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Ideas for Writing Gothic Short Stories

Updated on May 12, 2016
This wood cut shows the 'breaking wheel' as it was used in Germany in the Middle Ages. The exact date is unknown, as is the creator, but it depicts the execution of w:Peter Stumpp in Cologne in 1589.
This wood cut shows the 'breaking wheel' as it was used in Germany in the Middle Ages. The exact date is unknown, as is the creator, but it depicts the execution of w:Peter Stumpp in Cologne in 1589. | Source

Weird Al Yankovich’s “UHF” had the wheel of fish.

The Animaniacs had the wheel of morality.

And now you can have the wheel of Gothic fiction short story ideas!

Seriously, though, while studying for my MA in Liberal Arts, I was lucky enough to take a great class in Gothic fiction and learn about its roots and its basic elements. You may be surprised to find that while it’s easy to come up with ideas, it’s hard to find enough time to write them all down.

Engraving from Description of the Villa of Mr. Horace Walpole, Youngest Son of Sir Robert Walpole Earl of Orford, at Strawberry-Hill near Twickenham, Middlesex, with an Inventory of the Furniture, Pictures, Curiosities, &.c., 1784
Engraving from Description of the Villa of Mr. Horace Walpole, Youngest Son of Sir Robert Walpole Earl of Orford, at Strawberry-Hill near Twickenham, Middlesex, with an Inventory of the Furniture, Pictures, Curiosities, &.c., 1784 | Source

History of Gothic Fiction

The Castle of Otranto is what started it all. Published in 1764, it was a novel by Horace Walpole who was, at the time, a Whig Member of Parliament for Cornwall. The novel had many of the elements of Shakespeare’s writings – humorous servants, ghosts, usurpation to power, imprisonment, and tyranny. But Walpole took those things and changed them, starting a new genre, the Gothic genre.

While Walpole started it, he had many followers, including Edgar Allen Poe, Mary Shelley, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and H.P. Lovecraft, among others. It isn’t just fiction writers who enjoyed the Gothic genre. At the height of its popularity, poets such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Christina Rossetti wrote famous Gothic poems.

The "haunted" music room at the mansion of Asa Candler, Jr.
The "haunted" music room at the mansion of Asa Candler, Jr. | Source

Elements of Gothic Fiction

There are at least six basic elements to keep in mind when writing Gothic short stories. Any of them can be a great starting point.

First, the setting. Generally, Gothic fiction is set in a house or castle that’s more than what it seems. It is its own character altogether. In some cases, like “Haunting of Hill House” by Shirley Jackson, the house is a character, one that seems to breathe, trick its inhabitants, and even kill them when it needs to. Need to find a creepy setting? Check out some of the truly excellent images on Urban Exploration Resources or any other urban exploration sites. You’ll find abandoned hospitals, psych wards, even schools that can inspire you to write the creepiest of “living” houses.

Second, a maiden (or maidens) in distress. It doesn’t just have to be a maiden. It can be children, like in Stephen King’s “’Salem’s Lot” or Jane Goldman’s “Woman in Black.” In other cases, it can even be a man, like in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Victor is undoubted a “maiden in distress,” found as he is at the beginning of the book, “…limbs nearly frozen, and his body dreadfully emaciated by fatigue and suffering. I never saw a man in so wretched a condition.” It’s not hard to create your own maiden (or child or man) and put them into danger. Remember to write what you know – anyone who has annoyed you lately can be great fodder for putting in danger. Just make sure to wear the right t-shirt: Careful or you’ll end up in my novel.

Third, fear of the unknown. This may be a ghost or some other type of mystical creature or even a darkened room. What’s there? And what isn’t there is just as valid a question. What was that noise that woke you up in the middle of the night? What can’t you see lurking around the corner in the alleyway? Stretch your imagination and pretend it wasn’t the cat jumping on you to wake you up or just a guy revving his motorcycle in the alley. What else could it be? Don’t let reality limit you.

