When I was a kid, I was allowed to wander through the library by myself. I mostly read Enid Blyton and Joyce Stranger who wrote animal stories. My earliest memories of the library are somewhere close to religious experiences of silence, wonder and joy.
In those days, the late 70s and early 80s, I was not aware of YA fiction, although it did exist. I just read whatever I wanted and nobody minded. Once I graduated from Enid Blyton to Stephen King, I still had free rein to borrow as I pleased. My mother was a voracious reader with eclectic tastes and saw no harm in me reading anything and everything because she trusted me to follow my interests with a bit of common sense. I thank her for it. In many ways, it made me the person and the writer I am.
Now, we live in a different world. There are more societal protections for kids, and yet they are exposed to more horrors through TV and social media, and frankly, just the news, than I ever had to face. As a writer, I feel that there is a responsibility to readers to tell stories that show that there can be good in the world, no matter how scary the monster might be. Unadulterated evil sometimes, or often, does win in the real world but it must be fought. I believe in including hope in my own life and in the stories I tell. I think it’s important for every age group, but particularly for young adults who are facing the future. Humanity needs them to see that there is an antidote to evil, and that it lies in love, courage and hope. Because I believe in that, I write that.
Love and sexual feelings are important to teenagers. If you’re writing about that, be sensitive and true to your story people and their voices. Your job is to write about the truth inside the fiction so write truthfully but with common sense.
There is an origin story about why I write the kind of stories that I do and I’ve discussed that elsewhere. The simple fact is that I tell the stories that come to me naturally and those are mostly supernatural. My style of fiction and my own beliefs happen to often lend themselves to young adult stories.
I like teenagers. They are emotional, political and ‘woke,’ in the new idiom. Even when they won’t admit it, they still have the magic and wonder of childhood, along with the opinions and hopes of impending adulthood. I observe and admire the strong stance taken by teens such as the survivors of the Parkland School shooting in the United States, who are standing up to the moneyed might of the National Rifle Association, simply because it is the right thing to do. The ideas at the core of my writing and of most young adult fiction are centred on finding out who you are, making a stand against evil, sticking with your friends, discovering love and being afraid and brave all at once. I think these ideas are universal and ageless. I write adult stories too and those stories have the same core.
The difference is that my YA people are young adults themselves. They are not characters, they’re people. The huge big (non) secret of writing is that we are telling stories of people with trouble, and what they are doing to get themselves out of trouble. These are the stories we have told since we began telling stories on the walls of caves.
When you are balancing horror with YA fiction, just tell the story you have to tell, and let your young people tell it. Respect them. They’re magical beings with a foot in both childhood and adulthood. They know how to love each other and to fight for what’s right. Show your young readers that the people in your story are people just like them. And above all else, paint the stories of your heart on your culture’s cave wall and show what it is like to be a person in a situation, feeling fear, love, anger, pride, shame, joy and wonder. Then your readers will see themselves in your story people and will root for them.
You might be worrying about how much horror to put in a story for teenagers. Again, I say write the story of your heart without worrying about your own child or your mother reading it. Your story people will tell you what they can handle. If you are writing them authentically, they’ll speak their own truth. When I talk to groups of teenagers, I find that they love the raw and exciting, the emotional and the terrifying. It’s fun!
Fiction in general, including horror fiction, is a safe way of considering the dangers of the world and developing coping mechanisms. As with writing about sex though, use your common sense. Consider if the scene or the detail is necessary to move the story forward. Sometimes, less is more.
In summary, rules for writing horror YA fiction, as with all fiction.
- Write about people who feel real.
- Respect the people and their story.
- Don’t worry; just write. You can think about themes, marketing, appropriateness, your mother, your colleagues and your audience later. This part is just for you so you can explore and figure out what you want to do. No one has to know about the stuff that doesn’t work.
- Don’t be afraid to try.
- Always, always write the story of your heart.
- Enjoy it! YA fiction gives you a world of possibilities and horror YA is full of emotion, action, atmosphere and is absolutely great fun to write, as well as to read. You can address big ideas such as diversity, coming of age, good v evil while giving your readers a roller coaster ride.
A big percentage of adults read YA. They are reading these books because they love wonderful stories, not because the books have a particular label. I say carry on, read the books you love, and write the stories of your heart.
(c) Tina Callaghan
Tina Callaghan is a writer of speculative fiction, both for children and adults. Her stories involve elements of history, mythology and the supernatural. Her short stories have appeared alongside horror and science-fiction greats Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Ray Bradbury and Robert Bloch. Dark Wood Dark Water is her debut novel, published by Poolbeg Press.
About Dark Wood Dark Water:
Something is wrong with the town of Bailey. Something dark, something dangerous. Something evil.
Josh’s brother has just drowned. He meets Kate and Gabe, who also have lost family to the river. When they seek the help of a local historian, Naylor, he tells them that there is a sinister longstanding pattern to such tragedies.
But some unknown force is trying to help Josh rid the town of its curse. Why is he dreaming of a ship s captain, a hooded monk, a dark familiar with a knife? What is being demanded of him?
Soon greater horrors than ever before are set loose. They are fighting against time, as evil has turned its baleful eye upon them.
Order your copy online here.