This article is from 2021 and may be outdated. We're working on restoring a newer version.
Writing convincing ghost stories can be challenging.
You might think you can get away with more in fiction than nonfiction.
That’s not necessarily true. You’re competing with accomplished writers like Jane Goldman, Heather Graham, Stephen King, and Nora Roberts. Past greats include Edgar Allan Poe, Henry James, and Shirley Jackson.
If you’re writing fiction, read lots of ghost stories. Don’t skip children’s literature. Those can be the best stories to study.
Watch classic movies based on haunted houses, and compare them with later remakes. There are formulas for haunted house stories. You can find them online.
Take careful notes during your favorite ghost-related movies. Do the same as you’re reading ghost-themed books. (I take scene-by-scene, page-by-page notesto understand the structure.)
Do on-location research. Use a voice recorder to capture what you notice at every point during your visit.
Keep your voice recorder (or your phone set to record, easily) by your bed, afterward. If you wake up with nightmares or fears related to the haunting, those are useful points to include in your story.
However, if you aren’t already a fan of the genre, think carefully before proceeding. Fans of ghost stories have certain expectations. They can seem like hidden standards, but they’re important. And, the reading audience is widely segmented. Some readers love a scene where the heroine goes down to the basement though it’s clear she shouldn’t.
However, some readers will give your book a terrible review if you include that cliche.
Know your audience. Deliver what they expect, and a few things they don’t. They’ll love you for it.
If you’re writing nonfiction, thoroughly research the site, people, and relevant time periods.
If possible, visit the location. Explore historical sites and living history museums for additional insights.
Interview people with first-person stories. Investigate the site with a professional ghost hunting team, if you can.
Your story should include all of the elements that have made ghost stories – true and fictional – enduring and successful.
Get waivers from everyone you might quote in your book. You may also want a release form signed by the owner of the haunted site. These precautions protect you from later lawsuits.
In paranormal niches, nonfiction readers may have fewer expectations. Your book can succeed if you tell them something new and interesting or useful. Include as many details as you can. Experienced ghost hunters are looking for specific cues and clues, even if you don’t consciously add them to your book.
In a book about poltergeists, I’m looking for research notes from the kitchen, bathroom, and basement. The author doesn’t need to make a big deal about that. I know the signs of a credible tale.
Regional cues can be important. An Irish or Scottish ghost is likely to protect the house or castle, as well as the family. An English ghost is more likely to care about lineage, honor (even among thieves), and the portrait gallery. Are your ghost stories set on the coast? To take smuggling legends seriously, I’ll expect some reference to tunnels.
Research your stories thoroughly, whether they’re fiction or nonfiction.
Then, your stories will impress readers who are experienced ghost hunters.
Here’s one way to have a quick encounter with an actual ghost. That is, visit a site that’s almost certain to be creepy, if not actually haunted. Test-drive an actual ghost hunt with friends.
It’ll give you LOTS of insights, so take notes!