Caitlin Starling: Five Things I Learned Writing The Death of Jane Lawrence

Practical, unassuming Jane Shoringfield has done the calculations, and decided that the most secure path forward is this: a husband, in a marriage of convenience, who will allow her to remain independent and occupied with meaningful work. Her first choice, the dashing but reclusive doctor Augustine Lawrence, agrees to her proposal with only one condition: that she must never visit Lindridge Hall, his crumbling family manor outside of town. 

Yet on their wedding night, an accident strands her at his door in a pitch-black rainstorm, and she finds him changed. Gone is the bold, courageous surgeon, and in his place is a terrified, paranoid man—one who cannot tell reality from nightmare, and fears Jane is an apparition, come to haunt him. By morning, Augustine is himself again, but Jane knows something is deeply wrong at Lindridge Hall, and with the man she has so hastily bound her safety to. 

Set in a dark-mirror version of post-war England, Caitlin Starling crafts a new kind of gothic horror from the bones of the beloved canon. This Crimson Peak-inspired story assembles, then upends, every expectation set in place by Shirley Jackson and Rebecca, and will leave readers shaken, desperate to begin again as soon as they are finished.

Abdominal surgery Calls To Me, and I don’t know why

The Death of Jane Lawrence makes book number two in which there is an early plot-central colostomy. (The first, of course, is Gyre’s suit hookup in The Luminous Dead.) It wasn’t always that way; in the first version of the book, it was a very standard, run-of-the-mill horrifying leg amputation, a Victorian surgical specialty that has the benefit of not risking serious death in a time period that is only just discovering antiseptic technique.

But then revisions happened, and I needed to make the injury that caused the surgery weird, and, well, now you’ve got a klein bottle for a large intestine and you need a colostomy if you’re going to live.

(And then I added five more abdominal surgeries to the book, and I only realized the extent of the infestation when I was writing up content warnings.)

Look. I don’t know why I’m so obsessed with rerouting bowels and excising eldritch lumps. Something about the centrality of it, maybe? How inherently violating it is? Maybe how, after, you have to deal with a fundamental change to how you live?

It did grant me the absolutely amazing experience of consulting with an ER doctor in the family about possible complications and medical limitations of the setting, in which said doctor coined the phrase “location of the magical insult”.

What I forgive in a character is not necessarily what readers forgive in a character.

In the very first draft of The Death of Jane Lawrence, Jane was, perhaps, a little too forgiving to her new husband. Secrets? Well, it’s reasonable not to dump your trauma onto your new wife! Gaslighting? He was only trying to insulate her from his problems! Delusional and uncalled for attempted surgery? He was just scared!

You can imagine how this made my critique partners tear their hair out. My goal had been to make Jane’s husband sympathetic, but in belaboring his motivations, the book became me making excuses and crying, Oh, he’s not that bad! (He was. He still is. This is a gothic we’re talking about.) It turned out that the way to actually make him sympathetic (or at least engaging) was to drop his POV, stop justifying – and to let Jane react with a little less acceptance and a lot more frustration.

This is why readers are so important at every stage of the process: what you take away from your own writing is not what other people will take away from it, and it can sometimes be hard to anticipate where the differences are.

(Note: Sometimes the mismatch is not actually a problem. There is a point near the end of the book, in which Jane does something which I found not only reasonable, but rather romantic.

My editor had to remind me that it was, in fact, horrifying. And since this is a horror novel, that’s a good thing.)

Cocaine is a hell of a drug.

A quick disclaimer: I’m pretty sure that if I am the last person who should ever take cocaine, for the sake of myself and everybody who has to deal with me.

But cocaine was a standard part of the Victorian pharmacopeia, and what better tool is there when you need to be functional after long nights without sleep thanks to your haunted mansion or, moreover, when you absolutely need to stay awake for several days straight for a touch of ritual magic?

It was entirely reasonable to give my characters cocaine. But cocaine, plus the close third person perspective the book is written in, plus the already constantly escalating and spiraling weirdness of the plot turned into something perfectly, wonderfully terrible. Suddenly, Jane, who is by any measure confident and a little outside the norms of general behavior, was taking even bigger risks.

The trick, of course, is to make each decision feel natural; being able to immediately dismiss it as, “Oh, our lead is now on drugs,” cheapens the impact. That’s where the perspective comes in: Jane’s concept of what she’s doing is entirely medical and practical, and the moment of dosing herself does not immediately precede her questionable cocaine decisions. There’s a delay, long enough and subtle enough that Jane, and therefore the narrative, can’t connect the dots. An attentive reader can, of course, but the mismatch between reader knowledge and narrative produces that necessary horror ingredient: dread.

Go weirder.

The Death of Jane Lawrence, for all its classic trappings, is a completely bonkers little book. (Did the cocaine tip you off? What if I tell you that Jane’s understanding of magic is based in calculus?) It didn’t start that way, though. In earlier drafts, I kept things simple and easy to explain, my few flourishes constrained to what exactly are ghosts in this world? and okay, what’s another gnarly medical thing I can add here?

That made for a nice book. But I just stopped worrying so much, it could be so much better.

Two things got in the way of that, at first. One: marketability. Money is good. Money is a necessary component of why I write. And writing something weird makes it less likely to sell, right? Turns out, that’s not exactly true. If The Luminous Dead’s relative success taught me anything, it’s that, if you can get the weird on the shelves, it sticks with people. If you just let your weird brain weasels out to play, and show them off at the best angles, people like that. They pay you money. They want more!

Which brings me to the second roadblock: I have spent my whole life trying not to be so weird. My brain occasionally goes way too hard in directions that the people I meet in my day to day life don’t get (or, worse, are disgusted by). That made trying to tap into that weird a very scary, vulnerable process. It wasn’t even that I looked at what I knew I wanted to do and went, “No, that’s scary, can’t do that.” I had buried some of this down so deep that I had forgotten what I wanted. It took a lot of excavating to find it again.

Absolutely worth it, but a bitch of an exercise.

Revisions make the heart grow fonder.

There have been a lot of iterations of this book. There have been at least two ground-up rewrites, maybe three, and a whole lot of tweaking at each step. It was one of the most frustrating experiences of my creative life: here was a book that I loved, beyond all reason, and it wasn’t right, and wasn’t right, and still wasn’t right. The things I loved about it just weren’t translating to my early readers, and I spent years tearing it apart and putting it back together, trying to find what was going wrong.

Over time, I made everything weirder, and made Jane take bigger risks, and just got loud about the parts that I enjoyed most. I let them take up more page count. I wallowed around in them, because, let’s face it – if I never fixed the book, I at least wanted to enjoy some of that failure. And if I wasn’t having fun, then what was the point of beating my head into a wall?

There were dark times, of course, but by the time we got to the final draft, I was still having fun. I was having more fun, actually. I wanted to yell about the book even louder, to more people, for longer. The story that started The Death of Jane Lawrence was good! But where we’ve ended up?

Well, that’s magical.

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Caitlin Starling is an award-winning writer of horror-tinged speculative fiction. Her novel The Luminous Dead won the LOHF Best Debut award, and was nominated for both a Locus and a Bram Stoker award. Her other works include Yellow Jessamine and a novella in Vampire: The Masquerade: Walk Among Us. Her nonfiction has appeared in Nightmare and Uncanny. Caitlin also works in narrative design, and has been paid to invent body parts. Find her work at www.caitlinstarling.com and follow her at @see_starling on Twitter.

Caitlin Starling: Website | Twitter

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