I’ve recently completed my second and final year on the Hay Festival’s Writers at Work scheme
It’s a professional development course for writers living in Wales or born here, that runs for the whole eleven days of the literary festival and is fully funded by the Arts Council of Wales.
This innovative scheme created by Peter Florence of Hay and led by Dr Tiffany Murray, really is as wonderful as it sounds. On Facebook – as real me Wendy White – I’ve posted about the experience and how to apply to Literature Wales for a place. I’ve also promised to share some of the highlights of the programme here on my blog.
It’s extremely hard to pick out the best bits from the programme
So many wonderful authors, poets, songwriters, columnists and people involved in the business of publishing came to speak to us. But I’ve decided to start with tips for writing a ghost story, as generously shared with us by ghost-story-writer–extraordinaire, Michelle Paver.
Her books ‘Dark Materials’, ‘Thin Air’ and ‘Wakenhyrst’ are brilliant examples of classic ghost stories.
I can vouch for how creepy Michelle Paver’s writing is (see below) so she was the perfect person to ask about ghost stories, as far as I was concerned, and she didn’t disappoint. Here’s the advice she gave me and the other 19 members of Writers at Work 2019.
She told us that ghost stories are difficult to write and to get right, but there are ways to make writing them easier
First study the form – read as many ghost stories as possible, the good especially, but the bad will help too. (Michelle P hunts second-hand bookshops for old ones, which she loves the most).
Analyse what you read in general terms – why does this story work and that one doesn’t?
Then go deep – take apart the stories that work really well. Where does the first mention of something otherworldly / spookiness / an actual ghost occur? At first it might be just a tiny hint.
Where is the next mention? How does the writer build tension? How subtle, or otherwise, are the references to a ghost?
When you’re ready to start writing, Michelle Paver said, the challenge is to create a story that reads really easily.
A ghost story needs a shape and it has to build. It has a ‘progressive nature’ – she feels that more than just a hint of a ghost at the start can be too much.
The ghost needs to slowly get nearer and nearer as the story gets more and more emotionally intense
When the first draft is finished, revise it and check the shape
MP said at this stage she’ll sometimes find passages which she thought were creepy at the time of writing but just don’t work with a second reading. (Good to know the master can get it wrong sometimes too!)
Once the first draft is complete, Michelle Paver goes on a research trip – until this stage, she said, it’s hard to know what and where to research.
This often throws up more ideas that can be slotted in. For example, for ‘Thin Air’ she went mountaineering and discovered the creepy noises a tent makes in the night, and how confusing outside sounds become when you’re under canvas. She fed all this into the story – to great effect, as I can testify having read it.
And here’s a short list of books / stories recommended by Michelle P to help in studying the ghost story form:
Ghost Stories by MR James especially ‘Oh,Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’ (MP’s all-time favourite)
Ghost Stories by Edith Wharton
‘Alfred Hitchcock Presents Ghost Stories for Young People’ on CD, YouTube and Spotify. MP especially recommends ‘Unearthed’
‘Night Visitors: The Rise and Fall of the English Ghost Story’ Julia Briggs
And for writing generally: ‘The Craft of Novel-writing’ Dianne Doubtfire
And, as I was saying previously, I can vouch for the effectiveness of Michelle Paver’s writing
One night during Writers at Work, I couldn’t get off to sleep so, rather unwisely, I decided to read a few chapters of ‘Thin Air’.
At half past three in the morning, I realised I needed the loo. I merrily set off towards the bathroom down a long, dark corridor in the 16th century farmhouse I’d been billeted to. Half way down the corridor, I had the strongest sensation someone was following me, just as Stephen in the chapter I’d just read had been followed by a mysterious figure on the mountainside in ‘Thin Air’.
I hadn’t been so spooked since I was a child reading ghost stories under the covers with a torch – and believe me, I’ve been spooked plenty of times as an adult. It was a really creepy, shivers-up-your-spine kind of moment.
I won’t be reading Michelle Paver at night in a 16th century farmhouse again
I hope this helps anyone embarking, like me, on writing a ghost story.
Thanks for reading,
Sara’s debut novel ‘Not Thomas’ – a story of neglect, love and hope, shown through the eyes of five-year-old Tomos – is published by Honno Press in paperback and as an e-book, and is available to buy direct from the publisher, from Amazon and from bookshops.