Our stuffed animals stare at us with their button eyes while we sleep, and we can’t be completely sure they stay where we put them. Dolls? Equally freaky, if not more so. Puppets? Stop. (There is a reason the villains in my first book were evil puppets.)
So it seemed only fair that when the kids in Twist, my book that comes out this month, had a bunch of monsters to defeat, they’d use toys to do it. It’s about time toys pulled their weight.It was a lot of fun, actually. Toys lend themselves well to weaponization. What parent hasn’t stepped on a Lego during a midnight bathroom trip and been convinced they were going to lose their foot? And there’s no alarm system as freaky as a Speak and Spell that accuses you suddenly out of the darkness. We all understand why Kevin McCallister used paint cans as booby traps in Home Alone…they’re heavy. But toys…toys are diabolical. They bring a level of psychological warfare to the table that’s hard to beat.
I mention this because while I love inventing creatures both friendly and foul, my favorite trick is presenting the commonplace, slightly askew. Familiar objects can send chills down your reader’s spine in the right context. That’s why the little wind-up primate with his clashing cymbals is so horrifying in Stephen King’s short story, “The Monkey.” It’s why a trail of Reese’s Pieces can lead to almost-unbearable levels of tension. And it’s why the juxtaposition of a Dungeons and Dragons miniature with a real-life danger doesn’t minimize the threat for the viewer, but gives them a focal point that makes them even more nervous.
Familiar objects like toys are wonderful elements in a scary story, specifically because they’re so benign…until they aren’t. Once you’ve noticed how not-quite-right they are, you can’t unsee it. I know, this is a terrible thing I’m doing to you right now, but I am, after all, a spooky author. It’s literally my job. Of course, turnabout is fair play. So…
The next time you pick up your pencil (or ask your students to pick up theirs) why not pose the challenge of making a beloved childhood toy scary? If that doesn’t float your boat, if you really truly won’t be happy unless you can create a monstrous threat, see if your characters can solve that larger-than-life problem with household objects so basic, they’d normally overlook them completely. Especially if they’re toys! I guarantee good, spooky fun…besides, you’re already halfway there! Admit it: the Elf on a Shelf freaks you out.
In my Ghosts of Ordinary Objects’ series, food plays an important role. Bone (the main character) is growing up in a relatively poor part of the world (Appalachia) that’s now experiencing war rationing. Yet, her childhood is filled with food: from sweet tea to ham biscuits to collard greens to preacher cookies. Appalachian and most of Southern cuisine, and in fact most cuisines worldwide, grows out of necessity: poor people making the most out of the ingredients they have around them. Food tells you so much about the culture and their part of the world. (See below for a preacher cookie recipe!)
So, needless to say, food is—or should be—a key part of world building in fantasy fiction—including spooky stories. Think about the food of Harry Potter’s world. Butterbeer. Chocolate Frogs. Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor Beans. Maggoty Haggis at Nearly Headless Nick’s Death Party. Mrs. Weasley’s corned beef sandwiches. Cauldron cakes. I could go on and on. (In fact, if you play Harry Potter’s Wizards Unite, you can get some of these when you visit inns.) J.K. Rowling understands that part of the joy of being immersed in the wizarding world is yearning for a butterbeer or a trip to Honeydukes.
A few other middle grade and/or fantasy books have food that sticks with you. The Turkish delight from the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe comes to mind.
What are some of your favorite fantasy foods—from middle grade or other fantasy/spooky books? Any recipes you’ve tried? Please share below.
Preacher Cookies are so-named because they were something you could whip up really quickly when your minister dropped by for a visit!
½ cup butter
4 tablespoons cocoa powder
2 cups sugar
½ cup milk
1/8 teaspoon salt
3 cups of quick cooking oatmeal (not instant, though!)
½ cup peanut butter
1 teaspoon of vanilla extract
Mix the butter, cocoa, sugar, milk, and salt together in a saucepan.
Boil the mixture for one minute. You just need to melt everything together. Remove from the heat.
Stir in oatmeal, peanut butter, and vanilla.
