Book: Writing Gothic Fiction - Learn to Thrill Readers with Passion and Suspense (Writer's Craft Book 32) by Rayne Hallcategories: Book, Gothic Horror, Writing Horror, Novel Writing, Writing Ghost Stories, Ghost Story Writing, Creepy Horror, Atmosphere and Suspense, Creating Suspense, Writing Paranormal Fiction, Writing Creepy Fiction, Thrill Your Readers, Writer's Craft, Writing Gothic Fiction
Rayne Hallabout this book: Book Excerpt
THE GLOOMY OLD HOUSE: ENTER THE LAIR OF SECRETS
In Gothic Fiction, the story often involves a big, old, dark, decayed house. This building plays an important role in the plot and is practically a character in its own right. So let's create the Gloomy House.
Typically, it's a castle or manor house – but it could also be a tower, a hotel, a farm, a factory, a sanatorium, a hospital, a skyscraper, a school, a lighthouse, a prison, a mental health care facility, an airport terminal, a lighthouse, a theatre, a monastery, a beach hut…. Just make sure it has a history.
For literary inspiration, here are some famous Gloomy Houses from literature:
Wuthering Heights in Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights
Hill House in Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House
Furnivall Manor in Elizabeth Gaskell's The Old Nurse's Story
The Overlook Hotel in Stephen King's The Shining
Manderley in Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca
Staplewood in Georgette Heyer's Cousin Kate
Dar Ibrahim in Mary Stewart's The Gabriel Hounds
Chateau de Valmy in Mary Stewart's Nine Coaches Waiting
Sometimes, a vehicle – old, dilapidated and creepy – takes the role of the Gloomy House. Example from literature: the haunted coach in The Phantom Coach by Amelia Edwards. At the end of this book, I've included my Gothic story The Train to Dolno Orehovo in which events unfold on a train.
If possible, place the house some distance away from the nearest settlements. This aids plotting, because the Main Character in jeopardy can't easily call on neighbours to get help. The building could be a remote castle, a hotel on an island or a chalet in the Alps. Even if the Gloomy House stands in a city, aim to surround it with bombed-out ruins or vast parks.
It helps if the Gloomy House stands in a wild, exciting location, surrounded by sublime nature, whether it's on the edge of a desert, on a windswept moor, on a steep mountain or a rocky seashore cliff – and if possible, choose a place where storms batter the land.
It also helps the plot if there is no mobile phone (cellphone) coverage.
Readers enjoy exotic locations, so they get to travel to exciting places at the cost of a paperback and from the safety of their armchair.
Bear in mind that what readers perceive as exotic and exciting may be everyday reality to you. If you've spent most of your life in a village in the Austrian Alps, the scenery and routines are so familiar that you think of them as boring and predictable. But to your readers elsewhere in the world, staying in a mountain village in Austria is thrilling and new.
If you place your Gloomy House in the region where you live, you'll need to spend little time on research, and your descriptions will ring with authenticity.
Alternatively, you can use your next holidays (vacations) to explore a new location for your Gothic Fiction.
DECAYED AND DILAPIDATED
Once an attractive residence, the Gloomy House is long past its glory days. Signs of decay abound – cracked walls, mouldy ceilings, leaking roofs, overgrown gardens.
The manor may be so dilapidated that only one wing is still habitable. The hospital may have had to close most of its departments after budget cuts. The office block may have only one floor still in use.
The Gloomy House probably features one or several of the following:
- An underground chamber. (This can be a wine cellar, sauna, home gym, a guest apartment, basement kitchen, laboratory, boiler room, workshop, air raid shelter, underground chapel, dungeon or crypt.)
- An attic. (This could be a loft or a penthouse, servant's quarters or storage space for half-forgotten clutter.)
- A secret passage (Perhaps there's a narrow corridor leading from the master's bedroom to that of the governess, or an underground tunnel leading from the cellar to the church.)
- A hiding space (such as the 'priest hole' found in many old British buildings, or a bricked up haunted room)
- A grand staircase
- A high-tech feature (or a feature that was high-tech when it was built, but is now out-of-date)
- An ancestor gallery
USE A REAL HOUSE FOR INSPIRATION
If there's a big, old and perhaps decayed house in your neighbourhood, use it for inspiration. You can walk past there, maybe even go inside (if it's open to the public) and take detailed notes.
