Douglas Wynne: Five Things I Learned Writing Red Equinox

RedEquinox_TerribleMinds

 

Urban explorer and photographer Becca Philips was raised in the shadow of Miskatonic University, steeped in the mysteries of her late grandmother’s work in occult studies. But what she thought was only myth becomes all too real when cultists unleash terror on the city of Boston. Now she’s caught between a shadowy government agency called SPECTRA and the followers of an apocalyptic faith bent on awakening an ancient evil.

As urban warfare breaks out between eldritch monsters and an emerging police state, Becca must uncover the secrets of a family heirloom known as the Fire of Cairo to banish the rising tide of darkness before the balance tips irrevocably at the Red Equinox.

WHAT BOSTON MIGHT LOOK LIKE UNDERWATER

I live about an hour north of Boston on coastal wetlands. In 2007 we had a storm combined with a full moon high tide and our house was flooded with over three feet of water on the ground floor. Furniture was floating. I lost a lot of books that day, but we got out okay, even though I had a hair-raising moment watching the lights flicker as water sloshed into the electrical outlets. The National Guard evacuated us, and wearing hip waders I carried my then-pregnant wife to the car with our dog swimming beside us. We got out right before the road went under.

This kind of thing is happening in more coastal cities each year.

So yeah, climate change is a thing. A thing that made a deep impression on me and was bound to come out in a story sooner or later. When I set out to write a Cthulhu Mythos novel set in a near-future apocalyptic Boston, I knew right away that the city would be recovering from a flood. What better environment for your marine-based Great Old Ones?

A modern metropolis overwhelmed by the sea had nice psychological connotations—especially for a book in which women play so many crucial roles—so I named the hurricane after sex phobic H.P. Lovecraft’s wife, Sonia. But after the joke, I still had to learn a lot about what an actual flooded Boston might look like. It’s a sobering picture, and while there are many excellent resources on the web that illustrate various scenarios, the one I printed out and tacked to the wall over my writing desk was this modified subway map. It’s close enough for speculative fiction, and it oriented the disaster to landmarks I know well.

HOWIE WAS A STONECOLD RACIST (BUT THE CONVERSATION DOESN’T END THERE)

Good thing H.P. Lovecraft didn’t have a Facebook page in the 1930s or we wouldn’t have the fiction. He had to spew his racist bullshit in private correspondence because Weird Tales didn’t have an online forum. Separating the art from the artist and cutting him some slack for being a product of his times are conversations for another place, but these days you just tune out writers whose beliefs are reprehensible. You don’t even read the fiction. Lovecraft, Like Orson Scott Card, was influential before we knew how nasty his personal worldview was.

The paranoid dread that we know and love from his work is probably rooted in his personal xenophobia, as Alan Moore has pointed out. So if we love the art, we have to understand that it has dirty roots in what made the man tick. As a fan, I’d always found his references to eugenics and “swarthy negroes” distasteful and archaic, but I had no idea until I’d built 90,000 words in his sandbox that it was as bad as this.

It’s like that sickly feeling you get in your stomach at the Thanksgiving table when a relative lets fly with the ugly. You think: I wouldn’t be here at the table if not for you, but ick!

While I was in the thick of writing my Lovecraftian novel, the World Fantasy Award controversy exploded and suddenly everyone wanted to replace the bust of Lovecraft with one of Octavia E. Butler to honor diversity. Not a bad idea. (Personally, I don’t think the award should be a bust of anyone. I’d go with a sword in a stone because that would be rad and getting a book published can feel like pulling one out).

Anyway, when the shit hit the fan and I learned how bad it really was, I was glad I had trusted my initial instincts to tell the story through the eyes of a fucked up art school girl and her “swarthy” friends. Lovecraft had a gift for expressing existential dread and alienation, and now some of his biggest fans, literary heirs, and curators are transgender folks and people of color. He’s huge in Latin America.

He’s probably rolling in his grave.

YOU CAN’T HAVE TOO MUCH TENSION

Before starting work on Red Equinox, I interviewed thriller author Jonathan Maberry. He recommended a great book: Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook by uber agent Donald Maass. I picked it up and ran my second draft through almost all of the exercises Maass prescribes. Wow. The subtitle should be “50 Ways to Intensify a Novel.”

The most difficult piece of advice to implement, the one Maass says he knows most writers won’t follow, is this: add tension on every page. It doesn’t have to be big gun-in-the-face tension, just something, anything, that raises a question or makes you curious about how a character will react to a bit of dialog or a piece of information. Now, maybe I didn’t end up with tension on every page, but at one point I shuffled a PDF of the manuscript and went through it in random order, looking at each page out of context, highlighting any tension, and asking, “what on this page makes you want to read the next one?”

It hurt. Nothing makes a manuscript look weaker than robbing it of context and momentum.

It also helped. Any changes that felt contrived, I dropped but the experiment taught me that you really can’t have too much tension or suspense.

GOOGLE IS YOUR FRENEMY

Ah, Google, the modern writer’s favorite research assistant. While it’s great for finding flood scenarios and porn and everything you need to write a convincing helicopter flyover (Thank you Google Earth, damn you’re cool), it can get some things very wrong. Like Latin translation, for example. Way wrong.

Start with computers, but make sure you have boots on the ground, too. I love Microsoft Word, but I’d never consider it a substitute for an editor. After my Google Earth flyovers, I made a few trips into the city and snapped my own reference photos up close. If you’re writing a real world setting—even one set in a dystopian future that gives you some creative license—do this whenever possible. It’s how you get the gritty details right, and how you find inspiration in things you’d never know about otherwise. Walk around, smell things, and talk to people.

Real people will make you look smarter every time. That’s why I talk to National Monument rangers and forensics experts. And even though I love behindthename.com for telling me that the surname Marlowe means “drained lake,” and Nereus means “god of the sea,” I love weird fiction scholar S.T. Joshi even more for correcting my botched Latin titles for the spellbooks I invented. Google Translator would have let me go out with my fly open on that one.

WRITE WHO YOU LOVE

We’ve all heard “write what you know” and “write what you love.” I say write who you love. In the introduction to The Golden Man, Philip K. Dick said, “I want to write about people I love, and put them into a fictional world spun out of my own mind.” It’s not a bad approach. And yet, when my friends and family complain that I keep killing them off, I tell them they have to stop identifying with figments of my imagination. Characters might have their genesis in the traits of people you know from life, but in the crucible of fiction they should become both more and less than the flesh and blood that inspired them. Still, you can’t go wrong thinking about the weird and complex combination of interests, abilities, disabilities, and quirks that make up the people you know and love well. It’s hard to write a cardboard character if you’re doing that.

This was my first time writing a female protagonist, and I didn’t want her to be just another sexy young heroine distracted by romance in the eye of a supernatural shit storm. So I based Becca Philips on the kind of person my wife was in her 20s (sorry, honey, it’s meant as a compliment). Becca became her own person in the writing. I don’t see my wife when I picture her. But the association unlocked the complexity of her character and enabled me to tell you a lot about her with a pretty economical set of cues.

Of course, it’s also fun to write who you loathe. Someone from the daily grind getting on your nerves? Oh man is it therapeutic to grant them a visceral death on the page. I uh…might have done that, too.

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Douglas Wynne is the author of the novels The Devil of Echo Lake, Steel Breeze, and Red Equinox. He lives in Massachusetts with his wife and son and spends most of his time hanging out with a pack of dogs when he isn’t writing, playing guitar, or swinging a katana at the dojo.

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