My recent novel is called “Until the Sun Rises – One Night in Drake Mansion,” and it is a mystery/thriller that also flirts a little with noir and horror. It’s set in a small, fictional Iowa town where 80 years ago a wealthy family of five attended a traveling magic show, after which they and the magician disappeared. After a few people died in their mansion, it was sealed off. The family’s disappearance was never solved, the mansion has sat empty all this time, and naturally many wild theories and reports of ghost sightings have surrounded the house.
The book begins with the start of a live TV show where the house is opened for the first time since it was sealed and five contestants are going to spend the night inside to investigate and win a prize if they last until morning. Shortly after entering, the contestants find the journal of the family’s father, Vinton Drake, and discover he had a history with the magician before they all disappeared. As the contestants investigate the mansion, they follow Vinton’s investigation of the magician from the past as well.
- What sets this novel apart from other haunted house stories?
The five contestants in the story were selected for the TV show for their inherently conflicting traits. They are a commune-with-the-dead psychic, a high-tech ghost hunter, a Hollywood, scream-queen actress, a local woman who has known of the house and legends surround it all her life, as well as a professional paranormal skeptic and debunker.
As clues arise in the story, there is almost always a divide between two or more characters on how to perceive them and what conclusions to draw. Furthermore, the details of Vinton’s investigation of the magician in the past deal largely with paranormal beliefs, as his life builds towards his and his families eventual disappearance. The characters in the present find they aren’t just trying to uncover whether there are or aren’t spirits in the house, but rather exploring the effects of belief in the supernatural.
Elements of the story become psychological, examining consequences of supernatural beliefs, whether real or mistaken. And as it happens, those consequences turn out to not only have been life-threatening in the past, but are still putting the contestants’ lives in jeopardy today.
- What do you hope readers will come away from your book with?
First and foremost, entertained. I want people to feel like they were given an enthralling journey to submerge themselves in, to step out of their own world and enjoy a vacation into mine. I would also like readers to feel surprised. The book is a mystery so there is naturally something to be uncovered as the book comes to an end. I worked hard to make that fulfilling and believable, yet unpredictable, and for the final reveal to change everything you thought and understood along the way. If most readers experience that, then I’ll be satisfied.
Secondary to that, my novel and its characters pose reoccurring ideas of critical thinking, of examining phenomenon, historic tales, and evidence with critical and unbiased eyes. Not only because failing to do so can lead to false conclusions, but in some cases to severe consequences. This consistent theme adds layers of intrigue to the story but I feel it can and should be taken into real life as well. For some readers to bring that notion into their lives after reading the book would be immensely satisfying as well.
- What gave you the idea for this story?
The majority of “Until The Sun Rises: One Night in Drake Mansion” is set in the present, but a portion takes place in the past. The first past section involves a mysterious, secret, and very thematically dark magic show which adds to the mystery set in the present with a parallel mystery to unfold in the past.
This magic show moment was the first that came to me. I don’t remember anything specific that spawned that seed of the story, but in exploring and flushing out that single moment, I developed two characters, and in turn by adding depth, intrigue, and consequence to those characters gave birth to the entirety of the story.
- When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
I can remember being in first grade and everyone going around the class having to say what we wanted to be when we grew up. For many kids it was fireman, policemen, or doctor, I said cartoonist. I didn’t deviate from that until closer to Jr. High when my ambition changed to a movie director. That notion continued through high school, college, and persists through today.
Looking back, I believe even in the first grade what I really wanted was to be a storyteller, to invent and craft stories and then to share them with the world. At that time, cartoons represented a large portion of my story experience so I think I imagined telling stories in that medium. Later, when live-action movies became more prevalent in my story experience, my ambition changed slightly, to storytelling through movies. I always imagined being both the author of the stories I would create as well as the physical producer, so I just don’t think I realized I was planning to be a writer, at least in part, all along.
Though my pursuit heading into college and after was directed towards movies, even in high school I considered sharing my stories in books a possibility and tried to think in terms of both mediums as I developed my story telling skills.
“When did I know I wanted to be a writer?” I can only estimate that the moment I realized people were out in the world dreaming up the stories I enjoyed, I knew I would some day be one of them, and I was mighty young.
- What has been your writing journey?
I began writing an a serious way, by which I mean with the intent of building a career involving writing as a student at the University of Iowa. I studied cinema with my focus being on screenwriting, though my intent was to work in other areas of filmmaking as well. After graduation, I continued to write screenplays while also working in various jobs relating to media production.
It was my understanding that movie producers were essentially closed to submissions from unknown writers. As I would finish new screenplays, I would research appropriate screenplay agents, those who seemed to handle material similar in theme to mine and who also said they were open to new talent, and then I’d write query letters by the dozens. Over the course of eight years I wrote in excess of 350 letters and rarely even received polite rejections. No one was willing to read even 10 pages of my scripts.