Fourth, the question of insanity and/or an unreliable narrator. In “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, it’s clear by the end that the narrator is not sane. But when did she cease to be sane? Or was she never sane to begin with? That questionable sanity, the fact that we can’t trust what she’s saying, helps to build the unknown in Gothic fiction. It’s also good to have a character who is sane but fears for his or her sanity. In Walpole’s “Castle of Ontranto” and Poe’s “Fall of the House of Usher,” the main characters appear to be sane, but they fear they are insane because of what they’ve experienced. Work with that insanity. Love the insanity. Learn about the insanity. If you’ve never taken a class in abnormal psychology, now’s your chance. Or just go pick up a textbook from the local used book store. Something in there will inspire you.

Fifth, references to myths and legends. In some cases, Gothic fiction uses real and made up myths and legends. The important thing is to treat them if they’re real. H.P. Lovecraft uses biblical lore in “Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook,” but then turns to the “elder gods” in “The Dunwich Horror.” Check out your library or book store (or even just a simple Google search!) for mythology and fairy and folk tales. But don’t go with just the traditional Greek and Roman myths. Get more creative – check out Japanese or Irish folklore. What can you do with some of those myths?

Six and final, family history. While it’s not a necessary part of Gothic fiction, it can add to it. In Lovecraft’s “The Rats in the Wall,” a man returns to his ancestral home only to find out exactly who his ancestors are. You may think you have a weird family, but what if it was even weirder? Leo Tolstoy begins Anna Karenina with the sentence, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Not Gothic fiction by a long shot, but a good bit of advice. Weird families need to be weird in their own way. Cannibals? Vampires? Ghosts? What spawned them, and what is still sticking around?

Sholes & Glidden Type-Writer, invented by Christopher Latham Sholes, Carlos Glidden, and Samuel W. Soule in 1868, and manufactured by Remington & Sons, Ilion, New York, USA, between 1874 and 1878.
Sholes & Glidden Type-Writer, invented by Christopher Latham Sholes, Carlos Glidden, and Samuel W. Soule in 1868, and manufactured by Remington & Sons, Ilion, New York, USA, between 1874 and 1878. | Source

Where to Sell Your Gothic Fiction

So you know all about writing Gothic fiction, but you still can’t get inspired. Sometimes checking out a market is more than just knowing where to sell what you’ve written; sometimes it’s about getting ideas for writing.

Two excellent places to find markets (and get ideas from their listings) are Ralan.com and Duotrope.com. You may find an anthology or contest that inspires you, or, even better, you may find some new magazine or book to read. To be a good writer, you need to be a good reader, so make sure to get reading!

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    • limpet profile image

      Ian Stuart Robertson 2 weeks ago from London England

      On my morning stroll about in 'Olde London towne', i found myself in the Highgate vicinity (Thats where Dick Whittington was supposed to have the Bowe bells urging him back). Highgate has a distinct Gothique architecture prominent in addition to 'suicide bridge' of a very 'steampunk' type. An abandoned railway tunnel is home to a bat colony. We won't delve into the alledged sightings of the Vampire in the cemetry.

    • profile image

      Limpet 2 weeks ago

      Error; For macarbre, read macabre.

    • profile image

      Limpet 3 weeks ago

      With the state that our world has become nowadays there is little means of escapism for us. I'm kinda attracted to the macarbre for it's sense of tension however i always hope for happy endings.

    • profile image

      Thomas Costelow 6 weeks ago

      Didn't give me a single idea on any stories to re-write! Seriously, who MADE this site?

    • limpet profile image

      Ian Stuart Robertson 6 months ago from London England

      Greetings my little Darklings.

      I've just come across a 'tome' by Maria Tatar

      on the every thing you wanted to know about

      all of the Fairy Tales we had read to us at bed

      'tyme'. The next short story to be penned will

      be concerning a headstrong girl from the

      Thomas Hardy era of Wessex, England.

      Sweet dreams

      the Limpet.

    • profile image

      el negro 6 months ago

      very good

    • profile image

      Joanne 13 months ago

      The Woman in Black was written by Susan Hill.

    • limpet profile image

      Ian Stuart Robertson 13 months ago from London England

      Greetings Darklings

      'oops' run out of tyme

      sweet dreams.

