The Dark Side: Exploring the Unknown in Your Writing

This past weekend I saw an exhibit at the Smithsonian featuring American artists James Whistler and John Singer Sargent and the time they spent in Venice. I’m a big Sargent fan. Yet this exhibit was filled with work that was unlike his other paintings. The style was classic Sargent, but the subjects were totally unlike Sargent’s better-known works, which often feature women in sumptuous gowns, sitting on elaborately upholstered chairs in elaborately furnished rooms. Instead, these are paintings of working-class women and cloaked men in darkened alleys, with broken wine bottles at their feet. They’re dark and intriguing and sinister and way more interesting than many of the paintings of pretty girls in pretty gardens.

The paintings made me think about something I find scary: Writing about subjects or creating characters I haven’t done before, making the leap to a different kind of story. I know plenty of writers do this and I admire them, because it is HARD. I’ve written three novels, mostly about the same kind of people, in places I know well, dealing with the kind of situations I can well imagine even if I haven’t experienced them. But lately I’ve been writing some totally different stories, featuring characters unlike any I’ve written before. It’s simultaneously terrifying and thrilling. Even if my forays into new writing territory never go farther than my laptop (I haven’t shown them to anyone yet), it’s been a great exercise for me, my imagination, and my writing. It’s worth trying. Consider:

Writing about a subject that scares you. Off the top of my head, here are a few things that terrify me: Losing a child. Getting trapped in a cave or an elevator. Being lost alone in the wilderness. Make a list of some of the things that scare you. Could you write one of those scenarios for one of the characters in your current WIP? Could you write one as part of a new story? Don’t pick something that’s potentially traumatic for you; choose something you can really imagine fully without losing your self or your mind.

Writing a character unlike any other you’ve ever written. Sargent’s painting “The Sulphur Match” shows a woman tilting back in a chair, scarf loose around her shoulders, smiling seductively at a man in a dark, fur-trimmed cape who is leaning forward to light a cigar or cigarette from the lit match in his hand. He looks vaguely ominous, she looks a little drunk. She’s clearly working-class; he looks like a merchant (or a drug dealer). Part of the fascination of the painting is that the scene is a little sordid, with the potential to spill into either some fun drunken carousing or something violent. These are not Sargent’s usual subjects, yet it’s a more interesting painting because of that. What kind of character or personality intrigues you? It doesn’t have to be dark; if you typically write emotionally complex characters who do a lot of moral agonizing, write someone without a conscience, who sees the world in mostly black and white.

Writing a different genre. I know and admire many writers who’ve made this leap. I’ve been toying with writing a novel that’s based on a fairy tale, and also one that crosses multiple generations. This is new territory for me. It’s led me to read some great fiction unlike my usual reads, and it’s led me to explore different ways of telling a story. I know several writers who have rediscovered their passion for writing fiction when they made the leap into a different genre (and several who hit bestseller lists for the first time after making that leap, too).

Have you experimented with writing outside your comfort zone and tried different subjects? Different characters? Different genres? How has it worked out?

About Kathleen McCleary

Kathleen McCleary is the author of three novels—House and Home, A Simple Thing, and Leaving Haven—and has worked as a bookseller, bartender, and barista (all great jobs for gathering material for fiction). A Simple Thing (HarperCollins 2012) was nominated for the Library of Virginia Literary Awards. She was a journalist for many years before turning to fiction, and her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Good Housekeeping, Ladies Home Journal, and USA Weekend, as well as, where she was a regular columnist. She taught writing as an adjunct professor at American University in Washington, D.C., and teaches creative writing to kids ages 8-18 as an instructor with Writopia Labs, a non-profit. She also offers college essay coaching (, because she believes that life is stressful enough and telling stories of any kind should be exciting and fun. When she's not writing or coaching writing, she looks for any excuse to get out into the woods or mountains or onto a lake. She lives in northern Virginia with her husband and two daughters and Jinx the cat.