How Stephen King taught me to write

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No writer has influenced me more than Stephen King. In seventh grade I read my first King novel, Pet Sematary, and chased it with Salem’s LotThe ShiningCarrie and Christine. King was my segue from children’s and young adult fiction into adult fiction and, more than even the J School, King taught me how to write.

Vox recently published a story on Stephen King’s extensive cultural influence – after all, without him we wouldn’t fear Pennywise the Dancing Clown living in our sewers or ironically name our shih tzus Cujo. Much of this article discusses King’s writing style – namely, his exceptional ability to make the reader empathize with characters.

As the article’s author Aja Romano writes, “every characterization, even a minor one, is rich with detail; even if you just met a new character, you can bet that by the time he or she meets a grisly ending a few pages later, you’ll have a deep understanding of who that character is.” King is a master of writing in rich detail, building worlds and understanding people – key elements I work to emulate in my own writing, both in fiction and in journalism.

I’m a features writer and have always tended to steer clear of hard news. I became a writer because I want to meet people and learn about them. My favorite stories to work on are ones where I’ve attempted to capture a person’s essence to make the reader understand them as I have come to.

Take, for example, a story I did in October 2015 about Mark Chambers, a Rocky Horror Picture Show super fan and emcee. I conducted multiple interviews and spent a lot of time texting, calling and just hanging out with Mark as he worked on his show. I had to understand the love this man had for this movie and make sure readers understood him as well.

With each story I work on, I try to exercise my ability to build scenes and create characters. It’s been a while since I’ve had the opportunity to write a long form feature such as the one on Mark, but even with shorter articles I take every opportunity I can to make it more rich with detail, such as in a Q&A with a baker in Columbia, Missouri, and a Missouri music icon. My focus on detail comes from King, much to the chagrin of my former journalism professors who would cringe when I couldn’t name one long form journalist I admired, but raved about the horror author.

Though King is my favorite author and I’ve read many of his novels, I have barely put a dent in his expansive list of works. I’m ashamed to say some of his most famous stories, such as The Stand and Misery, are still resting, unread, on my bookshelf. But here are some characters who have stuck with me because of the great care King put into them.

The Losers’ Club in It

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It, my favorite King novel, lacks a central character in exchange for a core cast of six – The Losers. It begins with extensive delves into each character’s life as adults before returning to their childhoods, and jumps back and forth in time throughout the 1,100+ pages. As you see them in childhood and adulthood, cross-cut together, you develop a deep understanding of who they are and what motivates them, making It’s threat all the more terrifying.

Dolores Claiborne

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Stephen King is the reason I will be thinking of nothing but Kathy Bates and husbands pushed down wells during the Aug. 21 eclipse. Dolores Claiborne is interesting to me because the novel is told entirely through Dolores’ confession to the police about her involvement in a murder. On the surface, Dolores and Vera Donovan, an old woman Dolores is employed by, are cold, hard and in some cases cruel. But King masterfully peels back the layers of their complicated relationship through the conflict between Dolores and her abusive husband Joe. He writes Dolores in such a powerful way as she reclaims power and ends her years of living under domestic abuse, though through her own act of violence. King, to me, is Shakespearean in his understanding of women.

Big Jim in Under the Dome

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It might be strange to say that Big Jim is one of my favorite King villains. After all, he is just a used car salesman and King has written vampires, killer clowns and whatever the hell the Langoliers are. But Jim being human is what makes him so terrifying as he rises to power when Chester’s Mill is cut off from the outside world by an unseen force. One line that still sticks with me, four years after reading the novel, is from Big Jim himself: “Murder is like potato chips; you can’t stop with just one.”

Summer reading standards

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Like most kids, I always looked forward to summer – going to the pool, sleeping in late and, above all, being able to read without the hindrance of homework.

I would spend the days of summer vacation sitting inside and devouring book after book. My mother would sometimes ground me from reading and urge me to “get off that couch and go play outside; you need the exercise and fresh air.” In the summer between third and fourth grade, I read 13,053 pages and placed first in my elementary school’s summer reading challenge.

As I’ve grown older and schoolwork has become more and more demanding during the year, my time spent reading for pleasure has dwindled to a sad trickle. But I’m working to, hopefully, change that this summer.

Granted, since I just graduated from college not even a month ago, I have time to catch up on my always-growing bookshelf for the foreseeable future (especially since I’m unemployed. Please, somebody, hire me). But to get back into the swing of things, I’m pushing myself to read as many books as I can before August. The list to conquer (so far):

  • The Vagina Monologues by Eve Ensler
  • The Princess Diarist by Carrie Fisher
  • Bad Feminist by Roxanne Gay
  • On Writing by Stephen King
  • Bossy Pants by Tina Fey
  • Not That Kind of Girl by Lena Dunham
  • Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi