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…