I recently had the opportunity to chat with talented short story author Heather Ingemar. Heather writes paranormal short fiction that borders on horror in a beautiful style that is reminiscent of 19th-century horror authors. In this interview Heather talks about her inspiration for her stories, writing habits, style, and promotion.
What was your inspiration for your latest ghost story, "A Slip of Wormwood"?
Well actually, it started during a game my husband and I play, where the first person comes up with a sentence, and the other has to come up with a "story" around that sentence. My husband gave me a rather innocuous sentence about Frog skipping happily along, and I started to tell what I thought was an innocent children's story, but quickly spiraled into a tale of dark sibling rivalry and greed. My husband laughingly asked if he wanted to hear more, and I quickly came up with a sentence for him. The characters didn't leave, though. I finally had to write it down, and I did so in about four hours.
Tell us a bit about your other published stories. What was your inspiration for these stories? Which themes obsess you?
Well, to date I've only got four, two — "What's Really There" and "Memories" with the ezine The Gothic Revue — and two with Echelon Press, "Darkness Cornered" and "A Slip of Wormwood." Given that small sampling of my work, I'd have to say the supernatural, the abnormal was definitely a strong theme and inspiration for all of these works. I've always wondered about the things hiding in shadows, closets, and under beds. What kind of monsters hide in our world, and are they really "monsters" at all? I guess it's natural that would make a strong appearance in my work, since it's a concept that's always fascinated me.
What are your writing habits? Do you work on an outline before starting the actual story?
It really depends on the work. A lot of my short stories just come to me in the cliche "flash of inspiration," and so they generally don't need any outlining. With my longer works, my novellas, I like to keep a rough outline just so I can keep track of where I am in the story. I also do some outlining if I'm having trouble seeing what a character does, or why. But as for doing all that before writing, I'd have to say no. I start writing, and usually by the end of the first scene, I'll know if I need a roadmap or not.
Which element of fiction writing comes more naturally for you — plot, characterization, description, dialogue? Which one gives you the hardest time?
Oh boy, that's a tough question. I think I'd have to say that description is the easiest for me. I naturally tend to be attuned to how things look, how the light from the window plays on the furniture, the overall sense of things. Then, it'd have to be characterization, plot, and dialogue. But then again, this differs with the story too. Some stories I have to work exceptionally hard at my characterization, when the plot fell into place easy as pie. Others, I've got great dialogue, but my beta readers aren't feeling enough of a sense of place. It just depends.
Your style has a rich Victorian flare, very reminiscent of 19th century horror writers. What authors have influenced your work?
Oh, definitely Poe. I love Poe. I remember reading "The Tell-Tale Heart" in seventh grade and just being astounded at the sheer dexterity of craft. I went to the library the next day and checked out an entire volume of his works just to skim through because I was so fascinated with his portrayal of the inner demons, the dark places in the psyche. When I read "The Fall of the House of Usher" in high school, I just loved how he was so able to connect his characters into the landscape. Just amazing. As for other authors, there are so many who have influenced my work, that I have a hard time remembering them all. (laughs) I studied a lot when I got my BA in English, and there were a TON of authors I just read one piece by, and it affected me. Many of them I can't even remember titles or names, but the work stuck with me. I'm thinking of a piece now that I read and got that chilling little frisson from; it was about a man who paints demons so lifelike, that it's practically impossible. And then the artist's friend finds out that the guy really IS painting demons, live demons, and oh, it was just great! But I can't remember for the life of me any specifics about the author himself. I hope I'll run across that one again some day, it was a real humdinger!
What goes on inside the mind of the horror writer?
I find it incredibly funny that people call me a horror writer. Most of my work I don't even see as scary — they may have scary or chilling parts, but I wouldn't classify the entire work that way … I don't know. Maybe I just view the world differently? "Wormwood" was actually the first piece I wrote that I truly considered 'horror.' The rest I consider more unusual, paranormal. Not horror. Ah well!
Why do you think so many people enjoy a good fright while reading a book?
I think because it's a safe medium. Those nasty things aren't going to pursue you off the page. And, because, especially with the really good fiction, the reader can imagine the evil creatures or setting how they find it most scary.
How do you set to the task of promoting your short stories?
This has been a challenge. When I decided to skip the literary magazines — I'm too much of a genre writer — I looked into the ebook medium. Partly as a way into the publishing field, and partly because the truth is most of our society at this point is online for recreation. When it came to promoting, I took this into account and decided to focus most of my efforts online. I set up a website. I started pursuing networking mediums for added publicity. I wrote articles, posted on message boards, I did everything I could think of, even offering downloadable goodies from my site, to draw attention and interest.
So far, the challenge to be creative with marketing has been fun, and I'm learning along the way. Marketing face-to-face, is very different, however. Luckily for me, I write short fiction. In my experience, people are more willing to read a short story online or on the computer than a longer work. That's not to say longer works aren't popular — they are, for the tried-and-true ebook fans. In my area, most of the people haven't ever heard of an ebook, and they're very wary of it. But, they'll be brave and try a short story — it doesn't take up a lot of their time. I find I have to work extra hard at making it sound like something they're interested in to get a bite. Bookmarks, promo flyers… it helps. If you can entice them to look, pique their curiosity, you've got a chance.
Would you like to share with our readers some of your current or future projects?
Well, I've got a set of three urban fantasy novellas I've been working on, the first one is out to publishers and I am working on the edits for the second. The third is in the drafting stage. I just finished two short stories, one literary, one more genre, and they are also out to publishers. I'm working on another short story featuring a zombie — I've always wanted to write a zombie story — and for now, that's it. (laughs) Between editing, drafting, writing, and monitoring submissions, I keep myself pretty busy.
Do you have a website/blog where readers may learn more about you and your works? Where are your stories available?
Yes, I have a website. It's got everything on it — bio, upcoming events, news about my work, copies of reviews and interviews. At the beginning of September I added a bi-weekly podcast. My stories are available through Echelon Press and also through most major ebook retailers such as Fictionwise.
What advice would you give to aspiring short story writers who are trying to break into the horror genre?
Advice for aspiring short story writers. Well, I'd say practice, because in a short story, the prose is so critical. You have to draw your readers in with your first sentence, you've got to be able to balance character, setting and plot in just the right amounts so your reader isn't slogged with information. Plus, it's got to be relatively short. As my creative writing professor said, "Only the essential story." So definitely, practice. And don't be shy about submitting. As Stephen King once wrote, "The short story is… not a lost art, but I would argue it is a good deal closer than poetry to the lip of the drop into extinction's pit" (Everything's Eventual, 2002). We need more stories out there. We need people to help keep the craft alive.