Elliot Thorpe on Horror Writing
Research for a novel begins all around us. It can be experiences, feelings and desires. It’s when you start drilling down to the ‘nuts and bolts’ of a story that the research needs to and must take on a new direction.
In many ways, writing is like painting (I hope I’m good at one, but I know my drawing skills leave a lot to be desired!): there’s a canvas that needs filling in, layer upon layer until the finished piece is there is front of you, waiting to be critiqued, criticised and, one dreams, praised.
It’s set in a barbaric, brutal age, in Wallachia 1476AD – the medieval equivalent of today’s Romania. Because of that, it needed careful preparation.
I had the canvas (the place and the time) but needed to make sure that there was a story to tell. It’s no good having a great backdrop if there’s nothing to keep you looking at it.
But the very act of choosing that era meant there had to be a story in there somewhere, surely? Not necessarily.
For far too many years I care to remember, I’ve loved the vampire genre, the Dracula story, the Hammer horrors and all things that go bump in the night. I also fancy myself as a bit of an historian, nothing too extreme, just a bit of armchair research with maybe the occasional field visit if I’m feeling adventurous. And, importantly, I have always held the desire to write, ever since I knew which end of a pencil to use.
So these three aspects of me seemed to want to blend together somehow.
“I must write a gruesome, medieval vampire novel!” I therefore exclaimed once to anyone who was listening.
So I got a commission to script an audio episode of ‘Doctor Who’.
Then I wrote lots of short stories, in different styles, in markedly different genres. And then I started writing articles for various websites: reviews and features and the like.
It honed my writing skills. It allowed me to find a style that I enjoyed and that I hoped others did too. I learnt about pacing, character development, emotional journeys, the ruthlessness of editing.
And all the time I was doing all of that, I made copious notes, did research, read books all about medieval Europe, finding the darkest times and places where vampires would easily feature. I looked at the lives of warlords, despots and kept coming back to the one figure that stood out, the one man who was destined by the media of centuries to come to be reborn as a vampire count: Vlad the Impaler.
So I had my time, my place and my main character. But still no story.
The danger, you see, remained: it’s no good having a great character if there’s nothing to keep you interested.
So I began the arduous task of hammering out the plot, the all-important crux that the story hangs on.
And slowly and surely, I developed this fictional world set in a real historical time. Other characters emerged, situations arose and then, quite suddenly, the story revealed itself.
Interestingly, I had intended Vlad to be the antagonist, but he regenerated into a protagonist and not even the main character of the book. That was quite an interesting revelation. It meant I was not shackled by maintaining a true air of historical accuracy and I could create my own heroes and heroines and villains. If one of history’s most barbaric figures wasn’t the bad guy of the book, then how bad must the book’s bad guys really be!
Yet with all the vampires, werewolves and medieval warlords, armies and princesses crowding the pages, what was I trying to say? What was the story?
A good friend of mine who is far better at story-telling than I could ever be said to me a long time ago, “Elliot, write down in one sentence what your book’s about.”
So I thought long and hard. And it came to me.
Yes, it’s a horror novel with buckets of blood, impalings and vampire slaying but it’s about one man’s quest to clear his family’s name, to restore honour and make sense of the world he lives in. It’s a simple basis, but the canvas that I spoke about earlier became so enriched as a result, that I was determined to make sure I did the characters – all of them, major and minor – justice. And from that understanding, the other characters also had their reasons, their meanings of existence.
It’s easy to populate a fictional world. It’s easy to make that populous clichéd and two-dimensional. It’s harder, but certainly not impossible, to make them believable and fully-rounded.
And that’s one of the reasons I decided to cut my teeth on other projects before embarking on my magnum opus. To begin to understand how to write and to write effectively and believably.
At least that’s what I thought ‘Cold Runs the Blood’ was going to be: my magnum opus. But I’ve lots more stories to tell, lots more experiences to have and emotions and thoughts to put down on paper. And I’m still learning, still getting to grips with writing, still aiming high. I don’t think my magnum opus has surfaced yet.
And I’ll never stop writing. I can’t. It’s part of me.
And I’m looking at new projects, new opportunities. Writing a biography about Dean Martin is one. Returning to the worlds of ‘Doctor Who’ is another.
A sci-fi hero of mine once said that there are always possibilities. And I whole-heartedly believe him.
About Elliot Thorpe
Elliot Thorpe is a freelance writer, having previously worked with the sites Den of Geek, Shadowlocked and Doctor Who TV as well as forEncore, the magazine for the theatre professional, and The Dean Martin Association (www.deanmartinassociat.wix.com/officialdmasite), Dino’s first official fan club. He was commissioned by Big Finish Productions to script Doctor Who – Cryptobiosis, starring Colin Baker and works with the London West End stage production The Definitive Rat Pack (www.thedefinitiveratpack.com). Elliot’s first novel ‘Cold Runs the Blood’ was released in 2013 and is available in paperback and as an ebook. He is currently working on a second novel as well as a biography of Dean Martin and is always looking for other writing opportunities.