Some Tired Ramblings About Hidden Inspirations And Creativity

Although I’ve written about ”hidden” inspirations (eg: forgotten things that have shaped or influenced your art style, writing style etc..) before, I thought that I’d revisit the topic again since I found another one. In short, after having a random conversation about television regions with someone, I happened to stumble across a mention of an old mid-late 1990s TV show called “It’s A Mystery” online and was suddenly swamped by a flood of childhood nostalgia.

“It’s A Mystery” was an early-mid afternoon TV show on ITV that investigated accounts of strange and bizarre events (eg: ghost sightings, UFO sightings etc..). It was the sort of intriguingly weird program that could only exist before smartphone cameras became ubiquitous, back when mystery and rumour could still still exist within the world. It was kind of like “The X-Files“, but aimed at a younger audience. And, when I was a lot younger, this show both fascinated and scared the hell out of me at least a few times.

So, filled with nostalgia about something I’d almost forgotten about, I decided to look on Youtube for clips of it. When I watched one and eventually stopped laughing at the gloriously terrible acting in the show’s reconstructions of strange events, I suddenly noticed something very surprising about the design of the show’s main studio. It featured bold, contrasting colours (eg: bold green, orange and blue question marks placed on a dark background, a checkerboard floor etc…).

If you’re a regular reader of this site, you can probably see where I’m going with this. One of the central features of my art style is high-contrast lighting/colours (eg: Tenebrism, chiaroscuro, bright colours against dark backgrounds etc..) and I also like to include checkerboard patterns when I’m in a bit of a gothic mood too. Here are a few examples:

“Video 1985” By C. A. Brown

“Above” By C. A. Brown

“Diner Scene” By C. A. Brown

Of course, if you’d asked me what inspired these elements of my art style before I rediscovered “It’s A Mystery”, I’d have reeled off a long list of things like the movie “Blade Runner“, old 1980s horror novel covers, old heavy metal album covers/T-shirts, these “Doom II” levels, an old computer game called “American McGee’s Alice” etc… And all of these things did play a major role in the development of my art style. Yet, I’d seen an example of this type of high-contrast lighting and checkerboard patterns years before I found any of those things… And I’d almost forgotten about it.

So, yes, hidden inspirations are absolutely fascinating things and they can often be an explanation for all sorts of interesting quirks, themes, stylistic elements etc… in the things that you create. In short, if something turns up in your art or writing and you can’t quite explain why it’s there or why you think that it’s interesting, cool etc… then a hidden, almost-forgotten inspiration possibly has something to do with it.

But, why? At a guess, it is probably because a lot of hidden inspirations will usually tend to be from the earlier parts of your life, mostly because you probably weren’t looking at the world from the perspective of an artist or a writer back then. You probably weren’t trying to learn more about art or writing from the things you watched/read/played/ listened to for fun back then. They were just enjoyable distractions.

So, you absorbed them without really studying them consciously and they either helped to shape your artistic/literary sensibilities or lingered at the back of your memory for some reason or another. They became part of your personal definition of “good writing”, “cool art” etc….

However, one of the interesting things about hidden inspirations is that they only seem obvious in retrospect. In other words, they are something that you’ll only discover by accident.

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Sorry for such a short and rambling article (I was fairly tired when I wrote it), but I hope that it was interesting πŸ™‚

Four Thoughts About Writing Modern Noir Fiction

Well, since I’m currently reading a modern noir novel (called “Sunburn” by Laura Lippman, which is set in the 1990s but was first published in 2018), I thought that I’d look at some of the ways that writers can use this genre in more modern settings.

After all, although classics of the genre like Dashiell Hammett’s “The Maltese Falcon” and most of Raymond Chandler’s novels are all set in 1920s-50s America, the genre can work in a surprisingly large number of places and times.

So, here are some thoughts about writing modern noir fiction:

1) Writing style: This is one of the most important parts of the noir genre and one of the easiest ways to tell if a novel is “noir” or not.

In short, the writing style in a noir novel should be “matter of fact” and fast-paced. The thing to remember here is that the original hardboiled crime novels of the 1920s-50s were meant to be mass entertainment – they were the paperback thriller novels or action blockbusters of their day. And, because of this, the writing style usually tends to have a certain detachment and speed to it.

