Capturing Your Emotional Landscape

Today I want to talk a little bit about emotions, or at least capturing our emotions in our writing. That is, after all, our goal, right? To communicate our interior world to another person? It’s certainly my goal, right up there with creating a compelling story – but to me, those are the same thing. A compelling story is infused with the writer’s emotion. It has to be.

Said bottling plant during happier times.

I was prompted to visit this topic during a trip to Frederick, Maryland this past weekend. As we cruised the streets trying to find a spot to park and visit their historic downtown, we passed a few empty factories, including the remains of what was once a thriving Coca Cola bottling plant. Mary made a comment about how I’d like to live in a rundown place like that, and I replied that it wasn’t quite that – I would like to visit, but not live there. That sent me down a train of thought that I haven’t visited in some time: my somewhat offbeat emotional life and the things that can trigger it.

Let’s get it out of the way right now: I have some very odd emotional inclinations, and I think my writing reflects that fact. I’m fascinated by urban decay and urban exploration; I find beauty when the natural world pushes through our constructed world; I get an emotional charge when I imagine a certain type of isolation in the dark, hidden places of the world. I tried to explain this once to an ex who preferred to dwell exclusively in the sunshine and couldn’t quite understand my emotional landscape. The best attempt that I could make to capture it (aside from my fiction) was to describe the feeling that you get when you’re lying in bed at 2 AM and can’t sleep. You hear the lonely sound of a train whistle as it passes through and imagine the isolation of the lives that the men on board lead. There’s sadness to the whole thing, yes, but there’s a certain bittersweet beauty to it.

She still couldn’t grasp it, but at least I had finally put words to the emotion.

I suspect this strange landscape is related to being a very isolated, depressed child and teen, but I’m not sure. I romanticized depression for a long, long time, which culminated in some disastrous life choices and the desire to revamp my life. I’m in a much better, happier place now, but so much about repairing your life is about learning to live with your limitations rather than completely changing them (this took me a long time to learn and even longer to accept). That means that my strange emotional landscape will always stick with me and creep up at odd times when I let my guard down.

I tell you all this to describe how I capture that emotion in my writing: I let my guard down and let that desolate landscape live and breathe in my work. I access those emotions by different methods. Someday a certain musical artist works (typically folk or Americana, something like Uncle Tupelo or Nick Drake); sometimes I scan pictures of urban explorations. Whatever works. For you, it might be a certain childhood photo, or photos of a happy couple, love songs, etc. The key is evoking the emotional state that resonates with both you and your work – some days I need to listen to happier music, it’s not all doom and gloom. Like I said, the point is about evoking the correct emotional timbre.

I’d also like to share a sample from WIP Room 3 that captures the strange emotional landscape that I was discussing. This is also the first few paragraphs, so it sets the emotional tone for the entire novel. Here goes:

Here I am alone again, an alien in an empty motel room somewhere in Texas, listening for footsteps outside the door. You might think I was waiting for an eager lover who’d taken a few hours away from his wife, or even my own people, beamed down from the mother-ship. Good guesses both, but you’d be wrong. Instead I’m waiting for death. Or maybe worse than death, I admit my imagination escapes me a little with these things.


I do hear footfalls, though, and every time I hear them, I’m almost positive that the Organization has found me and is ready to take back what they think is rightfully theirs. Hell, some nights I wonder if they’re right. Maybe I should be their property. Maybe I overstepped my limits by escaping them and coming to this weird world that seems so familiar and yet so damned alien at the same time.


I guess the central question of my existence, or hell, anyone’s existence, if they really think about it – if someone creates you, do they own you? Does that mean they can they destroy you, too, kind of like the parent who brings you into this world and can take you out again? It sounds absurd but don’t be so sure about your own answer if you’ve never found out that your entire existence is a lie.

Okay, they didn’t create me. Not really. They only shaped me, and God knows what they’d do if they got their hands on me again. Maybe killing me would be too nice. They have worse things to do to a person. A lot worse; at least, I think so. My experiences haven’t contradicted the idea to this point.


On the other hand, I suppose freedom in itself is a sweet and noble goal, but can you really call holing yourself up in a motel room and jumping at every sound freedom? I don’t know, it doesn’t seem quite like what you expect. Sometimes it seems like I’ve replaced one prison with another, though this prison is a hell of a lot safer and comfier than the one where I had to ingest mass quantities of drugs on a daily basis.

So how about you? What do you do to “get in the groove”? What sort of things get you going? I’m curious to hear and maybe share some ideas. Feel free to comment.

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  1. Are you familiar with the photographs of Ralph Eugene Meatyard? If not, do a Google image search of his name sometime. From this and from some of your other blog posts, I think you’d find the guy spoke your language.

