Some Thoughts on “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark” and Obsessive Fixations

Is anyone else watching HBO’s “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark”? It’s based on the late Michelle McNamara’s book of the same name, which in turn is about the hunt for the Golden State Killer (one that ended after the book was released). However, the docuseries is also an exploration on McNamara’s obsessive personality, and how that both drove her search and led to her death.

I appreciated the focus on McNamara in this manner. It’s very fair—she is not blamed or made out to be a bad person. But it shines an important light on how people with obsessive, anxious tendencies can overdo it to the point of self-harm.

My own anxiety (which I’ve discussed before) used to come out in obsessive fixations. It was never with true crime, but when I’d find a new interest, a new goal, a new puzzle, etc., I would be determined to be the best at it, to solve it, to excel at it and to meet the expectations I thought everyone had of me. I still see it pop up from time-to-time, but I’m better able to manage it with medication and with better awareness of when it’s happening.

An article from Vulture about the series does an excellent job weaving those mental tendencies with an explanation for why women gravitate towards true crime. It creates a false but motivating sense of hope that we’ll find an answer to why men seem determined to hurt us. It gives us a sense of control over our attackers.

But in cases like McNamara, it can also lead us to self-destruct when we don’t find what we’re looking for—a self-destruction made easier by a culture that expects women to take care of themselves while also taking care of their spouses and their children. As such, no one is there for them, at least not until it’s too late.

Give the article a read, and if you have HBO, give the series a watch. It’s really good.

The Horror of Motherly Love

This Sunday, May 12, is Mother’s Day. Sadly, my mom lives several hours away in North Carolina; but we chat every Sunday and I always send her a gift (though it’ll be late this year — sorry Mom).

Ahead of the holiday, I found myself reflecting on how most of my love stories fall into two categories: romantic (however twisted it may be), or familial between a mother and her daughter. The titular stories in my two collections, “The Crow’s Gift” and “Wither,” both focus on relationships between the main female protagonist and her mother. “Wither” goes one step further and includes Mother Nature — and the destructive relationship that can occur between her and her children.

sharp objects
Left to right: Amma, Camille, and Adora from Sharp Objects.

Without Condition is my first story to examine both motherly love and romantic love. While the focus is largely on Cara and her boyfriend, my first inkling of the story was rooted in the relationship between Cara and her mother. It was her mother’s unconditional love for her, even in the face of horrendous activities, that helped me think of the rest of the plot (not to mention the title).

I once read a study that claimed the bond between a mother and her daughter is the strongest possible bond between any parent-child pairing. While I can’t say that for sure, there is certainly something special about the way a woman is bonded to her mother in ways we don’t see with her father, or don’t see between a mother and her son. It’s something special to witness when it’s good, and something terrify to witness when it’s broken or abusive.

Carrie touched on this perfectly. The terror doesn’t lie in Carrie’s powers, nor just in the way she’s bullied; but in the power and influence Margaret White has over her daughter. As evil and tormented as she is, you still see their bond and the fact that Mrs. White truly worries about her. I think of in the movie, when Carrie shatters the mirror; and Margaret stops playing the piano and says in her most normal, concerned voice, “Carrie?” She’s worried her daughter is hurt, even as she calls her sinful. It almost makes it all the scarier when Margaret comes for Carrie with a knife in the climax.

margaret white
Also, this scene is just creepy AF.

I also think that the TV show Riverdale has done an excellent exploration of mothers and daughters in the fraught connection between Betty and Alice. Season 3 has been a little uneven, but the show has quietly shown how hard it is for a daughter to sever a tie with her mother, and how that tie — even when dangerous — may be the least dangerous option she has. Alice has joined a cult called The Farm, a group that Betty wants no part of; even if it means losing a connection to her mom. Out of desperation, Betty turns to her jailed serial killer father instead of her cult-worshiping mother, but when her father is (purportedly) free, he comes for her and tries to kill her (this post was written on May 7, and it’s possible revelations in later episodes may dispute these facts, because that’s what Riverdale does and that’s one of the reasons I love it in all its messy glory). Betty gives in to her mother for safety, and she’s embraced. She may still be in danger, but she’s with her mother; and with her mother, the feeling of safety is stronger and perhaps more real. This could be to Betty’s advantage or her detriment — only time will tell.

