Matthew David Evans is the author of dark fantasy/horror novel Massacre at Sundown and has some really cool projects on the way. Huge thanks to Matthew for this interview! To see more of what he's about check out his site!
According to your Facebook you've got quite a few projects in progress in the works. How's it all been going?
They are going well, for the most part. I’m finishing up a book now, and when that’s done, I’ll just slide my secondary project into the primary writing timeslot. It’s a lot of work, but it’s a lot of fun.
You've been working with a friend on Christmas-themed horror novel Grim Tidings, set to be released in Halloween 2019. What has this experience been like? What do you look for in a collaborative partner?
It’s been a strange experience. I would never have written a novel like this on my own. What happened was my friend created a makeshift Halloween costume one year where he looked like a demented Christmas clown. He sent me a picture and suggested a short story about it. I shrugged it off at first, because I had my own projects to work on, but when we got to talking about the character and how my friend saw him in his mind, I started to think that it could be something. We met at our local Applebee’s to hammer out some story details. He wrote some stuff down on a paper, then we ended up getting together to create an outline. When it was all said and done, we had the bones for a full novel. Like I said, I probably wouldn’t write something like this on my own. I tend to go more for the supernatural stories. There isn’t really any of that in Grim Tidings. It’s all about an aging killer recollecting his past. We see it from his perspective. It’s a strange combination. It’s my friend’s character, but it’s our story. I have truly enjoyed the experience. There isn’t any one thing that I look for in a collaborative partner. Grim Tidings worked out because the idea was enough to grab me. My project list has grown since then, and I have a lot of other stories planned out, so I’m not sure when or if I’ll collaborate with someone again.
Massacre at Sundown does something really cool with POV I haven't really seen before--you alternate between third person present and first person past. What led you to this style choice?
A whim. I wish I could say there was some sort of “aha!” moment, but there wasn’t. I just remember wondering what it would be like as I was writing the first draft. I gave it a try and liked it. I try to find ways to be creative in the telling of a story. I’m working on the sequel now, and it’s structured differently because it takes place after the present of the first novel. I think I’ve found some cool ways to tell the story that are different but will make it feel like a logical continuation of Massacre at Sundown.
I've once heard that good horror/dark fantasy means a good setting. Is this valid advice to you? What elements (and in what doses) make up good horror/dark fantasy to you?
I would say that’s valid. Setting can make or break a story. Sometimes you can take a familiar story or monster and place them in a different setting, and then you have a great book. I think Salem’s Lot is a great example of this. Dracula is world famous. Everyone knows the story. Everyone knows what vampires are and how to fight them. Stephen King didn’t really change any of that. What he did was drop a vampire right in the middle of a New England town. It worked because it was a great setting for the story. The same can be said for dark fantasy and even normal fantasy. I think people are tired of chosen ones and dark lords. If those tropes can be turned on their heads, it can become a fascinating read. Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn is a good example of that. It’s a fantasy book set a thousand years after the Dark Lord won. I read that on the cover, and immediately, I bought the book.
I believe that setting is key because it entices someone to read something a bit different but still in the comfort zone of the genre they like. When I wrote Massacre at Sundown, I knew I wanted the protagonist to live through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. I could’ve done this in a conventional way and placed him in Victorian England like so many gothic horror novels. He might have fit in well there. I decided to go for a more western angle because I thought it would be not only interesting to write but also interesting to read.
In regards to what makes a good horror or dark fantasy to me? I’d say characters. Characters and story. I don’t like clichés if they’re overdone. I don’t want to read about the priest exorcising a demon. I want to read about the guardian angel duking it out with the demon while the family has no idea what’s happening. I don’t want to read about the old abandoned mansion that’s haunted. I want to read about the factory haunted my the guy who died on the forklift. I don’t want to feel that the characters have plot armor. I want to be afraid to turn the page. I want the book to stay with me after I’ve read it.
What do you think draws people to the horror genre? Why do we, as readers, like to be scared?
I think it’s the thrill of being scared more than anything. We read something chilling in a book or watch it on a movie screen, yet we realize it can’t hurt us. We live vicariously through the characters in the books we read, but we’re not really running from Pennywise. We’re not really being ripped apart by Pinhead. We’re not really eating human flesh at Hannibal Lecter’s dinner table.
Are there any horror/dark fantasy tropes you love to hate? Hate that you love?