  2. I remember when I was first with my husband. I had a big new house, a puppy, and a nice job. I felt free and happy, and I also remember missing the longing and darkness I was so used to feeling in my life. There IS something lovely and forelorn about those times, and it was almost like missing a slightly depressed friend. It was a part of me that I could not relate to at that time, and it was odd.
    So I get it Jonathan, and I loved this post.

    • Jonathan D Allen

      Wow, sounds like we have something in common, then. I mean, I love my life now and wouldn’t trade it for the world, but like you said…yeah. Thanks for sharing that.

  3. I do the same thing, Jonathan. Except role reversal: I’m the one riding in the car after dark. Particularly in deep winter or when it’s raining, I try to see inside the lighted windows as we pass, wondering what the lives the people inside are like. It’s a lonely feeling, alone in the dark with the cheerful light on the other side of the glass.

    (It’s best not to do this while driving, though. It worked best on road trips, when my dad was driving and I was supposed to be asleep in the back seat.)

    • Jonathan D Allen

      Wow, so it would form a complete circle, both sides thinking of what the other has. That could make quite the interesting story, actually. I’m going to ponder that.

  4. I also romanticised loneliness and depression as a teenager. Consequently I ended up with few friends and spiralled into an all too real, deep depression. Well, I’m out of that now, sort of. That dark cloud of depression still hangs around, just on the periphery of my vision, and tries to sneak up on me plenty of times. Usually, yeah, around 2 am, when the kids are asleep, and my wife’s asleep next to me, but I’m wide awake. And I too like the darker side of music, Tom Waites in his demonic carnival barker mode, especially.
    But then, you’re right, this is our makeup, and what inhabits our writing, is part of the reason WHY we write. We wouldn’t have it any other way, would we?

    • Jonathan D Allen

      That sounds very similar to me, Ken. I can relate. I don’t often look around and wonder what I’m doing in this healthier, more functional part of my life, but when I’m wide awake at night, it creeps up on me and taps me on the shoulder. Consequently, that’s when some of my best story ideas are born.

      Tom Waits is a great choice. I also like latter-day Gary Numan for this purpose as well. He went down a pretty dark path in the late 90s, and I like it a great deal.

  5. I love Ellicott City, Maryland. It is one of those places that speaks to me in some deep way I can’t explain. There is an abandoned girls’ school at the top of a wooded hill; it is missing walls, caving in on itself and has been a mystical place of interest for me since I was twelve.

    Now I wish TX weren’t so far from MD!

    As to my emotional landscape, there are times when I wonder if I have one. That might sound strange, especially since I feel everything. Ev-ery-thing. All the time, too empathetic for my own good (literally). When I write, and often when I feel a very strong emotion, it is like those things come from outside of me. I imagine the way the Delphic oracles felt and wonder if I don’t have a touch of the ‘conduit’ about me, too. I am often surprised by what I write, as if I am meeting myself for the first time. But – is it me?

    • Jonathan D Allen

      I had no idea you had been to Ellicott City! That’s great. It’s one of our favorite stomping grounds – just the sheer volume of strange old stuff that you can find there makes it great, in addition to the near Stephen King-esque atmosphere of the place. I’m not familiar with that girls’ school, but you’d better believe I’m dragging the Mrs. there next time 😉

      To me that sounds completely like an emotional landscape, and I kind of got a sense of that with Stolen Climates. I think we writers have to be empathetic to a certain extent, and that lets in a lot of emotions – both good and bad. I had to learn skills to cope with that when it all came in at once and I wasn’t trying to let it in; it’s really tough to have that all coming in all the time.

  6. Hmm. Small world. I have family in Ellicott City (or at least they used to live there. They might’ve moved recently).

    Lots of interesting things to comment on in this one. I also like the idea of the natural world pushing into our world. It fascinates me to see weeds growing out of concrete and always makes me think of the end of days. I was just talking with my wife the other day about the fact that it would take weeds very little time to take over and have the effects you see in movies showing the end of a civilization… two or three years tops. So for me, there’s almost more of an apocalyptic fascination. (I’m sure this doesn’t surprise you).

    And I think most writers on the darker side of the page deal with some form of depression or another. I can keep mine under wraps pretty well unless there’s a confluence of events, such as winter and not writing as much as I wish I could. Then it starts kicking my tail.

    Oh, and just discovered Nick Drake this past year. Had no idea he was from the 60’s. He sounds like he could be standing alongside Alexi Murdoch. Really like him.

    Paul D. Dail A horror writer’s not necessarily horrific blog

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