Want to know what the hardest thing about writing is? For me it isn’t a lack of ideas. I have more stories knocking around in my head than time. In fact, when they bury me I will ask that they toss in the dog-eared notebook with all the unfulfilled dreams I had hoped to get down on paper. Is it a clean well-lighted place? No. I work in a dungeon of sorts. I do have access to coffee and a bathroom, though, so it’s not so bad. Honestly, the hardest thing about writing is not writing. Why? Because it’s 2016, people, and there are just TOO MANY DAMNED DISTRACTIONS!
Finding a Balance
Now, I am not suggesting that just because I am a writer I shouldn’t get to enjoy a little R&R. But bingeing on ‘Nurse Jackie’? I literally spent the summer getting caught up on ‘Supernatural’—which is a great show, BTW. I even bought Season 11 on Amazon Prime. But it’s these kinds of stupid interruptions that kill the writing process.
Want some more? How about Facebook? Yeah, that. Okay, I love staying in touch with family and friends, but do I really need to watch another hoverboard catch fire? And Twitter—don’t get me started. I mainly use that to curate and share content I am interested in. I also do a little marketing. But the thing is a huge time sink, let me tell you. What about reading? That is not a distraction. To write better, you need to read more. The truth is, I don’t read nearly enough either.
Okay, time for a resolution. I need to dial down on Netflix and amp up on actual writing. The only reason I’m baring my soul like this is because I am confident there are hundreds—if not thousands—of writers out there suffering from the same condition. Look, it’s easy not to write. All you have to do is pretend you’ll do it tomorrow. And let me tell you, streaming and social media were godsends for the born procrastinator. Hooray, ‘Orphan Black’! Nevertheless, the next book isn’t going to write itself.
So, say it with me …
I will write first and goof off later.
I will ignore cute pet videos, raging political debates and recipes from the New York Times.
But above all, I will spend more time with my family, because writing will never be as important.
As a writer, if you know how to organize your home workplace, that’s great. If you know which items can help you stay more productive, that’s even better!
It’s simple: try to use these things to boost your productivity.
1. A digital highlighter. This device can help you scan, translate, and transfer texts. Once you start using this gadget, you’ll start boosting your productivity. Create texts and just transfer them to your computer or phone.
2. Mini elliptical trainers. If you want to stay productive and focused, you need to pay attention to your health. Using mini elliptical trainers helps to prevent health problems and promote a good posture.
3. A USB cup warmer. We often drink coffee or tea while working. If you want to take a cup of hot tea, you should use this gadget. Plus, try to drink green tea only, as it contains L-theanine and caffeine that lead to improving brain functions.
4. Live plants. As soon as you decorate your workplace with live plants, you will see spirits boost. Plus, it goes without saying that live plants freshen the air. No matter what type of plant you like—whether a cactus, an aloe, or an Orchidaceae—you can make your writing place look cozy.
5. A painting or quotation. Every writer needs to find his or her muse. If you want to get inspiration, find a corner where you can hang your favorite painting or a quote. It will motivate you to work harder and better!
Is there anything we left off the list? Add your own ideas in the comments section below.
About the Author
Emily Johnson is a writer and a blogger at OmniPapers.com, an academic writing extravaganza. You can find her on Twitter.
I grew up in the 80s. It was a magical time when bug-eyed, glowing-fingered aliens crashed in suburban back yards, when heroes rode luckdragons, when David Bowie danced with goblin puppets, when nightmare creatures battled for the fate of a flawed purple gemstone … well, you get the idea.
For me, the creatures of science fiction and fantasy are just as compelling as the main characters in the story. Anybody writing in the genre knows how important world-building is. Part of good world-building is creating believable creatures for your distant planet or magical realm.
Here are some things to consider when designing your monsters from the claws up:
Magical or Cryptozoological?
