It is no secret that writing good stories is not as easy as many people believe it is. If translating your thoughts into words isn’t hard enough, the first draft is followed by numerous rewriting and editing rounds. A writer revisits every one of their stories ad nauseam before – and if – it ever sees publication.
What happens if a story is particularly painful to write?
You do it anyway. Stories, like truth, will out.
Grades of Difficulty
Not all stories are created equal. A story with little emotional traction is easier to write than one where the author puts their sanity in the balance. Consider a text message on your phone: if you tell someone you’d like to hang out tonight, it’s a matter of seconds. If you are asking that someone out on a first date, you’ll likely take much longer to find the right words.
While every writer worth their salt will put more of themselves into their work than they may realise, what makes a story difficult varies per writer and per story.
My love for ghost stories made writing Book I of the Kalbrandt Institute series rather smooth. Each story had its own technical challenges, but I’m comfortable writing about spirits, even the nasty ones.
Monsters turned out to be – pardon the pun – a very different creature.
A Matter of Perception
Chandra’s story gave me the least trouble by far. A straightforward creature fic that required research on the setting but little else, it was finished first. Next came the Libyan expedition. That required extensive research on subjects I never thought I’d be looking into, which made it fun to puzzle the team’s discoveries together.
So far, so good.
Earlier I talked about the technical issues that plagued Leo’s story. A greater challenge was that I had miscalculated how much effort it would cost me to see the world through the eyes of medieval doctor. Not just the horror he is confronted with, but his mindset and the mindset of his time. Leo’s religious and professional beliefs are genuine to him, yet so alien to me that at times it hurt to empathise with him. Fortunately, William Charteris saw both of us through.
Memory: Tread Carefully
Artistic license thrives where detailed accounts of historical events are absent or limited. That option is out the window when extensive, accurate accounts remain. Writing about such a time is all the more precarious when society still has a vivid memory and opinion about the events and people in question.
Call me a glutton for punishment, but knowing I would be entering a minefield didn’t stop me.
At the inception of Monsters, I had already decided that I wanted to pit Cael against one of the greatest human monsters in recent European history: Nazi general Reinhard Heydrich. The juxtaposition of two men who share both physical and mental similarities was an image that wouldn’t leave me alone.
But when it came to writing that confrontation, set before the Second World War began, I feared I wouldn’t be able to balance the officer Heydrich appeared to be then with the monster he would later turn out to be. The hindsight knowledge adds suspense but also a pre-existing resentment, triggered by events which hadn’t happened yet at the time of the story.
I was lucky to have a German consultant who was willing to set her own abhorrence aside to navigate me through these tricky waters. By comparison, reading up on Otto Rahn’s research, on which this story hinges, was a walk in the park!
After that, I couldn’t imagine that the last story would pose a bigger problem than this one.
I was wrong.
The Dead of Night
Another monstrosity that had my attention early on was the Great War. My interest – and indeed my emotional investment – in the soldiers’ lives in the trenches of the Ypres Salient in particular goes back two decades. I had seen the battlefields, the old interviews with survivors, and the uncensored photographs that you won’t see in any of the museums. In all, I had a good idea of what I was getting myself into.
Maybe because of those sights, I dreaded envisioning what I wanted to write. So I procrastinated. A lot. For months. Until deadlines loomed, everything else about the book had been written, my house was spic and span, and there was nowhere left to run.
In the end, I wrote Roger’s story at night. The darkness and the loneliness helped to see what I had been running from, as well as his response to it all. I typed with crooked fingers, shivering despite the sweltering summer heat. My mind wanted to shut down emotionally, but I refused to let it. I’ll admit I cried a lot, then.
Two nights from dusk till dawn to get it all on paper. Three more nights to rewrite and edit. Then my beta readers told me the story was too intense. The solution was simple, but implementing it meant I had to revisit those scenes all over again. It got done, surprisingly fast, but I was emotionally numb for a week afterwards.
Stories are not created equal. Sometimes what the story needs, hurts the writer to put into words. This is why so many aspiring writers give up. To those who persist, facing that dread and finishing anyway is its own reward.
…Monsters is finished. Tomorrow, they are ready to meet you. All I can do now I hope that you will enjoy the thrill of their company!
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