Let’s Get Spooky: Writing Workshop Recap


I’ve not been to nearly as many workshops and classes this year, due to a certain little person taking up a lot of my time…


But my friend and fellow writer and blogger Lorna Fergusson of fictionfire runs inspiring Saturday afternoon “Focus Writing Workshops” once or twice a month at her home in Oxford, which is just ten minutes’ walk from me.

You can find her on Twitter at @LornaFergusson and on her blog, literascribe.

I signed up for her workshop Let’s Get Spooky: Tales for Dark Evenings because while I’m no Stephen King, my novel Lycopolis and its sequels have a supernatural slant and a good dash of spookiness.

If you’re writing something – or might one day write something – that involves ghosts or vampires or werewolves or demons or suchlike, read on…

(All of this is based on my notes from Lorna’s workshop, with a few thoughts of my own added in places. If you read something particularly insightful, it’s almost certainly Lorna’s insight, not mine!)

What Are We Afraid Of?

We discussed this in the workshop, and came up with a few pretty universal fears;

  • Being pursued or chased.
  • Being devoured.
  • Falling. (You ever wake up with a jolt from a dream that you’re falling off a cliff?)
  • Aeroplanes – and things going wrong on them.
  • Being buried alive. (This was a big fear in Victorian times, Lorna explained.)
  • Being trapped – which links with aeroplanes and being buried alive.
  • Madness.

One of mine is wolves – I used them in Lycopolis. I’ve been scared of them since I was very small – possibly a result of certain fairy tales, plus a truly horrible doll that had a Red Riding Hood face on one side, a Granny face on the other side, and a wolf head when you pulled the skirt upside down.

How about you? What sends a shiver up your spine? What creeps you out when you’re awake in the middle of the night, or alone in a quiet house? And how could you use it in your fiction?

Fairy Tales

I mentioned fairy tales above, and they were something we discussed at the workshop. We also talked about the older use of “fairy” – the world of fairy. I’ve nabbed you a definition from Wikipedia:

The word fairy derives from Middle English faierie (also fayeryefeiriefairie), a direct borrowing from Old French faerie (Modern French féerie) meaning the land, realm, or characteristic activity (i.e. enchantment) of the legendary people of folklore and romance called (in Old French) faie or fee (Modern French fée).

Lorna talked about the medieval concept of “fairy” – of another world that intersects with ours, and that can be dangerous. You tangle with it or underestimate it at your peril.

(This made me think of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which I read as an undergraduate. The magic in there goes side-by-side with the real world, and the boundary between them is definitely permeable.)

Nowadays, we’re seeing images from fairy tales and folklore being revived and merged with something modern – think Buffy, or Twilight, or True Blood, or Harry Potter.

Elements of Spooky Stories

There are certain elements that are common in spooky (not necessarily horror) stories, such as:

  • The realm of the dead … and undead. Characters might go into this world and return, or someone from the world of the dead can intrude into our world.
  • Vampires and zombies.
  • Ghosts. These might involve pathos, pity, or fear.
  • Beauty and ugliness. We tend to associate beauty and goodness, but these expectations can be played with.
  • Possession.
  • Doubles or doppelgangers. (Think Jekyll and Hyde.)
  • Dangerous technology, touching on forbidden territory – cyborgs, cloning, genetic modification. (And not just in modern works: remember Frankenstein’s monster.)

The unseen / unknown is often much creepier than anything spelled out in black-and-white on the page.

Some Recommended Reads

These were all works Lorna mentioned during the workshop. I’ve linked to free online versions of the older ones.

The Daemon Lover – a Scottish ballad

The Wife of Ushers Well – a Scottish ballad

The Red Shoes (sometimes retold as “The Dancing Shoes”) – Hans Christian Anderson

The Pit and the Pendulum – Edgar Allan Poe

The Premature Burial – Edgar Allan Poe

Dracula – Bram Stoker

Frankenstein – Mary Shelley

I, Coriander (Amazon.com / Amazon.co.uk) – Sally Gardner

The Night Circus (Amazon.com / Amazon.co.uk) – Erin Morgenstern

There were probably more, but those were the ones I noted down!

Do you write horror – or something with elements of horror? Or are you a horror reader? What tips do you have for sending a shiver up the reader’s spine? Drop a comment below…



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25 thoughts on “Let’s Get Spooky: Writing Workshop Recap

  1. Oh my goodness, I had the same doll! Maybe my family got it in England? Anyway, I like this exploration, and your daughter is cute as a button! I would add that what makes me most often afraid in my dreams, or what I play with in stories, is the feeling that you’ve made a bad decision, misjudged somebody, and YOU are the ‘bad guy’… so there are some emotional fears as well as the physical ones. I’ll definitely look up the links here, and have to recommend Dracula as the most recent successfully spooky read I’ve done. Classic.
    Margaret’s last blog post ..Writerly Focus

  2. I approach writing fear from the why not the what: we are scared because we map a bad possible future onto the present making the present feel bad. At the core of this is control; if we believe we control a situation then we do not usually map bad outcomes.

    So to write fear, I try to reduce the reader’s usual ability to dispassionately consider events to date:
    (1) use a single unreliable narrator, rather than omniscient, head-hopping, or divine irony;
    (2) don’t over describe the threat, leaving the reader struggling to assemble enough to analyse;
    (3) if the threat is not human do not work out it’s motivations: however hard you try to come up with an inhuman scheme it will be coloured by human logic; if you do not give the monster a reason, the reader will genuinely face the unknown.

    Obviously the trick, upon which I continue to work, is to also give enough to the reader that they are not frustrated.

