Another one of literature’s great prose stylists, Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote darkly beautiful and haunting stories about sin, guilt, and personal redemption earned through humiliation under the glaring gaze of the hypocritical and self-righteous, the “pure and innocent” accusers. Writers have great material like that all around them.
Who hasn’t “sinned”? Who doesn’t have some secret they don’t want anyone to know about?
Go to any church where congregations consider themselves the “saved” and holy ones. Not that they aren’t. Many of those folks are truly good. Perhaps I go to one of those churches too. But a closer look at everyone’s life reveals sin and bad stuff they’re guilty of doing that makes for universal and timeless tales.
Here’s just a Hawthorne handful of ways to mine and develop great story ideas.
#1: What’s your haunted history?
Hawthorne’s great‑grandfather was a judge in the Salem witch trials. So that led him to write symbolic tales about the guilt of sin as a psychological burden. He had a Puritan heritage. So the strictures of that rigid religious sect troubled and informed his stories.
Everyone’s a haunted house. What ghosts and goblins haunt your mind or your family? How is the past still alive in you or your characters’ present?
#2: What are your dark secrets?
His friend Melville said that Hawthorne’s works have the “power of blackness” about them—a dark secret past or present dominates everything.
- Is there any “blackness” in your life or world?
- Any conflicts of disturbed moral and psychological conditions?
- Any hidden depravity?
- Any rebellious impulses?
- Any morbid thoughts?
#3: What’s your psychological tension?
Hawthorne’s stories are tense and suspenseful because of the psychological forces ripping and tearing at the characters’ hearts. Read any of his books or short stories and you’ll be gripped by their oppositions, their conflicts, their ambiguities, such as:
- Between wanting solitude and wanting company
- Between dependence and independence
- Between secretiveness and disclosure
- Between talking and silence
- Between forgiveness or vengeance
- Between accepting or rejecting
Craft characters and stories that resonate with readers because tensions are explored.
#4: What’s your lonely and solitary disposition?
Do you ever feel out of place, like a stranger in your own world? This sense of isolation and alienation—where does it come from? Is it real or imagined? Are you actually being ignored and talked about behind your back—excluded and ostracized—or are you paranoid and delusional?
Hawthorne—and all of the mid-19th century writers—dwelt long and deep on these subjects.
- Hester and Goodman Brown lost in the forests—both real and of their own imaginings
- Poe’s Pym in the caverns near the South Pole
- Melville’s Ahab in his stark lunacy, madly pursuing the white whale across the 7 Seas
- Whitman on the westward trail seeking himself
- Twain’s Huck Finn drifting on a raft down the mighty Mississippi
- Thoreau in self-imposed hermitage on Walden’s pond
#5: Your life comes down to this question: “What would happen if…?”
Here’s a gem of a story-starting tip: many of Hawthorne’s stories are plotted around an outlandish, outrageous, even bizarre event or set of circumstances. Something happens or something is a certain way. The characters are thrust into it or create it for themselves somehow. Then, the rest of the story takes place as a reaction to these events or circumstances. Just as if Hawthorne had dreamed it up by thinking to himself: “Hmm….I wonder what would happen if…?”
Wow. We jump in before looking. We go for it when don’t even know what it is, really. Damn the consequences when we want something.
#6: Who’s the allegorical you?
You are an allegory. Yes, you are. Don’t try to deny it. You have attitudes and ideas, don’t you? You live in the material world but have some kind of spiritual side, right? At least occasionally, you spout off about moral truths and lessons of life, right? If so, you’re a living, breathing allegory. And so is everyone you know.
Make your characters stand for something.
Symbols are related to allegory: they’re things that stand for something else. Back to the mid-19th century we go for classic examples:
- Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter “A”
- Melville’s white whale Moby Dick
- Poe’s Raven
- Twain’s Mississippi River
- Whitman’s Leave of Grass
- Thoreau’s pond at Walden
There are symbols all around you. In my own dark and distant past, I sold cars. Car lots symbolize my hardcore salesman side. I also played hard rock music in hard rock bands—even today they symbolize my wild side. What do you do? Where do you hang out? What material objects mean something to you? They’re all symbols you can infuse with resonant meaning.
#7: Where’s your Romantic side?
Here’s Hawthorne’s classic definition of a Romance: “…a neutral territory somewhere between the real world and fairy‑land, where the Actual and the Imaginary may meet…” (from “Custom-House”, his preface to The Scarlet Letter).
You’ve got a room in your brain just like that. Unlock it and use it in your writing:
- Explore the realm midway between the objective world and your private thoughts.
- Let your imagination run wild on the page by writing fast and getting into a zone, perhaps by starting with something that really happened and letting what you wanted to happen or fantasized about happening actually happen on the page or screen.
- Live large through your writing.
- Dig deep into the depths of your characters’ reasons and motivations for doing what they do.
- Show life in all its complexity and ambiguity.
Ah, Hawthorne. What a writer: haunted, dark, tense, alienated, wondering, wandering, allegorical, symbolic, and romantic. Just like you.