I’m deeply enmeshed in my latest book for St. Martin’s, and when I write, I usually plumb deep in the depths of my soul for real emotion. The most important of these emotions, at least as far as I am concern, is fear. Because that is what drives a suspense book at the end.
Even if it is not the subject at hand, I reach into those fears and use them to make my words and dialogue real. So what scares me?
1. Spiders. Terrified. Have to call Chatter Child to kill them, because Dancing Daughter is ALSO terrified.
2. Heights. I have really tried to conquer this one, but put me on a narrow mountain road that drops off, and you’ve got white-knuckled, no-speaking, white-faced entertainment. Should you be entertained by someone else’s terror that is.
3. Telephone calls that start with “Mom, something terrible has happened!” I should note that Chatter Child is of the dramatic persuasion, so I have already had one or more of these types of phone calls, none of which ended up being she had driven the car off a mountain road, had an encounter with a man-eating spider, or ran over some unsuspecting little children (can you say “16” and “driver’s license”), but when I am trying to tap into the terror mode, this one STILL gets me.
So these three things scare me the most, as well as some events that have happened in my past.
When I was six-years-old, I was held at gunpoint by a man who threatened to kill me, my sister and our two friends if we didn’t take our clothes off. The sound of his rifle as he shot it in the air, to prove how serious he was, has stayed in my memory all these years, and in fact I used it as the opening for WIVES AND SISTERS, although only the “memory” is part of that scene, and the rest is fictional.
The reason I use this method is not because I am a weenie-butt scaredy cat, but because I think to make something REAL, you have to feel it. And to feel it, you have to know it.
Most people LIKE to be scared, hence the immense popularity of scary movies and, let’s be honest, suspense and horror books. We like tension. With tension comes adrenaline, a drug our body manufactures. I obviously share this addiction to adrenaline, because I LOVE suspense fiction. Put me on the edge of my seat, make me unable to put down your book, and I am in for the ride.
Just don’t call me and say, “Mom, something terrible has happened!” That one is a little too scary for me.
But I know I have succeeded in writing a tense, emotion-filled scene if I feel tense and filled with emotion. And to do that, I have to tap in to what I know.
The most recent book I read that had me on the edge of my seat was BLOOD MEMORY by Greg Iles. It started out a little slow, at least for me, but then it picked up, grabbed you by the throat and NEVER let go through the end. And it’s a BIG book. But the terror was VERY real and very palpable in that book.
Now, it’s first person, present tense, and written by a MAN! But it’s first person, present tense and narrated by a woman. So it’s quite a feat. It’s also about repressed memories, a highly controversial subject, which just manages to add to the fear. It’s not a perfect book, but it’s a tense, suspenseful, excellent read.
And I found myself wondering how Iles managed to create so much FEAR and tension. Did he put himself in that state first, or is he just a suspense genius?
I read a Tess Gerritsen book once where there is a “chase” scene of sorts, and the tension is so high, I felt myself actually gripping the pages of the book so tightly that my fingers were white. That’s the kind of tension a suspense books needs.
Which leads me to my questions for you:
1. If you write, how do you make your scenes real? Do you call on your own fears to help you create the tension?
2. As a reader, what really SCARES you in a book?