Is your creature born or conjured? Did it hatch from an egg, or did a rabbi scoop some mud together and slap a sign on its head? The way a creature comes into being tells a lot about what its habits will be like, where it lives, what it subsists on, etc. Magical creatures don’t have to be as convincing from a biological standpoint—or stand up to close scrutiny at all, for that matter:
Don’t feed a mogwai after midnight. Um, isn’t it technically always “after midnight”?
How the hell does a Pegasus fly? Does it have hollow bones like a bird?
What about Beholders? How do they—ahhh, you know what? Never mind.
As magical creatures, it’s part of their charm. But if we’re talking about an animal that is born or hatched, this takes a little more thought.
What Is Your World Like?
What is your world’s climate like, its ecosystem, its culture? Animals adapt to their environment to survive. Consider how the animal might have evolved in relation to where it lives. Is the animal native to the area you’re writing about or did they come from someplace else? If they’re not native, how did they get there? How do they interact with other species?
Some of my favorite fantasy beings are the elephant-like Mulefa from Philip Pullman’s The Amber Spyglass. Now, it helps that he was writing them from the point of view of a scientist who made keen observations regarding their anatomy, habitat, social behavior, etc. But Pullman obviously put a lot of thought into their ecology. A species of pod-bearing tree combined with some solidified lava beds gives the Mulefa the means to move—and I don’t mean that in the sense that they use pods for transportation. I mean they have evolved in such a way that they now require the pods to peregrinate, attaching them to spurs on their legs and zooming around on them like Tony Hawk.
I was blown away by the level of detail, planning, imagination and originality the Mulefa required. How in the world did someone dream something like that up?
Real Creatures, Alive or Extinct
Start with real critters. I know this seems like a no-brainer, but coming up with good, convincing and memorable creatures for your book has to be more than a Horse of a Different Color (enchanting though that rainbow-hued equine was, he was still just a horse with a dye-job).
I co-author a series called The Order of the Four Sons with Coyote Kishpaugh. It takes place across multiple dimensions. In the second book, the heroes find themselves marooned in an inhospitable, desert world called Carcosa. Keeping the Mulefa firmly in mind as we began to design the world, we gave a great deal of thought to what sort of flora and fauna could thrive under its harsh conditions. We researched animals and plants that live in the Australian and Saharan deserts, as well as Death Valley. To give the animals an otherworldly bent, we turned mainly to creatures that have gone extinct like the Tasmanian tiger for inspiration.
We also took into consideration the symbolism of the place. We have stranded the heroes in a world where everything is either aggressive or toxic. We looked at some of the fiercest-looking desert dwellers we could find, like the Solifugae, an order of desert spiders that can get quite large and look like an ungodly mixture of arachnid and scorpion, with pale, segmented bodies and pincer-like mandibles. They’re not terribly threatening to humans, but the point is, they look scary.
Another type of creature we looked at was some sort of animal to transport people around our deadly fantasy desert. Ultimately, we found our way to tapirs, an endangered South American animal with a prehensile snout (maybe Pullman influenced me even more than I realized!). Related to horses and rhinos, tapirs are decent runners, so with some alteration, we thought they would make fine pack animals. In the course of researching them, we found out that tapirs appear in Asian folklore. In Korean, their name is maek, so we named the creatures “meks.”
Finally, there are the real, live animals that share space with you. I can’t tell you how many creatures in my oeuvre have been influenced by an ugly, runty, squinty-eyed, foul-tempered little cat I found by the side of the road one day and decided to bring home. She has way more attitude than a five-pound bundle of dirty-looking orange-brown fur ought to have, but she’s my little beast, and I love her. Without her, I wouldn’t have stories full of dragons, mermaids, ehlems and man-eating blobs. At least once a day, I pay homage to my little feline muse with offerings of tasty treats. She seems as pleased with this arrangement as I am.
So all those hilarious pet stories you love to tell at parties? Yeah, turn those into fantastical adventures.
Barring that …
Tap into Some Folklore
There’s an entire world of myths, legends, fairy tales and folklore from which to draw inspiration. From kitsunes to skin walkers, from djinn to Baba Yaga—there’s always some creature or entity begging to be remade into a new story.