In other words, noir stories usually don’t tend to spend too long describing things (descriptive moments are usually only a few carefully-chosen words or a couple of sentences at most), with the focus being more on events and dialogue. Their writing style often also has a certain emotionless, understated and detached world-weariness to it, like a simple statement of events or a documentary film.

Yes, it is difficult to get this right without making your story’s narration sound boring (and this is where actually reading some of this type of fiction comes in handy, since you can see how other writers handle it). But it is one of the most essential, and timeless, qualities of the noir genre.

2) Characters and morality: Another important, and timeless, part of noir fiction are the characters. In short, most of the characters should have ulterior motives, realistic flaws/motivations and/or a certain level of moral ambiguity.

One of the major things that gives the noir genre its famous atmosphere is the feeling of stepping into a murky, complex world that is a far cry from the more simplistic “good and evil” worlds of many stories. Of reading a story set in a more “realistic” world where people aren’t perfect.

This unflinching and realistic exploration of human nature is something that works well in almost any time or setting. Focusing on moral ambiguity also adds a lot of atmosphere to your story for the simple reason that your reader has almost certainly grown up on more traditional and moralistic “good and evil” stories, so they will be worried about what will happen to the main characters. In other words, it adds extra suspense to the story for the simple reason that the reader has no clue whether there will be any poetic justice or not.

For example, the main character in Mickey Spillane’s 1947 novel “I, The Jury” is a private detective who wants violent revenge against whoever killed his friend. In the 1984 film noir “Blood Simple“, the most sympathetic character (Abby) is having an affair with a guy who works for her dodgy boyfriend. In the 1982 sci-fi film noir masterpiece “Blade Runner“, the main detective (Deckard) is actually more of a villain than the people he is trying to catch. I’m sure you get the idea.

In pretty much every noir novel or film, even more traditional detective-based ones, no character will be entirely “good” or “evil”. And it is the characters, or more importantly, their imperfections – that should drive your story’s plot.

3) Suspense and violence: Although traditional hardboiled “noir” fiction was a precursor to the modern thriller genre, the important thing to remember when writing a modern noir story is that your story should be compelling because of suspense and not because of fast-paced action violence.

Although the modern noir genre can certainly be fairly violent, brutal and horrific (watch “Blood Simple” and read Jack O’ Connell’s 1998 novel “Word Made Flesh” for two unflinchingly grim examples of this), this isn’t usually presented in the thrilling and sanitised way it might be in a modern action-thriller novel. Instead, it is usually the grim result of lots of suspense and – realistically – it usually has serious consequences of one kind or another too.

In other words, noir stories emphatically don’t glamourise violence and will often be more about the fear of impending violence (so, they’re a bit closer to the horror genre) than anything else. This suspenseful feeling of impending doom is one of the key parts of the noir genre and, even in more non-violent stories, it is an important thing to remember. The reader needs to feel “this probably won’t end well” fairly early in the story. There needs to be a sense of tension, claustrophobia and/or dread lurking in the background throughout the story.

For example, although I’ve only read about a third of Laura Lippman’s “Sunburn” at the time of writing, it is a novel where the main characters are either hiding from people, running from people or spying on people. And it is incredibly suspenseful as a result. Add to this the fact that most of the earlier parts of the novel all take place in one small, claustrophobic rural town and – even though it is a million miles away from the trilby-wearing chain-smoking gumshoes of traditional noir fiction/film, it still feels very much like something from the noir genre.

4) Settings: Although noir stories can be set anywhere, there are a few things to remember when creating settings for modern noir fiction. Not only do your settings have to feel run-down and lived-in (to add atmosphere and realism to the story) but they must also seem hostile in some way or another. Again, this has to do with the fact that the noir genre relies heavily on suspense and one of the best ways to add suspense is to put your characters somewhere where they aren’t safe.

Traditionally, this usually means that noir stories either take place in large, impersonal crime-ridden cities or in claustrophobic and hopeless small towns. Although it is probably possible to set a noir story somewhere other than this, the important thing is that the location not only has to feel “realistic” (even the futuristic city in “Blade Runner” deliberately looks old and lived-in), but it should be somewhere that feels unsafe in some way or another.

