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Friday, March 30, 2012

On Writing Devastating Scenes

Print from A Yorkshire Tragedy

I did a bit of soul-searching this week.

On his blog, my fellow author James Garcia Jr. recently featured his reactions to Base Spirits. He very eloquently tackled the question of the infanticides as portrayed in the novel, and I really appreciated his comments. I disturbed him. I made him angry. But? He stuck with the book and pushed on past his own discomfort because he wanted to find out what happened, and because he admired my writing.

"I am positively reviewing this novel for two main reasons. Barrett writes with beautiful prose and she nailed everything that was required of an author doing a period piece. That's what got me through the unsavory subject matter of abuse, as well as the murder of those beautiful children. When Clara and her husband were in present day, we were there with them. It was present day; anyone could pull that off! More importantly, however, when Clara began seeing through Lady Calverley's eyes, Barrett was able to fully transport us there, too. She nailed the culture, the dress, the language, the pacing, the lifestyles - everything! I found myself thoroughly impressed with Barrett here, and am convinced that no one but a master could have pulled that off."

I am truly humbled by his reaction and his high praise. (You can link to the rest of James Garcia Jr.'s blog here: and his Facebook page is here: ) Thank you, James. It means a lot coming from you.

I want to know how others feel when dealing with the dark side, and to that end I'm offering Base Spirits at a deep discount of 99 cents for a limited time:

That difficult reaction is the sort of thing I really need to hear about as a writer. I've been lucky to have had mostly glowing reviews on my Amazon page, on review blogs, via e-mail and in person. Only two poor reviews so far, and those readers just didn't get into the concept. (That's fair- not everyone's going to love what I do.) I am heartened when I hear things like 'I couldn't put it down' or 'I sat up all night jumping at sounds' or 'Freakin' amazing!'. That pleases me. I like hearing comments like those.

But when I have made someone truly uncomfortable with the subject matter-- or with the brutal portrayal of the murders-- it gives me pause. Years ago, I had a good friend give an earlier draft a beta read... and he couldn't get past the murder scene. I really upset him. He had two children about the same ages as Will and little Walter at the time, and he was horrified. Not a 'scary monster in the attic' kind of horror reaction, but HORRIFIED. I remember feeling guilty for upsetting him so much. At times, that has given me pause going forward with the book itself. If I had that strong sort of visceral reaction from my oldest friend and fellow writer, then what would other people think of me? I didn't want readers to think I was some sort of monster who derives pleasure from tackling the harsh subject matter.

(As a sidebar, my old friend has since re-read the novel and really admires it.)

The scenes of abuse and violence were wrenching for me to work on. I felt sick a lot of the time. I hated that these things happened-- really happened-- to this family in 1605. But they were true events at the heart of my story. How could I shy away? There is no easy or 'nice' way to portray a murder.

If Base Spirits was a screenplay (and it may well be... stay tuned!), I would have handled it differently. That's the joy of filmmaking: you visually suggest something, and the viewer can fill in the rest with more truth and horror in their imaginations than any special effects can. I'm not a huge fan of over-the-top splatter onscreen-- sometimes it's necessary, and sometimes it just becomes cartoonish and goofy and doesn't serve the story. It depends on what effect you want to make on the audience.

In a novel, a writer needs to paint a picture. It was a very unpleasant and disturbing picture for me to paint. I played the mother of these children-- the wife of the abusive killer-- onstage. I had to go somewhere very dark deep down within myself and 'feel' all of that anguish. The fictional retelling had me right back there in the pit. It wasn't easy. But I was compelled to write the novel.

In the end, that's the answer of why I didn't shy away: I've elicited a true gut reaction. Isn't that what art is meant to do? Yes, it entertains us and makes us use our imaginations... but if it upsets you, it is reaching you at a deeper level. And as another Canadian writer Timothy Findley once said: "We are all of us a hiding place for monsters".

What do you think?

Why not judge for yourself? I'm putting Base Spirits on sale for 99 cents for a limited time. Here's the Kindle link again:


  1. I agree. The reaction is why we write. I love hearing how people react to what happens to the characters in my stories. It lets me know that they connected to what was written. The more emotion that someone shows me after reading my work, the better I feel. It lets me know that I did my job well. The characters in your book were amazing. They all had their own quirks that made them who they were and the situations that they fought through were gripping and keep my eyes on the pages. Bravo. You accomplished your mission of bringing out those emotions that we sometimes hold back on.

  2. Thanks, TJ. It's not always easy to read about truly horrible events (and not easy to write, either) but if a nerve is touched, it means the writer has done their job. It does mean a lot to hear back from readers!

  3. Sounds like a fascinating book, Ruth. I agree that it is important to take readers to emotional realms they might not expect or even want, as those types of deep emotional experiences will stick with them and drive them to read more. Great post!

  4. I've had some reactions like that before with my books, especially WIREMAN. Some couldn't take the young boy being decapitated. But, again, like in your book, this happened in real life and I put it in. Other people were upset a kitten was killed-hanged. I know that's terrible, but many serial killers, which is what I was writing about, commit crimes against animals when the killers are youngsters--like happened in WIREMAN. I understand when people are upset over children's murders, but you can't help but write the story that way if it demands it. I also understand people upset over killing animals--but if sick people do that, and they do, then as a writer of crime I write it. It's good you stick to what makes the best story sense to you, Ruth, I applaud that.

  5. Ruth I know exactly what you're talking about. Writing pushes us to dark places we don't want to go, but it's our job as authors to take those visceral feelings and reactions and relate them to our readers. Anyone who reads should understand that these are less things we enjoy and more necessities for our story to feel and be real.

    There's nothing worse than being carried away in a story and getting slammed up against a 'hey that could never happen' moment. Luckily having read 'Base Spirits' I can honestly say there are none of those in your work. Instead you carry the reader through all the pain and horror and at the end you've given us an experience and not just a story.

  6. Thanks to Lisa, Billie Sue, and Jaime for the kind words. It's heartening to be understood.