Obviously, you have the perennial favorites: vampires, werewolves and zombies. Personally, I find those to be a bit tired, but even they can have new life breathed into them—reanimated, if you will. (I know, I know. Feel free to throw things.)
To use another example from our books, in The Order of the Four Sons, we have an Eastern European sorceress who practices necromancy. Eastern European folklore is rich with blood-suckers and the undead. We came up with creatures called eretics, a sort of zombie en flambé. The amount and type of magic it takes to raise and sustain them burns their flesh, so they’re blackened, red and quite disgusting as they lumber about, flaking off patches of skin and doing their mistress’ bidding.
Another resource is the good ol’ D&D monster manual. I’m not saying to blatantly rip something wholesale from the Eberron or Forgotten Realms playbooks or whatever. What I am encouraging you to do is a monster mashup—create composites. Synthesize. It’s amazing what sort of literary Frankenstein might emerge. A fang here, a bit of drool there, some galvanic action and voila! Your creature will be up, wreaking havoc on a poor, unsuspecting populace in no time.
I hope you find my thoughts on monster-making helpful. Thanks for reading, and best of luck dreaming up your own ghoulies, ghosties and three-legged beasties!
For centuries, two ancient, magical sects, the Order of the Four Sons of Horus and Starry Wisdom, have battled for possession of the sacred, powerful Staff of Solomon. Whoever possesses the staff can open doors to other dimensions—or rip open the very fabric of existence.
The staff was broken into pieces and scattered across the cosmos.
Now, a member of the Order, Fernando Rios, has disappeared in a small Missouri town.
When a team is sent to investigate, they discover that Rios was close to finding one of the lost segments.
The problem is, he wasn’t the only one.
The Order of the Four Sons by Coyote Kishpaugh and Lauren Scharhag is a classic tale of good versus evil. An epic, magical journey of fantasy and adventure.
Join members of the team, Colonel JD Garnett, novice mage Kate West, Detective Ryan Murphy, scholar Doug Grigori, and field techs Bill Welsh and Cecil Morgan, as they race to stop evil from destroying not just Earth, but a myriad of worlds.
About the Author
Lauren Scharhag is a writer of fiction and poetry. With Coyote Kishpaugh, she is the co-author of The Order of the Four Sons series. She lives in Kansas City, MO with her husband, two cats and a squinty-eyed beastling. You can find Lauren on Twitter, on Facebook and on her blog, www.laurenscharhag.blogspot.com.
Photo Courtesy of Alessandro Baffa via Creative Commons
Hey, guys, I wanted to let you know that I reached a major milestone this week on the long road to finishing up my horror-thriller series. I’ve just finished Book Three and have sent it off to the editor. Now the real fun begins. Over the next few weeks I will update you on how things are shaping up in terms of a cover. Also, I wanted to let you know that I am in the process of rebranding the series. Stay tuned for some interesting news about that.
This has been quite a journey. When I started out writing Tell Me When I’m Dead, I honestly believed this would be a one-off story about a zombie outbreak in a small town in Northern California. But when I got to the end, it was painfully clear to me that Dave’s story wasn’t over. He had a lot more killing to do. So I started Book Two, Dead Is All You Get.
Now, everyone knows that you can’t have a series with just two books, so after finishing that one, I was compelled to start on Book Three. Don’t worry—there’s no Book Four planned! I think I did a pretty good job of wrapping things up with good ol’ Dave. Of course, the reader will be the ultimate judge. What to expect? Well, for one thing, the action has moved to Los Angeles. So get ready for some gritty, nail-biting thrills—the kind that seem to follow Dave like a rabid dog—in the land of ‘Sharknado’ and collagen-infused lips.
That’s enough for now. Stay tuned for more breaking news as it develops. And remember, monsters are real. Seriously, they’re real.