Again, the noir genre actually has slightly more in common with the horror genre than the thriller genre in this respect.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful πŸ™‚

Four Tips For Adding Pop Culture References To Your Story

Well, I thought that I’d talk about adding pop culture references to stories today. After all, referencing the surrounding culture is something that writers have been doing for many years and it’s basically the modern equivalent of all those references to classical mythology that you see in older 19th/early-mid 20th century novels.

1) Make sure that it’s relevant: This one almost goes without saying but, if you’re going to include pop culture references in your novel or short story then they have to be relevant to what you are writing about. In other words, they actually have to add something to the story in some way or another. You can’t just drop in references purely for the sake of doing so.

In other words, your references should emerge organically from the events of your story and not the other way round. For example, if your story includes a shark attack, then a brief reference to “Jaws” would probably work well. However, adding a random shark to your story just so you can reference “Jaws” will seem a bit random and will probably lower the quality of your story.

A good reference should either help to illustrate something, to tell the reader more about the events of the story, to enhance your characters and/or to make the reader laugh. In other words, they tend to work best when used as similes or parodies. But, whatever they are, they need to feel like an organic part of the story.

2) Explain it: Another thing to remember about adding references is that not all of your readers will understand them, so a brief explanation is sometimes a good idea. This doesn’t have to be a long essay or anything like that, but a very brief description is usually a good idea.

For example: ‘The neon lights and pouring rain made her think about “Blade Runner”. The only things missing were the flying cars.‘. Even if you haven’t seen “Blade Runner”, then these sentences still give you some clue about what the film looks like.

Although you don’t have to do this for super-quick or extremely well-known references, it is still worth doing for references to slightly older, ultra-modern and/or more obscure things. After all, your readers might have different interests to you and/or might be older or younger than you are.

Although your reader seeing a reference that they don’t understand is easier to deal with these days than it was a couple of decades ago (since it just requires a quick internet search), it will still break your reader’s immersion in the story. So, to avoid this, be sure to include a brief description or explanation whenever possible.

3) Music, lyrics and coypright: Although I’m not a lawyer and this isn’t legal advice, it is important to be careful about using song lyrics in any musical references in your story. In short, you can only directly use/quote song lyrics if you or your publisher is rich enough to afford the expensive royalty payments that the music industry demands for such things.

Fortunately, there seem to be ways around this that don’t involve quoting copyrighted lyrics. In short, either describe the general sound of the song, briefly mention the song’s name and band, or briefly mention the subject matter of the song. For example: ‘The opening riff of Iron Maiden’s “The Wicker Man” sliced through the air like a chainsaw‘ or ‘And, on the radio, Celine Dion sang about everlasting love.

Again, I’m not a lawyer and this isn’t legal advice, so do your own research here. But, as a general rule, it’s usually a good idea to avoid directly quoting song lyrics in your story.

4) Time and date: If you’re setting your story in the past, then referencing films, music, books etc… from the time can be a good way to add an extra level of realism to your story. However, not only do you have to do your research here (to avoid anachronistic references) but you also need to remember that “less is more”.

After all, unless your novel is very specifically a nostalgia-based novel rather than a piece of historical fiction, then too many references is usually a fairly clear sign of a modern writer trying too hard to evoke the past (and can break your reader’s immersion in the historical setting).

Likewise, if you include lots of up-to-date, modern pop culture references in your story, then this will date it when readers look at it in the future. If done well, then this can add extra nostalgia to your story when it is read in 10-30 years time. On the downside, there’s also a chance that future readers might not understand all of the references and/or that it will make your story seem “out of date”. So, if you want your story to be a bit more timeless, then keep pop culture references to a minimum.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful πŸ™‚

The Advantages And Disadvantages Of Writing A Controversial Novel

Well since, out of curiosity, I’ve started reading a pivotal novel in the history of artistic freedom in Britain (D.H.Lawrence’s once-banned 1928 novel “Lady Chatterley’s Lover”, which eventually led to the end of book censorship in Britain during the 1960s), I thought that I’d talk about some of the advantages and disadvantages of writing a “controversial” book.