I hate it when the main character turns out to be insane, and the whole story has happened in his head. I’ve read a couple books where I was okay with this, but then it got annoying. I also hate the bad guy who’s bad just because he’s bad. Mustache twirling villains are the opposite of interesting to me.
In your opinion, immortality: blessing or curse?
If I were immortal, I could keep writing books until the sun burned out of the sky. Also, I’d get to see every single Marvel movie and not miss any on account of being dead. Sounds great.
But in all seriousness, I think it would be a curse. Watching everyone you love die while you stay the same would be hell. I tried to convey that in Massacre at Sundown. The irony of a suicidal immortal. He wants to die. He tries to die. Alas, he can’t die.
Is there anything else you'd like readers to know?
I appreciate all who have read my work, and to those who haven’t, I invite you to consider it. I promise, if nothing else, to do my best to entertain you. I thank all of you for reading this interview. Massacre at Sundown is available now. Keep an eye out for Grim Tidings later this year.
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Susan Kimmel Wright is a lover of writing, composing articles, devotionals, and novels with more projects on the way. To hear more about what she's about, read on:
Are you working on any current projects?
Yes. I'm currently finishing an adult cozy mystery, Mabel Goes To The Dogs, book two in a projected series, Volunteer of the Year. The first book is now with my agent.
In book one, Mabel Gets The Ax, Mabel is facing her 50th birthday, having been abruptly fired from her longtime job as a low-level associate attorney. She decides to reinvent herself by volunteering for a variety of nonprofits and writing about her experiences. Unfortunately, her first volunteer gig with the local historical society lands her in a notorious ax murder house, just as history begins to repeat itself.
You've written novels, short stories (*note: I don't write short stories, but do write personal experience), devotionals, and essays, all while maintaining a blog. How do you keep your momentum?
Momentum--for me--ebbs and flows, but I try never to get too off track for more than a few days. In honesty, the blog has been hardest for me to maintain, and it's gone through more than one iteration. I've taken an extended break and plan to return to it in an entirely different format, which I think will fit my personality and work schedule much better.
As for the rest of it, the work tends to create its own momentum. A novel wants to be finished; problems want to be resolved. External pressure helps, too--agents and editors are waiting. In recent years, most of my writing has been given to novels, and stories for Chicken Soup for the Soul books, which are subject to deadlines.
When working in different forms, are there any key differences you come across in your process?
Length is a big difference. A devotional, essay, or personal experience leaves little room for development, so tight focus is critical. I need to find that before I begin. Interestingly, I find everything I write--including nonfiction--benefits from strong fiction techniques: sharp sensory details, dialog, story arc, and characterization.
How do you go about incorporating messages in your writing?
I don't! I tried to do that when I was younger, but I've learned the hard way that theme is best left to grow organically out of placing my characters in challenging situations.
In one of your blog posts, you mention you're immediately attracted to or put off by certain settings. As setting is priority for you, how do you go about assembling your settings?
This is a good question, and in reality, settings seem to find me. In the same way another writer might start with a character or situation, and the synapses start firing, I find setting serves that function for me. It's truly a case where that setting simply occurs to me, maybe because I read an article or someone mentions a place. The moment it drops down over my story, everything starts coming to life.
Three examples: (1) The ax murder house in Mabel Gets The Ax. (2) My middle-grade WIP, Ghosts of Harpers Ferry. I love this scenic and historic town, and the moment I conceived of it as a potential setting, I made a quick trip and took tons of photos, which I assembled into an album for inspiration and reference. (3) My Life Among The Undead, a YA zombie cozy WIP I set in Centralia, now a ghost town, with its long-raging underground mine fire. I've never been there, but I spent hours in online research, and printing evocative images.
How do you give your readers a feeling of place, outside of describing the visual?
Another good question. I appeal first to the other senses. I love to capture the smells--the burnt aroma of coffee roasting in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, lilacs on Mackinaw Island, or the fishy scent of the seacoast. Touch--the mist hitting my face at the Niagara Falls railing. The sound of fog horns and bells in the morning pea soup of Sault Ste Marie.
Other great ways of creating a sense of place is through the locals, with their quirks, foibles, prejudices, passions, and unique point of view.
When writing in the mystery genre, what helps you maintain the element of surprise? How do you keep the plot from becoming predictable or convoluted?
Plots, at least for me, don't arrive fully formed. Nor can I sit down and produce one by force of will. I need to play with the elements I have and brainstorm answers to the mystery I've generated. I need to be relaxed about this and wait for my subconscious to do the work and provide a direction, which eventually comes in a flash of inspiration.
