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!
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
Even though the stories we Spooky MG Authors write fall into the fiction category, most of them will have factual elements sprinkled throughout. This helps ground the story. In my MONSTER OR DIEbooks, I used a familiar school setting and then twisted it in evil, slimy ways. I mainly used classical monsters most readers would know, then made them unique to fit my misfit monster world. Think back to the ultimate spooky story Mary Shelley wrote in 1818—FRANKENSTEIN. She based the creature on scientific experiments of the time which used electricity to create muscle movement in dead animals (galvanism). Ms. Shelley took a leap from the factual and used electricity in her story to bring Frankenstein’s monster to life.
When doing research for a story, it’s helpful to know how to go about it. For this article, I asked my friend and writing buddy, Stephanie Bearcefor advice. Stephanie loves to write about all things weird and creepy. If it bleeds, oozes green goo, or explodes, she’s ready to research it! Her 24thbook about the 2004 Tsunami will be released this fall. She is the author of the series TWISTED TRUE TALES FROM SCIENCEand winner of the SCBWI Crystal Kite award for TOP SECRET FILES OF HISTORY WWII.
Below she answers my questions, sharing suggestions and possible sources for yournext creepy research project.
Where do you start?
I start with the thing that grabs my interest. For example, on my current WIP I was surprised to learn that Ouija boards and seances got their start in America in the mid- 1800s. I got curious and started googling Ouija boards. So usually my research STARTS with google, but it quickly heads to the library and to primary source material.
I published a long list of sources on Nonfiction Ninjas. Feel free to copy and keep the list handy.
Don’t forget to visit your public library. The librarian is the original search engine and they still know how to locate obscure information and manuscripts. I LOVE libraries!
What happens when you find conflicting sources?
Conflicting sources happen all the time. Especially when you read autobiographies and compare them to biographies! You need to be a judicious reader and understand that there will be slight variances in stories. Lawyers recognize this and witnesses that have the EXACT same story are suspected of collusion. So, if the bulk of the information verifies a fact, you can feel comfortable using that in your story. Again – just keep track of the sources and if you are questioned – you can defend your writing.
Where do you find interesting ideas to research?
Everywhere! I am a story collector. I have been since I was a child. I eavesdrop on people in cafes and listen to stories people tell about their lives and the history they have lived. I am addicted to podcasts. I read everything under the sun from magazines and news articles to conspiracy theories and alien abduction blog sites. I even joined the spiritualists and mediums society so I could have access to their historical information. There are stories ready to be found in nursing homes, playgrounds, libraries, museums, and even in your own family. You just have to be willing to listen.
When do you know if you have enough information?
That’s a good question. I keep researching until the majority of my source information has similar answers. For example – I had a heck of a time finding the death date of a famous medium. Kind of made me wonder if she had actually died or not… Maybe she refused to crossover? I searched and searched getting different answers, but I finally got a hold of death records and cemetery records in the state where she lived. They assured me she had indeed left the mortal world and had the same dates.
I am determined to give the most accurate information that I can. Sometimes new information will be found AFTER one of my books is published. I can’t control that. But at the publication date – I want to be sure that I have exhausted all KNOWN sources and have the most accurate information available at that time.
How do you stay organized?
I keep a huge hanging file box for each of my projects. I keep hard copies of everything. That way when someone asks me to verify a fact or some information – I have a copy of it. I also keep track of everything with a footnote program (easybib). If you would look at my office – it would not seem organized – but I guarantee I know where everything is in my piles!
Stephanie, thanks so much for your spooky words of wisdom!
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.
Two of the Spooky Middle Grade authors had new novels published earlier this month, and they’re both within book series. Angie Smibert continues her GHOSTS OF ORDINARY OBJECTS series with the second book LINGERING ECHOES, and Kat Shepherd began the new GEMINI MYSTERIES series with book one, THE NORTH STAR. Writing a series has its own set of unique challenges from writing a stand-alone book, so I asked these two spooky authors to give us some insight into their process.
Angie, tell us about your GHOSTS OF ORDINARY OBJECTS series…
Angie Smibert: The series is a blend of history, mystery, folklore, and magical realism. Set in 1942 in a small coal mining community in Southwest Virginia, GHOSTS centers around Bone Phillips (12) and her family and friends. In the first book, BONE’S GIFT, she discovers she’s coming into her Gift, as her Mamaw calls it. Almost everyone in the Reed/Phillips family has some sort of ability. Bone finds she can, with a touch, see the stories—or ghosts—in ordinary objects. People leave emotional imprints on objects. In the first book, Bone is faced with many changes besides her Gift. Her best friend goes to work in the mines. Her father gets drafted. And she has to go live with her dreaded Aunt Mattie, who does not hold with the Gifts. All the while, Bone needs to learn to use her Gift in order to solve the mystery of what happened to her mother.
