Regular readers will know that I like to base the locations of my novels on actual places. There will – of necessity – always be some artistic license and pure fictional content. But, you’ll find plenty of genuine sites recreated and featured throughout the course of each story.
For my seventh horror novel, ‘Scribe,’ it was important to contrast the comfortable Suffolk life of protagonist, Michael Brooks, with a different setting as he seeks to recover from the loss of his wife. I opted for the windswept wildness of beautiful Northumberland, which plays a striking role as a character in its own right. Michael rents a converted watermill and former gamekeeper’s bothy between the rivers Coquet and Breamish. While the site of Shillmoor Barton (a manorial estate with clusters of farms) is a fiction, Shillmoor itself exists. I love the Breamish valley and the hamlet of Ingram, which also features in the book. Other iconic Northumberland sites make appearances, including Alnwick, Morpeth, Wooler and Lindisfarne. It’s a part of the world I’ve stayed in and explored many times.
On a similar note, Michael hails from Framlingham in Suffolk and lives in Woodbridge, where some old friends of mine reside. It was a delight to include several of my favourite Framlingham places, including ‘The Crown Hotel,’ Framlingham Castle and St Michael’s church in various scenes throughout the book.
For the spooky house in which the principal action takes place, I drew upon true inspiration. If you’ve read the interview on my ‘About’ page, you’ll be familiar with a house I once stayed in, which played out (in minor respects) like a classic ghost story. The converted watermill and former bothy exists in border country, though it lies on the other side of the Tweed, about forty-eight miles from Shillmoor as the crow flies. From the single-railed footbridge crossing a cascade, to the setting and interior furnishings, it’s real. There was little I needed to invent. It made such a perfect, remote location. I’ve placed a plunge pool beneath the cascade and amped the size of the woodshed a little. But the rest would be recognisable if you ever stayed there – right down to the loft hatch above the master bed.
As I write this, it was seventeen years ago that I rented the mill alone. It dropped off the radar for a while, but has been back as a popular holiday let for many years. If there ever were any genuine, strange goings-on, all seems well now. The house is beautifully decorated and sits in a breathtaking setting. Don’t blame me if you read ‘Scribe’ while holidaying in the house and experience uncomfortable dreams, though. Definitely don’t blame the owners! It’s a stunning retreat in a fabulous landscape.
‘Scribe’ will be available in Kindle format from 25th March at an introductory price for its first month of 99c / 99p. The paperback version is already available to purchase, with Amazon estimating delivery in time for the eBook release date.
I’d put off maturing the premise for my seventh horror novel into a full-bodied plot by two books. While ‘the written word made manifest’ is nothing new in fiction (or religion), I kept throwing out obvious branching concepts. They all seemed too predictable to my brainstorming mind. Like many writers, I ended up keeping the best scene ideas, though the story they occupy is a world apart.
‘Scribe’ opens with a man named Michael Brooks, who lost his wife, Julie, to a Cerebral Haemorrhage. A sensitive introvert, it doesn’t take long before the effects of his grieving energy impact the physical world around him. His bereavement counsellor recommends a change of scene and the act of journaling to process his grief. And so the stage is set to roll out a weird house full of restless spirits that play havoc with his isolated literary therapy.
During the process, I turn up the heat from random, unusual occurrences to undeniable supernatural encounters with mortal outcomes. Along the way Michael discovers a raft of ghosts, including those of five children who disappeared between 1885 and 1886. Michael and his wife could not conceive, yet desired a family of their own.
With a lot of horror/supernatural suspense novels, the antagonist remains a faceless beast, unveiled near the climax in a big reveal. While this is necessary for many plotlines, it can leave the villains feeling like undeveloped characters. One thing I found most enjoyable about writing ‘Scribe’ was the ability to have my (deceased) ‘baddie’ interact with Michael throughout. This occurs via paranormal experiences and the written word in his journals. By the time he makes a full-blown appearance near the end, readers know all they could want about this semi-religious, psychopathic child rapist and murderer. There’s a certain added satisfaction from that, when his plans are brought low.
Rape is an overdone and often cringe-worthy trope in the horror genre. I steer clear of it (as a general rule), with the notable exception of that mildly worded but heart-breaking scene in ‘Maria’s Walk’ where hired thugs abuse and kill Maria Belmont. It’s difficult to write without falling into classic pitfalls that trivialise a devastating act. It can also be lazy writing: i.e. we all know rape is horrible, so just roll out some rape scenes to keep the horror amped, right? Wrong! Awful though it is, reading rape scenes gets old quickly. Unless the device forms a pivotal part of the story, I wonder about the plot structure of a book that focuses on it. Throw children into the mix and you’re walking on eggshells with every word written.
However, for ‘Scribe’ it made perfect sense for the main story arc, though became a difficult cross to bear on occasion. The children all disappeared without trace in the Victorian era. Readers learn the truth behind those disappearances, the nature of their adversary and Michael’s part in the ongoing story through historic flashbacks, journal entries, and murderous manifestations affecting the supporting cast of characters in the present.
I’m of the firm belief that once you’ve established a clear character trait, reinforcing it with repetitious actions is pointless. This comes back to my earlier statement about reading rape scenes getting old. After the nature and appetites of the villain are rolled out in ‘Scribe’ with a teenage girl, I give subsequent incidents cursory mention. That, or hint at them without specific descriptions.
The first rape scene was the toughest in the book to write. I must have reshaped it a dozen times to strike a correct balance. A wobbly place between giving necessary information, sparking an emotive response and not going overboard with graphic details. Heaven forbid anyone read such an encounter and experience any kind of titillation. I opted for focusing on the girl’s traumatised mental state and physical pain, replaying certain aspects of the act with metaphor and simile. It’s like walking a tightrope in a hurricane, but the result advances the story with the right tone. A follow-on scene featuring twin victims (a boy and girl) includes just enough post-horror suggestions to show our rapist’s tastes extend to both sexes. Then things are kept to his written rantings, which blend a strict religious upbringing with depraved statements suggesting sexual imagery. In a classic example of psychological gas-lighting, he blames his victims for his own evil deeds.
Because of his grief, Michael doubts the evidence of his own senses at first. This is a mild nod to that other overused trope: ‘The Unreliable Narrator.’ As I prefer writing in the third person, this doesn’t get much more than lip service. But it helps mix things up while our suffering hero discovers what’s going on both inside and out.
Given the two heavy topics covered – bereavement and child abuse/murder – I couldn’t leave my readers without a heart-warming climax and denouement. ‘Scribe’ is also a love story. A tale about unconfessed affection finding a second chance at the right moment. If you read it, I hope it moves you. Ultimately, I hope you walk away with a positive experience.
‘Scribe’ will be out in paperback and Kindle formats before the end of March.