Friday, August 23, 2013

DARKLINGS: The Story Behind the Book

My first novel, Seductions, was part of a two-book deal with Pinnacle, so as soon as I was done with that book, I went to work on the next.  There had been a good deal of sex in Seductions and the book had a high school setting.  I wanted this novel to be as different from the first as possible, so sex would not be a priority and it would not be school-related.  But I had no idea what it would be about.  My thoughts turned to a recurring nightmare that had haunted my sleep for years.  I had been wanting to use it in a story or book for quite a while, and I thought this might be the time.

In the nightmare, I was being wheeled very fast down a hospital corridor on a gurney as pain exploded in the right side of my abdomen, just below my rib cage.  I was rushed into the operating room where doctors and nurses in surgical masks and gowns were waiting.  The sense of urgency was great and I wasn’t even transferred to an operating table, they just started working on me there on the gurney (dream logic).  Doctors began the surgery without bothering to anesthetize me.  I felt the scalpel slice through the skin of my abdomen, but it didn’t hurt.  The pain inside me, though, raged on.  Masked faces with intense eyes hovered over me as the doctors continued to work.

Then they froze and I saw all the eyes above the surgical masks widen in horror as they stared down at my open abdomen.  They didn’t move for a long time, and then some of them slowly backed away from me.  The doctor in charge looked me in the eyes and said, “I’m sorry, but there’s nothing we can do for you.”  When I asked what was wrong, instead of explaining it to me, he showed it to me — for just a moment, I was able to see through his eyes as he looked into my abdomen. 

Clinging to the underside of my rib cage on the right side was a glistening black mass about the size of a man’s hand.  It was either pulsing rhythmically or breathing, I couldn’t tell which.

An instant later, I was looking at the doctor again.  When I asked him what it was, he said, “We’re not sure, but ... it’s evil.  If we take it out of you, it will kill us all.”  Then he silently went about the business of sewing me back up as the intense pain continued.  That’s where the dream always ended.

I wasn’t sure how, but I wanted to use that dream, or at least elements of it, and one of those elements was the hospital setting.  I knew from personal experience that few places can go from quiet boredom to frantic chaos faster than a hospital emergency room.

As a boy, I had some mysterious health problems that required me to spend a lot of time in the hospital while doctors tried to figure those problems out and fix me.  I would stay for weeks, sometimes months, at a time at the Clinical Research Study Center, which was located in Ward 18 at San Francisco General Hospital.  It’s tough for a little kid to be locked up in a hospital for such long periods of time and the doctors and staff at Ward 18 knew that, so I was allowed to wander around the hospital and sometimes even leave the hospital when I wasn’t undergoing some test or procedure.  On Friday and Saturday nights, the place to be if you wanted some quality entertainment was the San Francisco General Hospital emergency room.  With a paperback novel and a notebook and pen, I would wander down to the ER early so I could find a seat, and I’d sit in the waiting room and wait for things to get interesting.  They always did.

By nine o’clock, the ER was a crowded madhouse, usually with a bloodied floor.  Stabbings, shootings, car wrecks, overdoses, heart attacks, attempted suicides, battered wives and girlfriends and hookers, injured children, people with every imaginable wound and sickness, and always, without fail, at least one nasty fight broke out in that waiting room before midnight, usually more.  And that was just the waiting room!  I could only imagine what was going on in the back, beyond the pale green door where occasionally I could hear muffled shouting or screaming or miserable wailing.  I always had a book with me, but I never read it because I was too busy writing.  I wrote down descriptions of the people I saw, snatches of conversation, and tried to capture images, odors, behavior, people and atmosphere on the page.  It was probably one of the best writing exercises I’ve ever engaged in because I didn’t have time to think, I had to write fast to keep up with everything, so fast I was practically scribbling, trying to keep up with my thoughts and with all the frenzied — and often frightening — activity around me.  I didn’t think of it as a writing exercise at the time, of course.  I was just looking for something to do.

I’ve never given it much thought before, but looking back on it now, I suspect I learned more about writing from just a few of those emergency room visits than in a whole semester of creative writing classes.  It’s something you might want to try.  If you live in or near a big city — someplace where the hospital's ER is going to be a-hoppin’ on Friday and Saturday nights — take a notebook, sit in the waiting room, and do what I did.  Stay as long as you can and collect as many observations as possible.  Then come back here (or contact me on Facebook) and let me know if it was a useful exercise for you.

Having decided that my new book would open with an intense scene in a hospital emergency room, and keeping in mind my recurring nightmare, I sat down at my electric Brother typewriter and dove in headfirst.

No matter how much preparatory work I do on a book, no matter how much outlining (something I don’t waste my time on anymore unless a publisher absolutely must see an outline) or character sketching I do, I have no idea what the hell I’m working on until I’ve been writing it for a while.  That’s when I discover the story and characters, when I actually have my hands on the keyboard and I’m working on the manuscript.  I’ve tried everything else, all the preparation and outlining, and it just doesn’t work for me.  I can write a full outline and have a stack of notes and character sketches on my desk, and no matter how hard I try to stick to all that stuff, the book, when it’s done, will bear little or no resemblance to anything on those pages.

This book, I discovered, was about a physical manifestation of evil that takes the form of small, glistening, black creatures that can flatten out like crepes or roll up into worms that will do horrible things to anyone they enter.  The original title was Evilspawn, but the folks at Pinnacle didn’t do any backflips over that.  My editor, Michael Bradley, suggested Darklings, which I liked much better than my idea, and that became the novel’s title.

Whenever someone tells me he’s about to read Darklings, I always say, “Be sure to hold your nose.”  It always gets a laugh because people think I’m being self-deprecating by cutting my own book down a little.  But that’s not what I mean when I say that.  To find out what I do mean, you’ll have to read the book.

Now, more than thirty years later, Darklings is back, available for the first time for Kindle from Amazon, for Nook from Barnes and Noble, and in paperback. To see all my other books and keep up with new releases, visit my website at