Wednesday 30 October 2013

Guest Post: Cat Winters on Giving Readers Chills +++ Win an ARC of In the Shadow of Blackbirds! (INTL)

In the Shadow of Blackbirds by Cat Winters || Release date: April 2013.

In 1918, the world seems on the verge of apocalypse. Americans roam the streets in gauze masks to ward off the deadly Spanish influenza, and the government ships young men to the front lines of a brutal war, creating an atmosphere of fear and confusion. Sixteen-year-old Mary Shelley Black watches as desperate mourners flock to séances and spirit photographers for comfort, but she herself has never believed in ghosts. During her bleakest moment, however, she’s forced to rethink her entire way of looking at life and death, for her first love—a boy who died in battle—returns in spirit form. But what does he want from her?

Featuring haunting archival early-twentieth-century photographs, this is a tense, romantic story set in a past that is eerily like our own time.


Cat Winters on Writing Spooky Scenes and Giving Readers Chills.

Cat Winters

How to Give Your Readers Chills
by Cat Winters

In Chapter 10 of my debut novel, IN THE SHADOW OF BLACKBIRDS, my main character wakes up and believes something unsettling is lurking in the room with her. I could have simply written, “I woke up at three in the morning and felt scared,” but I thought it would be far more interesting to phrase my character’s experience the following way:

“I awoke, curled on my side and facing the wall, as the downstairs cuckoo announced three o’clock. The muted glow of the oil lamp still illuminated my golden wallpaper, but the blackness of night crowded around me as if it were a living creature. The scent of burning fireworks scorched my nostrils. A coppery taste lined my tongue and caused the fillings in my teeth to ache, while my heartbeat echoed inside the mattress, pounding like a second heart.”

From my own adventures in writing, I’ve learned that the key to writing a spooky scene is to make your readers feel as though they’re experiencing exactly what your characters are experiencing. Think about your reactions to your favorite scary novels and movies. Chances are, they caused your heart to race and had you looking over your shoulder, even though you knew it was only a story. 

Here are five tools and tips for plunging readers into evocative, terrifying fictional moments.

1. Pay attention to what physically happens to you in frightening situations.

Let your characters undergo those same physical reactions. One night after reading a book that spooked me, I lay awake in my bed, heard the echo of my heartbeat ticking away in my mattress, and realized it sounded like another heart was beating inside my bed. Yep, I then incorporated that experience into IN THE SHADOW OF BLACKBIRDS, as shown in the sample paragraph above!

2. Use sensory language.

Show us your characters’ terrifying encounters through all five of their senses, not just sight. What does that haunted old house smell like to your character? How does that eerie mist feel when he walks through it? What does he hear in the darkness? Does his mouth taste dry from breathing too hard?

3. Write about things that scare YOU.

Your reader will believe a situation is frightening if you believe it’s frightening, too. If you’re terrified of spiders, have your character encounter a horrific spider—and bring in those physical reactions you experience when facing eight-legged creepy-crawlies.

4. Play around with language to find the scariest words.

“Dog” vs. “beast.” “Monster” vs. “fiend.” “Spooky old house” vs. “crumbling, crooked mansion.” Finding just the right words can transform an object from ordinary to eerie.

5. Use images and music for inspiration.

Listen to haunting melodies before you sit down to write a spine-tingling scene. Collect pictures from magazines or websites—images that stir up emotions inside you. The more reactions you have to spooky sights and sounds, the more prepared you’ll be to describe your characters’ encounters with fearful situations.

Happy writing! Happy Halloween!


Cat Winters's critically acclaimed debut novel, In the Shadow of Blackbirds, is a nominee for YALSA's 2014 Best Fiction for Young Adults and was named one of Booklist's 2013 Top Ten Horror Fiction for Youth. Her second novel, The Cure for Dreaming, is coming Fall 2014. She lives in Portland, Oregon, with her husband and two kids. Visit her online at and

You can also follow Cat on Twitter: @catwinters  and check out My Review of In the Shadow of Blackbirds


Thanks to Cat for the great guest post! As a special Halloween treat, I'm giving away my ARC of In the Shadow of Blackbirds.
Competition is open Internationally and closes November 10th 2013.
Winner will be contacted by email and will have 72 hours to respond before I pick another winner.

a Rafflecopter giveaway


  1. Love Cat Winter's writing tips. Especially "Play around with language to find the scariest words". It's amazing how different a sentence can get if you choose another word.

    Thank you for the giveaway! :D

  2. I love how authors capture emotions and bring them vividly to the readers as though they are the ones experiencing it. The best books are the ones that make you feel in sync with the characters, when you cry because of the character's heartbreaking situations, when you laugh because the words truly are funny, and when you are terrified because the character feels that way. It is awesome to have that whole idea laid out in a few simple steps because sometimes it takes authors years to master it. Thanks for the amazing post!

  3. I love how Cat described the best way to write spooky scenes! It's so hard to write if you haven't put yourself in that situation before, so I like that she plays off her own emotions. Lovely feature! :)

  4. ChristinaBookAddict31 October 2013 at 12:50

    I love her writing tips. Scary books freak me out, so writing my own I'm sure would put me over the edge. :) I think her recommendation of sensory language is important though - her excerpt from chapter ten is pretty eerie. Regarding recommendations for you and which books to read...I haven't read too many other than Picture the Dead by Adele Griffin, which I really enjoyed...there's illustrations too!! I also read We Hear the Dead by Diane Salerni (author of Caged Graves) and that was entertaining as well. I am definitely going to add Blackbirds to my TBR list...hopefully it doesn't freak me out too much! :) Thanks for the great giveaway!

  5. Jenny @ Supernatural Snark31 October 2013 at 14:39

    LET'S NOT EVEN TALK ABOUT SPIDERS!!! *dies* Definitely something I'm terrified of:) Especially now when it's just starting to get cold outside so they're all trying to come inside. No. Just no.

    I've heard such amazing things about this book, I can't wait to finally get a chance to read it. I'm hoping to abandon all review books over the holidays and just get caught up on the books I haven't had time for, and this is one of them:) So excited!

  6. Cat Winters has so many helpful tips on writing scary scenes here! Love her chapter ten example. I guess I wouldn't be capable of writing a creepy book because I'm so easily scared. People would just think of it as lame instead of frightening LOL

  7. I'm not a writer and have no ambition to be one but as a lover of books I love hearing about how a writer gets in the mood and all the little tricks used to pull us into the zone. I really agree with the first point, when the physical reactions are described, it makes me all but sense them too and moves my scare factor up by a zillion.

  8. Love the tips! I used to collect the kinds of images she mentions in #5; I should try and do it again.

  9. Write about things that scare YOU.

    Oh yes, that is a wonderful tip! I think it makes a story much more believable if you have real angst for that subject.

  10. I think that if something scares you & you can capture that for the reader then it has to be a winner.

  11. I love reading the author's dissection of how she wrote her scenes--it explains why the book had such a creepy feel to it! No need to enter me in the giveaway since I already bought the book, but it's such a lovely thing to give your readers. :) Enjoyed the guest post very much, thank you for hosting/writing it.

    Wendy @ The Midnight Garden

  12. I always seem to read the same sort of books so I've been reading this blog to look at new genres and finding all sorts of inspiration. Thank you for helping me in branching out my reading. This particular books sounds very intriguing.


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