Drop dollops of the mixture (about a tablespoon each) on waxed paper.
Let cool – and eat!
Angie Smibert is the author of the middle grade historical fantasy series, Ghosts of Ordinary Objects, which includes Bone’s Gift (2018), Lingering Echoes (2019), and The Truce (2020). She’s also written three young adult science fiction novels: Memento Nora,The Forgetting Curve, and The Meme Plague. In addition to numerous short stories, she’s published over two dozen science/technology books for kids. Smibert teaches young adult and speculative fiction for Southern New Hampshire University’s creative writing M.F.A. program as well as professional writing for Indiana University East. Before doing all this, she was a science writer and web developer at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. She lives in Roanoke with a goofy dog (named after a telescope) and two bickering cats (named after Tennessee Williams characters), and puts her vast store of useless knowledge to work at the weekly pub quiz. Find her online at: http://www.angiesmibert.com/blog/
Hello Spookies! I hope you’re enjoying your summer so far,
but if you’re like me, all you can do is count down the days until the fall and
all that comes with it: cooler weather, shorter days, and most of all…Halloween!
We still have a ways to go, so why not make the most of what’s
left of our summer by injecting a little spooky into it?
I recently saw the horror film, MIDSOMMAR (Warning:
definitely NOT for kids!). To summarize, it’s about a group of friends who travel
to Sweden to visit a friend’s quaint village for some summer solstice celebrations,
but things are not as pleasant as they seem at first. What struck me most about
the film was that it was a scary story set in the middle of summer in broad daylight.
How rare it is to be so frightened by something that looks bright and cheery on
the outside! The scares aren’t hidden in dark shadows, but are displayed in
plain sight, which makes them even more horrifying.
The movie inspired me to think of ways to incorporate spooky
things into summer stories for kids. After all, we here at Spooky Middle Grade
are all about celebrating spooky stories ALL year long. So here’s a few ideas
for all you aspiring spooky writers out there.
What says summer more than a carnival? Warm nights filled
with the scent of funnel cake, and the sound of screams from kids on all the
whirly-rides. With all the blaring lights and noise, it wouldn’t be too hard for
a creepy thing to escape unnoticed amongst the crowd. How about a grotesque
creature that hides among the plush toys that are offered as prizes at the ring
toss? Or how about a creepy traveling carnie who guards the entrance to the fun
house? What if some of the screams you hear are not just kids having fun…but
screams of horror? Why not take it a step further and have all the carousel animals
come to life and go on a rampage? Or a mysterious power outage that plunges the
entire carnival into darkness (not to mention getting stuck on a ride, 100 feet
in the air!). Do I even need to mention evil clowns? The possibilities are
For anyone who’s ever shared scary stories around a campfire, you already know that this summer activity is perfect for bringing on the spooky! The woods at night are filled with countless possibilities: Bigfoots and sasquatches, howling wolves, hooting owls, and glittering eyes spotted among the foliage. The shadows cast by the fire are distorted and strange, and every snap of a twig could spell danger. Of course, these are all common tropes, so why not think outside the box? How about coming across a helpful troop of scouts who turn out to be possessed by evil spirits? Or how about finding a creepy tent that is a portal into another world? Or maybe your campfire circle accidentally summons a demon with a voracious appetite for s’mores?
This may seem like the least obvious setting for a scary story – but think again. A lively beach boardwalk could incorporate some of the spooky elements mentioned in the carnival section above, but the ocean offers many opportunities for scares as well. Man-eating sharks, poisonous jellyfish, mysterious things brushing your toes in the murky waves (and no, it’s not just seaweed!), creepy sea pirates and mer-creatures are just a few of the things that can ruin a good beach day.
Again, you can challenge yourself to think beyond the
obvious and come up with surprising and unexpected scares: corn dogs that bite
back, beach sand that turns into quicksand, a kid digging up a cursed object, or
coming across an ANTI-life guard! Or how about applying some sun-scream
However you choose to make your summer spooky, make sure you
have fun with it. And don’t worry, autumn will be here before you know it!
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
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.