Lately, I’ve been reading a number of discussions in various author groups debating the evils of writing for money, as opposed to “doing what you love.” Now, I am a patient man (not really, but whatever), and for the most part I’ve held my tongue. But I’ve gotten to the point where the stench of sanctimony is threatening to burn my eyes. So, here goes.
Repeat after me (and your wife won’t divorce you): There is nothing wrong with making money at writing.
Pollyanna in the House
I don’t get it—I really don’t. Since when is getting paid to write immoral? One writer who appears to be on the side of art over commerce quoted Samuel Johnson, who said, “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.” Apparently, he took umbrage with that and proceeded to go on a toot about writers not being true to themselves or something, and plenty of others got on the bandwagon.
Now, before everyone gets wound up and accuses me of being a blatant capitalist with huge teeth and tassels on my shoes, let me explain. I am not by any stretch of the imagination suggesting that a person ever write drivel because it pays well. On the contrary, writing is a profession like any other. And to do it well, you must be a professional. That said, what’s wrong with getting paid for your hard work?
Repeat after me (especially in the presence of your deadbeat brother-in-law): I am not a charity!
Writing as Art
Writing can be art, sure. Whether you are writing popular fiction or the great American novel (whatever the hell that is), you should strive to make your words sing. But guess what. People who write heartfelt, sentimental prose that fits inside a greeting card are trying to make their words sing too. And so are those fine men and women of Madison Avenue who write advertising copy. They are professionals, people! And they are damned good at what they do.
But what about novelists? Ahh … This is where things get tricky. Here’s what I’ve observed. People who are just starting out—and those who have written for a while and never sold anything—seem to be the ones screaming the loudest about the evils of getting paid. Last time I checked, successful folks like Stephen King and J. K. Rowling are depositing fat checks in the bank every month and not crying about it. Now, you may or may not care for what they write. But they are nevertheless professionals in every sense of the word.
The Rest of Us
I’m happy to admit that I cannot support my family on my writing. Boohoo. That’s why I have a day job. Charles Bukowski worked at the post office, for cryin’ out loud. And he hated it. But at least he got a novel out of the deal.
I have three pieces of advice for people who piss and moan about being true to their art:
Continue to write your heart out
Find a way to put food on the table
The sad reality is that most writers will never make a living writing. Don’t believe me? Check out Hugh Howey’s excellent Author Earnings website. Charles Ives wrote some of the most innovative American music of the 20th century. Listen to his Three Places in New England sometime and you’ll see what I mean. Did he get to make a living at writing music? Hell, no—he sold insurance! Look it up.
Okay, I feel better now. Carry on writing that awesome book of yours. And remember, it’s all going to be fine.
Photo Courtesy of Elizabeth Haslam via Creative Commons Well, kiddies, it’s almost time for Dead Is All You Get: Book Two of THE DEAD SERIES to go live. And it’s been a journey, let me tell you. Recently, I did a cover reveal, signaling the approaching publishing date. Now, we’re really close. I’m getting the manuscript back from the proofreader and, once the book is formatted by the amazing and inimitable JW Manus, it’s saving humanity one book at a time. Okay, that’s overstated. But, hey, I’m excited!
In the meantime, I wanted to talk a little about the publishing process from the point-of-view of a moderately experienced indie author. Because I write, I read. A lot. And I have to say that indie publishing is a blessing and a curse. First, let’s talk about the blessing part.
Amazon and the Masses
Like Gutenberg, Amazon, Apple, Barnes & Noble, Kobo and others have brought publishing to the masses. If you’ve paid any attention to the debate raging now between Amazon and Hachette, you’ll understand that this is a pretty big deal. No longer must authors be at the mercy of powerful literary agents and publishers. Anyone with a computer and an Internet connection can publish a book. Anyone.
This new reality has brought about a titanic transformation of publishing—with the reader at the center. New voices—authors who for the most part would never have gotten a shot—are now able to be read. All good stuff. But, as in most things in life, there’s a downside.
