Hitting the Darker Notes

Barry Gornell headshot
Category: Writing

Take real life inspiration

A strong tone can really help to draw the reader in, but the tone that evolves is not necessarily the one the writer expects. The first thing I’d say is recognise and take the ideas when they happen. The tone will follow, unforced. I have a natural predisposition to the darker side of things and these are the ideas I identify in real-life situations.

For example, whilst living in the Highlands, I had an argument with a chainsaw-wielding neighbour, a very unhappy man with a smashing house in a fantastic location. Questioning the situation, pondering what was causing such unhappiness in such beautiful surroundings, became the spark for my first novel, The Healing of Luther Grove. The argument was replicated, almost word for word, in the novel and became the inciting incident.

Before long, I knew my way around the unhappy streets

My second, The Wrong Child, grew from a conversation that occurred after a long day’s unpleasant work on a German film, which probably influenced the mood of thought that night. My protagonist, Dog Evans, was born in the public bar of The Plockton Inn. Seeking to steer the conversation away from the woes of the day, my colleagues asked me what my porn name would be. I pled ignorance. Upon being told it was a combination of your first pet and your Mother’s maiden name, I said Dog Evans. ‘No, ya walloper, the name of the dog.’ Well, that was Shep. Shep Evans. I thought he sounded cool. However, we started talking about Dog Evans. We knew he sweated in the cold, didn’t believe in ghosts, wasn’t afraid of the dark, had been abandoned, was angry etc. All of these things came quickly and I already had a picture of him forming in my mind, somewhere between Boo Radley and Gollum. His name suggested wildness and a physical strangeness or awkwardness. I knew Shep to be his dad, but didn’t know if this was a good thing or not. So, in less than a pint of Guinness, I had two characters. Where did they live? I have found I need to situate my characters before I can explore them.  

Immerse yourself in the location you are writing about

A small village like Plockton felt like the right size, a self-contained world. In order to create the appropriate location I corrupted Plockton; replacing the sea in the bay with rank marshland, sun with snow, day with night, Duncraig Castle with an isolated, run-down house, etc. This bleak and cold village I then transported to a fictional, Durness-like isolation, giving me a lonely, wintry outpost at the dead end of a very long road, a law unto itself, a home for the misplaced and the peculiar. Somewhere I could get away with murder.

Use real life, twisted, battered or cheered up, as an inspiration

Thus established, the village became real and organic in my mind. I visited often, to the point of immersion. Before long, I knew my way around the unhappy streets, their smell and light, the feel underfoot, how the shops were lit. The darkening mood became infectious, hard to control or moderate. It became a place of execution, guilt-ridden and furtive. Characters stepped from shadows, walked down lanes, crossed marsh and broke through fences. Names happened. I heard bits of dialogue. Physical and emotional traits developed. Index cards and post-its began to spread across my cork wall, characters shifting and coalescing into family groups and cliques. The short piece I had anticipated couldn’t contain the questions that grew around the villagers and their motivations. Explaining the misery of the village and looking for some possible redemption became the story. Dog Evans was the key.  

Try not to let darkness overwhelm you

If the piece you’re working on is at the dark end of the spectrum, one thing I would recommend is learning to leave the darkness at your desk and come out of the work. Don’t let it overwhelm your non-story life. It’s not much fun for family or friends if you take depravity and violence to the dinner table.

To conclude: Don’t force it; allow the story to find its own tone. Use real life, twisted, battered or cheered up, as an inspiration. Once found, immerse yourself in your story-world without being overwhelmed. Know the way out.     


Image: Gregg McNeill at Blue Box Images

Barry Gornell

Barry Gornell was born in Liverpool and now lives on the West Coast of Scotland, trying to grow up with his children. He is supported by his wife. He is a novelist/screenwriter, ex-fire-fighter, truck driver and book shop manager. His short films, Sonny’s Pride and The Race, were broadcast on STV. Graduating from the University of Glasgow Creative Writing Masters programme in 2008, he was awarded a Scottish Book Trust New Writers Bursary in 2009. His short fiction has been published in The Herald newspaper, Let’s Pretend, 37 stories about (in)fidelity, Gutter 03 and Gutter 04The Healing of Luther Grove was his first novel, followed by The Wrong Child in 2016.