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A Non-Psychic’s Guide to Writing Ghost Stories

A suitable setting for writing ghost stories.

Lost Without a Compass

After a critique partner trashed the setup in my first-ever novel, I followed the advice of everyone, everywhere, and wrote what I knew for my next. I stuffed this one with familiar characters, situations, and settings: a funny hero, a naturalist grandfather, and a small town in Massachusetts. All was going well until the plot veered into the paranormal and pitched me onto a rocky path in strange woods without a compass.

The problem? I have no experience with the supernatural, so how can I write a ghost story? Every spooky moment in my life has had an earthbound explanation. Things that go bump in the night stop bumping after the mouse wanders into a trap. Nobody ever receives the telepathic messages I send, which has been a windfall for Verizon. The eerie footsteps tiptoeing around and around the outside of my little house in the dark showed promise until I threw open an upstairs window, revealing the ghost to be… drops of water falling off the roof. Most disappointing was the ESP test I took in high school. (Don’t judge, it was the 1970s.) My score would have been higher if I’d tossed a coin for each question. Now I’m AFRAID to rely on my bumbling psyche.

But Where to Find Help?

Research seems called for, but this isn’t my field, and I don’t know how to tell the truth from the lies. Which journals are legitimate? Are there proven methods of ghost-hunting? And, most annoying to my thrifty New England soul, why do I have to shell out $10 a month to peek at a peer-reviewed journal’s table of contents?

I sympathize with other writers who rely on their imaginations instead of research. A few have taken it too far, though. Yes, I’m looking at you, Mr. Dickens. Four different ghosts in one night, appearing to someone who has never shown the slightest ability to communicate with spirits? Or with his fellow living humans? That seems over the top.

The movie, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, though, warms my author’s heart. The captain haunting Mrs. Muir’s new place dictates his autobiography to her, and she turns it into a bestseller. As unlikely as this seems, I’m on board. Does anyone have a talkative phantom they’d care to hire out?

The Compromise

Until I find a chatty spirit, I’m stuck with dubious research sources and my overactive imagination to write my novel. Still, it’s turning out well, and I’ve stopped worrying about my reputation. If scientists never banned the wildly inventive science fiction writer, Isaac Asimov, from their ranks, they’ll overlook me.

2 responses to “A Non-Psychic’s Guide to Writing Ghost Stories”

  1. That graveyard photo looks very familiar! The one benefit to living in New England is the abundance of historic houses (maybe think about buying one or spend some nights accompanied by a reputable medium at Holly’s or ours), as well as old restaurants, pubs, cemeteries, castles, and even a Falls River hatchet murder site from the late 1800’s-turned bed and breakfast. Our philosophy is if you turn over enough stones you’re bound to find something creepy that is worth writing about.


  2. I thought you might recognize it, Ellen! I think I’m hopeless at the visiting old houses, though. Growing up, my family lived in one that was built in the 1800’s, and none of us ever saw a ghost. (Genetic, maybe?) Or maybe the six kids in the family scared them all away. But hiring a medium to spend the night in an old house could be fun. Something to talk about after the pandemic!


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