Monday, November 10, 2008

Alex Beecroft ~ Writing the Historical Ghost Story

From that title you'd suppose I was some kind of expert on historical ghost stories, but that's very far from the truth. My qualifications to talk on the subject are that I have written one historical ghost story – 'The Wages of Sin', due to come out in time for Halloween 2009 in an anthology by ManLove Romance Press. But I very much enjoyed the process, to the extent that I'm hoping to write more. So, if you thought of this as 'writing the historical ghost story – for complete beginners', that would be more like it.

Although this was my first ghost story, I started out from a background of writing historical novels set in the 18th Century. So I already had a lot of historical information about the setting on hand, and a good idea where to go to find more.

I figured that if I was writing a historical novel about brewers, I would research into how brewing was done in the 18th Century and see if any ideas were sparked by the techniques or attitudes of the time towards brewing. So why should ghosts be any different?

I started off with an overview of how ghosts have been perceived throughout history:

Those and many more websites, and a couple of books on the subject, seemed unanimous that ghosts linger in the world because of something left undone. Either an injustice done towards the person when they were alive, which they remain to avenge, or an injustice the ghost did to another, which they need somebody to right for them before they can move on. That, or the person's burial rites were not completed properly – they were buried in unconsecrated ground, or without the correct sacrifices etc.

This early conception of ghosts as being people who had a good reason to linger – people who were trying to put something right – carried on into the 18th Century. Once I'd got an overview, I concentrated on reading about the most famous ghost of the era – the Cock Lane ghost.

This ghost, which claimed to be the murdered wife of a man who had subsequently re-married and lived in a small lodging house in Cock Lane, was heard by hundreds of people in London. It became a bit of a fashion to go and listen to it answering questions by the famous 'one knock or two' method.

Eventually the 'ghost' was unmasked by a team of investigators, including Samuel Johnson of Dictionary fame. The knocks were being faked by the young daughter of the man's landlord.

What's most scary about this story is the way a whole family united in an attempt to get their lodger lynched by the mob for a murder he didn't actually commit. The ghost itself was a bit of a fairground sideshow.

But again, what's notable is that once the ghost identified itself as the lodger's first wife, everyone assumed that she must have returned in order to gain justice for herself. A ghost was assumed to be proof positive of murder.

Which, of course, makes it easy to tie a ghost story into a murder-mystery. What violent deed in the past created the ghost? How does that tie in with the events in the present? Who will see the ghost, and what will they need to do to right the wrong and allow the ghost to move on?

In the course of reviewing the evidence about ghosts through history, I came across a lot of 'real life stories' which were spine chilling, and quite a few – like the Cock Lane ghost – which were only scary from a perspective of human psychology. So naturally I paid a lot of attention to the elements of the scary ones, to see what was working on me and what wasn't. I soon decided that I found poltergeists, which can move objects and therefore harm you, more scary than the classic ghost which just walks along a corridor on windy nights. So I made mine a poltergeist.

I also came across some delightful evidence of early vampires. I wasn't sure whether vampires were around in the 18th Century, but it turns out that one of the things the 18th Century did for us was to introduce the Western world to the concept of the vampire.

These were not your modern suave and sexy (even glittery) vampires, but the blood-sucking walking corpses of legend. As with the Cock Lane ghost in London, so many people believed these creatures existed that there was public hysteria in Prussia over them. Eventually official investigators were sent to make a scientific inquiry into whether vampires existed or not, and the investigation reported that they did not.

Newspaper reports spread the information all over Europe, so I feel no shame at making Jasper - one of my heroes – into an early 18th Century vampire hunter. But that's something for a different story, I hope!


Pheebles said...

I agree that I find ghosts that can interact with, and influence the physical world more scary than the lonely, wandering ghosts.

I'll look forward to reading the story when it is released!

Dakota Flint said...

Very informative post, Alex! Thanks for sharing. :)

Can I just say that The Mysterious cover is one of my favorites-ever? I've never been super fastidious about book covers, though obviously it's great when you like one and not so great when you don't. But covers have never influenced my purchasing before. However, if for some reason I wasn't completely sold on an antho with you, Josh, and Laura--I can't even imagine that being possible though--I would buy this book just for the cover. Can't wait til it comes out. :)

And on a side note, I think my immaturity is showing, since if I were you I would have giggled every time I turned the pages of a book titled, "The Cock Lane Ghost"... *g*

Erastes said...

Interesting! I've done one mildly vampiric novella and a short story but never tried to do anything longer yet, but I might do.

It's interesting to see that that's probably where Gabaldon got her idea from to have Lord John as a bit of a paranormal investigator.

Alex Beecroft said...

Hee! Thanks pheebles (do I recognize the book cover? Is that Margaret?)

Yes, the ghosts who just appear in a particular corner of the house every so often seem to almost inspire affection from a lot of the families which have them (from what I've read), but poltergeists sound like bad news!

Alex Beecroft said...