Up to Our Necks in Dreck
It’s precisely because anyone can hit the “Publish” button that there’s a lot of garbage out there. I’m talking bad writing, bad covers, no editing and no formatting. So what does this mean for the reader? Well, they have to wade through the dreck to get to the good stuff. And with way more than a million titles, that’s not easy. “What about reviews?” you say. Ever heard of sock puppets?
The major publishers have put forth this argument for years—implying that the only way to get your hands on quality books is to purchase them from The Big Five. Well, I’m here to tell you that this is a load of crap. Don’t believe me? Check out Hugh Howey’s Author Earnings site sometime and you’ll find that indie publishing is growing at a pace that’s alarming to The Big Five.
But enough of this. Let’s talk about making your indie book the best it can be.
The Cover Matters
Whether or not you like my book cover, it’s professional. I not only hired an artist to create it, but I used a professional cover designer. As many others have said ad nauseam, at least when it comes to eBooks, you can judge a book by its cover. And if the thing is rubbish, readers can probably assume the book is as well.
You cannot hope to build an audience without entrusting your book to a professional editor and proofreader (often not the same person). Editors see things you don’t—gaps in logic, klunky language and bad grammar, to name a few. And a proofreader sees things editors don’t—missing commas, extra spaces after periods, etc.
Again, you may find that you don’t care for THE DEAD SERIES—I hope you do, though—but it’s professional. Unfortunately, typos will always make their way through. And I can tell you that I’ve found plenty of them in books from The Big Five. Nothing against these guys. It’s because we’re human—we miss things. What’s nice about eBooks is, you can easily fix the typo and republish.
I’m talking strictly about eBooks here. Yes, you can leave it to the Smashwords Meatgrinder to handle the formatting. Mark Coker has done an amazing job with that program, doing his best to automate the process of self-publishing. But it’s still a program. I prefer to work with a human.
The point is, don’t just upload your Microsoft Word document to KDP and hope for the best. You’ll be disappointed—and so will your readers.
A Good Synopsis Matters
When I say “synopsis,” I am also referring to the book blurb that appears under your book’s title on Amazon. It should be as professional as your book. And if you don’t know how to write an effective one, seek the help of other writers. You won’t be sorry.
So what am I really talking about? Brand. This is all about your brand, people. Get the book wrong and readers will be done with you. And it will be hard to get them back. And I didn’t mean to imply that doing all of the above is cheap—it’s not. But if you’re serious about your work, you must do everything you can to produce a professional-looking product.
Of course, I am assuming that your writing rocks. That’s a given. All the more reason you should give it the respect it deserves.
Photo Courtesy of kr3st0 via Creative Commons So where have I been the past few months? Off-world? In a way, yes. I’ve been holed up in my basement finishing the sequel to my zombie novel, Tell Me When I’m Dead. And let me tell you, there is no better feeling than typing that final word and calling it done. Much better than the funk I found myself in last November after NaNoWriMo when I only managed to bang out 25,000 words. Whew! So yesterday I sent a draft to my beta readers—whoo-hoo! After one more revision, I will send the book to my editor. By the time the cover, the editing and the formatting are complete, the book will be published in late summer—just like the last one. Cannot wait, my friends. I think I’ll celebrate by tearing into that Milky Way I’ve been saving.
So here’s the thing. Not only did I finish but I learned some lessons along the way. And I wanted to share those with you. Take them or leave them. I hope they help other writers out there.
Lesson 1—The Book Doesn’t Write Itself
Believe me, I’ve tested that theory. I have gone days without writing. When I get back to my computer, I am still at the same spot. No Microsoft Word fairy is clickety-clacking away while I watch old ‘Fringe’ episodes. This lesson is obvious to most people, but it wasn’t to me. Often, I think I fool myself. “Plenty of time,” I say. Well, guess what, there isn’t plenty of time. Time is finite, and we need to write. Also, I find that when I haven’t been writing for a while, I become irritable. Not good when you have a family.
