Today’s guest is author Siobhan Adcock. She received her MFA in fiction from Cornell University, and her short fiction has appeared in several literary magazines. She has worked as a writer and editor for Epicurious, Gourmet.com, iVillage.com, and The Knot among other digital publishers.
Her debut novel, The Barter, is a ghost story and a love story about two deeply conflicted mothers—separated by 100 years—and the impossible barter that ultimately binds them. Set in Texas, in present day, and at the turn of the twentieth century, the novel is a riveting emotional tale that also explores work and feminism.
We’re thrilled she’s with us today to talk about how the clear-cut steps for writing a ghost story can apply to other works as well.
Why Every First Novel Should Be a Ghost Story
Unsure what to write next? Not sure where the plot of your novel is headed? Tormented by writerly self-doubt? Please allow me to make a suggestion that might change your whole life: Try writing a ghost story.
As I found out for myself while writing my first novel, which also happens to be a ghost story, obeying the old “every page must advance the plot” adage becomes much easier when there’s a ghost or other spooky presence pushing things along—or chasing someone around. Ghost stories have a certain inexorable quality that can be particularly helpful for a first-time novel writer.
Why? Well, the basic plot of a ghost story goes something like this:
- A ghost shows up.
- The ghost gets scarier.
- The ghost gets even scarier.
- The ghost becomes truly horrifying.
- The protagonist figures out what to do about it.
It’s not exactly that simple, of course, but it’s pretty close. For those of us who are familiar with the sensation of coming to a crossroads in our writing, or worse, a dead end, I’m here to tell you: Writing a ghost story pretty much eliminates the possibility of dead ends. If you aren’t sure what should happen next in your story, the solution is almost always “Write a scene where your ghost does something freaky.”
If the basic plot of a ghost story I’ve outlined above looks familiar, it’s not just because you’ve seen The Others. It’s because it also happens to be the basic plot of almost every story ever written: Setting, Conflict, Rising Action, Crisis, Falling Action, End. In this way writing a ghost story happens to be excellent target practice for writing a story of any persuasion, haunted or not. Your ghost will just spook you out of your writerly cul-de-sacs a little bit faster, and toward a clearer purpose.
Believing in ghosts is by no means a prerequisite for writing scary stories. Edith Wharton (who—surprise!—wrote lots of ghost stories) once wrote, “I don’t believe in ghosts, but I’m afraid of them.” Personally, I love ghost stories, but I love them because I do not believe in ghosts. My father was a great reader and a great ghost story teller, and through him my sister and I both inherited a love of ghost stories and horror stories: every book Stephen King ever wrote was on our bookshelf at home, and we passed all his stuff from dad to sister to sister. I love being scared by ghosts; I love the word itself, ghost. But do I think they’re real? No.
That said, the experience that a great ghost story evokes, that delicious fear, is one that anyone can believe in. Many people—sane, normal people who have never watched Ghost Hunters—have had the experience of feeling observed, or followed, or haunted. We imagine connections between our everyday living world and other realms, other experiences—it’s one of the things that separates our species from the carpenter ants and bunny rabbits. So even though I don’t believe in ghosts, in a way you could say that ghosts are as real as the sensations their rumors provoke. As a writer, your job is provoking sensation in your reader—and what more useful tool for that provocation than a ghost?
Another admirable quality you’ll find in a good ghost story—and really, in almost any good story—is that different people will interpret the same story in different ways. Your own reading of a ghost story will depend on what you want to believe: “it’s all in her head,” or, “the ghost is stalking her because the house is on top of where she died,” or “the ghost has a message for her,” or “the ghost is the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man.” As a writer you want to get the ghost story down in such a way that the different potential interpretations are all part of the fun, and part of the pleasure of reading (and writing) it. While I was writing my ghost-haunted first novel, I read and re-read “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman and The Turn of the Screw by Henry James, because they are both scary as hell, and also because both belong to the turn-of-the-twentieth-century era in which one of the storylines in my narrative takes place. I first read both of those stories in high school, and at that time, interestingly, they were positioned to me as horror stories. As an adult, of course, reading them, you realize that the “ghost” in both tales is not even close to being the scariest thing that’s going on. That’s why a good ghost story is not really about chills and thrills—it’s about what kind of reader you are, and how hard you’re willing to look for different ways of seeing the same thing.
Think you might be up for giving it a try, intrepid writer? Think hard. Write fast. Be brave. And to help you set the proper ghosty mood, here’s a spooky song playlist to write to…
Anyone’s Ghost by The National
Monsters by Band of Horses
Scared by Albert Hammond Jr.
Also Frightened by Animal Collective
Half Light I by Arcade Fire
Deep Purple by Artie Shaw
The Present by Bedhead
Evil Is Coming/The Black Cat by Broadcast
Phantom Other by Department of Eagles
He’s Everywhere by Dolly Parton
Down by the Water by The Drums
The Killing Moon by Echo and the Bunnymen
A Grey Cloth Covering My Face by Elf Power
Quiet Houses by Fleet Foxes
Transparent Things by Fujiya Miyagi
Dead Man by M Ward
Never Go Away by Noonday Underground
Ghost Under Rocks by Ra Ra Riot (Passion Pit Remix)
Possum Kingdom by The Toadies
Graveyard Shift by Uncle Tupelo
Poor Places by Wilco
Little Ghost by White Stripes