A final story that delved into this in spectacularly creepy fashion is Sharp Objects (which I also wrote about when the HBO adaptation aired last summer). Here, you have three female bonds: mother, daughter, and sister; none of whom can abandon the other completely despite the misdeeds of each. It also shows the darker side of a mother’s desire to feel needed, and how her daughter will nearly die to fill that need.

Betty and Alice Cooper
Betty and Alice Cooper.

The bond between a mother and daughter can make for excellent dark fiction when done well. I’m less interested in “crazy mom/rebel daughter” narratives, and more the stories of daughters who can’t leave their mothers behind, or vice versa; despite their dark deeds. The bond is strong, even when it’s frayed — maybe even the strongest of all. But that isn’t always a good thing.

I hope that those of you with good bonds, though, have a wonderful Mother’s Day. And, I want to wish the happiest of Mother’s Days to my mom. Thanks for reading my work, supporting me, and being an all-around gem.

Summer Reading and Viewing: Sharp Objects

In between writing and reading, I’ve been watching TV. Most of my shows are off the air until next season. While there are a plethora of things to binge on Netflix, I’m old-fashioned and like watching a series in real time once a week. The only series I’m watching week-to-week right now is Sharp Objects.

Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn
From IMDB.

I saw the preview for the adaptation, and read the book almost immediately after. I enjoyed Gone Girl (both the book and the movie), but hadn’t read anything else by Gillian Flynn since. I thought the book was great. Fast-paced, just dark enough, interesting, and with complex women at its center. Camille isn’t perfect but more importantly, she’s not the stereotype of the flawed heroine. It’s never too much, and it’s always believable. It speaks volumes about the story when the least interesting thing about this tale is who the killer is.

I was curious to see what HBO would do with the book. I think HBO produces a lot of what’s best on television right now. I was conflicted, though, on whether Sharp Objects would be better as a miniseries or a movie. The book is pretty short, and I couldn’t imagine drawing it out for eight hours.

Sharp Objects
Wind Gap might be the most depressing location I’ve encountered in fiction. From IMDB.

I’m three episodes in, and so far, it’s drawing things out at a reasonable pace. The biggest thing I’ve seen so far are more scenes with Det. Willis, namely without Camille. This makes sense and adds to the story, though I hope that future episodes will do the same for Adora. There are pieces of Adora’s past shared only in dialogue in the book, and if the television show isn’t constrained to the people Camille speaks to as she’s speaking to them, then Det. Willis shouldn’t be the only one reaping this benefit.

The show takes the “flash” in “flashback” seriously. It shows brief glimpses of Camille’s past in sudden jolts, similar to Leonard’s jogs of memory in Memento. Sometimes these glimpses are too brief — for instance, I had to tell my husband what it said on Camille’s arm at the end of the first episode — but for the most part, they are used effectively. The show also trusts its viewers to remember things from episodes past, while also repeating glimpses to let the viewer know that context is coming.

The book mostly moved in linear form. If something was remembered, it was remembered in full, right there on the spot. The show, however, breaks up the memories with the present, even when it shows more than a glimpse. This was used to great effect in the third episode, “Fix,” which shows Camille’s stay in a psychiatric facility and her roommate’s suicide during her stay. In episodes one and two, we only saw glimpses from this moment in time — the janitor with Drano, Camille and her roommate listening to music, etc. In episode three, we see more; albeit still broken up. I thought this was used to good effect overall, and a nice way to tell the story in a way unique to film. If Flynn had tried to do this in print, it would’ve been confusing. The show could’ve presented it in a linear form like the book did, but then why bother doing a film adaptation?

I believe in faithfulness to the text to an extent. I don’t think a film, TV, or stage adaptation should be exactly like the book because I already read the book, and if I want to experience the book exactly like it is, I’ll just read the book. I welcome differences, especially when it comes to how the medium conveys the story. Still, there are changes I am curious about. For instance, there is a scene in a slaughterhouse in episode three that is toned down drastically from the book, and in an adaptation that doesn’t seem to be holding back in terms of how raw it is. I’m curious why this change was made.