You could also set the story in a house similar to the one you grew up in, a hotel where you spent your Christmas holidays, or a remote scientific observation post where you used to work.
Don't use the real house as it is – certainly not with its real name and address. You don't want to get into trouble with its real owners who would probably not be happy to have their home showcased as a place of bigamy and murder. Use the house for inspiration, but change the name, the address, architectural details and features.
Also, adapt the house to suit the story. Make it bigger, older, gloomier, give it an underground chamber, a secret tunnel and a creaking staircase, or move it further away from its nearest neighbours.
EXAMPLES FROM LITERATURE
Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
Wuthering Heights is the name of Mr Heathcliff's dwelling. 'Wuthering' being a significant provincial adjective, descriptive of the atmospehric tumult to which its station is exposed in stormy weather. Pure, bracing ventilation they must have up there at all times, indeed: one may guess the power of the north wind blowing over the edge, by the excessive slant of a few stunted firs at the end of the house; and by a range of gaunt thorns all stretching their limbs one way, as if craving the alms of the sun. Happily, the architect had the foresight to build it strong: the narrow windows are deeply set in the wall, and the corners defended with large jutting stones.
Nocturne for a Widow, by Amanda DeWees
Brooke House was massive, built of great blocks of what I later learned was limestone; in the eerie radiance of twilight it was a pearlescent blue-grey like a stormy sky. Mullioned windows in arched stone casements were everywhere, including the gables, which were ornamented with lacy spires. Crenellations along the roof line added to the medieval effect. There was a square tower with more spires, as well as a round window reminiscent of a cathedral's rose window. Some of the windows were shuttered, but light glowed from behind the massive arched window next to the front door.
WHAT NOT TO DO
Don't use a bland, generic setting for your Gothic Fiction. Use the opportunity to invite your readers to a dramatic location.
1. Choose the building. Whether it exists in your neighbourhood, in your memories, in your imagination or in a combination of those, describe it. Write a few sentences about its architecture, layout, size, location, history. (Later, you can fine-tune the details to make them fit your story plot.)
2. Give your house either an underground room, an attic or a hidden chamber. Is it secret? Forgotten? Dangerous to get in? Or is it in use, and if yes, for what?
3. Visit a real-life building for inspiration. Choose one that's as similar to the Gloomy House of your inspiration. For example, if you've chosen to write about a hotel, go and have a coffee in the lobby of a nearby hotel, even if it's not decayed and gloomy). Go inside if that's possible, or just view the facade from the outside.
Take notes of small atmospheric details:
* What does the floor look like?
* And the ceiling?
* What's the source and quality of the light?
* How do doors sound when they open and close?
* What kind of vegetation surrounds it?
* If there are people, how do they talk, move, behave?
* Are there any signs of decay? (Signs of decay are fantastic for creating an ominous mood. Watch out for cracks in the facade, a path overgrown with weeds, a dead pot plant, broken windows, peeling paint.)
* Describe the windows from the outside.
* What smells are there? (Smells can be difficult to notice and identify, but it's worth trying: does a room smell of mildew, old urine, candle smoke, rotting fruit, rat droppings or moth balls?)
* Listen for noises, especially background sounds. The more sounds you collect, the better, because these will be very useful for creating suspense. Cutlery rattling, water gurgling in the pipes, a coffee maker hissing, footsteps clacking on the tiles, a cock crowing, a car motor whining...)
If you're unable to visit a suitable building, look at pictures or videos. (Maybe you have photos in an album or can find something on YouTube.) This won't yield the kind of atmospheric details you ideally want, but it's better than nothing.
THE MAIN CHARACTER: NEWCOMER IN JEOPARDY
The main character (MC) is usually female (but can be male), is vulnerable because of her position as a newcomer, but possesses inner strength. She is an outsider who takes up residence in the Gloomy House.
In this book, I'm using the female pronoun for the MC, simply because the protagonists in Gothic Fiction are almost always women. However, feel free to set this convention aside and make your MC a man. My tips apply regardless of the gender.
WHY DOES SHE STAY IN THE GLOOMY HOUSE?
In what way is she an outsider, and why does she take up residence in this strange place? There are four main possibilities:
1. She has inherited the Gloomy House, probably because of an eccentric will.
2. Family circumstances force her to live there. Perhaps she's newly married to the owner of the Gloomy House, or perhaps she's recently orphaned or divorced, has lost her home and needs to live with unwelcoming relations in the Gloomy House.
