This is the post I was going to write for Max Adams’ blog, but she wouldn’t let me because she said she doesn’t do snakes.
There is irony, here, people. Irony.
You see, a few years back before the turn of the century, I was doing a new draft of my western screenplay, “Redemption” [which was an adaptation of my first published novel, La Desperada]. Max was giving me notes on it, and I said, “Ha, ha, you know, I wrote this big long epic western, and the one thing I made sure I never put in it was snakes. Rattlesnakes. Oh my God, [this was before OMG, so I actually said the words] I would have nightmares if I wrote about rattlesnakes.”
And Max said in her very soft, very authoritarian voice, “Patricia, you have to write that scene with a rattlesnake.”
And she made me write it. And now that I’ve mentioned it, I’ll go ahead and post it so you can see how it turned out if you’re curious.
You see, I have this phobia about snakes, to the point where unexpectedly turning a page in a magazine and finding a picture of a coiled rattlesnake with a gaping mouth and bared fangs made me scream and throw Arizona Highways across the bathroom. Writing about them could have potentially brought on sleepless nights.
Max was right. That scene rocks. And it brought out so much about my characters—both of them. And it gave my proper Victorian lady a chance to prove herself. That script eventually won a $30,000 Nicholl Fellowship for me, awarded by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Fast forward a few years and I was going through the same thing. Writing needs must be met, and I had to research snakes in the UK. I found the only poisonous snake they have—adders.
I saw so many pictures of adders, read so much about them, that I’ve kind of developed a thing for them. A scary thing, yes, but a thing. Such a thing that when we went down a footpath in Cornwall on a research trip and I began seeing the signs warning of adders, after the first (internal) shriek and the obsessive watching of the path as we walked, I finally realized the truth.
I was obsessively watching kind of hoping I’d see one.
You see, the adders dance.
In April, the male adders emerge from hibernation a month ahead of the females and battle for supremacy, so that when the females come out, only the most superior will breed. And the way they battle—twining and rolling—looks like a dance. I even started watching YouTube videos of adders dancing. We were there in April. I wanted to see the dance I’d written about.
Now, I do think one reason I was able to get a bit less phobic about them is because the adder bite is rarely deadly. People often don’t even feel the bite and don’t know they’ve been bitten for several hours, which is when they begin feeling ill. This created a problem for my scene, in which not only does my character know she’s been bitten (she sees it happen) but she experiences the reactions immediately.
(So you’ll understand the way a writer’s mind works, I will point out that “usually not deadly” is not going to be satisfyingly dramatic, and I would never let my characters off so easily, so to the magical people I write about, the adder bite is very deadly, indeed. I created a logical, magical reason why this would be. So believe me, when Persephone Fury has to deal with adders in This Crumbling Pageant, this is deadly business.)
In the real world of April 2011 on my research trip, the idea of seeing adders in the wild was oddly exciting and invigorating, despite the terror of knowing I couldn’t run fast (very painful plantar fasciitis on that trip) and I would totally scream like a girl and embarrass myself.
Alas, I didn’t see any.
But writing about rattlesnakes and adders is really about something bigger in a writer’s world: It’s about writing scared.
As a writer, you must write those scenes that scare you. Write about snakes. Write about sex. Write about whatever your story requires and your characters deserve, especially if the thought of putting those words on the terrifies you.
Write the scenes you are afraid people will judge you for. The ones that you are afraid are too violent or too explicit or expose the depths of your heart and the dark of your soul. If your book needs them, if your characters deserve them, you have to write them.
You can’t back away from the scary things just because they are icky, or scary, or somebody might think the wrong (or the right) thing about you.
Instead, you must dig deep and expose those raw nerves so that your reader will experience that pain, that hunger, that glory. Make your readers experience it as if they are the characters in the middle of the story instead of merely on the outside looking in. Make them taste and smell it, the way that can only be done when your writing cuts into the quick.
Did I write scared when I wrote This Crumbling Pageant? You bet I did, professionally and emotionally. So far, people really respond to those places in the book where I took chances and showed those nerves.
I am not a thrill seeker in real life. No jumping out of airplanes, bronco busting or lion taming. But I am a thrill-seeker when I write. If it doesn’t make my heart pound, where’s the fun in writing that? I’m a thrill seeker when I read. Because if it doesn’t make my heart pound, where’s the fun in reading that?
So yes, Max was right. But then, Max is always right.
I had to write about the snakes.
Even though she won’t let me write about them on her blog.
BIO: Award-winning screenwriter and best selling novelist Patricia Burroughs loves dogs, books, movies, and football. A lifelong Anglophile, she treasures her frequent travels in the British Isles researching The Fury Triad, the epic fantasy that has taken over her life and heart. She is a Nicholl Fellow, a proud member of Book View Café, and a fifth-generation Texan. She and her high school sweetheart husband are living happily ever after in their hometown of Dallas, Texas.
Book blurb for This Crumbling Pageant:
Persephone Fury is the Dark daughter, the one they hide.
England, 1811. Few are aware of a hidden magical England, a people not ruled by poor mad George, but the dying King Pellinore of the House of Pendragon.
The Furys are known for their music, their magic, and their historic role as kingmakers. When Fury ambitions demand a political marriage, Persephone is drugged and presented to Society–
Only to be abducted from the man she loves by the man she loathes.
But devious and ruthless, Persephone must defy ancient prophecy, embrace her Dark magic, and seize her own fate.
Be swept away into the first book of a dark fantasy series combining swashbuckling adventure, heart-pounding romance, and plot-twisting suspense.