How does the story continue in this new book, LINGERING ECHOES?
Angie Smibert: In the new book, Bone is a bit more at ease with her Gift, or at least she’s getting there. This time Bone needs to use her Gift to solve the mystery behind a seemingly haunted or magical jelly jar. Her best friend Will—Silent Will Kincaid—inherited this jar along with his father’s dinner bucket from when he goes to work in the mines. One day, Will hears sounds coming out of the empty jar. In fact, it appears to capture sounds. Bone suspects solving the mystery of the jar might help her get to the bottom of why Will can’t talk. Oh, and this story happens at Halloween!
Oooh, extra spooky! Kat, can you tell us about THE GEMINI MYSTERIES 1: THE NORTH STAR?
Kat Shepherd: THE GEMINI MYSTERIES is an interactive mystery series that follows the adventures of four teenage sleuths. At the end of every chapter is a picture with a clue hidden in it. Each hidden clue leads the detectives onto the next stage of solving the mystery. In Book 1, THE NORTH STAR, twins Zach and Evie and their best friend, Vishal, are hanging out with the twins’ crime reporter mom when she gets a call that a priceless diamond necklace has been stolen just before a charity auction. The friends quickly find themselves right in the middle of a crime scene, and they discover there is no shortage of suspects of who want the necklace for themselves. With the help of new girl Sophia Boyd, the detectives are soon chasing down clues in a race against time to get the necklace back before it’s too late.
Wonderful! Kat, this is the first book in a series. What are the challenges and/or joys of writing a book that’s starting a series?
Kat Shepherd: One of the things I love about starting a new series is getting to build a world for the reader. I love the opportunity to create an immersive experience, figuring out the rules of the world and the intricacies of my characters. And then figuring out how to introduce the reader, deciding what they need to know right now and what can wait. The fun of a series is it’s a slow burn, so you don’t have to tell everyone everything in the first book. Not every question has to be answered. Some things you get to keep for yourself to reveal later.
The challenge of a new series is the other side of the coin. You’re starting from scratch. Everything is new. There’s no shorthand the way there is with later books in a series. You can’t take anything for granted. And you have to build something strong enough in that first book that a whole series can stand on it; you have to create something that makes your readers want to come back for more.
Yes, interesting. Angie, what made you want to write ghost stories?
Angie Smibert: This isn’t precisely a ghost story. (The next book, though, does have a ghost dog in it.) The ghosts that Bone sees are more memories that have left their marks on these objects. Bone loves stories—everything from folktales to movies—as long as they aren’t true. So, of course, I gave her a Gift that she’d hate, seeing real stories in objects. Eventually, she’ll learn that her Gift is to give voice to unheard stories.
But, that being said, I do love ghost stories! I can still remember when my fourth grade teacher told us about the ghost that haunted her childhood home in Alabama. It was the ghost of a young slave girl who’d been killed by her owner for revealing to the Union troops where the household silver was buried. The girl could still be seen walking down the grand stairs and out into yard. She’d disappear precisely where the treasure was buried. So that’s probably when I got hooked on ghost stories.
Wow! Cool story. Kat, we know you love spooky books, because your other series is BABYSITTING NIGHTMARES. How was it different writing this mystery series?
Kat Shepherd: There are lots of similarities between spooky books and mysteries. There are thrills, chills, and suspense in both. Suspense is what keeps the reader turning the pages. You want cliffhangers, you want surprises, you want peril, all that great stuff that keeps the story going. I think the biggest difference between them actually comes with the pre-writing. With spooky stories I have my concept and the basic plot mapped out. I know about where the setpieces will go and how the story will end, but a lot is left to be discovered as I write. I get to play a little, seeing how I can up the spookiness factor or what twists I can add to build suspense or atmosphere. But with mysteries I have to know everything in advance. This is especially true for the interactive mysteries, because every chapter has to lead to a hidden clue. That means I have to know in advance what every clue will be, and I have to know exactly how every scene will play out to lead the characters (and the readers) to the clue. For THE NORTH STAR, I had a 6,000 word outline and color-coded timeline for every major character before I wrote a single word of the story. Because of that, once I finally sat down to write the book, it went very quickly. I knew exactly what was going to happen, and my only job then was getting it down on paper and making it come to life on the page.
