This month, YA author Rachel Burge shares her love of the heart-pumping power of Stephen King.


When I was growing up there was no YA section in the library. At the age of thirteen, I went from reading books like The Animals of Farthing Wood and Watership Down, to devouring adult horror titles like Carrie, The Rats and The Exorcist. These heart-thumping books were nothing like the ones we were given at school, and I would stay up late into the night, desperate to know what happened and yet terrified to keep reading at the same time.

I inherited my love of horror, along with a passion for reading and writing, from my mum. She’s always been an avid reader and would buy the latest Stephen King book from WHSmith as soon as it came out, which meant I got to read it once she’d finished. I already had an interest in the paranormal thanks to several experiences in childhood, and I loved how King wrote about teen girls (like Carrie and Firestarter) with amazing powers.

King’s stories are easy to read and hard to put down. In part, that’s because he focuses on relatable characters and taps into everyday concerns (bullying in Carrie, domestic violence in The Shining) and then adds in a new element, sometimes supernatural, that takes our fear to a whole new level. 

Mixing Genres

King is primarily known as a horror writer but has written across an impressive range of genres and isn’t afraid to mix genres within in a single book, whether that’s a western sci-fi fantasy (The Dark Tower), a coming-of-age fantasy horror novel (IT), or a time travel historical-fiction romance (11/22/63). My favourite kind of books are those that surprise me, and I love how his stories often take an unexpected turn. 

I’ve mixed genres in my own books. My debut, The Twisted Tree, is a coming-of-age tale based on Norse mythology, which features a ghost story and a romance. For the sequel, The Crooked Mask, I decided to write a murder mystery, again with Norse myth and horror elements. Like my debut, the story takes place in a single, isolated snowy location – this time a creepy circus located deep in the forests of northern Norway. The Shining is one of my biggest inspirations (I’ve stayed at The Stanley Hotel in Colorado, where King claims to have had several supernatural experiences that inspired him to write the book), and is the reason I’m drawn to writing about snowy places where characters are cut off from help. 

The Crooked Mask also features a creepy jester, but this wasn’t inspired by IT’s Pennywise. My mum used to collect clown dolls and puppets and my childhood bedroom was full of them, and I’ve had a fear of clowns ever since. So much so, I was too scared to finish IT. I tried reading it as a teenager but had to stop – and I’ve never found the courage to go back!

Stephen King ‘On Writing’

While not everyone likes horror, I would recommend King’s book, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, to anyone who wants to write. In it, he offers advice on how to find the time to write and approach stories, as well as sharing insights into his journey as an author. 

I particularly like the way he describes writing a story as uncovering a fossil. 

Stories are found things, like fossils in the ground…. [They] are relics, part of an undiscovered pre-existing world. The writer’s job is to use the tools in his or her toolbox to get as much of each one out of the ground intact as possible.

I love the idea that stories exist independently of us, as Elizabeth Gilbert suggests in her book Big Magic, and are waiting to be found. The writer’s job is to help uncover them. 

I realise this sounds a bit vague as advice goes. Another way to think about it is this – instead of trying to ‘construct’ the plot you’re working on, try pulling back and see if you can locate the heart of the story. It’s a subtle shift in mindset, but helped me hugely when I was writing my debut. Instead of making my characters do things to fit the plot, I imagined shrinking down and seeing the world through my main character’s eyes. I focused on her emotional journey, rather than plot points.

Doing this, I found the book was about something different to what I first had in mind. Previously, I had been adding on plot events like lumps of clay, which only made the story more monstrous and unwieldy. Once I had the heart of the story, I began removing everything that didn’t resonate with that - pulling away the dirt until I found the hidden fossil inside.

That’s not to say I follow all of King’s advice. He is a self-proclaimed ‘panster’ who likes to start with an interesting character and situation and then asks ‘what if’ to see where the story takes him. Although writing The Twisted Tree was a process of discovery, I took a different approach for the sequel. I created a detailed outline and found the ‘heart’ of the story that way. I then didn’t have to worry about where it was going or if the publishers would like it (they had already signed off the outline) and I could focus on writing one scene at a time, a bit like painting by numbers.

What works for one writer doesn’t for another – the trick is to keep trying until you find what suits you. You learn by doing. King is one of the most prolific authors on the planet, and I admire the way he never stops taking risks. When I was looking for an agent and desperately hoping to one day be published, I thought back to King’s determination. In On Writing, he describes how

the nail in my wall would no longer support the weight of the rejection slips impaled upon it. I replaced the nail with a spike and went on writing.

If you want to be published or improve as a writer, that’s the best advice there is. Keep on writing.

Rachel Burge
works as a freelance feature writer and has written for a variety of websites, including BBC Worldwide, Cosmo, and MTV. Her debut novel, The Twisted Tree, is a ghost story and Nordic thriller with a unique protagonist, Martha, who can tell things about a person just by touching their clothes. The sequel, The Crooked Mask, is out on Kindle now, and will be available in paperback 21 January, 2021. 

Follow Rachel: 

Twitter: @RachelABurge 


Instagram: rachelburgewriter

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