Shawn Burgess is a dark fiction author with a love for the dark, chilling, and unusual, whether that be in his own writing, or in his reading of the works of others. His debut novel, The Tear Collector, was published in 2019 and its sequel, Ghosts of Grief Hollow is due out in 2021. He lives in Jacksonville, Florida, with his wife and two sons.
Author portrait by Georgia Geis
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How do you come up with ideas for a project?
Every project is different. The Tear Collector was born from a string of dialogue with main characters Brooks, Robby, and Tee that I created on a flight to California. It ultimately ended up becoming Chapter 2 in the book. That simple dialogue exchange helped me define who each of those characters were, and I ultimately built the plot around them.
As a project for my oldest son, I wanted to create something that reflected my experiences growing up while simultaneously making it relatable to him in the modern day. Happily, he loved the book and even went dressed for Halloween as the character who shares his name, though it was certainly not age appropriate.
For the sequel, Ghosts of Grief Hollow, I started with a beginning and end in mind, plus a few key scenes. I wanted to keep the tone of the original book alive by still capturing the mystery, intrigue, and horror of its predecessor without repeating the same experience.
Other projects I’m working on, like Deity, started out with a “what if” proposition. Some novel ideas in my notebook even start out with something as small as a piece of microfiction, but with every project, I want readers to experience right alongside the characters and almost feel as if they are there inside those pages.
After you have a new idea, how much research do you do?
The amount of research depends upon what each story demands. For The Tear Collector, there were some hypothetical scientific elements I needed to work out, which led me down a path of researching DNA and reading some academic papers so I could figure out how to best bastardize the science to fit the direction I wanted to take the story.
I find myself researching odds and ends throughout any manuscript, but sometimes it requires a deeper dive. In Ghosts of Grief Hollow, I had to do quite a bit of research on the colonial history of Saint Domingue (modern-day Haiti). I spent hours researching it, though the information gleaned only appears in a few lines of dialogue and one scene.
Still, other research is best acquired hands-on. I had my first tarot card reading (virtual because of the pandemic) and had a lengthy telephone discussion with another author who is familiar with readings and about the significance of each card. I took pages of notes. From there, it’s manipulating what you’ve learned to reach a desired outcome.
For my novel Deity, I’m still trying to find an industry resource for some very specific questions I have on raw material procurement for fracking that can’t be readily answered through Google searches.
I think most people don’t realize how much research goes into writing a fictional novel. I always do my best to prevent any plot holes and make the story as believable as possible.
Do you research things throughout your creative process or just at the beginning?
I’m not big on thorough outlines, or formal outlines for that matter, so my books typically demand at least some level of researching throughout the creative process. When taking unplanned diversions from what I have in mind, it almost always requires I do at least some additional research. It’s part of the writing process. What amazes me is the writers that came prior to the Internet Age and the amount of time they must’ve spent digging for answers that can be readily accessed in the modern era.
What’s the strangest thing you’ve researched for a project (go check that Google search history)?
There’s a running joke among authors about telling the FBI, don’t worry about my internet search history, I’m a writer. That said, I do find myself searching some very unusual topics: rate of decomposition in different climates, how that differs depending upon the manner of death, police tactics and procedures, seasonality of birds in different areas, the paranormal, the occult, and the list goes on. In my opinion, that inherent curiosity and thirst for information is one of the things that makes writers uniquely suited to this craft. I don’t know what my readers will know, but the safest assumption is to assume that they know more about any given topic than I do. That caution hopefully serves me well in avoiding writing something that will pull them out of the story and disrupt the suspension of disbelief.
When you write, do you try to stay close to the Actual Factual or are you fast and loose with Handwavium (a term used when a writer waves their hand at reality for sake of the plot)?
I fall somewhere in between. I try to ground my stories in relatable characters and facts, so that the more fantastical elements are easier for a reader to accept. However, I don’t think there’s a wrong strategy. So long as you can keep the reader humming along in the story, either can work, but I’m careful to make sure I include enough believable elements so I don’t go full-on Alice in Wonderland as that’s not the type of story I’m typically telling.
Have you ever stopped reading a story to go look up how factual something was?
Absolutely. Who hasn’t? It typically comes from a place of genuine curiosity versus trying to disprove an element of a story. I enjoy getting lost in a book. I don’t ever want to feel like a critic as I’m reading. As a reader, I’m much more focused on the story and the enjoyment I get from that.
Do you create with music, other background noise or complete silence?
I can go either way. With The Tear Collector, I listened to a preselected playlist of alternative rock music because it was mostly written on planes and in hotel rooms. I needed something to block out the distraction. Lately, I’ve been doing most of my writing in silence, save for the owl in my tree outside who apparently keeps the same hours as I do.
Do you have any pet helper?
I grew up with dogs, but we don’t have any pets. With our hectic schedules, it would be a little cruel to own a dog as they would have to be crated and wouldn’t get any interaction during the day. My youngest son and I are also very allergic to cats, so that’s a nonstarter.
Do you create better at 5am or 5pm?
I do my best work from 10PM on. However, I’ll write when I have the time and do no matter the hour.
Which team apocalypse are you on: zombie, asteroid, or alien invasion?
Great question. With an Asteroid, it’s one big bang and over, so then it really becomes a question of do you want to stick around for the misery. If aliens developed the technology to get here, we don’t stand a chance, so that’s going to end pretty quickly if they’re not here in the spirit of exploration. Sometimes, looking at the state of the world and near continual conflict, it’s hard to imagine them wanting to make nice. I’m going with Team Zombie. They’re slow and dumb as dirt. Obviously, the hordes make survival tricky, and the worst part would be seeing a friend or family member turned, but I think I could deal with commandeering a boat, loading it with fishing supplies, finding a small island, and living off the sea.
Shawn, you write mostly dark twisty thrillers, have you always written in this genre, or did you start in another genre and found your way to horror?
I started writing horror stories when I was in elementary school, so this is definitely not breaking any new ground for me. I’ve always loved books and movies with those type of elements.
I struggle with what to label myself because the stories I’ve written and ones I intend to write don’t always fall neatly into a genre; they tend to mix elements of a few. I’ve resorted to calling myself a dark fiction author lately, though I suppose the only time it matters what you choose to call yourself is when you need to market your books or write a bio.
I’ve seen readers peg The Tear Collector as horror/psychological horror, psychological thriller, general fiction, coming-of-age, supernatural thriller, mystery, Adult, YA, fantasy and even sci-fi or any combination thereof. What matters most to me beyond the labels is that readers find and enjoy my stories, no matter what me or my publisher ultimately arbitrarily decides to call it. I’m working on “what I call” an urban fantasy/mystery, but even that has those twisty and darker elements, plus a touch of the supernatural and paranormal.
Do you read outside the genre you write in?
Yes. I read a wide variety of fiction and occasionally some non-fiction. If a story and its characters are compelling, I’d never exclude it from my reading list, but I do tend to gravitate toward darker works.
You mentioned being inspired from living in Florida and other towns throughout southeastern US, how does that translate into your writing? (The local legends, creepy woods/trails, or just because they had a diner with good coffee and pie?)
Growing up in various spots in the southeast, I explored the woods with friends. My most vivid memories are from Birmingham and Nashville. In both places, we lived in the suburbs. At the time, there wasn’t the suburban sprawl there is today. There was still a large amount of undeveloped land in the area. For us kids, that became our playground. I found abandoned structures that predated the Civil War, small coal mining operations left to decay, hidden caves with albino fish, and secret lakes in the middle of the woods. That sense of exploration and wonderment leaves a lasting impression, and I try to bring some of that mystery to my writing.
In addition, I love bits of local legend and lore. The Tear Collector takes place in small-town Appalachia. I wanted to create that sense of being in a small town, the free-range approach of parents letting children explore the woods as was commonplace at the time. Though The Tear Collector definitely features some local legend prominently, its sequel, Ghosts of Grief Hollow, leans more heavily in to those aspects to give the reader a more holistic view of local beliefs and backstory, how those different story elements are interconnected, and how they helped create the antagonist while simultaneously sealing the fate of the town of Harper Pass.
Like most small towns, Harper Pass has its share of skeletons in the closet. Ghosts of Grief Hollow brings those into the forefront to reveal the ugliness that can exist in humans as well as in monsters of a more fantastical variety.
If you got to use some “Handwavium” and send younger Shawn one note about writing, editing, or marketing, which would you chose and what would you say?
I’ve learned a great deal since starting this journey. The most important lesson it’s taught me is that there are always new things to learn. When you’re going through the publishing process for the first time, everything is new. It’s easy to feel like you’re drinking from a firehose, especially if publishing is not something you’ve even been following closely from the sidelines prior to diving in. I consider myself fortunate for finding a publisher who believed in my story as much as I did. There are so many things I wish I knew about each of those aspects of publishing a book and everything that surrounds it. But you don’t know what you don’t know until you realize you don’t know it.
But to answer your question, the biggest piece of advice I would give to my younger self would be about writing and simply put, don’t wait. I kept putting off writing books because I was always waiting for that right moment. I should’ve realized there was never going to be a perfect time. Now, I prioritize writing among my other responsibilities, and that balance appears to be working.
The Tear Collector is your latest novel, and I know you are working on a sequel, can you share any details?
I am super excited about Ghosts of Grief Hollow. I’m currently in the editing process, so I’ve been spending a ton of time with the manuscript. It’s very fast paced and should quicken the pulse of readers. It’s the darkest, most twisty thing I’ve ever written. Some new characters are coming into the fold in addition to a return of Brooks and his friends and Detective Holt. I think it’s a book that people can enjoy whether or not they’ve read its predecessor. Early readers have described it as gritty, scary, and intense, so I’m hoping that when it finds a wider audience, they will find a similar experience in its pages. I hope to have some more details soon as far as a release date, but I expect it will be in the fall of 2021.
Shawn, thank-you for your time. Is there anything else you’d like folks to know about you, your work, or your research process?
I think we covered most of it, Jotham. Thank you so much for interviewing me. I really enjoyed chatting with you. Hopefully, we can meet in person one of these days and grab a pint!
Awesome! Look forward to it. You can pick up The Tear Collector now and you can follow Shawn across the internet at the links below or signup for his Newsletter at https://t.co/5M3RU7KILM
Follow Shawn on Social Media.
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