That pre-writing can really help. Angie, was it easier or harder to write this second book in the series and why?
Angie Smibert: In some ways, it’s easier because I’ve already established the setting and characters. I don’t need to really do additional world building. But then again, the second book is harder because I still have to introduce the world to new readers—without overdoing it for those who read the first book.
That’s a challenge! Kat, the third BABYSITTING NIGHTMARES is coming out in August, THE TWILIGHT CURSE, then another GEMINI MYSTERIES, THE CAT’S PAW, in December. How does your writing change when you’re working on the second and third books in a series?
Kat Shepherd: What’s challenging about follow-up books in a series is that essentially you have to follow that old Hollywood studio line: “Give me the same, but different.” Readers love series books because they’re familiar and comfortable; they follow certain patterns or have similar themes, and writing a series needs to give that to them but still make it feel fresh. So it’s always a challenge to decide what parts of the patterns to keep and what to change up. For example, in BABYSITTING NIGHTMARES, each book follows a different girl with a different spooky problem; that’s the different part. But other things need to stay consistent, like the rules of the world, the Big Bad in the background, and certain beats, like the girls meeting up for doughnuts and strategy sessions at Kawanna’s costume shop. I want to give readers those familiar beats so the series starts to feel like home to them. What’s really nice about writing second and third books in a series is that by this time you’ve really spent a lot of time with your characters, so you know them well and you know their world. You’ve seen them grow and develop and unfold, so writing the later books is like visiting old friends again. I hope they start to feel like old friends to readers, too!
Oh yes, good tips. Angie, will there be more books in the GHOSTS OF ORDINARY OBJECTS series? What can we look forward to from you?
Angie Smibert: Yes, there’s one more book in the series (so far), called THE TRUCE. I’m working on the revisions right now. Or I should be! Book 3 comes out next March. The story is set at Christmas and involves a body found in the mine, Uncle Ash, a German soldier, and a ghost dog.
Samantha M Clark is the author of THE BOY, THE BOAT, AND THE BEAST (Paula Wiseman Books/Simon & Schuster). A former journalist and editor and constant wonderer, she’s convinced she’ll one-day find the wardrobe that took the Pevensie’s to Narnia. Until then, she’s writing about her own magical worlds. Find out more about Samantha and her books at SamanthaMClark.com.
Use all five senses when writing your scenes. But don’t stress about it. Just close your eyes and imagine what your character smells, feels or comes in contact with through touch. Reach your character’s arms out to let an imaginary breeze sweep along their skin. Have your character take a deep breath and almost taste the dying moss clinging to the trees. Playing with the senses from a creepy point-of-view is so fun in spooky stories!
Keep up the intrigue by dripping details into a scene, each one getting scarier than the last. And don’t forget to use all the senses. Maybe first they hear a howl in the distance. Then smell something dark and musty. Then feel drool drip down their neck…
To help me get in the spooky mood for writing my monster stories, I brainstorm creepy vocabulary words before I start writing. Divide a paper into categories for the 5 senses–Sight, Sound, Smell, Taste, Touch. See how many words you can think of for each sense. Even if you don’t use each of these words in your story, it will help set the tone for your writing. Scary on!
Thanks Spookies!!! I hope these tips help you add a little bite to your spooky story repertoire.
I’ve been waiting so patiently to have my turn come up again in the rotation. I was supposed to go a while ago, but Kim Ventrella told me that since I forgot to bring the hors d’oeuvres to our last Spooky MG party, that my punishment was to have my turn skipped. I don’t blame her, since everyone was looking forward to my famous Sweet Pea Pesto Crostini, and I let them down. FYI, they’re to die for.
Anyway, today I’m here to
write about several of my spooky influences growing up. While there were
several movie influences, today I’ll stick with the literary ones. Don’t worry,
I’ll cover the cinematic ones a different day.
The power of a good story
is that it stays with you. Inspires you. And many of my influences are old. One
of them, a couple of hundred years. Did I build it up enough? Well, then let’s
get right to it!
Perhaps more than any
other story, the one that’s inspired me the most is The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving. When I was a kid,
this terrified me. I’d have to rank the Headless Horseman as among the best
characters ever created. I know the mythology came from before the book, but
the book immortalized the character.
Just having a headless rider with a flaming pumpkin head was terrifying. Even that Disney cartoon was scary. I always pictured walking through the woods and having him lurking somewhere. When I visited Sleepy Hollow some years back, I could definitely picture Irving’s thoughts as he wrote it. This is definitely one of the top influences in my life.
