The Special Page

Don't write run-of-the-mill stories!

Tim Waggoner tells us about the value of making horror fiction personal.


Jay Wilburn
Simon Clark
Ellen Datlow
Gerald Sanford
Joe McKinney
Ramsey Campbell
Joe R. Lansdale
Thorne & Cross


by Tim Waggoner

I’ve been interviewed a lot over the years, but recently I got a question that gave me pause: “Which of your stories is your favorite?” My first impulse was to give a stock answer, the kind of thing writers usually say when they don’t want to think too hard about a question:  “How can I possibly choose among them? That’s like asking which one of my children I love the most!” or “My favorite is always the story I’m currently working on.”

Resisting my lazier impulses, I gave the question some thought, and I was surprised to find that I actually had an honest-to-god answer for it. My favorite story was my first professionally published tale, “Mr. Punch,” which appeared in the anthology Young Blood way back in 1994. This story is special to me primarily because it was the first time I’d written what felt like a true “Tim Waggoner” story, the one where I found my Voice with a capital V. My (now ex) wife and I visited a Renaissance fair and watched a Punch and Judy show. I began to wonder what if a child saw this show and was inspired by the violence in it to become a serial killer. When I wrote a story based on this idea I added a number of surrealistic touches, and when I was finished, I knew I’d written something better than I ever had before, something special. Over the last twenty years I’ve published over 100 short stories, many of them in the same surrealistic vein as “Mr. Punch.”

I’m not telling you this to toot my own horn. I’m telling you this because I believe in the value of making horror fiction personal. We don’t need any more generic horror. There’s more than enough of that out there. We need your horror. That’s what I created when I wrote “Mr. Punch,” and I urge you to do the same. But this wouldn’t be much of an article if I stopped here, would it? So let me give you some tips on writing personal horror – tips that I hope will help you discover and hone your own unique Voice.

What are you afraid of?

Now I don’t mean normal fears, like your spouse or children dying or discovering you have terminal cancer. I’m talking about fears that are specific to you as an individual, fears that are weird. For example, my mother once told my sister and me that one of us was afraid of feathers as a child, and the other was afraid of Band-Aids. These fears are a hell of lot more interesting than being afraid of spiders. And because feathers and Band-Aids aren’t clichéd horror tropes, a story based on either of them would have the potential to more deeply affect readers because they’ve never read anything like it before. So make a list of weird, interesting fears, and use the items on it as dark seeds for your own unique tales.

What disturbing events have you experienced?

I’m not talking about actual traumas, although those experiences can be as much fodder for fiction as any others. I mean disturbing in a creepy, unsettling way. When I was a kid, I once saw a huge groundhog sitting up in an old cemetery near my home. I knew groundhogs burrowed into the earth, and since the monstrous animal was in a graveyard . . . I eventually used this experience in a story called “Bone Whispers.” So make another list, and use this one for story inspiration as well.

Look to your dreams.

This one would seem to be a no-brainer, since we all have our own unique dream lives, but not everyone remembers their dreams. Start keeping a dream journal and write down your dreams as soon as you awaken, before you do anything else. I had a friend in college who kept a daily dream journal, and eventually he was able to recall almost twenty dreams a day. Imagine how many stories a write could get out of all those dreams!

Something is wrong with that. Seriously wrong.
I once read an interview with Stephen King in which he said that to get an idea for a story, all he had to do was look at some ordinary everyday things and tell himself what the heading above says, and then let his imagination take off. The trick with this technique is to avoid falling back on clichés. I wrote about a graveyard in “Bone Whispers” – one of the most common horror tropes of all – but it was the groundhog that made the story different.

Pay attention to the wonderfully weird world around you.

As I walk through my day, I try to be aware of everything around me, and if I see or hear something that strikes me as strange, or which provokes an odd thought – like a serial killer being inspired by a Punch and Judy show he saw as a child – I write it down on the notepad function on my phone. For example, a couple years ago, in the space of a week, I saw two different men walking backwards in two different locations. I have no idea what those men were doing, but they struck me as damned odd, and I’m determined to put them in a story or novel one day. And (assuming you don’t steal my idea), I’ll be the only writer to use the image of men walking backwards because I was the only person on Earth who saw them and had my imagination stimulated by the experience. You can do the same with your own observations.

So next time you sit down to write a horror story, skip the zombies, stay out of the haunted house, and let the vampires slumber in their coffins undisturbed. Write personal horror, and scare the hell out of the rest of us.























About Tim Waggoner

Tim Waggoner

Tim Waggoner wrote his first story at the age of five, when he created a comic book version of King Kong vs. Godzilla on a stenographer's pad. It took him a few more years until he began selling professionally, though. Overall, he has published close to thirty novels and three short story collections, and his articles on writing have appeared in Writer’s Digest and Writers’ Journal, among other publications. He teaches creative writing at Sinclair Community College and in Seton Hill University’s Master of Fine Arts in Writing Popular Fiction program. He hopes to continue writing and teaching until he keels over dead, after which he wants to be stuffed and mounted, and then placed in front of his computer terminal.

You can go to his website HERE

way of all flesh

Dream Stalkers


dream stalkers the way of all flesh