Dark Fiction -
How It Happens
Kathy Coogan

Somehow without planning it, I became a writer of dark fiction. I seem not to be able to create a smiley scenario. With fingers relaxed over the keyboard, I don’t imagine happily ever after. It’s not that I set out to give my characters grief, rather I tend to conceive of situations which have unforeseen consequences for some poor, so-far-unconstructed characters.

My fiction is just that – fiction. Not true, not autobiographical. The sadness I write about is not my sadness, nor is the sickness. And the evil is definitely not mine. I write about counterfeit sadness, sickness and evil. My comfort is that while I have imagined the fictional difficulties, I have not had to experience them. I cross my fingers and knock wood to un-jinx the future, keeping silent about my secret unwritten foibles and fears.

When I practice self-analysis, I wonder where these stories come from, besides the heart of my imagination. What part of me writes them? The stories, of course, must be triggered by something. I do not live in a vacuum. I see people and know people. I read the news and listen to the radio.

While I don’t write about my life, the life I live is the source of my stories. It must be. The stories begin in my head, the head that I live in. They begin with foresight rather than forethought. I see the stories unfold as I write them, not editing my sentences at all, just letting the action happen on the page. At the end (the first end, that is) I reread and rewrite, running with the character through the original “dark, rainy street.” Eventually, with editing, we traverse “a street whose puddles reflect her running image like speckled mirrors lying flat.”

In another edit I change the “her” to “my,” instantly adding the opportunity for drama, intensity and insight. One problem with the use of first person is the risk of what I call The Assumption of the Autobiographical. The reader assumes that the story written is my life’s story. This is ultimately a compliment but also a quandary. A compliment - since the story must feel real for the assumption to be made. A quandary - because it tars me with the drama of my own creative brush.

Rarely does a first draft make it to the reader. Usually I let the story stew for a while, if only a few hours, while, in my head new twists and turns and ins and outs are tried on. Would she this? Would I that? I wonder if I need to add hair color or height. Alter gender? That would certainly distinguish the story “me” from the writer “me.”

The risk in the editing process is that I begin to anticipate judgment. Personal judgment : What was she thinking? What kind of person imagines this stuff? I feel challenged to soften the sadness, explain the sickness or diminish the evil. Alone at my PC, I try to stay true to the story that I imagined keeping intact the wounds, warts and weaknesses of the protagonists and antagonists. I envision a reader who “gets it.”

The substance of a dark story must not be watered down but there must be no drama for drama’s sake. Every gesture, decision and consequence must rise from what preceded it. To have value the story must stand on its own two feet, no matter the sensibilities of a future reader. I, the author, must take responsibility for the thoughts and actions of “I,” the character, two separate beings conjoined in my imagination.

The reader must not exist until the story is completed. Only then does the reader‘s judgment matter. If I Iet the reader’s sensibilities interfere with the construction of the story as I write it, out of fear that a reader might misinterpret or disagree, then I should stop before I start.

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