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And Now for Something Completely Different

Scary TV
Photo by Robert Couse-Baker

I’m a romance author. I’ve written Chick Lit/Women’s Fiction (which is different from romance – any romance reader can tell you that) and I’ve written Urban Fantasy. But there’s a strong through-line of “happy love story” in all my work, spanning over a twenty-one year career, covering over twenty-seven novels, novellas, and serial episodes.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I got hit with the idea for a horror novel this year.

Terror terroir.

If you like wine at all (or if you’ve got a friend who is a vocal wine aficionado) you might have heard the term “terroir.” According to Oxford, “terroir” means “the complete natural environment in which a particular wine is produced, including factors such as soil, topography, and climate.”

On a secondary level, it also means “the characteristic taste and flavor imparted to a wine by the environment in which it is produced.”

That’s why the same kind of wine, like a Cabernet Sauvignon or a Chardonnay, can taste very different if one is from Oregon and one is from Australia. Everything around the plant is drawn in and influences the outer product, the grape, which in turn affects the wine.

I think that writers have terroir, too. Our environments, our upbringing, our circles of contact, all influence the work we produce.

Welcome to hell.

Looking at the world now is to watch a planet ablaze.

Beneath it all, there is a pulsing, seething emotion. Not fear, or at least, not just fear. Rage. Some of it absolutely justified. Some of it horrifically excused or dangerously downplayed. Either way, it is getting amplified. If the world is a bonfire, then there are people out there gleefully tossing on napalm.

It’s been hard to focus on love stories. Not impossible, but a struggle… because romance is an exercise in hope.  I find myself digging deep and using up a disproportionate amount of my energy to keep the words flowing on the page.

But as the year continues, and the fury and despair grows, I also find my writing ideas shifting. I feel this little story seed swelling like a bubble of poison, one that desperately needs to be leached out somehow.

Writing teaches lessons – to the reader and the writer.

I adore romance. Romance reading has been my refuge, especially in these perilous times. The best romances give me three-dimensional characters to root for, and examples of people genuinely caring about others, not just the romantic couple, but usually the family (found or blood) that surrounds them. To write a romance is to write about people who are no longer alone, to share the journey of people who are just finding love and learning to overcome their own baggage to intertwine their lives with others, who are learning to accept themselves (because that’s a cornerstone of being able to accept someone else.)

I’ve learned a lot about taking care of myself, connecting with others, and how to be better in relationships as a result of writing romance. I also learned that I was a bit of a workaholic and that I was burning myself out and that I had some childhood stuff to work out. (Yes, I feel stupid writing that. But if it’s any comfort, Stephen King himself points out that he didn’t realize he was an alcoholic when he essentially wrote an entire metaphor about alcoholism in The Shining.)

I’ll be honest. I’m a little curious, and a little terrified, of what the heck horror is going to be teaching me.

How to process rage in a senseless reality? How to deal with despair? How to face your fear?

If you can’t be a sterling example, be one hell of a cautionary tale?

The mind boggles.

I don’t even know how to approach horror.

I have a standard three-act-structure routine to fall back on, which isn’t nothing. But the sheer mechanics of how to instill fear are a lot different (I think?) than creating, say, romantic tension.

I’m reading more horror, to get a sense of the conventions of the genre, and see how much it’s changed in the decades since I last devoured it, back when I’d binged on Stephen King and Dean Koontz in high school. There’s some good stuff out there, but I’ve changed so much as a person, I find myself hard pressed to be as “scared” as I used to be.

In fairness, that might also be because of the world in 2020. Now, a simple house haunting or chainsaw-wielding murderer might well make a protagonist crack open a beer and state: “That all you got?”

Regardless… I’m giving it a shot.

I am in awe of writers that jump genres. I can write different genres (and as a ghostwriter, I have) but I’ve never had such a draw for something so polar opposite to what I normally gravitate toward. I imagine there will be a lot of flailing, and failing, and revising, and trying again. But if anything can help me process the weird, angry, desperate world we’re currently living in, I am going to give it a try.

So my question to you: what’s the scariest thing you’ve ever read, and why? Have you ever radically changed genres?  And what did you find most helpful when you did? Are you finding it challenging to write like you used to in 2020?

Bonus points for horror writers willing to give tips to a newbie! 

About Cathy Yardley [1]

Cathy Yardley is the author of eighteen novels, published with houses such as St. Martin's and Avon, as well as her self-published Rock Your Writing series. She's also a developmental editor and writing coach, helping authors complete, revise, and get their stories published. Sign up here [2] for her newsletter to receive the free course Jumpstart Your Writing Career. [2]