One traditional advantage of writing a controversial novel is that it will be remembered a lot more easily than a less controversial novel will. After all, if a novel pushes a boundary or breaks a rule for the first time, then it’ll become part of literary history – especially if it results in more creative freedom for other authors as a result. Going back to “Lady Chatterley”, ordinary mainstream modern fiction in the UK owes a lot to the freedoms that were afforded by the interpretation of the law in the trial surrounding its reprinting in 1960. Without this trial, modern British fiction would still be stifled by some extremely puritanical censorship rules.

On the downside, this fame or posterity is something that often only arrives years or decades later, with the author often suffering disproportionate retribution in the meantime. If you read a basic overview of D.H.Lawrence’s life, you’ll see that he was widely derided during his lifetime and actually had to spend quite a few years in exile. And this was before social media was invented! He only became a respected literary figure several years after his death. So, yes, writing a memorably controversial novel won’t usually result in anything good for years after publication.

Another traditional advantage of writing a controversial novel was that it instantly gave the novel a certain level of interest or rebellious cachet that it wouldn’t otherwise have. I mean, if it wasn’t for the fact that “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” was once a banned book, I probably wouldn’t have been curious about reading what is essentially a rather dated and slow-paced literary novel which often isn’t really that much more risquΓ© than similar scenes from an average modern romance or urban fantasy novel or even a 1980s horror novel. But, because it was banned once, this novel instantly seems a lot more interesting than it actually is.

On the downside, we currently live in an age where controversy is commonly seen as an emphatically bad thing, rather than anything “cool” or “rebellious”. So, this might actually decrease your readership in this modern age.

Yet another traditional advantage of writing a controversial novel was that people read a lot more in the past. So, a controversial novel was more of an important thing back then. For example, although it was never banned in the UK, there was apparently quite a famous long-running discussion of William Burroughs’ “Naked Lunch” in the letters page of a major newspaper during the 1960s. So, traditionally, controversial novels tended to actually provoke major discussions and to actually matter to people. After all, this is where the word “controversial” comes from – something that provokes conversation.

On the downside, this won’t really happen today. Yes, people still read books, but films, the internet, videogames etc… are much more popular entertainment mediums. Books only get major press coverage when they are massive bestsellers and/or prize-winning literary novels. Even then, this doesn’t happen all that often.

So, even the idea of a book causing a major large-scale controversy seems laughably quaint these days. And this change is probably a good thing. Because books are an old medium where the battles over creative freedom have long since been fought and won, because books are a medium that require time and effort to read and because they are no longer seen an “ordinary” entertainment medium (and, instead are seen as “high-brow” in comparison to TV, film, games, the internet etc..), it is very difficult for a book to cause more than a small level of controversy these days.

So, writing a seriously controversial novel is not only a lot more difficult these days but, even if you manage it, then you probably won’t enjoy the results.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful πŸ™‚

Three Things That Writers Can Learn From 1980s Clive Barker Novels

Well, since I’ve started re-reading a 1980s horror novel by Clive Barker (“The Damnation Game”, if anyone is curious), I thought that I’d write something vaguely similar to my other recent article about writing lessons that can be learnt from 1980s Shaun Hutson novels, but about the writing lessons that can be found in Clive Barker novels – especially those from the 1980s.

Still, I should point out that this article may contain some SPOILERS for Clive Barker’s “Cabal” and “Weaveworld”.

1) Mediums, imagination and creativity: One of the most interesting things about Clive Barker is that he didn’t really start out as a horror author. Before his first short story collection, “The Books Of Blood”, was published in the mid-1980s, he was already a playwright and an artist. Then, sometime after the publication of his novella “The Hellbound Heart“, he both wrote and directed the famous film adaptation of it. Later, in the early 2000s, he also helped to design a computer game called “Clive Barker’s Undying” too.

The main lesson we can learn from this is that learning other skills and experimenting with different creative mediums will result in better writing. Not only will it give you a better idea about which creative ideas will work best in story form (and which might be better suited to art, poetry etc…), but it also forces you to learn more about your own imagination too.

I mean, one of the cool things about Clive Barker’s art, fiction, films etc… is that you can tell that they all came from the same person. For example, Barker’s paintings often display the same focus on the human body and/or bizarre dream-like weirdness that his fiction does.

