I’m a bit like Hong-Kong-Phooey. In fact, most writers I know are the same: mild-mannered by day, clandestine scribblers of something weird and wonderful by night. (Admittedly almost all the writers I know write science fiction and fantasy, so that perhaps explains a lot about the weird, but hey-ho.)
Most of the time I worry about fitting my work around my children, or what to make for tea. I’m known as Joanne rather than this odd Jo creature, and I’m shockingly normal. If you met me in the street, we’d say hi, walk on and you’d think nothing of the encounter. A perfectly ordinary person going about their day…
In my screwy mind, other things are happening, though. I might have smiled at you while thinking about someone else. Someone who doesn’t exist, who isn’t of our world, our planet, our time. If they are of our world, they’re seeing fairies, or fighting aliens, or stuck in a forest with a crashed UFO, 10,000 words written, and no resolution in sight. I might be thinking about a torture chamber: the feel of it, the smell of it. I might be wondering about the impact of brutality on a character, and ruminating on the ramifications of deep PTSD.
Because sometimes I stray into dark stuff. I don’t intend to. I set out to write stories and then they meander, and some of them become bleaker than they first seemed. Of my stories to date, my Abendau trilogy is the darkest. Which means that next year, when I introduce my world through Tickety-boo press, I’m showing the darkest side of my mind. As we authors are never the most confident believers in our work, and since on that spectrum I languish in the bottom 0.5% or thereabouts, I’m more than a little nervous.
So, why did I write something so dark? I won’t give too many spoilers but right from the start it becomes clear that torture is a theme, and then things go downhill…
I could say I was a new writer and didn’t know how to be clever about these things. That would be a lie. I started Abendau’s Heir over four years ago (well, I started it when I was sixteen to be pedantic, but the least said about that version, the better.) I’ve had plenty of opportunity to change the subject matter. I’ve had plenty of thinking time. And I changed nothing about the central themes. After writing or drafting six books, all of my million words, I can safely say that if it had been immaturity, I’d have learned by now. (Maybe.)
Others might think I wanted the books to shock and gain readers gawping for dark, gory scenes. To which I’d say, by and large, I disappoint. I’ll admit to them. In the 250,000 words of the trilogy there are probably about 5000 of which are graphic, and even then most are from a distance or in flashbacks. If I’d wanted to shock I could, and would, have written more (my betas often tell me I write good torture, so it wasn’t impossible…)
I’d say the dark sections of the book are justified by the storyline. It’s there because the characters’ development is based on the trial of strength they – all of them, both directly and indirectly – face. I write character books. I try to add the niceties of plot, and tension, and pace and world-building, but my stories are essentially those of people who I love. I have to love them – I’ve written about half a million words about them (I got through a lot of drafts, and ditched a lot of story), and I’ve done edit after edit, with more to come. Yet, I hurt them. Badly.
I didn’t enjoy it. Not one of those scenes was fun to write. The research wasn’t a barrel of laughs either (if you want darkness, try the real world).
I did it, simply, because that was the story. The set-up of my world left me no logical other place to go.
I did it because to write the hero I wanted – someone driven by their morals, very human and believable, not an epic poser who couldn’t be hurt – I had to take him to the limits of his morality and self-belief.
It’s taken me four years to get to the point where I’m happy to stand over what I portrayed in Abendau. It’s taken me that long to say to people, “I’m sorry if it distresses or upsets you. It might not be what you’d expect from the me that you know. But it was the tale, the story, and the world. And, in the end, it was needed.”
I hope, when others read it, that shines out. And that they’ll still speak to me after. After all, I do a mean line in small-talk in the street, so long as you don’t ask what I’m really thinking about…