    Another useful aspect of mind is that the unconscious does not know the difference between actual and fictional stimulus and can process slightly faster than the concious. Enjoyable fear, from horror films, &c. comes from the short moment between perceiving and understanding, so a quick description of a scary event might trigger more fear than a longer one.
    Dave Higgins’s last blog post ..A Fine Fish of Kettles

    • Dave, I think those are all excellent tips: over-describing and over-explaining are good ways to kill off a spooky feeling in fiction. Though good point too that you need to avoid the reader feeling frustrated — there’s no fun, as a reader, in feeling cheated by the author.

  3. *stifles laugh at the ‘certain little person taking up most of my time’* aww…i know how that feels. ^^ *has brother and sister*

    and i don’t write spooky or watch spooky or read horror purely cuz i get utterly terrified of the darkness whilst i’m laying in bed afterwards (tho yours didn’t scare me like that, which is good. :)

    a good horror book to read if anyone wants to read it is The Stone Child, by Dan Poblocki. Had me engrossed as i was quivering, waiting for something to attack me. :)

    • Yeah, I don’t do *proper* horror… for one thing, I’m too soft-hearted to kill off characters or to let anything permanently bad happen.

      I’m surprising (looking back) that “darkness” didn’t end up on the list of scary things …

      Will look out for The Stone Child; ta!

  4. Ali,

    Once again, I want to thank you for posting a picture of your baby girl. Your daughter brings a ray of sunshine into my life. Every time I catch a glimpse of her, it is like peaches and roses are raining down on me. Please keep sharing photos of your baby girl: she is adorable. Cute as a button. Cheers.

    • Thanks, Archan! She is ever so sweet, and she’s a very happy, easy-going baby most of the time — Paul and I are very lucky to have such a wonderful little girl.

  5. Oh my gosh–she is so cute! And I had that same doll :) I love writing fantasy/fairy tales/spooky stories because it’s so much fun to be able to step outside the boundaries of reality and create whatever world you want for your readers. The possibilities are endless. What I’ve found hardest is playing by the rules of the world I’ve created. I admire science fiction authors for this, especially.
    Elizabeth Maria Naranjo’s last blog post ..Back to Basics

    • Thanks, Elizabeth! Clearly those dolls are more widespread than I realised…

      Good point on playing by the rules; I think what I struggle with is establishing the rules in the first place and not just running with the whim of the moment!

  6. I love BBC Radio 4’s horror and ghost stories! They rely on listeners imaginations running away with them with only the basis of suggestion. They are in total contrast to the so-called horror films these days which leave nothing to imagination and are just gore-porn.

    Radio plays have taught me a lot about telling stories and using explanation. Reading helps too, but nothing teaches more about using readers imagination than a character exclaiming: “What was that?” and some thundering nerve-chilling music. Based on what’s gone on in the story leading up to that question, my imagination explodes!

    On writing novels based on myths, fairy tales in their original forms, e.g. in their pre-Disneyfied forms, make great ideas for stories. For example, I’m sure Mario Puzo got the idea for the horse’s head scene from a fairy tale about a princess kept captive by her evil husband by cutting off her favourite horse’s head and mounting it on the gatehead. Which meant that the princess would have had to see her horse’s head as she left. Unable to bare seeing it, the princess couldn’t leave. I have no proof Puzo knew this story, or used it if he did. But I wonder …

    • Tom, I don’t listen to the radio much (probably should!) but I definitely agree with you about letting the reader’s imagination do much of the hard work.

      Great point about going back to the original (and often quite gory…) fairy tales too. Thanks!

  7. I’ve always thought taking those elements you’ve mentioned above and tying them into real life is probably the best way to present great stories. Like, I’m sure great books are based on real life experiences that the author either had herself of shared with others.

    So as I go through my own life drama, I feel I could easily weave the above elements into my life to create great stories of fear and excitement.

    Also, kids make for insane distractions but they also can give you some of the best material. Love it :)

    Thanks for the great list.
    -Marc Allred @ marcallred.com
    Marc Allred’s last blog post ..Interview: Musician/Entrepreneur Danny Casler

    • Thanks Marc! Real life experience is good for so many things in writing, but I think particularly for strong emotions like fear. And it’s always at least a bit comforting to think that even the bad moments in life can be turned into good fiction…

  8. Another good source I’d suggest is Stephen King’s “Danse Macabre.” A non-fiction book, it deals with horror in media — books, movies, etc. — and has a very good section on what scares us, distilling much of it into some basic tropes and how we can play with those tropes to send chills up our reader’s spines. It also addresses a large catalog of exceptional books and movies that are a great primer on the art of horror-writing, and nothing teaches better than example.

    I’ve been writing horror almost from my first fictions. I love the field and how it allows me to play with my reader’s emotions. It is a truism that you shouldn’t ignore what frightens you; if you write about what makes your hair stand on end it’s a sure bet that someone else has that same fear and you’ll hook that reader like a fish hook in the eyeball! (see? horror writer.)

    I think that writing humor is the toughest job but horror isn’t far behind. Writing horror has its own pitfalls, not the least of which is that you’ve got to keep your story so plausible that you don’t drift into farce (ex. splatter movies like the Friday the 13th franchise) but not let the mundane and dull aspects of reality loom too large and take over the story.

    I am always glad to share my experiences and advise horror writers but the local writing critique group has only one (me) so I’m somewhat alone. If any reader here wants to ask me questions or whatnot I’m willing to help. Email me at stephenthornsinbox@yahoo.com if you’re so inclined.

    • Stephen, you’ve reminded me that I’ve been meaning to add Danse Macabre to my Amazon wishlist for a while… thanks! Going to be doing some book-buying post-Christmas… :-)

      I agree with you on writing humour; I don’t even try..!