So, don’t be afraid to experiment with other creative mediums. You’ll get to know yourself better and this will result in better and more imaginative writing.

2) Don’t self-censor: Although the 1980s was well-renowned as a time where horror authors had more creative freedom than ever before (I mean, it was the heyday of the splatterpunk genre) and probably ever since, Clive Barker used this creative freedom for more than just shock value or titillation. He also used it to tell the kind of weird, subversive, nuanced, emotionally mature, imaginative, transgressive and unique stories that feel timelessly refreshing to read.

For example, his 1988 horror/dark fantasy novel “Cabal” contrasts an underground city of strange, scary-looking “monsters” with an upstanding, respectable psychologist…. who is also a serial killer. It’s a brilliantly subversive novel, showing how mainstream society is eager to destroy or condemn whatever it considers “weird” without ever looking at the far greater problems within itself.

This theme is also explored in Barker’s 1987 dark fantasy novel “Weaveworld“, where the main antagonist isn’t a fantastical monster (in fact the closest thing to a villainous “monster”, Immacolata, actually becomes a more sympathetic character later in the story) but a fanatical “moralistic” policeman who is often depicted in a brilliantly satirical way. Again, this comments on how mainstream, respectable etc.. society never really thinks to look at the problems within itself whenever there is something else it can condemn instead.

Plus, of course, when he was writing in a genre that was seen as “low brow” in the 1980s, Barker never simplified or toned down his writing. Although most 1980s horror fiction is more well-written than it is often given credit for, Barker often wrote the kind of complex, poetic, intelligent, painting-with-words, nuanced etc… fiction that would have probably won numerous major literary awards if it didn’t have the word “Horror” on the back cover.

Likewise, despite the highly “literary” writing style and the many grim and macabre horrors within his 1980s novels, Barker’s fiction will often display a wonderfully impish sense of humour too. These two things might seem like polar opposites, but it’s the contradiction between them that really makes his stories so distinctive. And it is the kind of thing a writer can only truly do if they don’t censor themselves.

One other great thing about old Clive Barker novels is how they don’t contain the puritanical undertones of most 1980s horror fiction and this is still refreshing even today. These are novels that don’t hypocritically condemn their more risque elements, but instead often show both their comedic absurdity and also their timelessly human and spiritual qualities. This is difficult to describe whilst still keeping this article “safe for work” (ironic, I know), but it results in the kind of timelessly open-minded stories that are still refreshing to read even thirty years or more after they were published.

Yet, Barker’s brilliant lack of self-censorship also manifests in more “PG-rated” ways too. For example, despite initially building his reputation as an expert writer of “edgy” horror stories during the 1980s, he decided to write a much more innocent, fantastical and wonder-filled series of YA novels in the 2000s (the “Abarat” novels) and they are just as creative, imaginative, subversive etc… as his general fiction novels are. You really get the sense that Barker is genuinely showing off another part of his imagination, rather than watering his stories down for the sake of popularity.

Yes, these days, “don’t self-censor” is probably dangerous advice. Perhaps it always has been. But, the less you censor yourself, the more interesting and creative your stories can be.

3) Imagination is infectious: One of the great things about Clive Barker’s writing is how it lingers in your imagination long after you’ve finished reading. This can have some wonderfully weird effects.

For example, in early 2010, I tried reading Barker’s 1989 novel “The Great And Secret Show”. Although I couldn’t get past the first 100 pages for reasons I still don’t quite understand, what I read still lingered in my mind to the point that, whenever I saw a dramatic-looking road I used to walk along every few days, I always thought of this story. After this happened a couple of times, I suddenly started thinking of it as “The Clive Barker road”. And the idea of visiting somewhere that reminded me of a Clive Barker novel made this road feel like a more interesting place.

In 2009, I fell asleep one night and had five nightmares – these were all “dream within a dream” nightmares which each began with me dreaming about waking up. Interestingly, the coolest – and least scary – moment in this sequence of dreams was when, at the end of the third one, I suddenly found myself triumphantly shouting the tagline from the cover of my old second-hand 1980s paperback copy of “Cabal” (“At last, the night has a hero”).