The great Mystery Writers of America Grandmaster, Phyllis A Whitney saw the subconscious as a lazy imp, whom she fed bits of situation, plot, character, and setting, and then sternly directed to provide solutions to her plotting dilemmas. She said the imp, being lazy, would initially try to foist off contrived or cliched solutions, but we need to keep insisting on something fresh. Patience and persistence with this are critical. I've never let the imp shortchange me without later regretting it.
What's something you wish more writers knew about writing for young readers?
Kids today are the same as they always were, in essential ways. By this, I mean their idealism, uncertainty, hopefulness, high spirits, playfulness, and other universal qualities of youth. However, kids today are profoundly different than they were even 10 or 15 years ago. In their language, dress, interests, habits, responsibilities and expectations, etc., so much has changed. If you want to write for young people, you need to be able to speak to the age-old core of youthful human nature within a new framework. If you want young readers to listen to you, you need to know them. If you don't have kids or grandkids, don't teach, etc., you'll need to volunteer at school or find other avenues for getting to know your audience. Kids have an unerring instinct for zeroing in on anything they consider "lame."
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We promised questions.
KM Pfeifer gave us incredible answers:
According to your Instagram you're prepping to release The Judge's Demon on Audible—how has that been going?
It's been interesting and a lot of fun. I was nervous at first. I had seen very little information about indie success when you're doing it yourself, but I was set on trying. I thought I was going to have to BEG narrators to audition since I'm an unknown author, but after a few days they just started rolling in on their own. I approached a few voices I liked but received so many more emails daily from other narrators that were interested. I had to call some friends who love audiobooks to help me go through them. Some were good, others were... entertaining, but one definitely stood out, and I can't wait for everyone to hear how well he brings the story to life.
ow much research do you do? What resources do you find most helpful?
For many years I read nothing but historical non-fiction to learn everything I possibly could. I did read a little fiction as well, but it had to be somewhat historically accurate. I know it's "old school," but books in a library are my go-to even if the internet can be more efficient. History has always been my favorite subject, and I took a lot of French and French history in school as well, so I already had a few ideas of where to find what I was looking for at the library. That helped so much when I was trying to create an accurate depiction of the time period and culture I am writing about.
How do you balance giving us context with moving the story forward?
I think it may be part of one of the many rules of what NOT to do, but I try to use dialogue with a purpose. Since it's a mystery, I try to limit my info dumps and split information up between conversations in a way that readers can understand what's going on while also getting a true sense of the relationships and how information is shared between characters. I would like to think I give a good balance of detail and action. Small talk works in some novels, but I find that certain character interactions can give you better context and entertainment (or despair, depending on the conversation) and really push a plot along.
When you write, do you usually begin with the end in mind, or do you let the story unfold before you as you go?
For the Judge's Demon, I let the story unfold as I went along. I can't remember exactly what I had in mind, but I know I wasn't going to reveal certain identities yet. I originally thought that would be something that would lead into the second book, but the character made the reveal, and that's when I had the idea to end things the way I did. I'd say more, but I don't want to spoil anything. This next book, I knew the ending. I knew exactly who was going to be leaving us and who would live to see another novel. It was more difficult for me to have to write knowing where the path led, but the journey to the end was still exciting.
I've read that The Judge's Demon is a part of the Demons Inside Series. At what point did you decide this would be a series?
I think my characters decided that for me. I love open ended books, so I had known from the beginning that I wanted to leave a bit of mystery in the end, but that also left me with more story ideas. One of my MCs in particular has an important story to tell, but she has quite the journey ahead of her first. :) I called it the Demons Inside, because in each book the MC is struggling with their own inner demons while also trying to navigate the mystery and horrors of what's going on in the story.
Many readers praise The Judge's Demon for "developing a sense of paranoia” and really building up the suspense. How do you go about gradually laying on the intensity?
This is a hard one to answer. I pulled from a lot of my own experiences in life, and some of my own inner demons. It wasn't hard, but the most difficult thing I've ever done, if that makes sense. I spent a lot of time alone. Like Heath Ledger style method writing. I don't know if that was a good or bad thing, but it has definitely brought a perspective into my writing that has even surprised me at times.
Was there anything you edited out of this book? If so, what plans do you have for the portions that you removed?
