8-12 to enter.
  • Submit your story to spookymiddlegrade@gmail.com by midnight CST on July 31, 2019.
  • Stories must be submitted as Word documents, 12pt font, double-spaced.
  • Stories should not exceed 1000 words.
  • Stories must start with the prompt (see below).
  • Include your full name and preferred contact email.
  • Ask for your parent or guardian’s permission before entering.

Three lucky winners will have their stories posted on spookymiddlegrade.com. They will also receive some cool, spooky swag and be forever known as “Official Scare Masters.”

STORY PROMPT:

Spending the summer in a haunted school bus in the middle of the woods was bad enough. Did there have to be killer pineapples?

SPOOKY SUMMER WRITING CONTEST

Spooky Writing Tips: Pace Yourself!

    A great spooky read is hard to put down. How many times have you stayed up way too late reading the latest chiller because you just had to know what was going to happen next? That kind of suspense doesn’t happen by accident. Spooky writers use all kinds of tips and tricks to keep readers turning the pages, but the one I use most often is pacing.

Pacing determines when and how a plot unfolds. Folks tend to think of spooky reads as nonstop scares, but if you actually take a novel apart, you’ll notice that every good suspenseful book has a mix of scares and quieter moments. There’s a very good reason for that, and I call that reason the Sea Salt Chocolate Principle. Chocolate is great. People love chocolate. That first bite is so sweet and creamy that it tastes like heaven. But keep eating that chocolate. After enough bites it may still taste good, but it won’t have the same impact on your taste buds that the first bite did. Your mouth got used to the flavor. But sprinkle a little sea salt in your chocolate, and suddenly it’s a different experience. When you get a piece with a little chunk of salt, the salt sets off the chocolate and it tastes like your very first bite again.

Spooky books are chocolate bars. When you buy a chocolate bar, you expect it to be mostly chocolate. And when you sit down with a spooky read, you expect it to be mostly scary. That’s what you signed up for. But in order to keep the scares fresh and exciting, every story needs to be sprinkled with non-scary parts, too. These quieter scenes help a reader’s brain and body relax, so that when it’s time for a scare they have somewhere to go. Scary scenes work the best when they can be contrasted with something else. It gives the brain the cue: Wait a minute, something is different. If I have a quiet scene where a sitter gently tucks a baby into bed, it makes it that much scarier when a short time later all of the lights suddenly go out. As a writer you want to lull your reader into thinking everything is peaceful and normal again, because that’s when you can scare them the best.

Quieter scenes also help get the exposition work done. Scary stories work best when we care about the characters and we are invested in them surviving their scary ordeal. We need to know who they are, what their backstories are, and what they have to lose. Exposition gives us that, but we don’t want to stop in the middle of a dramatic monster-attack scene to explain the characters’ backstories to the reader. Letting your readers see your protagonists enjoying normal life makes those thrill moments feel that much more perilous and exciting, and that’s what keeps folks turning the pages.

Pacing within scenes is just as important, especially for building suspense. Brains naturally process different kinds of texts differently. For example, if I’m reading a rich descriptive scene I might linger over each word so I can really savor it. But when I’m reading an exciting action scene, I’m reading as fast as possible, often skipping over words just to find out what happens next. So when I’m writing, if I can work to figure out a way to slow the reader down during a spooky scene, I can stretch out the suspense and build the tension even more. Sometimes I’ll do that by varying sentence length or using short, staccato sentences that create natural pauses. Or I’ll break up the direct action with some description or character reactions. Think of the way a scary movie slows down the action and builds tension in suspenseful scenes. We see a shadow on the wall. Then the camera cuts to a rat scuttling away. The shadow grows larger. We see a character react. Almost nothing has happened action-wise, but the audience is chomping at the bit just dying to see what that shadow is going to turn into, because we stretched out that moment before the big reveal.

If you find your own spooky stories aren’t quite giving your readers the scare you want, try playing with pacing to make your thrills come alive!