Anyway, what was the point of these journeys down memory lane? Well, it is to show how imagination is infectious. If you write something that is distinctive, unusual, interesting, personality-filled and/or imaginative enough, then it will take on a life of it’s own. To give you an example, even though Clive Barker hasn’t ever made a heavy metal album, his books were imaginative and inspirational enough to inspire the band Cradle Of Filth to make one (called “Midian”).

So, one lesson that is worth learning from Clive Barker’s fiction is that imagination is infectious. That you should strive to tell the kind of stories that linger in your readers’ imaginations and which inspire people to create things themselves.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful πŸ™‚

Should Writers Take Influence From Films?

When I was reading the 1980s horror thriller novel that I reviewed yesterday, one of the things that surprised me was how cinematic it was at times. How I could very easily imagine various scenes from the novel being part of a low-budget “Video Nasty“, an enjoyably cheesy old TV show or something from one of George Romero’s classic zombie movies. So, naturally, this made me think about whether writers should take influence from films.

The short answer to this question is that it depends on your story. It works for some stories and doesn’t for others. A lot of this has to do with pacing, atmosphere and what you are trying to do with your story.

In short, if you want to write a fast-paced story that has a slightly stylised atmosphere and is written to entertain the reader, then taking inspiration from films is a good idea. After all, by virtue of the medium, the majority of films are relatively fast-paced. After all, they have between 90-180 minutes to tell a full, self-contained story. So, things like well-planned pacing and efficient visual storytelling (eg: the whole “show, don’t tell” thing) are at a premium. And, when used in novels like Shaun Hutson’s “Deathday” or Clive Cussler & Graham Brown’s “Zero Hour“, this can result in a truly gripping novel.

Likewise, if your story contains spectacular set-pieces or other such things, then taking inspiration from films can also be a good idea – especially since novels have a massive advantage in this area. In short, novels don’t have to worry about a special effects budget or the technology needed to create special effects. One person with a word processor (or even just a pen and paper) can create better “special effects” than a giant film studio with millions of pounds or dollars at their disposal. So, if your novel is going to contain a lot of spectacular moments, then it might be worth taking inspiration from films.

Plus, if you’re writing in the thriller genre, then film and television can offer all sorts of lessons about how to make your story more gripping and dramatic. Whether it is the clever use of mini-cliffhangers and/or multiple plot threads, how to create a gripping premise, how to use suspense, how to write snappy dialogue etc…. Or whether it is more cautionary lessons, like how making the main character too powerful/invulnerable can ruin suspense and lower the reader’s investment in the story (compare the first and fifth “Die Hard” films for an example of this), films can teach us a lot about the thriller genre.

In addition to all of this, because your reader will probably be imagining the events of your novel visually, taking inspiration from film can also help you to refine and think about the overall “look” of your novel too. When done well, this can result in a very atmospheric and memorable story.

On the other hand, there are good reasons not to take inspiration from film when writing a novel. First of all, there are things that novels can do that films can’t really do, and you can use these to give your reader a much deeper and richer experience than they will find in a film.

For example, novels can directly show a character’s thoughts, novels can easily use non-visual storytelling (and, yes, sometimes it is better to tell than show the reader something), novels can use a distinctive narrative voice, novels can use detailed descriptions and an author also has much more control over the flow of time (eg: the events of a minute can take either a single sentence or several pages) than film-makers do.

All of these things give novels a level of vividness, immersion and depth that films can only dream of. At the same time, doing all of this stuff will probably slow down the pace of your novel a bit. But, for stories where the emphasis is on the characters, atmosphere, fictional world, the writing itself etc… then it can really work wonders. So, if you are telling one of these stories, then taking inspiration from films probably isn’t a good idea – because films can’t do this stuff as well as books can.

Plus, thanks to things like the economics of film (a film costs a lot to make, so it has to appeal to a mass audience), film censorship (eg: the current trend for “PG-13″/”12A” rated films) and the dominance of Hollywood, there are either formal or informal limits on the types of stories that films can tell. On the other hand, writers have far fewer of these restrictions and can tell the kind of imaginative, quirky, subversive, unusual, complex, transgressive and/or personality-filled stories that would never make it to the screen.