So here’s a confession. I’ve been writing a long time and, for me, cranking out the words is hard. It’s not writer’s block, mind you. I have more ideas for books than I could ever execute on. No, it’s the actual sitting down and getting the words on paper. It takes me a long time to work things out. In reality, I am writing in my brain. I’ve covered this before—I don’t really outline. I have a general idea of where I need to go. I typically have a beginning, a middle and an end. But the twists and turns that make the story fun are what take me the longest to work out. And that takes time.
Lesson 2—Burst of Creativity Is a Myth
At least for me. It’s not the sprint to the finish line that gets the book written. It’s the slow and steady thing. Sitting down every day and writing something. Even if I haven’t worked it all out, I’ve found that if I just get on with it, sooner or later it comes together. Now, I can hear some of you chortling out there. “Well, if you had written an outline, you wouldn’t have this problem.” Guess what. I tried outlining years ago and here is what I found—I don’t stick to it. The thing seems so rote to me. When I get to actually writing scenes based on it, I find I hate it and I veer off in completely different directions. So, I might as well do that to begin with. Why waste weeks—or months—writing an outline when I could just write the damned novel?
There is a downside. Sometimes when I write forward to get to the next part of the story, I find that things have indeed taken a different turn—or have become more clear in my mind, necessitating a visit to earlier chapters where I must revise in order to match what happens later. But that’s okay. I’ll take that small inconvenience any day. Unless I’ve gone completely off the rails later in the book, I’ve found that the revisions are usually very minor and only require rewriting a paragraph or two, or adding a scene.
Lesson 3—Social Media Is a Sinkhole
There, I said it. If I had kept up with my normal schedule of blog posts and tweets, I would still be sitting here staring at my unfinished book, instead of writing this happy post. And I really felt guilty about it—at first. But somewhere along the way I came to the conclusion that I must finish the book. Nothing stood in my way. Okay, let me amend that. For me, there is nothing more important than family. There are lots of stories about famous writers who had horrible home lives because of their devotion to “the craft.” I don’t roll that way. Yes, I need to write but not at the expense of my family. My girls are growing up fast, and I don’t want to be lying in some retirement home someday with a bagful of regrets.
So, there you go. I’ll leave you with one small data point. Although I was virtually absent from the social media scene, the number of people following me has grown. Go figure. This makes me wonder if people even noticed I was gone! Actually, I don’t want to think too much about that, or I will start getting self-conscious. Then I’ll bring on a monster case of writer’s block for reals.
Now, check out Jerry Seinfeld. This, folks, is the writing process.
Okay, this is exciting, people! I am privileged to have as my guest this week, Alan M. Clark, author of the new historical thriller, The Door That Faced West. In this extensive interview, Alan discusses his work as both an artist and author, and provides some interesting background on his new novel. As a bonus, Alan shares some of his illustrations with us—two of which have never been seen publicly!
Hi, Alan. Welcome to the show. It’s great having you here.
A pleasure. Thank you for the invitation.
You are blessed to be both an amazing writer and artist. How long have you been writing and drawing, and which came first?
Thank you for the praise! The answer depends on what you mean, I suppose. For the art, painting and drawing—I’ve been aware of a desire to produce art since about age five, so over fifty years now, but I didn’t think about doing it professionally until my teens. I was lucky to have parents who never discouraged me from considering a career in art. Even so, I went to art college largely to put off for another four years what I thought would be a life in some sort of work I’d do to make money but for which I’d have no real feeling or pride.
I didn’t expect to have a reasonably good business sense that would see me into a life of creative pursuits, but that’s what I had and what happened. Again, I’m lucky. Here’s a link to one of several galleries of my artwork on my website: http://bit.ly/1rj7Hiu
Concerning writing, I started creating fiction in high school, mostly for fun, doing it with friends. Sounds like a gateway to some sort of addiction, doesn’t it? Well, perhaps it was. The collaborations were a lot of fun. We laughed a lot, reveled in weird imaginings, but, like the artwork, I didn’t really believe I had a future in it. Still, I kept at it because I loved it. As an adult, I’ve had several groups that met to share creative process. The members of the groups have been a variety of people with different creative pursuits; writers, graphics artists, painters, photographers, song writers, poets, comic book artists, etc. We shared unfinished work primarily, talking about the processes of our individual creative endeavors. We collaborated some. I was getting good responses for the writing I presented to the groups and started submitting short fiction.