Overall, though, I’m enjoying Sharp Objects on HBO. Amy Adams and Patricia Clarkson are running away with it, as they do in everything they star in; and Chris Messina is a surprise charm as Det. Willis. I plan to keep watching and engaging with this dark tale. I hope you’ll do the same.

Patricia Clarkson in Sharp Objects
Queen. From IMDB.

Sharp Objects airs at 9 p.m. ET on Sundays on HBO.

Texting in Text: How Do We Write Dialogue that’s Typed?

I’ve been thinking about text messages in stories lately. My next book has texting, though I’m having to remember what it was like to write text messages in 2004. I also laughed really hard at two jokes in Barry, a new show on HBO that’s quickly becoming a new favorite; and both jokes involved texting.

Texting has become its own form of dialogue. I’ve seen it portrayed in various ways — and with various results — on film and in print. I find it fascinating to see how it’s depicted, and am also curious if we’ll ever see an agreed-upon format in the future.

Texts are written, and italics are usually used to denote writing. I do this myself. It’s easier to type and means less fiddling around with fonts (fonts that may not even remain in an ebook if someone changes their Kindle settings). I do this for handwritten notes, emails (especially since I just include the body of an email — I don’t like including email address, sender, subject line, time sent, etc., but that’s for another blog post), and text messages.

However, I found that using italics for text messages isn’t always so simple. Please Give uses text messages second only to spoken dialogue in terms of how the characters communicate. I love writing dialogue, but lines of quotes read very differently when they become lines of italicized text — especially lines of italicized text that need to indicate a back-and-forth without constantly writing, “She texted ____. He texted ____” (I find that tedious, and thankfully, it hasn’t appeared too much in the books I’ve read — not nearly as much as excessive “she said/he said” lately, which is also for another post).

My solution was to try and only do this for three or four lines if I needed to, or to put in the few (or sometimes several) minutes it often takes people to text back and to keep the responses short. One of the questions I had for my beta-readers was if it was clear who was speaking to whom and who was texting to whom. They all said yes, and I hope that other readers agree!

But writing the act of texting is a challenge, and while I’ve seen smooth integration of text messaging in books, I have yet to see a universal format. One book I read put the entire exchange into a centered block denoted by each sender’s initials. It read like a chat screen, and while it made the exchange very clear, it seemed a little odd placed in the middle of regular text in the book. The book I’m reading now denotes text messages in its own line, and in a fixed font that’s smaller, bold, and in a colder font. It’s also very clear, and while momentarily a distraction, it flowed more seamlessly than the block of chat-like text. It flowed like what text messages are: dialogue.

As a reader, what formats have you seen in books for text messages? Are there any you prefer?

As a writer, how do you incorporate text messages into your stories?

Whether a reader, a writer, or both, I’d love to hear from you in the comments!


As a P.S., I wanted to talk a bit about texting in TV and in film. That’s something I’ve watched with great interest, from both my communications and film studies perspectives. Texting as dialogue onscreen seems to be evolving, even though there still isn’t an agreed-upon format. Most movies and TV shows seem to have moved away from characters reading text messages out loud, which is a blessing — it had the same lack of naturalness as the one-sided phone conversation where the person onscreen repeats whatever (we presume) the person on the other end said.

A popular form for a while now — and still in use sometimes — was to put the text messages on the screen, sometimes like typed-out subtitles and most often by text windows popping up on the side like Pop-Up Video. I found this awkward and weird, but something that couldn’t really be worked around — much like fixed font text messages in a book.

More shows and movies, though, seem comfortable just showing someone’s screen with the text message on it. This is easier to do with bigger phones and clearer, more colorful screens; and I prefer this method. Text messages aren’t spoken and they also aren’t word bubbles like dialogue in comics. If we can see the phone’s screen, we should. As I mentioned above, I recently saw this used to great effect on Barry, which in addition to just showing the iPhone screen with texts, incorporated some of iPhone’s text message features, like confetti falling over the screen when a celebratory text is sent (and the text message the confetti accompanied was a very dark thing to celebrate). I look forward to seeing how communicating text messaging in stories continues to change over the years — or given technology’s current pace, over the coming months.