What this also means is that, if you primarily take inspiration from films, you are limiting the kinds of stories you can tell. This will affect the characters of your story, the atmosphere of your story, the scale of your story’s drama (since large-scale stories tend to be more common in “blockbuster” films), the themes of your story (and the level of nuance they are presented with), the settings of your story (eg: the limited repertoire of cities that films usually take place in), the events of your story and even the emotional tone of your story.

In short, there isn’t really a clear answer to whether writers should be influenced by films or not. It depends on the type of story you are trying to tell, not to mention that it also isn’t a binary yes/no thing either. In other words, it’s possible (in fact, it’s normal) to be partially inspired by films whilst also being inspired by other stuff too. After all, pretty much everyone has watched at least a few films and has seen at least a couple that they liked enough for them to be an influence. So, it is more of a matter of degree and extent than a “yes or no” thing.

Still, depending on the type of story you are telling and what you want your story to do, you should think carefully about the extent you want it to be inspired by films.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful πŸ™‚

Four Things Writers Can Learn From 1980s Shaun Hutson Novels

Well, since I’m re-reading another classic ’80s horror novel by Shaun Hutson (“Deathday”, if anyone is curious), I thought that I’d talk about what these books can teach us about writing. However, I should probably start with some background information before getting on to the main part of the article.

If you haven’t heard of Shaun Hutson before, he is one of several horror authors who rose to prominence during the splatterpunk trend in horror publishing, where horror novels could finally include things like ultra-gruesome descriptions and cynical social commentary.

Although Hutson didn’t really get the “household name” fame of some other 1980s horror authors, he still has a loyal fanbase and – like many great horror authors – is still writing fiction these days (returning to horror fiction after writing several gritty thriller novels during the horror publishing drought of the 1990s/2000s). Even so, I’ll mostly be focusing on his “classic” 1980s horror novels in this article.

Even though I only discovered Hutson’s 1980s novels quite a while after they were published (eg: during my teenage years in the early-mid 2000s), they were one of the main things that made me a lot more interested in both reading and writing at the time. And, returning to them again more recently, I’ve started to notice all sorts of interesting writing lessons hidden within them.

Needless to say, this article may contain some SPOILERS for “The Skull”, “Relics”, “Deathday”, “Erebus” and his later novel “Exit Wounds”.

1) Familiarity and difference: One of the cool things about old Shaun Hutson novels is how he’s able to use both familiarity and difference to reward fans of his novels. In short, each novel tells an interestingly different story- but there are enough familiar features, references and “easter eggs” for fans to spot too.

These include things like familiar descriptive words (eg: “mucoid”, “liquescent”, “coppery”, “scapula”, “cleft” etc…), occasional heavy metal/rock references or the fact that the main character’s love interest will almost always be a blonde woman who wears jeans. Although these things might sound like they would make each novel repetitive, the fact that the plot of each novel differs quite a bit means that they are a bit more like an artist’s personal style or the distinctive tones of a musician’s favourite instrument. In other words, they are something that tells fans that “yes, this is a Shaun Hutson novel” πŸ™‚

In addition to this, he also does clever stuff with his previous novels in order to keep fans on their toes. For example, his 1986 novel “Relics” initially seems a bit like an enhanced remake of his 1982 archaeological monster novel “The Skull“, before going in a different and more dramatic direction.

Likewise, there’s this brilliant scene in one of the earlier parts of his 1986 novel “Deathday” where two gardners tasked with clearing an overgrown part of a graveyard finally dig up a stubborn tree stump, only to be confronted by a giant slug lurking beneath it. At the time that this novel was first published, readers would probably have thought “Cool. This is a sequel to ‘Slugs’ and ‘Breeding Ground“, two of Hutson’s earlier monster novels about giant slugs. However, in a genius twist, the giant slug is swiftly killed with an axe and the novel then goes in a very different direction.

So, in short, having familiar features can be a good way to give something extra to your fanbase. However, in order for these to work well, they also have to be paired with creativity, difference and a willingness to catch your audience off-guard.

