Douglas Wynne: Five Things I Learned Writing Red Equinox



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.


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.


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.


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.


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 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.


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.

* * *

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.

Douglas Wynne: Website | Twitter

Red Equinox: Amazon | Indiebound | Kobo | Goodreads | JournalStone

21 responses to “Douglas Wynne: Five Things I Learned Writing Red Equinox”

  1. Wow, I read these all the time, but, suddenly, during the reading of this one, I had an epiphany about how to fix the awful beginning of my novel! Bye. Leaving to write. And thanks!!!!

  2. What is it with Boston? I’ve been really drawn to stories set in Boston this last year. Maybe there’s something mythical going on…for real! When you hear on the radio that waves of West Cost nutters are pouring in you may need more than flood defence! Now I’ll have to read your book to find out what happens and what your wife was like in her twenties. Suspense working!

    That novel Workbook sounds really good, but I don’t know if I agree that you can’t have too much tension. As a reader if I’m inundated with endless pages of tension and I’m not given the odd page or two or four to emotionally rest and breathe I get really irate. This could be a biological/genetic problem! I’m probably a mutant, though suspense isn’t my genre (which is just as well as I’d have a scheduled heart attack somewhere near the end of each book).

  3. Thank you for this! In my current w-i-p I have many characters who, I’ve now realised, share characteristics with friends and family both past and present. I was worried this meant I was a crappy writer writing a book that will ultimately be unpublishable (“oh noes, another writer exploiting her real-life experiences and mangling it into fiction, urrrggghhh!”) I feel better knowing that not only am I not the only one who does this, but that successful authors like yourself do it too.

    And I will be checking out Red Equinox too, I think. Quite apart from the opportunity to read something Lovecraftian with the unsavoury viewpoints taken out (I don’t mind if the narrative’s viewpoint is MEANT to make me feel sick, but otherwise…) that is one gorgeous-looking cover you’ve got there – beautiful in its simplicity.

  4. You and Chuck have female protags. I’m leery when I see a man write a woman, and vice versa. I understand why there should be a strong female character, but why did you choose to write a female main character? Marketing? Is it the case that more women will buy this type of book (which I think would have a limited female audience) because it has a female lead?

    I read “Blackbirds,” and it was great, but I had the feeling that the protag was basically a man dressed up as a woman for the sole reason of having a female protag, which seems to me would only be to sell books.

    I don’t want this to come off wrong, because I was thinking of doing the same thing. Most readers of fiction are women. I was wondering what would happen if I went through and reversed everything in my novel.

    So, the question is: did you do that on your own, like wake up one morning and say, “you know, I should write a woman protag because, you know, we’re equal, and I want to give women equal time,” or did someone, such as a publisher or an agent say, “yo, you’ll sell more books, and it’ll be easier to sell your novels to publishers, if your protag is a woman?” Is there any data on this issue? Did the protag start out as a woman, or did you switch it around to make it so?

    Are woman more likely read a book, even a book that is in a genre traditionally (largely) favored by men, such as science fiction, or spy novels, if the protag is a woman? What if it’s a book written by a woman with a male protag? (i.e., The Goldfinch).

    Do women get suspicious if there’s a book of this type written by a man, but with a female protag? Do they get the feeling they’re being pandered to? Or does it make them feel included, finally?

    What say you?

    • Hi Michael – I wonder if you might be overthinking this. Your question seems to imply some ‘motive’ – marketing, feminist ideals, etc, whereas I *suspect* its much simpler than that. It’s a question of “who fits into my story”, or “who do I see mentally when I write this”.

      Women make up 50% of the population, so if picking a protagonist, its even odds that a woman would fit the role. Unless of course your plot depends on a gender (i.e. you might be writing about fatherhood, or pregnancy, for example).

      There may well be a tendency for authors to write protagonists of the gender they are most familiar with, but there should be no restriction here – I trust authors to write stories with alien, dinosaur, computer or alien-computer-dinosaur protags, and I’m reasonably sure that none of the ones I have read are any of those things. Fine. Maybe Chuck.

