I have a confession to make. I like being scared, terrified and intrigued. In books – I hasten to add – and films. Not with gore and nastiness, but clever suspense and tension generated from a good story. Perhaps worryingly I have an affinity with the Gothic, graveyards and ghosts – generally, it looks like with the letter G. Which is peculiar. But there you are…
So it was with excitement that I attended a talk on writing ghost stories, featuring Jonathan Stroud and Dave Shelton, as part of the Oxford Literary Festival. There was a good mix of older children and adults in the audience and we were treated to an hour of revelations, tips and anecdotes by these two masters of the ghost genre in the contrastingly old and modern buildings of Corpus Christi college.
How it all started
Both authors cited MR James as having a major influence on their work but their paths to writing a ghost story were quite different. Dave Shelton decided he wanted to try writing a book for older children and was attracted to the ghost story genre, although originally he wanted to write a funny book about ghosts – a sort of ‘Guide to Haunting’ for the newly dead. However, he discovered that it was difficult to combine humour with being genuinely terrifying, which is why he abandoned the laughs in favour of the chills in his clever collection of ghost stories (wrapped up in an overall ghost story) – Thirteen Chairs.
Jonathan Stroud was interested in writing ghost stories from a very young age, and proved this to us by showing us the very first book he wrote and illustrated at the age of 12. Later on in life, he returned to the idea of ghost stories with the creation of the Lockwood & Co stories (of which there are two currently and more in the pipeline). The idea came to him as a scene of two kids wearing modern clothes, having a normal teen conversation and knocking on the door to a house where they were supposed to find and dispose of a ghost.
At this point, Jonathan pulled out a special Lockwood & Co ghost-hunting kit and asked for a volunteer from the audience to get kitted-up. The fortunate boy got to wear a special belt (complete with vital ghost-protection items such as iron filings, a magnesium flare, a salt bomb and thermal underwear! (which the boy did not wear except as a scarf around his neck. He did wear some pretty cool sunglasses and wielded a sword though.)
They then opened the floor to questions, which came thick and fast.
Humour – how do you use it in ghost stories?
Both authors said it was terribly difficult to achieve a good balance between terror and comedy as laughs can undercut the necessary tension of the genre. Most people read ghost stories to be scared, and if the humour interferes too much then this effect is lost, although Dave Shelton said that it can be a useful tool in creating the necessary relief after a build-up of tension in a story, as there is usually a narrative rhythm or flow. Jonathan Stroud agreed, saying that the shadows in a story can be made even darker with the inclusion of lighter material.
Plotting and sub-plotting
One very impressive girl asked for advice on how to create subplots in stories, saying that she managed fine with creating and structuring a main plot but struggled with the smaller stories that naturally occur within a narrative. Both Dave and Jonathan expressed their envy at her organized and sensible approach, saying that they had the opposite problem!
Jonathan said that he felt writing was like a battle between two sides of the brain. The first is the organized part, which looks for structure and order. The second is the more creative side, which is more random and disorganized. The act of writing involves bringing these two sides together successfully which is hard to achieve. Dave agreed but added that this keeps writing interesting, as subplots often arise as a result of experimenting with writing and seeing what happens as you go.
Writing in a child’s voice
One adult asked if the authors found it difficult writing as a child when they were fully grown adults. Jonathan replied that he doesn’t think about it too much – if he worried about trying to imitate a child’s voice his writing would probably end up sounding forced and unnatural. Instead, he said he aims for the narrative voice he would have liked as a 12-year-old and then balances that with the voice an adult aged 30 might like to read.
How scary is too scary?
This was the question I wanted to ask! But someone else asked it which was a relief as I was feeling rather shy. Basically we wanted to know how scary you can get when writing for children – surely going full-out a la Stephen King is really a bad idea? Jonathan said that he feels it’s down to personal taste as a writer. Scariness and horror can be achieved without gore and excessive details as successful scary writing is more about ratcheting up the suspense through details and sounds rather than a huge wodge of description.
Dave said that he didn’t classify his writing as horror even though his partner commented on the amount of blood in the first half of Thirteen Chairs! He felt the stories were quite restrained in some ways. When he goes into primary schools to do workshops, he often bases them on ghost stories for the older children but doesn’t read out his own material. However, what the children read back to him is often worse than anything he writes, such as stabbings of teachers (often the class ones!), which shows that we as adults perhaps worry too much about what children are capable of reading.
What terrifies you?
This was the last question of the afternoon and brought different responses. Dave said that what he fears most are bad things happening to the people he loves. Additionally, as he came to writing relatively late, he worries that he won’t have enough time to get out everything he wants to write about. Jonathan’s first fear made us laugh – the inside of melons – but admitted that writing is actually pretty terrifying. The act of putting your own words onto paper and knowing someone will read these and might not like them is scary but, with practice, you become more thick-skinned and confident.