Spooky Moms

When I volunteered to write the Spooky MG Authors blog post airing on Mother’s Day, I knew what topic I would choose. Mothers—of course! After all, don’t monsters have mothers too? For example, Echidna—the half-woman and half-snake creature from Greek mythology—is considered the mother of monsters. Some of her children included Cerbeus, the triple-headed guardian of Hades; the Chimera, a fire-breathing creature who was part goat, lion, and serpent; and the Colchian Dragon, who guarded the famous Golden Fleece.

While we Spooky MG Authors often include monsters in our stories (with or without their mothers), we authors do indeed have mothers of our own. And I thought it quite fitting to ask some of the authors to share how their mothers influenced their writing.

Lindsay Currie(The Peculiar Incident on Shady Street): My mother encouraged and applauded my imagination every chance she got. She scoured garage sales for books I might like, and raptly listened to every story I wrote. Hooray for encouraging mothers!

Victoria Vennerstrom Piontek(The Spirit of Cattail County)  My mom is a great storyteller. She loves quirky people and oddity, and is not opposed to spinning a family story into a tall tale if it makes the telling better. When I tell her stories, she always laughs at all the right spots. As I was growing up, she modeled reading, feminism, and friendship. She also read the pass pages of THE SPIRIT OF CATTAIL COUNTY in one sitting and declared it wonderful. Yep. My mom is awesome.

Samantha Clark  (The Boy, the Boat, and the Beast) My mum taught me to read before I started school. So much so that when I started infant school, she was called in because I wasn’t paying attention and Mum figured out that it was because I’d done all the reading workbooks at home already. The teachers gave me story books to read after that and I was happier.

Angie Siebert(Bone’s Gift) My mom was a voracious reader (mostly of romances) and aspiring writer. She took us to the library almost every week when we were kids. I remember coming home with paper grocery bags full of books. She also wanted to be a writer but never quite achieved it. After she died, I found a box full of things she’d written for the Writers Digest correspondence course. (This was in the late 80s long before online courses, and the course materials probably dated from the 70s! )

Janet Fox(The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle) My mom was a closet writer of books for young readers. She was prolific, and attended writing conferences, and won awards, and I knew nothing about this until she suddenly died and left a stack of unpublished manuscripts for me to find among her things. Finding those stories inspired me to begin to write my own.  

Cynthia Reeg(From the Grave) My mom is the most sweet-hearted soul. She always encouraged me in whatever I wanted to do (after my chores were done) and bragged about my accomplishments—no matter how small. She taught me to be a hard-worker and to take pride in my work, as well as to have an eye for details. All three of these traits have served me well in my writing. When I was young, my mom and dad bought our family a whole set of Childcraft books, which was an extravagance for them at the time. The writings in those books—from nursery rhymes to fairy tales and beyond—formed my earliest story foundations and helped foster my lifelong love for literature.  

Thank you, Moms, for all your encouragement and support! 

Happy Mother’s Day!

Cynthia Reeg is the author of FROM THE GRAVE and INTO THE SHADOWLANDS, middle grade monster adventures. Halloween is her favorite holiday. Check out the spooky jokes on her website: www.cynthiareeg.com.

Creating Spooky (and Not-so-spooky) Settings

In spooky stories, setting certainly cannot be generic. It’s the place that often makes the story spooky. A haunted house. A dark forest. A dank basement. A graveyard. Of course, “normal,” everyday places can be spooky as well—depending on what’s happening and how well you use the setting. But, if you can’t convey the spookiness (or any other aspect), then even inherently scary places will come off generic, too. So I wanted to share a few tips of conveying and using the setting in your stories.

Spooky settings cannot be generic!