Next, we have another author from a different time. The works of Edgar Allen Poe. Poe, himself, is such an intriguing, spooky figure. Even the circumstances surrounding his death are still so mysterious. But, with spooky stories such as The Raven, The Tell-Tale Heart, and The Cask of Amontillado, Poe’s work is still relevant nearly one hundred-and-seventy years after his death.
To me, he’s one of the biggest influences of any horror writer and still a spooky figure to this day.
I know, I know. How can I have any list of spooky literary influences without including Stephen King? Well, the answer is, you can’t. And I was influenced by him as well. There were two in particular. I probably read and saw The Shining at much too young an age. And boy, did it stay with me. So creepy and scary. But, the one that got to me the most, was IT. I hate clowns. Just hate them. And this book was one of the reasons why. Admittedly, I didn’t have this fear as a very young child. I even had a papier mache one hanging in my room, and there were never any problems. It even did creepy things, like no matter how we turned it, it always turned back to face into the room. I tried everything, including turning it from the hook in a different way, but it turned back to face the room. So, I wasn’t bothered by clowns . . . until I saw Poltergeist. That clown was awful. Suddenly, the one in my room, was no longer cute or funny. It had to go. I got it out of my room. At least I thought my clown phobia would go into remission, but then came IT. That book brought back every clown fear, and it has stayed with me until this day. Did I mention that I hate clowns?
Next on my list is R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps. Even though I wasn’t a kid anymore when this came out, I loved them. I bought one book after another, and loved the combination of humor and horror in all of them. That series influenced me, perhaps more than anything else. As you know, I love injecting humor into horror. The two genres work soooo well together. It’s fun to poke fun at the horror tropes with some self-referential jokes. Humor is also a release from what’s going on in the story. Goosebumps really got me to think about combining the two genres.
Anyway, my Spooky friends, that’s my list of influences for now. There are many more, but these are the ones that came to me.
So, until next time, let me hear who’s influenced you?
Mystery at the Mansion. The Serial House. Circus Gone Wrong. The Photo. Sewer Circus. Did we Spookies write these fine scary tales? No! A class of Junior Spookies (Spooky Irregulars, maybe?) at Northside Middle School did. Mrs. Forney’s class of amazing 7th graders even published them in an anthology called, aptly enough, A Collection of Short Stories from an Amazing Group of Seventh Graders. I had the distinct honor to hear them read their collaborative stories on Feb 15th in the NMS library.
Work on their stories, though, started about a month before that. Librarian Lauren Sprouse contacted Spooky MG to set up a free 30-minute Skype Q&A session for Mrs. Forney’s English class. She let the students listen to the collaborative story we did for the Reading to Your Kids podcast. This inspired the class to write their own collaborative stories! When they Skyped with us in January, the students were armed with questions not only for us about our own books and writing but also about the whole collaborative story writing process. The class left the Skype session pumped to work on their own group stories. Since I live in the same city, I happily agreed to go hear the tales once they were done!
How did they do it? First, Mrs. Forney took notes on our answers to the students’ questions and gave each a copy to help them write their stories. She adapted how we wrote our collaborative story to suit her class. We had worked from a writing prompt given to us by the podcast host, and then each of us wrote a segment of the story without really planning what came next. Luckily, it worked out pretty well. Mrs. Forney provided each of her groups with a prompt. However, she let each group brainstorm, write, and revise its story together. She’s extremely proud of both their stories and how hard they worked! And I was impressed with the stories, too!
On the morning of February 15th, after all the groups read their awesome stories, I turned the tables on them—and asked them questions about their process. They shared that the hardest parts were coming up with the ideas and then editing/revising the stories. Some groups eagerly talked about how they came up with great names for the characters, often based on people they knew or even family members. We talked a bit more about writing in general–until it was time for photos. (See above!)
You can do this, too!Are you a librarian or teacher who’d like to do something similar with your class? Here’s a super quick lesson plan/checklist for teaching Spooky collaborative stories in your classroom:
Set aside class or library time for each group to brainstorm ideas, write drafts, revise, and practice reading. (NMS students took about a month to do this, along with other class work.)
Publish stories in a booklet, complete with student signatures and a cool cover!
Try this variation: Instead collaborating, your students could write their individual own spooky stories based on a theme or prompt.
If your school is in the Roanoke, Virginia area, I’m happy to listen to more stories! I won’t speak for the other Spookies, but you might be able to persuade one that lives near your school to make a visit. OR you could schedule a follow-up Skype for us to listen to stories!
Of course, you don’t have to write collaborative stories to Skype with us!