Alan Baxter: Five Things I Learned Writing Hidden City
Steven Hines listened to the city and the city spoke. Cleveport told him she was sick. With his unnatural connection to her, that meant Hines was sick too. But when his friend, Detective Abby Jones, comes to him for help investigating a series of deaths with no discernible cause, Hines can’t say no. Then strange fungal growths begin to appear in the streets, affecting anyone who gets too close, turning them into violent lunatics. As the mayhem escalates and officials start to seal Cleveport off from the rest of the world, Hines knows the trouble has only just begun.
The idea is not the story
Some of the things I’m going to relate here I seem to learn anew with every book. For example, for me a book comes together not from a single idea, but when two or more ideas clash in a kind of mental pile-up. I’ll have all these things swimming around my brain all the time, making me stare at walls and not hear my wife calling me. That’s just being a writer. But then something will happen. One idea about a character will stroll through my thinkmeat just as another idea about a cool scene is trying to make out with a third idea about “what if this was that”, then something greater than all those parts happens and boom! There’s a book. My brain is a strange place. HIDDEN CITY grew from just such a collision of cool ideas: parasitic fungus, magic out of control, a harmless drug turned deadly, a broken-down, grief-stricken citymage… But even then, once the idea collision had occurred and I saw a bigger picture in the shape of a novel, I still needed the story. This is the thing I learned again. The ideas were cool, but they’re not the story. As people wiser than me have said, plot is what happens, but story is why we care.
Story is characters
And this leads to another thing that I seem to re-learn with every book. You’d think I’d know by now and start here, but my story-brain just doesn’t fire like that. It needs strange fuel at strange hours, often assisted by whisky. While plot is happening, you care because of the story, and the story is the characters. In the case of HIDDEN CITY, two primary characters drove the story together for me. One is the (fictional) city of Cleveport. In the noir style, place is always a character. In HIDDEN CITY, I take that to the max because Cleveport is a sentient city. Cities are all sentient, of course. You knew that, right? And most of them are assholes, but some are cool. Except Cleveport is more aware than most, which makes her dangerous. The other character to put this book into shape for me was Steven Hines, the aforementioned citymage. He has a kind of more-than-psychic connection to Cleveport. I’ll be honest, their relationship is fucking unhealthy, and Hines knows that, but it’s what he is, you know? What’s he gonna do? Then we throw in Hines’s best friend, Cleveport PD Detective Sergeant Abby Jones, and a spate of mysterious deaths, and now we have a story to care about because we care about these people. I hope.
Don’t worry what it is, just write the damn thing
I got a bit hung up at the start of HIDDEN CITY trying to figure out what it was. I felt like I should get a grip on the genre before I began. But I should have known better, from previous experience. Genre is what bookstores insist on, so they know where to shelve something. Readers tend to just want a good story. And you know what? I never met a genre I didn’t like, so I cram ’em all in to my books if I can. HIDDEN CITY is supernatural noir, it’s urban horror, it’s dark fantasy, it’s a crime thriller, it’s cosmic horror. Hell, you tell me what it is so I can let people know if they insist on shelving it.
The lifecycle of an invented parasitic fungus is tricky to get right.
I’ve got this notebook… well, I have dozens, it’s a common writer affliction, but I have this one in particular where I was working out how things happen in HIDDEN CITY. One of the primary drivers of events in the novel is the sudden appearance of a deadly fungal outburst throughout Cleveport. If people get too close they’re turned into violent psychopaths. They’re actually turned into something far worse, but I won’t spoil the story here. But to make this work, I needed to have a plausible lifecycle of this horrendous and virulent thing. So I started sketching in that notebook. I have these little drawings of fungal growths, then arrows and stick figures and notes. And it had to make sense. I mean, it’s horror and fantasy fiction, not real life, so it’s gotta make sense, you know? Turns out that’s a lot harder than I thought it would be, but I’m pleased with how it came together in the end.
Let it go, let it go, my darlings never bothered me anyway
Okay, so my son has recently discovered Frozen and that’s a special torture, but pity me and let’s move along. The point here is that I have amazing first readers (we read for each other so our agents and publishers don’t have to suffer our early drafts). There was one thread through HIDDEN CITY that I loved, I thought it was clever as fuck. One reader was all Meh about it, but another had a real problem with it. She used words like “shoehorned” and “distracting”. But I loved it! It was amazing, you know? Reader, it was not amazing. Sure it was a cool idea on its own, but not for this book. I finally accepted her words as Damned Good Advice, and I killed that darling, and HIDDEN CITY came together so much more tight and punchy. I would have been an idiot to ignore her. If you trust people to be first readers for you, learn to trust what they tell you too. It made HIDDEN CITY a much better book, and that’s all I ever want to do – put out the best book I can.
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ALAN BAXTER is a multi-award-winning author of supernatural thrillers, dark fantasy, and horror. He lives on the south coast of New South Wales, Australia, with his wife, son, two dogs, and a cranky old cat.
Alan Baxter: Website