Getting Started With Ghost Stories
I didn't set out to write a collection of ghost stories. If you'd asked me little more than a year ago what I was working towards I'd have said 'the eventual publication of a children's novel and breaking into the women's magazine scene'. But then I saw a competition advertised for a ghost story. I forget which publication it was (probably either Scribble or Writers' Forum) and I decided to give it a go - I was having no luck with the women's mags and knew that the novel was floundering.
By this time I had already entered and won or been placed in a number of short story competitions so I knew the drill and embraced the challenge. Always one to be thorough, I set about my research. Here's how I went about it:
1 I borrowed The Oxford Book of English Ghost Stories from the library. It contains true Gothic gems from the likes of Sir Walter Scott, Bram Stoker, E. Nesbit, H.G. Wells and Algernon Blackwood. Further, it has an excellent introduction broken down into three parts which serves as an informed access point into the world of the English Ghost Story with a consideration of its varying components over a period of time. I soon came to realise the value of the book and purchased a second-hand copy from Amazon. Then I set about using the introduction and a number of key stories to compile my own notes on the subject. I photocopied four of the stories which I then highlighted and annotated with thoughts and observations.
2 I read the winners of recent ghost story competitions. Whilst I instantly knew that I loved the old fashioned ghost stories I had discovered in The Oxford Book, I thought that it was important to familiarise myself with stories which were winning modern competitions. There are many ghost story competitions run each year and I didn't find it too difficult to get my hands on a few of the top entries, particularly as I tend to buy Writers' Forum and Writing Magazine anyway.
3 I watched a tv programme compiled and presented by Mark Gatiss on the palpable talent of M.R. James following which I tracked down a number of his stories (free or cheaply on Kindle). By this point I knew that I wanted to try something in the Victorian style. I just loved the atmosphere and the imagery and was also curious as to what I would produce having read fairly deeply into the genre.
4 I read an article by Jonathan Stroud about how to write a ghost story. I've tried to find it to include a link in this article but cannot lay my hands on it. It was for Waterstones, I think.
5 I purchased and read a Wordsworth classic: The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton. These are so good that they nearly put me off having a go! I'm glad that they didn't. Lesson learned: try hard not to be intimidated by the quality of other writers, particularly those considered to be among the best there has ever been. Even they must have started somewhere.
6 I read Dark Entries by Robert Aickman. This was another turning point for me. Written in the 1960's, this book contains six tales which are not necessarily ghost stories but defined by the author as 'strange tales'. Again I made notes as I went along and, whilst I found the endings of some of the stories a little too open for my taste, there was no doubt in my mind that I was reading the work of a master of his craft.
7 I set about writing The Final Soul. I'm not sure exactly where the idea came from. I remember wrestling with the plot for quite a long time before putting pen to paper but once I started writing, I couldn't stop. Don't get me wrong, the words didn't fly onto the page; I thought about every single one of them. I drafted and redrafted and despite the recommendations of many a writing tutor, my thesaurus was my best friend for the several weeks it took me to finish the piece. I then put the draft away and wrote a second fairly quickly thereafter. I called the second story Rock Me Gently and I Shall Sleep (and Pray the Lord My Soul to Keep). Now this one did fly onto the page. I was a little surprised at how much I relished describing hands of grey flesh with the appearance of gardening rakes thick with rotting leaves and eyes still bulging with violent death. I really got into the groove. When I'd finished, I revisited The Final Soul.
8 I submitted The Final Soul to a competition and paid a small amount extra for feedback. I always try and secure feedback when entering a competition. It's one of the main ways in which my writing has developed and I find it an invaluable resource (assuming that the person giving the critique has a decent level of experience, of course). The story didn't win but was given a 'highly commended' rating and the feedback was really positive, except for a plot hole at the very end which I had not spotted. Once I had got over my frustration at having made such a stupid mistake, I redrafted the story and went back to working on the novel.
The journey ended there for a while, although the stories never really left my head. I knew that they were among the best things I had ever written and I got a real kick from their production so when I made a new writer-friend who offered to read them for me I nervously agreed to send them over. I'm happy to say that he loved them and encouraged me to write more. At the time I was still struggling with the children's book - I was on the wrong path with it and didn't know how to sort it out - so I jumped at the chance to revisit the dark, the Gothic and the downright strange, during which time...
9 ...I visited some real locations to get a sense of atmosphere and inspiration. The first of these saw me take a trip to York, a natural home of the ghost story. A separate piece on this trip can be read HERE (Using Real Locations In Your Writing). I also took a tour of the delightfully creepy Leeds City Varieties Music Hall where I decided to set my final tale. The grandfather clock in the bar features in the story. Both trips were hugely helpful and definitely added authenticity and some surprising angles to the stories I ended up setting in these locations. Going on tours or around old buildings can be a fantastic stimulant for ideas.
10 After my visit to Leeds City Varieties I tracked down some old music hall tracks on You Tube. The tinny and crackling gramophone effect really created a sense of atmosphere and helped me step into the situation I was writing about. It also gave me inspiration for the title to that story: We All Go The Same Way Home.
It took a while but eventually I ended up with eight stories, each of which I enjoyed working on and I was proud of the end result. The project took me to a place with my writing that I would not have previously thought possible. I think it was something about the tone, the darkness, which brought out the best in me in a way that my other writing just hadn't done. I found that I could still write mysteries, romances, twist stories all within the overall umbrella of the ghost story. In the end I gleefully abandoned my quest to break into the women's magazine market and instead threw myself, hammer, stake and gargoyle, into writing the collection which found its way into the world as Into Dust and I loved every minute of it.
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I love most types of fiction - crime, mystery, fantasy. Oh, and historical fiction of course and middle-grade books and, well, you get the picture.
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