The Dark Room

Opening of the cave of Debliške Livade in Koče...

Opening of the cave of Debliške Livade in Kočevski Rog (Slovenia) at the site of mass murder of Slovenian domobrans, Ustasha and Chetniks by Jugoslav partisans after WWII (May and June 1945). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I hope you didn’t look here to see a post about photography. I’m not sure if dark rooms even exist anymore. For developing film, anyway.

But they do exist.

Writers often hear the mantra: “Write your passion!” More often, it’s compressed into a more digestible idea: “Write what you know.”  Now let me ask you, how could any horror writer possibly adhere to that concept? I can think of no horror writers who are personally experts in mass murder, or becoming werewolves. And more than that, who could be passionate about psycho killers, and possessed children? Certainly not me.

And yet, my first frightening, and disturbing, novel is complete, and my second is well underway.

I sometimes feel like the accidental horror writer. In life, I’m a regular guy (well, almost). I like puppies, sit-coms, french fries and Disney movies. But when I sit down to write, I often find myself writing things that leave me unable to sleep.

I would suggest a different manta for writers. “Write what comes out.” Sure, there are several very successful authors that write what I would call “format novels.” Commercial fiction – Thriller, Horror, Sci-Fi, Romance – all of it adheres to certain themes and structure accepted in the genre. I love them all, but sometimes people think that to write it well, you have to follow a predictable plot outline. Some people have made that work, but the really good ones do more.

I think what is inside you is what will come out on the page, if you let it. That doesn’t mean that a romance writer has to be a virgin with a thorough knowledge of the Marquis de Sade, nor does it mean a horror writer has to be a serial killer. But there are things that come from somewhere deep inside, from a dark room, that give meaning to your words that is greater than the activities on the page, if you let them.

Horror for me seems to be a way to confront those things that are too terrible to confront in life – suffering, pain, death. I’ve known them all, up close and personal. If I told you how it really happened, you might not want to hear me. But when I re-read my stories, I see my experiences disguised in every character, in every conflict, and in every nightmare. And I sure didn’t plan on writing about those personal things, not ever. It just has a way of coming out, and sneaking on to the page.

Every story has the potential to be that way. But if a writer misinterprets “writing what you know” as “write what you know about,” nothing that matters will come out on the page. You have to write what you know, deep inside you, in places you don’t realize are there. You have to write who you are, where you’ve been, what you’ve seen, what you love, what you fear, and what it all means to you. And you have to do that while telling a story of child wizards, or dragons, or a zombie with a hatchet.

To write what you know, you really have to get out of the way and let your voice come out. Some people call it a muse, others call it instinct, and still others call it your subconscious mind. I don’t call it anything, except whatever is down there in that dark room. You just write for that “whatever it is,” and it will take care of the rest.

21 thoughts on “The Dark Room

  1. Hi Daniel,
    I remember when I used to whittle..yes a strange thing for a woman to do, almost a lost art..anyway I would pick up the piece of wood and ask it what it wanted to be I was always amazed what would come to be, different animals, some native Indian, ect…Same with my writing..I never decide before hand how a plot will go but some how it writes itself. I love that…
    I did venture to the dark side once and it was quite fun…Probably not dark enough really compared to some…I really am more of a feel good, hamey pamey type
    Thank you for sharing this post…I really enjoyed it..
    Take care and best of luck in all you do

    • I don’t think whittling is an exclusive activity.. 🙂 You summed it up perfectly with that analogy. I’ve heard sculptors say the same thing, that they are only uncovering what is already there.

      And there is nothing wrong with “hamey pamey” either, as long as it’s honest.

      Thanks for the comment, and good luck to you, too!

  2. Hello, Daniel. Well, I recently emerged from a confused spell where I thought I should model what I write on what is relevant to people. I’m starting to remember that what I write about can be my everyday experiences as well as my inner experiences: ‘what I know’. And surely, as long as I stay true to myself, someone will read it and enjoy it. Reading your post has officially completed the process of coming out of my ‘spell’ 🙂 Thank you so much for sitting down to write (type 🙂 ) it and, especially, for sharing it.

  3. and that is why i love your write ups so much…letting the story develop some plot or let it make new twists and turns…that to me adds much more than making a structure before writing…it should be a flow of music
    beautifully written Daniel 🙂

  4. I love your articles! I wrote two books without knowing what would transpire in the next chapter. I read of someone who said that stories have a life of their own, and seek story-tellers to bring them to paper. We can only ever tell our own stories, even if we don’t recognize them to be ours. We’re more than this body, and our novels are testament to that! BTW, Wind River is haunting and strange. It makes my mind itch! Good reaction…I’ll let you know when I’ve read all of it.

    • Thank you so much. What a wonderful comment. When I first started, I thought Wind River would be a short story. When I was done, it showed itself to be a novel. I hope you enjoy the installments that are up so far. More to come.

  5. This so so true. I didn’t intend any of my stories to turn out, well I’d like to say mildly disturbing, haha, but yes, these things have their own way of coming out to the open when I’m writing. So I let them. And when I read the outcome, I find that I’m surprised – but pleasantly at the same time.

    I’ve been called weird more than once because of “writing what I know”. But I think those are the people who are too reluctant to connect with their own dark rooms.

    Great post! 🙂

    • I don’t think what you do or how you write is weird at all. When you listen to music, you can always tell who is writing to fit a format, because it sounds so predictable, and lifeless. You can also tell when someone is inspired, and writing from a different place altogether. They are called “artists.” Be proud to be one.

    • Thank you. I’m currently right in the middle of “writing what comes out” so we’ll see if what I say lives up to my expectations. 🙂

  6. Reading your post gives me inspiration. I’m hoping that my story will come out, some day. I am always surprised that a lot of times I’ll set out to write something and then what I actually end up with is far different, better I think, than what I set out to do. Congrats on your book. I’d love to read it.

    • Thanks, I’d be honored if you took a look at my book. Stephen King in his book “On Writing” said that he considers writers to be a type of archeologist. We are only excavating the story that is really there in the ground, like a fossil. We use shovels, and sometimes a toothbrush to get it cleaned up as much as we can.

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