When I was in elementary school, we were forced to write stories to themes that were never of my choosing. I remember using the cliché, “If not for bad luck, I’d have no luck at all,” repeatedly. Then I used a pun on the words “mourning” and “morning”. Twice. My teacher didn’t have a lot of hope for my literary ambitions. Yes, those were dark days growing up in the village.
I’ve written ten books and Season 3 of This Plague of Days is in the works. What happened so this became possible? How did all my writing days get bright? If you had a happy childhood (Editor’s note: Is that possible or are you just being sarcastic?), I suppose you could foster the writer’s mindset by using your imagination.
Failing that, grow a writer like this:
1. Mom read to me. I don’t remember it, but she was insistent that if I had any success with words whatsoever, I had her to thank.
2. Mom was a stickler about language and wasn’t shy about correcting us in front of company. Yes, it added another dimension of nastiness to Thanksgiving and Christmas. The only respite came from shutting up or getting it right. Since I couldn’t seem to shut up….
3. Mom loved crossword puzzles and we did them together. A crossword puzzle was like half-time at the Superbowl for us. It let us take a necessary breather from all the fighting. (We’re Irish.)
4. There were always books all over the house and my parents read voraciously. Love of reading must be osmotic because I rebelled against everything else they thought valuable. Fortunately, the town wasn’t so small we missed out on a library. That would have been barbaric.
5. My parents helped me appreciate books so much because, seriously, childhood in rural Nova Scotia? Brimstone. Sulphur. Country music.
Later, while reading Dante’s Inferno in university, I looked for the circle of Hell where bad children crawl under the bed covers and cry because they don’t have books into which they can escape. If you concentrate on the words on the page, I learned you can block out the twangin’ and a-fiddlin’.
6. My parents owned a video rental store. I watched a staggering number of movies of all sorts (not just porn.) Movies teach storytelling, especially when they’re bad. Poorly executed movies stir the writer’s imagination as to how you could have saved the film if only you worked in Hollywood. For instance, what if the guy who comes to the door isn’t a plumber or a pizza delivery guy, just to change things up?
7. Needing a break from me, my parents gleefully sent me off to a good school with a good program where I studied the history of philosophy and the philosophy of history. I was in the Foundation Year Program at the University of King’s College where I learned to appreciate how much I didn’t know. It’s the sort of education where you get to read classics voraciously. Who can afford the tuition for this sort of thing anymore? They’re focussed on getting a job, instead. I don’t blame anyone for that, but it is a loss.
I also studied journalism in university. I can’t say that really helped my writing all that much, but it did fuel my outrage and sadness indirectly, so that’s helpful.
8. My father is a storyteller. Some of the facts about the tough life he’s lived migrated into Murders Among Dead Trees (now on sale for a limited time for just 99 cents!) and This Plague of Days. Poeticule Bay, Maine is fictional, but it’s drawn from my experience and his life, growing up on the east coast. It’s a deep well of sorrows from which to draw.
9. My father loves language, but without my mother’s more conventional take on proper English usage. Instead, conversation is peppered with creative idioms only he seems to use. “You’re jumpin’ around like a fart in a mitten,” for one instance. That’s pretty creative. Dad does not use clichés. Good policy.
10. Growing up in a small town, everybody knows everyone else’s business. It’s one of the things I hate about small towns, but in that microcosm is enough material, weirdness and human friction to fill a lifetime of book writing.
That same small-town claustrophobia informs the stories in Murders Among Dead Trees. Gossip threw lives open, baring truths that are hidden when you have the comfort of not knowing your neighbors. Despite close proximity, there were still adulterers who dared to mess around without the courtesy or smarts to carry their affairs down the road into the next town. Everyone’s family medical histories were fair game and everybody was pretty damn judgmental about everything. Nothing was happening, so teasing was a team sport. Unsolicited advice was rampant. Violence was common at school and bullying couldn’t exist because “it’s the second punch that starts the fight.” If you were too polite, you must be weak. No weakness was left unprobed.
In cities, people die in repetitive ways. Where I grew up, mortal dangers were less predictable: farm equipment chomp with metal teeth and sea caves fill with fast, icy, tidal water. And then there were the hunting accidents.
In high school, the guy who sat next to me in grade nine math was mistaken for a bear. Up a tree. Wearing hunter orange. If he’d been murdered in an urban drive-by scenario, at least we could have blamed stupid gang violence. Instead, an excitable hunter killed him. One good thing about a developing writer in a small town: you get all the details about the guts and gore. From the drunken car accident that crushed my childhood playmate to blow-by-blow descriptions of every fight, somebody always tells one person. Then it’s all over town.
An unhappy childhood in a small town is an excellent incubator for a mouthy brat who dreams of escaping to the big city one day and leaving it all behind.
Except, in my fiction, I never managed to leave it behind. I’m still there, righting wrongs, writing vengeance, and dreaming.
~ Robert Chazz Chute writes horror and suspense. Now you can guess why. See all his books here.