My inspiration for writing seems to change on a daily basis. I try and get inspiration from everything I read, watch, or consume from a media perspective—but that is kind of a copout answer.
If I had to nail it down to just a handful of authors, it’d probably be Stephen King and William Shakespeare.
For Stephen King, it happened way earlier than it probably should have. One long summer in Tampa when I was in my middle school years, I was enrolled by my adult sister and her husband with the Police Athletic League Summer Program. I’d gone for a couple years, but this summer, I openly refused to participate in any of the summer activities except swimming. I couldn’t skate, as a former (and perpetual) fat kid, I’m not great at running, and hand-eye coordination was not my strong suit.
So, early in the day, I would head outside to the back, rarely used portion of the big building we were housed in, towards the back porch. Upon this porch was a heap of beat up (but still serviceable) furniture. Every day, I would make my little nest among the old furniture, and devour about a novel a week. My brother-in-law was a Stephen King fan at the time, so there were a lot of his bibliography there.
These were books I had no business reading—I was barely older than some of King’s creepier kids—but there are multiple reasons why I became immediately attracted to his work, despite the occasional nightmares.
He nails the little details. Yeah, I know that some of his story ideas are a little silly, but he can also make the mundane just as horrifying. Some of his best work I think is in the novellas where it’s really the horror of a small town cannibalizing someone who made a mistake (a la Hester Prynne with her scarlet initials) and not the supernatural effects taking place that keep you up at night.
He nails the childhood scenes. If you’ve ever seen or read some of his work (Dreamcatcher, “Stand by Me” (the movie, the novella is called The Body), or The Shining) then you know he is masterful at showing all of the different zones of childhood emotions. He shows that kids can be funny, charming, awe-filled, horrified, and horrifying. I had a couple of fantastic creative writing teachers in college who told me that writing characters that are not similar to your Age/Sex/Location line and doing it well is the true hallmark of great writers.
He nails the humor aspect, even in his darkest work. All horror, science fiction—any genre with high stakes—must have some levity built into the story. If you look back at your life, and let yourself travel to your darkest hours, there was still light in the darkness. If there was no hilarity, no laughing-till-you-cried nights, how much more dismal would those darkest moments have been?
I remember very clearly the two weeks or so after my grandmother died. My whole family shared stories while writing out the funeral program about just how obstinate Grandma Ruth could be. She checked herself out of the nursing home once, my mother told me. And just packed up her stuff and sat, pretty as you please, on the sidewalk for the cab that would bring her home. My mom got the call, and laughed herself silly. “She didn’t check herself IN to the nursing home, how did y’all let her check herself OUT?”
We joked about the terrible barbecue someone had bought and provided to our family so we wouldn’t have to cook one night. It was hysterical laugh-til-you cry moments, where we swore not to bring any of it to the wake because Grandma Ruth might get up from her casket and tell somebody off about how to prepare chicken.
These little moments are what make the stakes seem so much higher, and make your characters who deal with the darkness seem so much more realistic. There will always be people who deal with tragedy by laughing it off. Comic relief allows your reader to explore the darkness with you, without getting lost in it.
My other influence is the immortal Mr. Shakespeare, who needs no introduction. He believed in putting on a hell of a show.
People think Shakes was droll, but Lord knows his shows kept people coming back to sit on those hard wooden benches (or standing in the pits). He taught me to make the highs high and the lows low, and the spectacle spectacular.
He also taught me a lot about villains. If you’re going to have a villain, you give them the best lines and the most fun. Compare Iago, Macbeth, and others to any of your villains of the modern era—they just do not come close.
Some of your bad guys can be sympathetic, but they shouldn’t be neutered because of it. Make them real people, of course, give them strengths and weaknesses and too-human flaws… but you can do all that and still make them (or, better yet, the acts they commit) monstrous.
Hopefully you will be able to see touches of John’s and my influences as we put out the first chapter of our serial novel Apex of the Songbird for free on our blog next month! Apex is something that we feel has a place, but it is definitely something that could be consumed more like a television show than as a novel. But those words will speak for themselves.