In 1995, I made my first professional sale to a paperback anthology, More Phobias, edited by Martin Greenberg, Wendy Webb, Richard Gilliam, and Edward E. Kramer. Since then, I’ve been more deliberate about getting my writing to an audience and it’s grown. Now, I’ve had four collections and seven novels published. Here’s a link to information about most of my fiction: http://bit.ly/1rj8ksa
Being creative, I imagine ideas come to you in all sorts of ways. When something strikes you, do you typically see it first as an image, then a story? Or does it happen the other away around?
As you suggest, ideas come to me several ways, usually not a clear picture as an image or story. In two-dimensional visual art, I get a rough image that isn’t a composition. If the idea is good, if I like what I see in my mind’s eye, I still have to work at presenting it as part of a composition that includes the rectangle of a picture plane.
In storytelling, it’s the emotional environment that comes first. I develop characters that struggle against the circumstances of their lives, the people in their lives, even those they love, and the conflicting emotions that the characters, themselves, experience. I like working with characters that are emotionally conflicted because they are more like real human beings. They make mistakes they have to live with or struggle to amend. The decisions they make often cause them pain, create conflict with others, alter their core values and motivations, take them in surprising new directions, ultimately change who they are emotionally. The rest: the setting, the time period, the genre, is all just window dressing.
It constantly surprises me when people ask where my ideas come from. Over the years I’ve learned there’s no answer to that. So where do your ideas come from?
Experience, life, free association, the subconscious soup, from practicing the use of imagination, exercising that “muscle” by using it frequently. My blog is called the “Imagination Fully Dilated” Blog. The title comes from a series of anthologies I helped edit. The anthologies are of stories based on my artwork by writers from all over: Ramsey Campbell, Poppy Z, Brite, Jack Ketchum, F. Paul Wilson, and many others.
When I had to come up with a title for the series, I tried to give a sense of how I felt about the process of developing ideas. I thought of an eye, the mind’s eye, that can grab what we know, what we have in the way of experience, and recombine it in new ways to project possible futures, scenarios involving action and conversations, great vistas, curious mechanisms, alien worlds—but not just for fantasy, for practical function of necessity as well—hell, the whole of human invention.
So what prevents us from inventing what we want at a moment’s notice, at least within the imagination? Complacency, lack of urgency, laziness, fear of failure, fear of success and having to maintain that success? Okay, so those are some of the things that have gotten in my way. But imagine a mind’s eye that isn’t lazy, afraid, self-conscious and self-absorbed, one that dilates freely to allow in more experience, more ideas, more color, more light! The title appealed to me also because there’s something of birth in the idea of an organ dilating, opening, not just to let in, but to give forth, to allow to come into existence the products of our creativity.
So, I sound a little crazy, but all of this just to say that I think that if you exercise your imagination, just as with the muscles of your frame, it will be there for you when you need it. Perhaps your mind’s eye opens more freely with use. It seems that way to me.
Your new book, The Door That Faced West, is a work of historical fiction and a thriller, with a healthy dose of violence. What drew you to the Harpe Brothers?
I grew up in Tennessee and learned over time about the history of the State. It has a wild and wooly past. Interesting stuff. I’d read about the Harpes long ago and was fascinated by their story. They are some of the earliest American mass murderers. Perhaps they were serial killers. They were at least spree killers. Over the years their story has stuck with me, but particularly one aspect that most seem to overlook. With the three wives they shared between them, these men lived on the trail in the wilderness of very early Tennessee and Kentucky for months at a time.
