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.”

My return to reading

Despite my complaints about the past five weeks of Winter Break being a complete and utter snooze-fest of boredom (I return to CoMo in six days, huzzah!), there have been some perks. I got to spend quality time with my mother/BFF, I have finally finished (almost) Breaking Bad, I got to see all of my old friends from high school and, finally, I have finally had the time to read for pleasure.

Growing up I have always been an avid book worm. In early elementary school I devoured books such as The Magic Treehouse series and R. L. Stein’s Goosebumps before graduating to Harry Potter and the Warriors series by Erin Hunter (I mean, what fifth-grade girl wouldn’t love a seemingly never ending book series where all the main characters are cats?) I always had a book tucked under my arm. During my soccer games I would sit on the sidelines and read until my coach put me in. The summer before third and fourth grade I won my school’s “1,000 page reading challenge,” the second time with over 13,000 pages read in three short months. I would spend so much time sitting on the couch reading that my mom would sometimes take my books away from me and force me to go play outside like a normal child. In middle school I discovered Stephen King, who to this day is still my favorite author. I read Pet Sematary, then Salem’s Lot, then The Shining and Christine, and I was captivated.

Over the years, my love for reading hasn’t dwindled but the amount of books I’ve read has been on a steady decline. It just comes down to time. In high school I always had something assigned for Advanced English and then IB English classes. Shakespeare, Plath, McCarthy, Twain, Krakauer, Bradbury, Atwood. Some I loved, some I despised. But between assignments it was difficult to find the time and energy to read purely for pleasure. I’d maybe get a book in during breaks, but it was only over the summer where I would return to reading because I wanted to, not because my grade depended on it.

In college I have even less time for pleasure reading. I have classes and homework and articles to write for the newspaper, but the main reason comes down to the fact that all of your friends live right down the hall from you. All of first semester my mentality was, “why would I want to sit in my room alone and read when I could be hanging out with the Hatch 5 family until four in the morning?”

The great thing about winter break is it has reminded me that sitting in bed alone with a book is actually a great way to spend your evening. These past few weeks I finally finished the spectacular Under the Dome by Stephen King (which I began in July and only read about 100 to 150 pages of during the four months of first semester). I also began and finished Lucky, a memoir by Alice Sebold.

To motivate myself to keep my New Years resolution to read a little every day, I have constructed a list of books I want to read over the course of the upcoming year. It’s a bit ambitious, but I like a challenge.

  • Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
  • Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
  • The Stand by Stephen King
  • The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
  • The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
  • Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman
  • Animal Farm by George Orwell
  • A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin
  • The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom

On top of these newbies, I also want to reread all of the Harry Potter books before 2014 comes to a close. I haven’t read any of them since 2007, when The Deathly Hallows came out, and I want to see what reading them as an adult is like.

And so begins 2014: The Year of the Great Book Odyssey. Wish me luck.