Hello, Joan, it's so nice to have you here today.
You want to tell us about writing from the psyche so I leave it up to you. Let us have it.
We’re told to write with passion or write from the heart, and while this is good advice, I take it further. I suggest you write from the Psyche.
When I say that, I mean writing from those places inside your memory that stay with you, that delight you, and even haunt you. The memory can be a joyful one, like a trip to the carnival at night when you were a child, with all the lights, the smell of candied apple and french fries in the air, the musical rides, the lure of the sideshow barker. Can you still feel that excitement churning in your stomach?
Or maybe it was a darker memory- a time when you were chased down the street by a stalker. Can you still hear those running footsteps behind you? Feel your heart thudding in your breast?
What memories haunt you?
The seeds for my latest suspense novel Night Corridor were planted in my childhood. On Sundays, I accompanied my grandmother to visit an aunt in the New Brunswick Provincal Hospital, later changed to Centracare, once called The Lunatic Asylum. She’d spent much of her life within those walls. They said she was ‘melancholy’.
That sprawling, prison-like building with bars on the windows, has long since been torn down, the sights, sounds and smells of the place infiltrated the senses of the 12 year old girl I was, and never left. Recently, a local paper did a story on Night Corridor. They included an old postcard photo of the mental institution taken in 1905, and it looked almost like a pleasant rest home with trees in front. A clever photographer had managed to capture a small piece of the building shot at an attractive angle, not at all how it really looked.
She was always so glad to see us. She wore makeup, and beads and read poetry to me. She seemed like a movie star, but of course I knew better. I didn’t really understand why she couldn’t come home.
Further research led me to a diary I read written by a woman named Mary Heustis Pengilly, in 1885.
But while Night Corridor was inspired by my aunt, and influenced by Mrs. Pengilly, it is not about them. Fiction can be drawn from life, but it is filtered through the writer’s imagination. Your characters are not you. They are people in their own right with their own hearts and minds. You breathe life into them by infusing them with your own emotions, based on your life experiences. In this way you are connected to them.
I don’t try to force those connections, but I do invite them, long before I begin the novel. Something that I can grasp in my writer’s imagination and make something of. A kind of alchemy, turning lead into gold. At least that’s the intention. I’m not aware that I’m working out childhood issues, but I’m sure they play a part. Once I begin to relive that memory, complete with sensory details – sight, sound, smell, taste and touch, I invite the character into that world. It helps that I can remember with more vividness my childhood, then I can tell you what happened last Tuesday. This method may not work for every writer, but it works for me.
This is the building in my memory. And it is how Caroline Hill sees it in Night Corridor.
From Chapter 3:
“Pretty fall day,” the cab driver said over his shoulder, and Caroline jumped at the sound of his voice and turned around in the seat. She’d been looking out the back window, watching the prison-like structure of Bayshore Mental Institution, gray and sprawling against the cornflower blue of the sky, grow smaller and smaller. The man’s voice had startled her. But for Doctor Rosen, no man had spoken to her in a very long time.
The cab driver’s shoulders were wide in a maroon blazer of some soft material. His hair was a mass of gray curls and he wore dark sunglasses; she could see them in the rearview mirror.
She couldn’t see his eyes but knew he was looking at her, waiting for her response.
She must say something. It wasn’t like he’d asked her some difficult or personal question, only commented on the weather. Speak up, Dr. Rosen had told her. Hearing your own voice strong in your ears will give you confidence.
“Yes,” she said. “Yes, it’s very lovely.”
She settled back in the blue-gray plush seat, enjoying its soft, luxurious feel. The car smelled of new leather, pleasant and mildly reminiscent of something that nudged the edge of her mind. Ah yes, William’s leather jacket. William’s leather jacket. So long ago.
Then I ask myself, What If? What if you were in a mental institution for years, and suddenly put out onto the street.
What would it be like to be Caroline Hill who’d been in Bayshore Mental Institution for nine years. And then to complicate matters, and further threaten her fragile emotional health, to find herself being stalked by a deadly predator.
But who will believe her? She’s a crazy woman, after all.
When writers talk about the magic or mystery in , this, in my opinion, is what they’re talking about – the subconscious working away and offering up gems for our use. Or what Stephen King calls in his splendid book On Writing, ‘the boys in the basement’. Though writing is a craft in as much as housebuilding is a craft, you have to work at it. You have to put seat in chair everyday. You need to develop the skills to turn your story into a publishable manuscript. But assuming you’re doing that, the subsconscious is the cleverest part of us. It knows things we can’t even guess at.
Have you noticed that the best ideas don’t always come when you’re consciously trying to come up with something, but when you’re out walking, soaking in the bath, or even while lying in bed at night. Which is why I always recommend to students that they keep a notebook and pen handy whenever possible.
When you make a connection with that memory from your childhood that is so vivid to you, so present that you can transport yourself back to that time and place in an instant, use it. It is fodder for the imagination. And it makes no difference what genre you’re working in – romance, suspense, horror, whatever your cup of tea, you can make something of that memory. It’s impossible to say exactly how it all works. Enough that it does. You can take that memory in different directions. Transplant it to a different time and place. Use those emotional memories as a spider uses its spinneret glands to weave a web.
So the next time you’re stuck for an idea, what about that memory you could never shake? Maybe it’s time to exorcise it by using it in your next novel. Give it to one of your characters.
Now, after nine years in Bayshore mental institution, once called The Lunatic Asylum, Caroline is being released.
There will be no one to meet her. Her parents who brought her here are dead.
They have found her a room in a rooming house, a job washing dishes in a restaurant. She will do fine, they said. But no one told her that women in St. Simeon are already dying at the hands of a vicious predator. One, an actress who lived previously in her building.
And now, as Caroline struggles to survive on the outside, she realizes someone is stalking her.
But who will believe her? She's a crazy woman after all.
Then, one cold winter's night on her way home from her job, a man follows and is about to assault her when a stranger intercedes.
A stranger who hides his face and whispers her name
He noticed her as soon as he walked into the bar. She was sitting with another girl, a blond; pretty, he supposed, but his attention was riveted on the dark-haired one. He ordered a beer and took a table in the far corner where he had a good view, while he himself was safe from watchful eyes. She had satiny hair to her shoulders, high cheekbones, was slender in a silk print top, black slacks, like a woman on the cover of a magazine. She was laughing at something the blond said, flashing perfect white teeth and his heart tripped. She's the one, the voice told him. Excitement surged through him as he recast her in the movie that for years now, replayed endlessly on the screen of his mind.
When the two women rose to leave, he left his unfinished beer on the table and casually, so as not to draw attention to himself, followed them outside. She had put on a jacket and it shone bright white in the lights from the parking lot.
After chatting briefly, the two girls gave each other a quick hug, then parted and went to their respective cars, parked a good distance from one another. There was a rightness to it. They might just as easily have come in one car, or parked closer to one another. But they did not. The stars were finally lining up in his favor.
He came up behind her as she was fitting the key in the lock of the red Corvair. "I'm Buddy," he said softly, so as not to frighten her. Despite his best intention, she whirled around, eyes wide. "Jesus, you scared the shit out of me. What do you want?"
He felt the smile on his face falter. A mask, crumbling. "I just want to talk to you."
"Fuck off, okay? I'm not interested."
With those words, her beauty vanished, as if he'd imagined it. Her mouth was twisted and ugly. Disappointment weighed heavy on him. Anger boiled up from his depths.
"That was wrong of you to say that to me," he said, still speaking quietly.
Belying the softness of his voice, she saw something in his eyes then and he saw that she did, and when she opened her mouth to scream, he stuck her full in the face with his fist.
She slid down the side of the car as if boneless. He caught her before she hit the ground, then dragged her around to the other side of the car, blocking her with his own body in case someone saw them. Not that he was too concerned. If anyone did see them they would just figure she was his girlfriend and that she'd had one too many. But there was no one in the lot. Even her friend had already driven off.
He lowered her limp form to the ground while he hurried round to the driver's side and got the key out of the door. He put on his gloves, and opened the passenger door. After propping her up in the seat, he went back around and slid into the driver's side. Then he turned on the ignition and the car hummed to life.
Shifting the car into reverse, he backed out of the parking spot. He gave the wheel a hard turn and she fell against him, her hair brushing his face and filling his senses with her shampoo, something with a hint of raspberry. He pushed her off him and her head thunked against the passenger window. A soft moan escaped her, but she didn't wake.
He drove several miles out of the city, then turned left onto a rutted dirt road and stayed on it for a good ten minutes. Spotting a clearing leading into the woods, an old logging road no longer used, he eased the car in, bumping over dips and tangled roots. He went in just far enough not to be seen from the road on the off-chance someone drove by, but also taking care he wouldn't get stuck in here. The headlights picked out the white trunks of spruce trees, spot-lighting the leaves that seconds later receded into blackness, as if this were merely a stage set.
Beside him, the woman moaned again then whimpered, her hand moving to her face where he had struck her. Blood trickled darkly down one corner of her mouth and her eyes fluttered open. He knew the instant she sensed him there beside her, like the bogeyman in a nightmare.
Except she was awake now. When she turned to look at him he felt her stiffen, could see in her eyes that she knew she was in big trouble. He almost felt sorry for her. Almost.
"Who are you?" she croaked, more blood leaking from the corner of her mouth, eyes wet with tears.
"What does it matter?"
"Please…please don't hurt me. I'm—I'm sorry for what I said to you. I shouldn't have. If you want to… I mean, it's okay. You don't have to hurt…"
His fury was like lava from a volcano and his hand shot out, the back of it shutting off her words in mid-sentence. "Shut up, whore."
She was crying hard now, heavy, hiccupy sobs, helpless, terrified. But her tears meant nothing to him. She was right to be afraid. He slid the knife from its sheath that hung on his belt and let her see it.
"Oh, God, no please…" She was choking on her tears, wriggling away from him, trapped, like a butterfly on the head of a pin. He smiled when she reached for the door handle on her side, and then drove the knife into her upper arm. She screamed and he wound his fingers into her hair. "Be quiet," he said, while she held her arm with her other hand and wept like a child.
As he had wept. As he wept still.
"You can't get away," he said. "There's no place to go."
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