How to Write a Ghost Story – Tips by Bestselling Author, Michelle Paver

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.

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Meeting Michelle Paver in the Writers at Work tent

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-writerextraordinaire, Michelle Paver.

Her books ‘Dark Materials’, ‘Thin Air’ and ‘Wakenhyrst’ are brilliant examples of classic ghost stories.

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Michelle Paver’s latest ghost story, the novel ‘Wakenhyrst’

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

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‘Thin Air’ – the perfect title for a ghost story set at high altitude

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

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Late evening at Hay Festival when the crowds have gone home

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 x

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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.

Hay Festival Portrait- Wendy White
Hay Festival Portrait- Wendy White by Paul Musso

 

People They Ain’t No Good

I came across this heartfelt cover of Nick Cave’s ‘People Ain’t No Good’ on the end credits of ‘Damned’ – Jo Brand’s very dark comedy about social workers. I had to add it to the tracklist for my WIP, ‘Emmet and Me’, about children’s homes in Ireland in the 1960s. It’s ideal for creating the right atmosphere to write by.

And ten-year-old Emmet and his friend Claire would definitely agree with the sentiment of the song’s title.

Camille O’Sullivan & ‘People Ain’t No Good’ Live Version  

Sara’s debut novel ‘Not Thomas’ – a story of child 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.

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A Galentine’s song – only a day late!

OK, so I know Galentine’s Day is officially Feb 13th but if, like me, you’re already fed up of hearing the word ‘Valentine’ mentioned on the radio and TV every two seconds (and it’s only 11 a.m.) may I offer you this song & video.

I can’t ever resist belting out the chorus at the top of my lungs – off-key of course – and the 11-year-old dancer in the video is just amazing. 

I hope you enjoy this song as much as I do. 

 

Sara’s debut novel ‘Not Thomas’ – a story of child 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.

 

#MusicTherapyThursday #InspiralCarpets #Thisishowitfeels

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Another song from my Not Thomas playlist today and a blast from the past: ‘This is How it Feels’ by Inspiral Carpets. The video is certainly of its time, but I love the song and it’s rarely heard on the radio these days.

Sara’s debut novel ‘Not Thomas’ – a story of child 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.

#MusicTherapyThursday #JessieWare #WildestMoments

 

I’m just starting what I hope will become my next novel, and one of the first steps for me is to build a soundtrack that creates the right emotions for the story.

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I go back to this soundtrack over and over as I write, as I find it helps me to keep the emotional feel of the story consistent.

I wrote about the playlist for my first novel, ‘Not Thomas’, in the post ‘Music to Make Me Cry’

My next playlist is quite different. This is one of the songs on the soundtrack for my latest writing project:

#JessieWare #WildestMoments #musiciwriteto

Sara’s debut novel ‘Not Thomas’ – a story of child 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.

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#MusicTherapyThursday #NinaSimone #IThinkitsGoingtoRainToday #musiciwriteto

There have been so many versions of this Randy Newman song but my favourite is by Nina Simone.

It was used as the title track recently for ‘Broken’ a TV series where Sean Bean plays a good but struggling priest.

I find it’s an ideal song to summon up a heavy heart when I’m writing sad sections, and Nina Simone’s voice and delivery add new levels of sorrow. Very evocative. Beautiful too.

#musiciwriteto  

 

Sara’s debut novel ‘Not Thomas’ – a story of child 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.

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#MusicTherapyThursday #YoureMissing #BruceSpringsteen

Since I’ll never see his Broadway show which opened this week, I’m comforting myself with this recording of a practise run-through of ‘You’re Missing’ for a 2002 TV show – wonderful in its simplicity. It was one of the songs Springsteen wrote after 9/11. 

I promise you the music on this video will get started eventually, but Seth Myers makes an appearance first (looking roughly the same age as he does now – about 16 & a half) .

Bruce Springsteen & You’re Missing, with intro by Seth Myers

#MusicIWriteTo

Here’s a link to a Guardian review of Bruce’s sell-out Broadway show.

Sara’s debut novel ‘Not Thomas’ – a story of child 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.

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#MusicTherapyThursday

I’ll be taking part in the Big Green Bookshop’s Not the Booker discussion event in London this evening, so today, in need of a little relaxation, I thought I’d turn to the music of Kate Bush. I’ve chosen ‘Moments of Pleasure’.

This is the song I played when I wanted to get into the mood for writing as Tomos. I don’t really know why this song came to epitomise Tomos for me – the lyrics don’t relate to the theme of Not Thomas at all – but something in the tone of the music just worked. I think the music has a sadness but also hope. 

And the vulnerability of Kate’s voice never failed to trigger the right emotions in me. Now I only need to hear the opening couple of notes to be right back there with Tomos, in that decrepit house, in the dark, up on his high sleeper bed, under the jumpers and towels, with Mammy’s pink tee shirt…

P.S. If you haven’t already, please consider voting for Not Thomas on the Guardian’s online Not the Booker prize page – voting closes on Sunday night and the winner will be announced on Monday, 16th October. Thank you!

Sara’s debut novel ‘Not Thomas’ – a story of child 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.

#WelshWordWednesday

 

 

Today’s Welsh word, for readers of ‘Not Thomas’ who aren’t familiar with the language, isn’t a word at all, but a title. It’s Calon Lân and it’s the name of a well-loved Welsh hymn that’s often sung at funerals.

Calon lân translates as ‘a pure heart’:

calon = heart

glân (which loses its ‘g’ when it mutates after calon) = clean.

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On page 123 Miss mentions to Mrs Jones, the school cleaner, that Nanno had planned her own funeral. Calon Lân was Nanno’s favourite hymn and she wanted Tomos to sing it back at home after the chapel service. Of course, Ree had other ideas…

And since I never miss a chance to play my favourite version of the hymn, here’s Cerys Matthews once again.

Sara’s debut novel ‘Not Thomas’ – a story of child 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.

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#MusicTherapyThursday

I heard this song on the radio this evening and couldn’t resist adding it here. Not exactly a song I write to, but one of my all time favourite music videos. Is it meant to be funny?

It reminds me of a youth group I belonged to when I was fourteen. Say no more… 

Sara’s debut novel ‘Not Thomas’ – a story of child 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 all good bookshops.

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