Stoker Award nominee LaTanya McQueen has incredible storytelling skills. Her book, When the Reckoning Comes, is obviously scary (that’s why we’re here!), but what stood out to me while I was reading it is the pure talent. This book goes down smooth. It’s the literary equivalent of a one-story beer bong–you open the spigot and enjoy.
OK, so maybe that analogy is a little pointed. Let me try to explain it another way: I’ve read a lot of books that force me to stop and start — a bad paragraph here, a pointless chapter there — and it requires moments of slog. You slog through it because the book is very good (not great), so you accept that sometimes the writing is iffy. McQueen’s novel is not like this. Every page flows. She’s a master of narrative.
When the Reckoning Comes revolves around a young Black woman named Mira who’s invited to the wedding of a white friend from her childhood. Celine, the white friend, is getting married on a renovated plantation. This plantation isn’t simply a horrifically racist celebration of the past, it’s also the sight of a traumatic experience that Mira and her friend Jesse had when they were younger.
Things grow tense between the three pretty quickly:
Celine should have known it wasn’t about what the place looked like, but then Celine hadn’t been with them that day, only heard the story afterward like everyone else. Mira and Jesse were the ones who’d snuck off, and in the time since, who knew what it had become? The history rewritten, erased, having become something entirely new. This was what Celine was trying to convince Mira of as she pressed the phone against her cheek and thought back to a past she’d hoped to forget, to the girl she’d been, and to the friend she’d loved.
McQueen does a lot of telling, which writers sometimes assume is always a big no-no. But McQueen is so great at storytelling that she makes you feel intimately involved in the plight of Mira. Her telling has purpose, and her voice is so natural that I couldn’t stop turning the page.
Now consider this passage, when Mira sees a ghostly apparition of the plantation’s past:
The white man nodded and walked off out of sight. When he returned, he had a band of other slaves following behind him in teams of two, with each twosome carrying a large burlap sack. They grunted as they walked, straining from the weight of what they carried. He signaled for the slaves to drop their sacks and they pounded against the ground. Then, he called to those in the hole. “Enough,” he said. “I’m done with this. I’ve got other plans for today than to watch you all work.”
When these scary scenes occur, we already care about Mira, and we want details. We crave the parts where McQueen tells, and then she moves effortlessly into moments where she simply shows. McQueen is an amazing storyteller.
Dark Pathway: Finding Your Voice
I’m going to split this writing activity in two because I’ve been thinking a lot about how writers can find their voice. And I’ve been reading this great book (The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop by Felicia Rose Chavez) that gave me pause about the value of mimicking other writers’ voices. Still, it might be worth it to practice a little, because being able to mimic another writer’s voice can make for powerful learning experiences.
Step One: Write a two-page story. Your character is in a house (it’s not their house), and something creepy happens. This moment sparks a traumatic memory from your character’s past. Free write the scene. TELL as much as you want.
Step Two: Read Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants.” It’s a simply written story that takes place in a cafe between a man and a woman. Even though it’s never spoken aloud, the man is pressuring the woman to get an abortion. Note, especially, what’s said and left unsaid.
Step Three: Write a new scene that takes place in a restaurant or cafe. Your character is sitting with a friend or lover. Write a conversation between them. Make the conversation brief and sharp, like the one in Hemingway’s story. The topic of the conversation is your main character’s traumatic memory, and the creepy scene in the house. The other character doesn’t believe in ghosts. Show, through the dialogue, this tension between them.
Once you’re done, look at the two very different scenes you’ve written. Think about what feels right to you. This is how you find your voice: by experimenting and reflecting. Can you take something from each of the scenes? Or do you prefer one over the other? Don’t be afraid to rewrite Step Two mimicking the voice of another writer. Get a feel for what looks good on the page.
Then keep writing!
Ken Brosky is the author of The Beyond, a horror novel available through Timber Ghost Press. His work has been published in Grotesque and Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, among others. He’s currently working on a screenplay and a new novel.