Setting Tips:

  • Know your world. Build a complete one in your head. Know what things look like, where they are, what they sound like, what they smell like, etc. Otherwise, you can’t portray setting convincingly on paper.
  • Only share a bits and pieces of the world, though. Think of the world/setting of your story as an iceberg. You need to know the whole thing, but you’re only going to show the reader the tip of the iceberg, so to speak.
  • Show the setting through your POV character’s eyes. Imagine you’ve put VR goggles on your POV character. What does he or she notice? (BTW, I think the real trick in writing well is striving to keep your reader connected to the story and the world through your POV character’s eyes. Little things like POV slips or lack of setting, for instance, distance the reader from the story.)
  • Select really concrete details to help your reader visualize the setting. Don’t just say the door opened. The oaken slab creaked open.
  • Don’t drop big blocks of exposition to explain setting (or the world). You can’t totally avoid exposition, but huge blocks of it will knock your reader right out of those VR goggles.
  • Do sprinkle clues about the setting and world throughout the action and dialogue. (Not in the dialogue, though. Interweave very brief setting descriptions or directions between what characters say.)
  • Establish the setting every time you open or close a scene—and whenever you change location within a scene. You don’t need to spell out where the characters are in the first sentence but do give the reader some hints within the first few sentences.
  • Don’t forget all the senses. But don’t overdo it—or under do it. Think about what the POV character would notice.
  • Use setting to reflect the mood of the character. If the POV character is scared, for instance, this is going to color how she sees the world around her. Plus you can convey that fear (or joy or sadness) through how you describe the setting.
  • Use setting to show the passage of time.
  • Use setting to foreshadow events.
  • Use setting to ….

I could go on about setting, but you get the idea.  If you want to know more about uses of setting, look into Eudora Welty’s “Place in Fiction.” She felt setting was an underappreciated tool in our writer’s toolkit.

BTW, I did a session on creating a sense of place in fiction at the Roanoke Regional Writers’ Conference this year. I talked about setting and about to imbue it with a particular sense of place. See the first entry under Fiction on my For Writers’ page.

Happy reading–and spooky writing!

Angie

“An intriguing blend of history and magic” – Kirkus
angiesmibert.com
@amsmibert

BE A SPOOKY REBEL

One of my favorite things about art, whether it be painting, music, writing, or even cooking, is learning the rules…and then breaking them!

Mind you, this only applies to creative endeavors – breaking the rules in real life doesn’t have quite the same effect, but thankfully it’s a lot more fun to be rebellious in your projects…especially when writing spooky stories!

So what are the “rules” of spooky stories? They vary, but here are some common elements that you’ll find in any scary story:

SETTING: This is one of the most important elements of any scary book, show, or film. The setting creates the perfect atmosphere to frighten your characters…and your readers. Classic settings are gothic mansions, abandoned hospitals, haunted graveyards, ancient crypts, and foggy swamps and forests, to name a few. Needless to say, these places are often dark and shadowy – perfect for hiding ghouls and other foul surprises. By choosing the perfect setting, a lot of the work is done for you, and you can focus on other spooky things like…

CHARACTER: Part of what makes a scary story so terrifying is that you care about the characters and what happens to them. As you watch them enter a dark basement alone, or lose their phone, or trip on a root while trying to run away, you feel invested in their journey to beat the odds and survive. For this reason, the protagonists of a good horror story are often sympathetic characters. Often they are good, kind people. They’re innocent, and perhaps a little naïve…the exact opposite of whatever they’re facing. The stakes are always high with these characters—there’s a lot to lose if they don’t succeed, whether it be a loved one, or even the fate of the world itself.

Writing good characters also includes writing good villains, and there’s nothing as satisfying as creating the ultimate spooky antagonist. The possibilities are endless: ancient beings like vampires or monsters and ghosts, mad scientists, creepy animated dolls, clowns, and evil dentists…you get the idea!

PLOT: The final piece to the spooky puzzle is the plot. If you watch and read a lot of horror, you’ll notice certain tropes that show up time and time again. For example, when characters split up to investigate something, you just know something bad is going to happen. If there is a phone or a getaway vehicle…it most likely won’t work. And when the bad guy is defeated at the end and everyone think they’re safe…that’s rarely the case! Even though we know what to expect when watching or reading spooky stories, it’s still scary because you never know when the next thing will jump out at you, or what it will be. Also, a good spooky story excels at building suspense, setting the scene and the possibility of something bad happening. Sometimes the long descent into an ancient tomb is just as scary as whatever might be lurking inside.