    • profile image

      Idk 18 months ago

      This is a pretty good help for my school essay on gothic horror. My first time ever writing one.

    • thetruanttrain profile image

      Lorraine 18 months ago from Montreal

      I found this great because I love gothic fiction and you pointed me to a writer I can possibly read. I started a kind of gothic story but got stuck on some details. I'm going to try some of your suggestions to inspire me to continue my story. Thx.

    • limpet profile image

      Ian Stuart Robertson 24 months ago from London England

      We are now in an era where women have been coming to the fore in society without presenting a 'Damsel in distress' image. We have just had the release of 'Suffragette' depicting a formidable and organised women's movement campaining for the right to vote circa earlier 20th century. In company with the Suffragettes were a secret bodygaurd describes as Amazons trained in jiu-jitsu to defend themselves. In the late 19th century east end of London there emerged an 'all female' criminal syndicate specialising on shop lifting even travelling to posh areas to ply their capers on. So in the Gothic genre i would never cast a woman as vulnerable, she may however ask a man to assist her.

    • limpet profile image

      Ian Stuart Robertson 2 years ago from London England

      The 'Gothique' is a term i use (if there is such a word) to describe 'Gothic ness'. There is so much that we can use this word as an adjective to describe for example - Architecture, fashions, furniture,literature, music, sub culture and the just plain weird. Firstly in writing Gothic prose, is the writer using American English or British English (or even Australia for that matter, they have Goths too.) This is important as the reader may not be aware of terminology.Secondly, be creative and introduce strong and colourful character and develop 'plotline' ending in an ironic conclusion.

    • limpet profile image

      Ian Stuart Robertson 2 years ago from London England

      Principality of Victoriana has now developed characters. Firstly a nobility has been created where by those with a higher education assumed the natural leadership role. They had a retinue of servants mainly butlers and liveried footman. Some activities included playing croquette and the wild hunt. They also participated in all kinds of hi jinx. The maiden / maidens here are not helpless or ever getting in distress. They are accomplished horse women who are headstrong and capable of making their own decisions. Then of course there is the cad. The charlatan and the quack as well. There in no room for gruesome torture devices in this genre as people have become more civilised which doesn't mean to say that there isn't ever a random 'tar and feathering' once in a while!

    • limpet profile image

      Ian Stuart Robertson 2 years ago from London England

      I have been thinking of an ideal plotline in the Gothic genre. Just letting my imagination run wild i have created the 'Principality of Victoriana' set in modern times but stuck in a time warp of the mid 1800's. Victoriana is a closed community somewhere in the Southern Hemisphere where life has simply been a pre industrial society on an agrarian economy. The populace are the descendants of free settlers aboard the immigrant boat Gothica which ran aground on reefs at the mouth of the fog bound Mystic river. An abandoned military fortification stood castle like on the highest hill and became the first refuge of the colonists until this society was fully established. However things were not quite what they seemed with all and sundry having a dark secret and a series of catastrophes were about to occur.

    • FatBoyThin profile image

      Colin Garrow 2 years ago from Kinneff, Scotland

      Hi Katherine, I love gothic fiction but haven't really tried to write in that style yet. So, if I take a castle, a maiden and a creepy legend, that ought to do it, eh? Great Hub and somewhat inspirational.

    • limpet profile image

      Ian Stuart Robertson 3 years ago from London England

      i am too old to be Goth however i do revel in finding mysterious places around not only where i live (Shoreditch exactly one mile north of London) but also the haunted wooded dells of the Chiltern hills the Cotswolds and the Mendips. There is a myriad of secret passages, underground chambers and ghostly mansions that i have discovered and a grim past from Shakespeare to Dickens but 'hey!' i'm getting off the topic - more to follow! Darklings.

    • profile image

      mjkearn 5 years ago

      Hi kat.

      Great hub and very well presented. While goth isn't my thing I did learn quite a lot. Good job and I look forward to more,

      MJ.

    • profile image

      Mklow1 5 years ago

      Very informative. I look forward to reading more of your Hubs.