2) Genre-mixing: Another cool thing about Shaun Hutson’s 1980s novels is how he’s able to blend familiar horror tropes in all sorts of creative ways. For example, his 1984 novel “Erebus” is technically a vampire novel. However, the novel’s vampires – whilst still displaying some vampiric traits – actually act and look more like zombies than vampires. This makes the novel more interesting, and unpredictable, than either a traditional vampire or zombie story would be.

This is expanded upon in “Deathday”, where an ancient curse turns it’s victims into a hybrid of light-sensitive vampires, undead zombies, red-eyed demons and slasher movie serial killers. This blending of horror monsters not only provides a good contrast between familiarity and novelty, but it also means that the reader is genuinely curious about the monsters too. As such, they seem a bit more formidable than just another zombie, vampire etc… would be.

You can also even see this in some of Hutson’s later novels, such as when he temporarily moved away from writing horror fiction (probably because publishers turned their back on the genre) and wrote gritty thriller novels instead. Not only did some of his older horror novels (“Relics”, “Deathday”, “Assassin” etc..) include elements from the crime/detective genre, so that the change wasn’t too jarring – but he also included some elements from the horror genre in his thriller novels too.

For example, his 2000 thriller novel “Exit Wounds” memorably ends with an extended 15-20 page gunfight scene that is as grisly and brutal as something from one of his horror novels. Compared to the faster-paced and slightly more sanitised violence you’d expect to see in a typical action-thriller novel, this can really catch you by surprise.

So, yes, Shaun Hutson novels can teach us quite a bit about the value of genre-mixing. If you want a memorable story that will both surprise and appeal to fans of a particular genre, then don’t be afraid to blend in stuff from other genres too.

3) Do your own thing: One of the cool thing about Hutson’s 1980s horror novels is that you really get the sense that he was having fun writing them and that he was writing the kinds of stories that only he could write.

Whether it is the occasional reference to his favourite music (eg: an Iron Maiden song plays in the background of one scene in “Breeding Ground”, there are song-lyric epigrams in some novels etc..), the way that his brilliantly cynical attitude towards the world emerges in his stories or even the rural southern English settings, most of Hutson’s 1980s novels really feel like his own distinctive thing.

And, you should try to do the same. In other words, look for the things that really fascinate you, which make you you etc.. and then find a way to incorporate them into your novel whilst also telling an interesting story at the same time. Yes, even if you think that you are “boring” or “ordinary”, then do this nonetheless – there will be readers out there who will either find it fascinatingly different or fascinatingly familiar.

I mean, when I was a teenager, there was nothing more amazing than finding an author who not only wrote horror stories set in the kind of places I knew fairly well but who also had the same favourite heavy metal band as I do πŸ™‚ So, yes, even if you feel that you are “ordinary” or whatever, then you should still do your own distinctive thing. There will be readers who are interested in it.

4) Don’t be afraid to be intelligent: One of the cool things I noticed when re-reading Shaun Hutson’s 1980s horror novels is that, whilst they tell the kind of fast-paced, focused stories that are relaxingly enjoyable, they are also written in a more sophisticated, formal and descriptive way than you might expect.

In other words, despite probably being considered a “low-brow” author during the 1980s, Hutson’s writing is sometimes more “literary” than you might expect. Here’s a descriptive sentence from “Deathday” to show you what I mean: ‘The sky was heavy with clouds, great, grey, washed out billows which scudded across the heavens, pushed by the strong breeze.’ It’s a long and formal descriptive sentence, yet it is placed within a fast-paced horror novel. And it works πŸ™‚

What I’m trying to say here is that, even though there is a trend towards narration in fiction becoming more streamlined and informal these days (to compete with smartphones, the internet etc..), don’t be afraid to show off your writing talents. It’s ok to use long words, formal descriptions etc… occasionally if they are interesting or if they add something to the story.

Not only that, don’t underestimate your readers’ intelligence either – I mean, although I didn’t consciously notice all of this formal stuff when I first read “Deathday” when I was a teenager, I still really enjoyed the thrilling fast-paced horror story it told. In fact, from everything I’ve read, most of Hutson’s fans first discovered his novels when they were teenagers. So, yes, slightly sophisticated or formal moments in stories are something that most readers can easily handle.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful πŸ™‚