      But why not write as the opposite gender. Or Opposite sexuality. Or any of the other QUILTBAG options.

      I also think you make an assumption in your question ‘men want to read about men doing things’ and ‘women want to read about women doing things’, which I don’t think checks out in practice – I like to read about interesting people doing interesting things. I LOVED the movie Aliens (sci-fi), with a female protag, and every male I know (I surround myself with nerds) loves it.

      There is/was a discussion going on on twitter – check @SamSykesSwears that discusses this topic: starts here:
      Well worth checking out.

      Anyway, Your question asks “Why” and assumes there is an overt reason.

      I would say “Why not?”.


      • Hi Wildbilbo,

        I have to say I agree with you 100%.

        That said, I checked that link, I didn’t see much discussion, so much as people ripping apart a guy (I’m assuming a guy, based in the question) that asked a question, rather than trying to educate or making their point.

        Again, I 100% agree with you. I personally have a difficult time writing from a woman’s POV, I keep worrying that I’m doing what Michael mentioned, just writing a guy but I call it a woman because I want the character to be a woman. As soon as I finish my draft I plan on trying hard to find a few women to beta-read for me to make sure it doesn’t come across this way.

        If anyone has any advice (or a link to good advice) on this I’d appreciate it.

        That said, this post reminds me of an interesting protagonist I read in an SF series: She was a woman whose consciousness was tranferred into a robot (male shaped) and stuck in a patriarchal society. The author doesn’t spend too much time on it but it comes up with some interesting situations. The book is “Off Armageddon Reef” by David Weber.

        Anyway, that’s my piece, thanks for reading.


    • It would be a shame if we had to relegate all female protagonists to female writers, or all black protagonists to black writers, etc. One of the coolest things about writing is that it’s an empathy game. We get to try on different skins and imagine what it’s like to be the other.

      Also, while it might be a helpful trick to slip into that skin by thinking of your female character as a man in a woman’s body, that will only get you so far. Obviously women have to deal with a lot of different societal stuff (not to mention different biochemical stuff), and I think Miriam Black wouldn’t have been as effective if Chuck hadn’t accounted for that.

    • I wrote BLACKBIRDS with a woman in the role of main character because that’s who was the main character. It wasn’t a marketing decision, it was a story decision. She fits, and she’s not just a guy with the serial numbers filed off — she reminds me very explicitly of women I know. Including, to some degree, my own wife.

      — c.

    • Interesting question/perspective! Personally, as a woman, I find Chuck’s Miriam all woman. As a writer I would never try to force a gender on a protagonist. I think that road is paved with pain. The character is either a female or a male (though there may be the rare character who is born with both sexual organs who may jump back and forth but that would still demand the same ability to write both sexes). The thought of switching it for effect seems like self-torture (and would completely change everything – it would be a completely different story). Of course men and women are different which is why I find men endlessly fascinating. My poor husband is regularly asked bizarre questions dealing with maleness and what it’s like to be a man (he sighs and rolls his eyes – I adore him!), but I also study individual men from history. Over the years I’ve read numerous non-fiction articles and books on or by men (and the differences between men and women etc). You can build up a knowledge base from which your subconscious is able to dredge for info. Even within one’s own sex there are endless possibilities. This last year (to stretch myself) I started reading outside my normal genres. There have been a number of “chick lit” books I’ve tried to read that made me ask…do some women really think/talk/act like this? The answer is yes, but that’s the great thing about characters. No matter if they’re male or female they’re always an individual! Good luck with your writing! 🙂

  5. Interesting questions. In this case, I knew from the start I wanted to write a female lead. In my first two novels women had relatively minor roles, so it was just something different I was ready to try, sort of as a challenge but also because I could see this character and some things about her that made her right for the story.

    My publisher is a small press and they’ve never suggested that I write anything particular with sales in mind. I did want to go against the grain of Lovecraft’s misogyny, but that was like an added bonus.

    • Actually, I shouldn’t say they all had minor roles. I’m pretty proud of my female FBI agent in STEEL BREEZE. But I was ready to try a book centered on a female MC.

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