Fear and the Familiar, Writing Three Parts Dead

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Posted on May 30, 2017

Design Notes for Three Parts Dead

Left to my own devices, I spend a lot of time alone. I’m a writer, so I write and read for fun—I sit in my living room, feet up, with a book, or pen and ink, or a laptop, and I work. I know the sounds of my apartment: cars rumble down the street nearby, tumblers cascade as keys slide into the front door lock, doors slam across the street, a woman laughs. Air whispers over floor exchanges, glass breaks in the bedroom, leaves rustle through the open window…

Wait, what? Glass?

I know the sounds of my apartment; I know the sound of breaking glass. The combination catches my breath. My heart beats faster as I close book or laptop and reach for a weapon. I become scared, not because I’ve never heard broken glass before, but because I know glass shouldn’t be breaking in my bedroom when there’s nobody else in my house.

Familiarity is a key to fear, and to more than fear. A reader’s familiarity gives her strong expectations that can be subverted and manipulated to provoke fear, fury, or passion. A reader entering an unfamiliar setting doesn’t know what to expect; they view the new situation as an adventure, a curiosity. It’s harder to punch someone so distant in the gut.

When I sat down to write Three Parts Dead, I knew I wanted to create a fantasy in a secondary world, a book where fantastic forces had been at large for thousands of years, evolving with humankind in the open rather than hiding in the shadows. I also knew that I wanted that fantasy to feel real enough to modern readers that I could scare them. (And frustrate them, and make them fall in love, and maybe evoke a tiny taste of despair.)

Tolkein scares his readers, of course, and Lord Dunsany can mystify and horrify at once. Both of these writers had advantages I don’t: Tolkein was a Cambridge Don, resident and piece of a system of tradition hundreds of years old. He loved and traveled the English countryside; he devoted himself to philology, literature, and history. Dunsany was an honest-to-goodness Lord, with a castle and everything. They knit their worlds out of experiences that were real to them, and invited readers into that reality. They knew rolling hills and vast forests, crumbling castles and noble bloodlines, well enough to present them to a reader so as to reduce or eliminate the reader’s distance. A writer who knows her subject can create a bond of familiarity where none exists. You’ve never been to my apartment, but I know it well enough to build it for you—and once you’ve entered that world, you’re ready to be scared by it.

I’m no Irish lord, no Oxford don. I grew up in the country, but I’ve spent the last ten years in one city or another, and even when I was a kid I only spent a month or two in real wilderness. I’ve lived in hierarchies my entire life, but only those of the capitalist, bureaucratic, theological, and academic variety—no noblesse oblige for me. Notions like innate superiority and power-by-blood don’t sit well in my head, and would spill awkwardly from my pen. I’m not close enough to an old-fashioned aristocracy to critique one.

I drew on that experience to build Three Parts Dead; I tore the world I knew apart, and forged it back together in strange order. I know cities, so I wrote about cities. I know about being the country kid who hopes a good school will be the ticket out—so I wrote about that kid. I know about hierarchies, and churches, and faith gone twisted, so I wrote about those, too. I’ve lived in countries recovering from conflicts so close in history nobody dares name them—so I wrote those countries. I’ve known bosses good and bad, known people struggling to get ahead in careers that eat their lives, their time, their souls, and I wrote them too. I left in common artifacts, in part to increase the reader’s familiarity, and in part because they were awesome. Cigarettes. Gin. Tonsured priests and professionals in pinstriped suits. Familiarity enough to subvert and transcend, to seduce and to scare.

I’m dangerously close to saying ‘write what you know,’ which I don’t mean. If you’re writing, write beyond yourself. Write bravely, or else most of the world will remain closed to you. But in this project, I found familiarity to be a great foundation for emotional response, and fear.