3. She is only visiting the house or travelling in the vicinity, when calamity strikes (her car breaks down, her coach is attacked by highwaymen, a snowstorm forces her to seek shelter). She means to stay only for a night, but finds she can't get away again (because the snowstorm continues to rage, or because the owner is pleased to have a living soul as a companion, or because the villain won't allow her to get away after she has seen clues to the Guilty Secret).
4. She's there on a job or assignment (probably a live-in job, or an assignment requiring her to stay in the guest bedroom for several nights). She could be, for example, a governess, a servant, a chef, the hotel's new receptionist, an interior designer, a musician, a maintenance engineer, a hired entertainer, a house minder, a pet-sitter, an au pair, an art restorer, a nurse, a nanny, a librarian, a historian, an antiques valuer, a furniture restorer, a painter and decorator, a journalist, a researcher for a documentary, a location scout for a movie company, an estate agent assessing the property or a paranormal investigator.
Option 4 gives probably the most scope for contemporary Gothic stories and is the one modern readers will find easiest to believe. It has the added advantage that it provides the MC with useful skills and insights which can drive the plot forward in plausible ways. For example, as the child's nanny or governess, she'll naturally observe that something is wrong with her charge. If she's a nurse, she'll notice clues pointing to the visiting doctor's malpractice. If she's an antiques valuer, it makes sense that she discovers the secret drawer in the old desk. As a painter and decorator, she'll spot the bricked-up door to the secret passage, and as a musician, she'll recognise the tune the ghostly violin plays at midnight.
STRONG YET VULNERABLE
She has some kind of inner strength: probably moral strength, loyalty and the courage of conviction. She may also have determination and willpower. Often, she possesses grit acquired during a tough childhood. You can give her other strengths to suit your story.
Her vulnerability stems mostly from her situation. She's a stranger, with no friends in the house or the neighbourhood (and perhaps no friends or family at all). She doesn't know the location and the customs, and perhaps not even the language.
Many people openly dislike her, and some resent her (perhaps because they expected to inherit the house, get the job or marry the man) or suspect her intentions.
In addition, the matter of class may separate her from other people who might otherwise like and trust her. The classic example is the governess, whom neither the family nor the servants regard as one of their own. She could also be a free black woman where others are slaves, a hired help where others are society ladies, or a commoner where others are gentry.
Her vulnerability may be further increased by lack of money. Whatever happened in the past has left her penniless (and possibly homeless, too). She may have been fired from her last job and has been jobhunting desperately for months, her savings depleted. She may have emerged destitute from an acrimonious divorce. Perhaps her father gambled away the family fortune and then shot himself. Maybe she was the victim of a robbery or scam. Perhaps her home in a war zone was bombed, and she was the only survivor, escaping with nothing but the clothes on her back.
Whatever the cause of her poverty, it means she desperately needs this job and/or this accommodation. That's why she doesn't leave at the first sign that something is wrong.
You could give her an additional problem to increase here vulnerability: shyness, anxiety, mental health issues, a physical disability, an inferiority complex, her own guilty secret….
As with all suggestions in this book, these are just guidelines, not rules. You can use the elements you like and discard anything you don't. I suggest that you make your main character 'Gothic' in the sense that several of these features apply to her, but you can choose which. And, importantly, make her more than just a Gothic prop. Flesh her out as a real character.
Give the main character facets of your own personality and experience. For example, if you love dogs and fear heights, give the MC the same passion and fear. If you had a bewildering time as a new bride in your in-laws' home, dig deep into your memories of feelings and tensions. As a geriatric nurse, you can write believably about the nurse who cares for the invalid and spots the doctor's malpractice. If you have acting experience, you can give a new perspective on Hamlet by writing about a player hired to perform at Elsinore Castle. Do you collect antiques as a hobby? Then you can describe the furniture the way the antiques restorer MC sees it. Did you support yourself during your college days by cleaning hotel rooms? Then you can write with authenticity about the new chambermaid's work in the remote hotel.
1. Why does the main character go to live in the Gloomy House?
2. What is her job (if she has one)? What useful, potentially plot-relevant skills do her job and hobbies give her?
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