by Robert Gray

One of the first pieces of advice new writers often receive is to write what you know. Easy enough if you’re writing a memoir, but what about horror fiction? How does this advice apply when, say, trying to enter the mind of a psychotic killer, assuming of course, you haven’t indulged in murder yourself? How can you accurately describe a zombie, vampire or demonic toy apocalypse without having survived through one? In other words, does writing what you know even apply to horror?

The answer is it applies double.

Why? Because if you want your readers to experience fear, the first thing you need to do is make an agreement with them; one that says, I am going to scare you, and I’m gonna do this by showing you the truth within the lie. Part of that truth comes from your emotions. Your fears. It’s what keeps you awake at night. It’s what you know. And it’s what you want others to know, too.

To break this down a little further, let’s look at my example: how to write from a killer’s perspective. First, think about the act of murder. You know that taking a life is no small task. You also know it happens every day and in every way, sometimes justified, but more often not. Use that information to shape your character’s personality. Then, start going deeper into yourself. Maybe you experienced the death of someone close to you – a tragic accident, a family member’s life cut short. There’s a lot of emotion there, and, thinking like a writer, there’s a lot to explore there, too. Why not use it to your advantage? Maybe your killer’s motivations will touch on these emotions, either to go against them or to amplify them.

Once you have the shape of your character, it’s time to start adding the flesh and bone. To do that, you’re gonna need to go to those dark places, where you keep the secrets no one else knows. Have you ever thought about taking someone else’s life? Not that you’d ever go through with it, but deep down, if you could get away with it…? What does that feel like? What does anger feel like? Pain? Revenge? What is your breaking point, and what would happen if a situation went that far? What you’re doing here is empathizing with your character. You’re acting.

See how this works? And really, it applies to every aspect of your story, from scene description to fear itself. Write about you’re experiences, you’re perceptions of how people act and react. Put yourself in the scene and think about what you would do under those circumstances. Create characters and situations that are pieces of you. Then pump ‘em up with steroids.

Let it out. Tell the truth. Be brutally honest. Write what you know, no matter how much it may hurt. Because that, folks, is what horror is all about.

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