Patricia Burroughs: Of Adders and Writing Process

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“Adders. Why did it have to be adders?” (or) Because Max Said So

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.PatriciaBurroughs_ThisCrumblingPageant_600px

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, a western love story). 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 a scene with a rattlesnake.”

Wait. What?!?

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.

pooks glassesBIO: 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.

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16 comments to Patricia Burroughs: Of Adders and Writing Process

  • […] wouldn’t let me write about [redacted]. I had to do that on Magical Words where I wrote about [redacted] and how Max mentored/bullied me into writing about them even though […]

  • […] So I wrote about [redacted] on Magical Words instead. […]

  • Chris Branch

    If I could make a small administrative comment: would it be reasonable for posts by “admin” to include a brief identification of the actual author at the top of the post? Since MW has gotten away from the original core group, we get posts from many authors I’m not familiar with, which is great; but it might be nice to have that intro up front. Just an idea; thanks!

  • Chris, I’m a member of Book View Café and since I receive their blog posts through an RSS feed, I know exactly what you’re talking about. We’ve been experimenting with different approaches but haven’t found one we’re really happy with yet.

  • momof3boysj

    adderly fascinating!

  • You did not say that. You did. LOL! And thank you!

  • admin

    Misty here – Chris, that’s something we can do. We had been posting that information at the bottom instead, so as to make sure you and all our readers read all the way through. But I guess you discovered our evil secret plan! *grin*

    Seriously, no problem. We’ll see what we can do for you. 🙂

  • […] she wrote this blog entry for Magical Words in which she talks about writing about snakes [and yes, there are also snakes in This Crumbling […]

  • Ken

    Welcome Patricia!!!

    Thanks for sharing this. It is really, freaking, good advice. Something I’m going to be asking myself every time I sit down.

  • Thanks, Ken. Writing scared is fun [except for knowing my daddy was going to read my sex scenes, that was scary!].

  • I’m going to put “Write Scared” on a sticky note and post it on my computer screen! Great advice.

  • Razziecat

    I have to read this book! Because I love snakes!! And because it sounds really freakin’ cool! And because I love this post! And I may have had too much caffeine today! 😀 😀

    Seriously, what fantastic advice! Magical Words, how do you always know what I need to hear just when I need to hear it? This is so relevant to the thing I just started writing…not snakes, specifically, but there are dark themes and violence and a skewed relationship, and I’ve been treading carefully. Maybe I need to just go for it. Better too wild than too tame; I think toning it down in revisions might be easier than trying to crank it up.

  • YES. You hit the nail on the head. I once had an editor say, “I can edit out. I can’t write in.” They say ‘open a vein’ for a reason. It’s a draft. Pour every dark thing onto the page. Later on you can decide what works and doesn’t.

  • […] Burroughs and Win a GC May 8:  Celluloid Blonde Of [redacted] and Aubergine Magical Words:  Of Adders and Writing Process Fury Triad: Of Adders and Rattlesnakes May 9: Lorraine Bartlett: FOODIE FRIDAY – Why British […]

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