So now that we know the basic rules of spooky stories, how can we break them?

SETTING: Challenge yourself to make a setting that normally isn’t scary into something that is. How about a video game arcade where all the games start flickering and malfunctioning at the same time? Or a dog park where all the dogs stop and stare at something their owners can’t see? Or a grocery store where you pull a jug of milk from the shelf….only to see something lurking behind it. By taking your spooky story into unexpected places, this gives you the opportunity to create new rules about what is scary.

CHARACTER: Just like with setting, try new and unexpected ways of creating characters. Maybe your hero isn’t as innocent as they seem. Maybe they USED to be the monster in someone else’s scary story and now they’re the ones being chased down. Maybe your protagonist is afraid of something that no one else is…pickles, for instance! If you write a story about evil killer pickles you’ll be able to make your reader see through your protagonist’s eyes and think twice about their favorite snack.

You can also have fun experimenting with new ways to create villains. One of the spookiest villains in Harry Potter is Dolores Umbridge. She looks like a benign old woman, dressed in pink, with decorative kitten plates on her wall, but she’s one of the most chilling and sadistic characters in the entire series. Even Stephen King, the master of horror, praised her character as “the greatest make-believe villain to come along since Hannibal Lecter.”

Think about ways you can make the ordinary…extraordinary. Think of the least scary thing you can, and find a way to subvert it into something terrifying! Our own authors in the Spooky Middle Grade group are great at this. Take Jonathan Rosen’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING CUDDLE BUNNIES or Kat Shepherd’s BABYSITTING NIGHTMARES series.

PLOT: This one is the hardest to break the rules with, because so much of spooky writing depends on the balance of suspense and surprise. I would suggest that if you break the rules in spooky writing, choose only two of the three categories to do it with. For example, if you want to experiment with setting and character, keep the plot structure more traditional. But if you want to break the plot and character rules, keep the setting more traditional, or else your story might not resemble something spooky at all.

The key thing is to experiment and have fun. Even if you break every rule in the spooky book, you can be secure knowing you won’t end up in spooky jail….

…or will you? MWA HA HA HA!

Frankenstein

Frankenstein.

That is, the Creature, not the man. Mary Shelley’s incredible work of fiction – written when she was only 18 years old, and published in 1818 when she was 20 – has become a classic because her main character, Victor Frankenstein, a young man obsessed with experimentation, creates a monster made of body parts – a monster because it is frighteningly ugly and has no soul.41NM5XO+yUL

The Creature wreaks havoc with Victor’s life out of jealousy and because he cannot forgive his creator for giving him a life without love or happiness. Because who would love a soulless hideous monster?

Critics have called this romantic, gothic masterpiece the first true science fiction novel. Shelley was the wife of Percy Bysshe Shelley, and the novel was written during the summer of 1816 in a rented house in Switzerland when Gordon, Lord Byron, Mary Shelley’s sister’s lover, challenged all the visiting company to write a ghost story. That summer was cold and wet and dark worldwide due to the eruption of Mt. Tambora, and the miserable weather must have contributed atmospherics to Shelley’s fictional world.download

I think we have come to love this story because it is such a rich metaphor for human nature. Happiness, the comfort of fellowship, and love are all crucial to mental health. I also think we love this story because is the product both of a brilliant young woman, and of her immersion into a literary “crockpot”. The house guests in Villa Diodati spent that cold, wet summer in deep discourse about philosophy, human nature, and politics. They talked and argued through the dark nights. What a rich environment – no cell phones, no television, no interruptions.

One of my favorite new takes on this great work is Lita Judge’s MARY’S MONSTER, about the creation of the tale and about Shelley’s life.