Certainly one could see this as indicative of my material not being of high enough quality but I felt the material may not even truly be getting considered based on merit, but rather being ignored or rejected because I lacked noteworthy credits. For a long time I harbored the early version of my novel’s story in my mind, but I felt it was too big for a single, standard-length screenplay, and thus never attempted to write it as one. Finally, I decided to attempt to write the story as a book, thinking at the very least if I wrote a quality book, even if no publishers would consider me or the material, I’d at least have the option of self-publishing. Fortunately, it never came to that.
Once my book was written, I first sought out literary agents, to similar results as all of my screenplay efforts, however with only a dozen letters sent directly to publishers, I managed to secure several who were interested in at least reading the book and evaluating the material based on its content. I can’t say for certain whether it was coincidence or if it was merely the fact that I had a forthcoming novel to my credit but with in about a month of signing an agreement with my publisher on my novel, I received an offer to produce one of my screenplays, which then filmed in August of 2014 and is pending release.
- How do you get inspired to write?
I really find inspiration in almost everything I do. If my garbage bag splits open on the way to the curb and all my neighbors were watching, I’d think “wouldn’t this make a great plot point for a killer with a bag full of body parts? I’ll have to remember this.” Or I’d think, “what if the bag was full of embarrassing items right in front of a love interest? That could be funny.” Those little ideas don’t make complete stories but sometimes several come together and form a bigger premise, worth flushing out. So far, I’ve never experienced a shortage of inspiration, but rather an overabundance, where the challenge becomes finding the time to write, and selecting which potential project to focus on.
- How do you deal with writers block?
Though I can’t say I’ve suffered writer’s block severely, I have run into stopping points in projects. For example, after the first draft of my recent novel and another pass of rewriting I sensed the book was bloated and needed to be edited down for a better reading experience but I was too in love with the rich details to see what might be redundant, implicit, or overly explained.
Rather than force it, I set the book aside, letting it rest, and began work on a first draft of a new screenplay. I chose a project that was thematically dark, as the book was, in order to keep my creative mindset in that territory. After a few months I returned to the book with a fresh viewpoint and saw rather easily what could be and needed to be edited. I completed the next draft very quickly and found the bloating I sensed was cured.
This would be my approach for writer’s block. If one plans to have a career as a writer, you likely intend to write more than one book, so when you have the writer’s block, set the book aside and go start or continue work on something a little different, something you’re coming to fresh, even if it’s just an outline or synopsis for a future project. I think in many cases you’ll have new ideas for your stalled project just pop into your head, demanding you get them on paper, and you won’t be able to get back to that book fast enough.
- What influences your writing?
I admire the efforts and style of a great many writers, filmmakers, and artist, but to put my finger on a significant influence, I can think of none larger than my father. I can’t say he directly affected my subjects, themes, or style but rather, even more fundamentally, the way I think about people and the world.
He was a psychology professor and also saw clients at a public clinic for most of his career. I think he has an exceptional aptitude for assessing, understanding, and empathizing with people, which made him both an effective counselor and teacher. In turn, I was almost always subject to lessons of character.
I’d compare it to Harper Lee’s, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.” I was always taught to try to understand things from others’ points of view. Whether it was personal conflict, or worldly trouble, my father always discussed and encouraged trying to understand people and situations from the other side.
How this spills over into my writing is in character development and depth. Characters are so important, I’d say I develop a psychological profile of sorts for virtually all my characters, which is affected by the story, but also affects the story. When you think of people and characters in this way you see that villains can’t be completely bad, heroes can’t be completely good, strong characters aren’t without weakness, and so on. My stories are always built around rich, deep characters, and I believe this leads to equally rich and deep stories.
- What is the best thing about being a writer?
I take immense pleasure in my imagination and I’m concocting stories, both large and small, almost constantly. I also love good stories and I feel like keeping one to myself would be selfish. When one such story is big enough and clear enough to share, I put it into words as best I can and send it out into the world. Having other people embrace and enjoy those stories I’ve dreamt up, there’s nothing more satisfying for me.
- Your recent book is set in a fictional, Iowa town and you’re from a small Iowa town, how did your experience influence the book?
I grew up in a small town but I’ve also lived in small, medium, and even a huge city. I believe the feel of community one finds in a small town is so drastically different than that of a big city. That element certainly went into the fictional town of my book.
Having a big mystery in a small town affects everyone. Everyone in the community is familiar with it and has opinions on it even 80 years later. That realistic relationship comes through in the novel. A similar event in a big city just wouldn’t have such an impact. Eighty years later, I think such a mystery would simply fade away as people come and go. I’ve lived in suburbs of large metros as well, where you have a small community and the people do care about the community such as its schools and its appearance but they don’t share the small town’s sense of identity, where people heavily identify themselves by their town and often with that town’s history. In that way, I think not only Iowans, but almost anyone familiar with small towns and small, independent communities can find an extra layer of connection with the setting.