It’s difficult to imagine today how foreboding that wilderness must have been and the myriad dangers that existed there. The Harpe brothers killed primarily to gain supplies since most of their victims did not have much money. For extended periods of time, that’s how the group of five survived. It must have been extremely rough living. Yet when the wives got separated from the men at one point, they traveled over one hundred miles to the agreed upon rendezvous. That seems extraordinary to me. What must these brutes have been providing the women that they’d be willing to do that, I wondered. One was the teenage daughter of a minister. How had a young woman, who presumably had some sort of spiritual upbringing, ended up with such dangerous men, been party to forty or more murders from which she benefitted materially, and decided they were worth sticking with despite great hardship?
What history tells us is that when finally the wives were separated from the men for good, they were tried and acquitted. One never remarried and lived out her life working on a plantation. The other two remarried, had children, and lived the rest of their lives in ways that were unremarkable. One of the latter two was the minister’s daughter. I wondered how she’d handled all that emotionally. That became the emotional arc of the novel. The story is told from her POV. The Harpes were extremely violent and while that’s fascinating, it’s not something we aren’t familiar with in serial killer drama. But her story set within the context of their deeds and the early American frontier—as I said, that seemed extraordinary to me.
Did you find it difficult to capture the mood and character of the period? I’m thinking specifically of the way people spoke, the idioms they used.
I like history and have a pretty good sense of when things came into existence in human experience, society and technology. I worked in a living history museum after college, a replica of the first settlement of Nashville called Fort Nashboro. I told of the history of Tennessee to tourist for several years and read a lot about the time period in the state. Tennessee had its first permanent settlements of those of European descent in the 1700s.
I have a sense of how people spoke in that time. In creating dialogue for the characters, I’ve made a compromise between giving a feel for the period and making the language accessible to the audience of today. If I’d really stuck with the sorts of language construction the Harpes and their wives might have used, I’d have tried the patience of many readers. My goal was to tell a good tale, not adhere so strictly to history that my readers might not relate to the characters. I think the flavor of the period I’ve provided helps put the audience there.
You grew up in Tennessee, a state with its own rich history. Do you feel a real connection to it’s past? If so, how does that affect your writing?
I do like Tennessee history, but perhaps no more so than that of other parts of the world. I’ve been writing about Victorian London quite a bit for my Jack the Ripper Victim series. My historical fiction novel about the life of Catherine Eddowes, Of Thimble and Threat: The Life of a Ripper Victim is the first novel in the series. The second novel about the life of Elizabeth Stride should come out later this year. Victorian London is endlessly fascinating.
Can you tell me who some of your favorite writers and artists are?
Writers: Kurt Vonnegut, Joe Lansdale, William Faulkner, Simon Clark, Phillip Jose Farmer, Patrick Suskind, Bruno Schultz, James Tiptree, Jr. (Alice B. Sheldon).
Visual artists: Max Ernst, Leonardo da Vinci, Rick Berry, Richard Powers, Johannes Vermeer, Roberto Matta, Robert Williams, Phil Hale, Gerald Brom.
Thank you, Alan. I wish you the greatest success with your book, and I look forward to chatting with you again.
Thanks. I enjoyed it.
About The Door That Faced West In the beginning of the nineteenth century, the two murderous Harpe brothers, loyal to one another but violently at odds, go on a year-long killing spree in the American frontier, dragging with them the three wives they share between them; women who form a triangle of dependency, loyalty, jealousy, hatred, betrayal, and love.
“It is not hyperbole to say that Alan M. Clark’s The Door That Faced West left me absolutely stunned. A thoughtfully haunting blend of historical fiction and thriller, this is one of Clark’s best works to date, across any medium. Simply amazing, and undoubtedly one of the best books you’ll read this year.”
—Brian Keene, bestselling author of The Rising and Ghoul
About the Author
Alan M. Clark obtained his Bachelor of Fine Arts Degree from the San Francisco Art Institute. He is an artist, author, publisher and founder of The Bovine Smoke Society, Bovine Smoke West and The Creative Process Committee. He currently resides in Eugene, Oregon with wife, Melody.