It’s scary season and skeletons and spiderwebs have started decorating my street. Children are deciding what kind of creepy creature they’d like to turn into for a night or two. But what’s scarier: things that go bump in the night—those supernatural beings, creatures of our imagination—or human nature?
I’ve got two pieces for you today and both of them have a haunting at the center of them. The first is Lacrimosa by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, a fictional ghost story. The other is the essay And to Dust You Shall Return by Audrey Burges.
I just finished taking a revision workshop wherein we were given loads of questions to consider about our works in progress. Some of the questions were designed to deepen our characters and some of the questions were focused on audience connections and raising the stakes of the novel to satisfy the reader’s interest so that they keep turning pages. Sometimes I think we as writers don’t talk about this dynamic with the reader enough. One of the questions was this: What is my main character’s wound?
One of the participants said that their main character was 18 and hadn’t been wounded yet. But friends, if one has gone through middle school, one has been wounded a million times over. Even before that children begin to slowly realize the way the world works. Your character doesn’t have to have suffered staggering loss to be wounded. Perhaps they realize their family is different by neighborhood standards. Perhaps they have had their heart broken or have gone hungry or have seen something they ought not have. Perhaps no one came to their seventh birthday party, or worse, perhaps everyone came and grandma got into the mimosas and started taking her clothes off. There are as many wounds to pass around as you can dream up. And you should dream them up. Your readers have been wounded plenty themselves. Perhaps even more than wants, it’s the ingredient that makes your characters real in your reader’s heart.
The wound of childhood, of poverty, of shame, seems to be what’s at the heart of Lacrimosa. At first we think that Ramon is cold hearted and materialistic, the way that he has contempt for the homeless:
The best thing to do with the homeless mob littering Vancouver is to ignore it.
In bits and pieces we get Ramon’s backstory. We learn poverty is the reason he left Mexico. Only, it wasn’t the poverty of others but of his own family.
He escaped the stinking misery of childhood and the tiny bedroom with the black-and-white TV set he had to share with his cousins.
We get the juxtaposition of place here too. The Llorona easily fits into the landscape of Potrero. Everyone there has a sighting of her. She belongs in a place like that.
Behind his house there were prickly pears and emptiness. No roads, and no buildings. Just a barren nothing swallowed by the purple horizon.
But she shouldn’t be in Vancouver where things are shiny and new. She is
a disgusting sight growing like a canker sore and invading his streets.
The ownership there is particularly intriguing. His streets. Especially since Ramon is a transplant himself, someone who believes they can run away from their past wounds and never have to confront them again.
He’d gotten rid of layers and layers of the old Ramon, moulting into a new man.
He’d like to run to another town just to get away from this woman who begins creeping into his dreams. But the wounds…they stay with you.
As we read, we learn Ramon’s haunting is self-inflicted. The Llorona is an embodiment of the guilt he carries around. All of the times he should’ve sent money home. Should’ve called. Should’ve visited. It’s been ten years since he last called home.
She could be his mother. She might be, for all he knows. He lost her her photograph a long time ago and can’t recall what she looks like anymore.
I found the Burges piece on twitter in a tweet where the writer shared that it took her twenty years to tell this story. One of the lessons I’m learning over and over again is it takes as long as it takes. That’s the beauty and the burden of writing. We may be too close or can’t find the right way to tell the story. And then, something shifts, and we have the tools suddenly that we didn’t have before. Sometimes twenty years. Sometimes less. The framing of this piece is interesting - that of a performance. Girl Whose Brother Died and the ways in which she fulfilled this role.
The drinking that started right after feels performative too, until it feels like nothing, which feels better. I am guilty of milking this tragedy, guilty of making it about me, guilty of skipping classes and citing loss, big loss, much sadness.
The piece also contemplates the way we figure into someone else’s life. Regarding her freshman roommate:
Part of me fears she will tell horror stories about me for the rest of her life.
Part of me fears she won’t.
Which is worse: being remembered for all of our terrible behavior or not being remembered at all?
Burges reminds us that sometimes wounds fester and grow into something larger. They eclipse everything else for a while.
I tell my mother I don’t know why his death cracked me open.
She says the small parts of your life seem bigger when they’re gone.
Write about a character that’s haunted by something they’ve done in their past. Something that, perhaps, they’ve managed to forgot about. Until one day when someone or something reminds them…
Or. Write about a character who has a premonition that something bad is about to happen. What is it? How would they go about their day trying to safeguard themselves and their loved ones? What happens when they tell someone else of this feeling.
Revision. Do your characters have wounds? Consider how these wounds might manifest in different scenarios. Do they keep their wounds hidden from anyone? What do they think would happen if they were revealed?
If you are looking to add more scary to your writing, there is a Community Craft Class on horror tropes taught by Meghan Phillips October 19th. The fee is only $5.
If you are querying or pitching, here’s a great thread on how to be specific and set your work apart from the crowd.
That’s it for now scribblers. Writing is one of the best ways I know to attend to our wounds. Let us paper over them so that they flourish on the page and not in our hearts~
Until next time,