There is also an undertone of the consequences of small rural towns shrinking. Work opportunities lesson, then population dwindles, then towns struggle to maintain themselves, and the cycle repeats. That is an effect I have witnessed through my life in rural Iowa, not just in my hometown but also in small communities all over. I brought that real-life depth into my story’s setting as well. I think my fellow native Iowans will identify with this theme, though I’m sure it’s true in other states and places, particularly agricultural hubs. However, if this isn’t an experience a reader identifies with, the story educates the reader on it quickly and then races in new directions, so no one is left out.
- You started your writing career focused on screenwriting. Was it difficult to refocus on writing a novel?
For me, whether it’s a screenplay or a book the story is the most important part and developing the story in either case is virtually the same. With that in mind, the execution of the story, shaping the story to be the best reading or viewing experience for your audience is where the differences lie between mediums.
I would never claim it is easy to write a book, nor would I deny that there are significant differences between screenplay writing and novel writing which must be understood and overcome in order to be effective crossing mediums. However, I also wouldn’t say changing my focus for this project was difficult as if being a screenwriter leaves one ill-equipped to tell a story in a book.
It was a great deal of work. To me “difficult” would mean I encountered challenges that I struggled to overcome. I didn’t. I did meet many challenges but I always knew how to tackle them – when I needed to go research, when I needed to evaluate and adjust my methods, when I needed a tool I didn’t have, and when I needed to seek out and learn something new. I met many challenges but I didn’t struggle to overcome them, I just had to work to overcome them. In my view, those are two very different things.
I believe that in developing my skills as a screenwriter, I learned a great deal of methodology for tackling writing challenges. While not every skill transfers to writing a novel and some might even directly appose it, the methodology for approaching the challenges remains effective. Metaphorically, you may not have exactly the right tool but you know the way to the hardware store. Thus, it was work to acquire the skills needed for writing the book, but it was no where near as difficult as one might find trying to write a book if they’d never written anything else before.
- How has Dyslexia affected you as a writer?
I believe Dyslexia has had both a negative and positive influence on my development as a writer. The clearest negative is simply my very slow reading speed. Writers need to read and being a slow reader means spending more time reading or reading less than others. I’m always wishing I could read more than my time allows, and I probably short or slow my writing development in that way. Slow reading affects how quickly I can review my own work as well. I don’t curse my Dyslexia, however, because I do see positive consequences too.
I was tested for a reading disability around 2nd grade and identified as Dyslexic. I think it was positive to have been diagnosed so early so my parents, my teachers, and I were all aware of it. This let me to understand the reason behind areas where I struggled and to approach developing ways to succeed with a positive attitude. Had my Dyslexia not been identified so soon, I can imagine floundering in certain areas while appearing perfectly normal in others and finding that frustrating and confusing, and potentially withdrawing as a result.
That said, everyone encounters challenges in life. However, I feel having so early in life had to develop my own methods to succeed – having to constantly deviate from standard learning approaches and creating my own methods to conquer subjects and material, as well as resilience to setbacks and failures has all shaped the mentality I bring to my career.
I think it is common for writers to have to endure rejection and failure, to have to be inventive to bring something new and noteworthy compared to all the existing material out there, and to have to pave their own path to recognition. Thus, I believe starting to develop that resilience, inventive problem solving, and unique direction early in life prepared me to accept the hurdles of building a writing career without confusion or frustration. Others might struggle to develop those skills in the moment and many more encounter those hurdles and don’t continue or persevere. For me this is a positive consequence, which might even outweigh the negative.
- What are you working on now?
I think it indicates a well thought out, deep, and complex story if the writer must heartbreakingly choose which spectacular elements to include and which must be benched in order to create the best reading experience. As such, you can wind up with more content in reserve than content that reached the finished pages.
In the creation of “Until the Sun Rises: One Night in Drake Mansion,” I developed far more plot, sub-plot, and character depth than I could cover in the one book.
Currently, I’m working on a follow up novel which takes two of the characters, Harlan and Vieve, into a new mystery which will leave the ghost stories and haunted houses behind but will still keep a borderline-paranormal theme.
Channing Whitaker is a novelist, screenwriter, and filmmaker originally hailing from Centerville, Iowa. An alum of Indian Hills Community College, Channing went on to study cinema, screenwriting, literature, and mathematics at the University of Iowa.
Post graduation, Channing began his career in the production of television news, independent films, and commercial videos, as well as to write for websites, corporate media, and advertising. His 10-year career in writing has taken Channing from Iowa, to Alaska, Oklahoma, and currently to Texas.
Channing has written five feature-length screenplays, co-written another feature screenplay, and penned a novel. In that time, Channing has also written and directed over 50 short films.