I did. There was a small romantic subplot I was fond of between two characters, but there was already so much going on that I felt it may take away from what's important. I didn't want the suspense and mystery to get drowned out with too much romance either. I made a mention of it in the first book, but the tension between the two just fit better with the story line of the second book. I'd say who, but I don't want to give too much away, because it begins to grow as one of those characters takes the lead and struggles alot with their own motives and sanity.
Can you share any details on what you're working on next?
The second book, IT WAS THEM, is being polished as we speak. This will be the first official announcement of the title. It's part of the series, same characters, but the story and new mysteries could make it stand alone as well. It will have a little mix of horror, and even the reader will be questioning who to trust. I'm eager to get that one out there, but I'm waiting. I've been approached about traditional publishing, so J.D. Barker helped me construct an amazing query letter so that I could really see what options are out there for my series. I have a lot to think about, because I do I enjoy the freedom of indie publishing and the community surrounding it. So, I've been working on writing the third book and toying with ideas for a fourth while I consider my options.
Is there anything else you'd like readers to know?
I almost didn't publish the Judge's Demon at all. Between the real sense of paranoia and some of the other serious themes and emotions that are presented in the book, I thought it was too personal and scary. It reveals so much... not just the mindset of the villain, but his victims as well. Plus, while I'm not writing about a currently marginalized group of people, I am writing about marginalized people and what happens when non-marginalized people stand back instead of standing up. Readers are very critical of that. I got a few sensitivity readers, but it still made me nervous. I wasn't sure I could accurately put those thoughts into the world. Then a little fiasco with a vanity press made me question if it was even worth it, but I'm glad I stuck it through, because people have expressed good reactions so far.
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Maddie M. White is author of short fiction collection Quick Reads: Volume 1 and novel :08 Seconds. Huge thanks to Maddie for interviewing with us!
What are you working on right now?
So many things! I think I probably have four or five WIPs going right now that I switch back and forth between. I'm working on one that is going to be a superhero book with romance, a middle-grade fiction based on my awkward years in middle school, a memoir about my struggle with anxiety and depression, and a couple of other romances. I've got an idea for a horror type book that I'm really excited about.
As a fiction writer, do you have a favorite character you've written? Is there anything about that character you'd want readers to know?
That's like asking a mom who her favorite child is! I put a little bit of myself in all of my main characters, so it's really hard to pick one. One of my least favorite characters to write was Drake Lewis, Sophie's abusive ex-boyfriend. He was a total jerk, and I felt bad putting Sophie through that.
Quick Reads: Volume 1 is a collection of short fiction while :08 Seconds is novel length. What has your experience been like with writing shorter pieces with longer works? Do you usually have an idea on how long a piece will be when you begin, or does it emerge as you go?
I actually started out writing shorter pieces and submitting them. I can normally work on a few of them while doing a novel as well. I can pretty much tell when I get an idea how much I'll be able to tell the story and how long it will be. Sometimes the less you say, the better.
What was your process in arranging the stories in Quick Reads: Volume 1? How did you want to lead readers through?
I put them in order from my first one to the most recent one. I wanted to show how my writing and story-telling has progressed in just a year. (Or at least, I hope it has).
Readers have said :08 Seconds will “grab you from the first page and not let go.” What works for you when creating tension?
I really try to put myself in the situation and imagine how the conversation or action would make me feel and how I would react. When you make it real, it helps readers to connect better.
Readers have also praised your work for its skill in giving us a wide range of emotion. Do you have any advice for fellow authors about capturing emotion on the page?
I think the same thing as I said in the previous answer. Really put yourself in that moment either as the character or a bystander. How would you see that scene play out in real life? How would you respond to it?
What's the story behind choosing the :08 Seconds title? Did you have any alternate titles you were considering?
I chose that title for the simple fact that one of my main characters, Trey, is a bull rider and that is an integral part of the story. I didn't realize at the time that another book with almost the same title had been popular in the 90s. I was dead set on the title from the moment I thought of the story, so I kept it.
Is there anything else you'd like readers to know?
Before I was a writer, I was book obsessed. I loved connecting with characters and feeling inspired by them. Nothing was better to me than the feeling of heartbreak when you reach the last page of a book, but you're not ready to say goodbye to this universe you were in. That's the make of a good book and good writing. I hope to continue to write things that will inspire my readers and give them their own worlds to escape to. I'm just grateful for the opportunity to do so among so many great writers.
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