Ooh, thanks Dakota! I'm really glad that you like the Mysterious cover not only because I like it too, but also because I made it :) I thought I might try my hand at cover design as well as writing, and this is the first fruits of that. Mind you, the excellence of this one is all down to me finding a gorgeous photo by an amazing photographer called Ladida
all I did was slap some text on top :) It was one of those 'wow' moments when I saw it :)

LOL! I think there's a theory that Cock Lane was once an area in London where you could go if you were looking for a male prostitute (along the lines of Gropecunt Lane for the girls), so it's doubly appropriate ;)

Alex Beecroft said...

Thanks Erastes! I was quite surprised to find out that vampires were around as early as that, but I love the fact that the government took them seriously enough as a threat to send out an investigative team to check them out.

I feel a little disappointed in Lord John's investigating because - as in the old Scooby Doo - the phenomena he's investigating always turn out to be mundane. But that's probably a good thing if I want Charles and Jasper to make a career of being spook-hunters. I wouldn't want to be in competition with Diane Gabaldon! ;)

Jeanne said...

You're kidding me. There's a place called Gropecunt Lane???
Great post and I hope my real life gay ghost hunter will drop by later. ;~D

Alex Beecroft said...

*g* There were quite a few Gropecunt Lanes in the country in ye olden days, but they have all been renamed something more polite nowadays:
which is quite sad really ;)

Ooh, you have a RL ghosthunter on board? How cool! I hope he does drop by, I'd be interested to see what he has to say.

Ken said...

How nice of you to show a little how-to for us! Even though I've been researching the paranormal for years, it's aways nice to see what methods other people have taken.

I vaguely recall Cock Lane and the story, so I'll have to refresh my memory more in-depth. Of course, I do recommend reading about Mother Clap's Molly House, since it too dead with male prostitutes and gay men from the bygone times. The site of the building is supposedly haunted as well...

There's an endless supply of fascinating spooks... though I will argue that a ghost need not be a poltergeist to make noise or move objects. Nonetheless, it will not dissuade me from reading the story!

Jeanne said...

Thanks for stopping by, Ken. I knew I could entice you with that word "ghost"!

Erastes said...

Yes, there was a Maiden Lane, Love Lane, a Cock Lane, and a Lad lane,and Gropecunt Street. Petticoat Lane still exists after all.

These roads wouldn't have had "official names" in those days like they would do now - Oxford Street is called that now because it was the main route to Oxford for example so names were called things that people (most of whom couldn't read anyway) would remember. The Strand (because it's next to the river) Pudding Lane, and the like.

Here's a great resource :

Alex Beecroft said...

Thanks for the comment, Ken! But I wouldn't dream of thinking this was the sort of research you could get away with to actually equip you for dealing with the paranormal. Writers are experts in faking a lot of knowledge from a little light reading on the subject ;)

I have 'Mother Clap's Molly House' by Rictor Norton and definitely agree that that's essential reading for the 18th Century. I didn't know it was haunted though!

Oh, that's interesting! I thought that the difference between ghosts and poltergeists was that poltergeists were the ones that moved things and pinched people and so forth. Would you mind telling me more about the difference? I'd love to know.

Alex Beecroft said...

Thanks for the link Erastes! That is wonderful and I'm sure will come in extremely handy in future :)

Ken said...

Oh yes, Alex, as is the Queen's Theatre... *sigh* I really wish I had spent time investigating England while I was there years ago.

Poltergeists are often a debatable subject among investigators. True poltergeist activity is actually not caused by a ghost: it's more a case of energy projected from the unconscious mind of the living. It often centers around adolescents who are unaware that they are causing the events. A little creative release of stress, such as art or writing, often alleviates the symptoms. The word itself does translate to "noisy ghost" from German, but any ghost is capable of making noises, moving objects, and causing any number of occurrences. After all, that's usually how they capture our attention best!

K. Z. Snow said...

Wonderful, informative post, Alex -- one of the most fascinating, I think, Jeanne has put up. Then again, you've combined two subjects I've always found intriguing: history and the paranormal. I'm definitely going to check out your source material.

And that cover? Superb! Hard to believe you just sort of lucked into it. You must have a gift for graphic arts as well as writing. I think I hate you. ;-)

Thanks so much for taking time with this topic (and, of course, thanks to Jeanne, too . . . who's none too shabby in the history department). Can't wait to read your story!

Alex Beecroft said...

Aha! I see what you mean, Ken. I should have mentioned in the post that I'm also a regular reader of Fortean Times, so I had come across the idea that poltergeist activity was often associated with teenagers before. I was just failing to make the necessary connections there :) They never mentioned that it could be treated with more appropriate outlets for stress. That's very interesting and hopeful, really.

Ah well, I haven't called my ghost a poltergeist in the story because I didn't think my 18th Century investigators would know the term, so I'm off the hook there, thankfully! :)

Alex Beecroft said...

Wow, thanks for commenting KZ :) I've been lurking on your blog for a while now, being intimidated by how many books you have out, and how different they all are, so it's great to finally make your acquaintance :) I'm actually a big fan of intergalactic empires with elves, though that hasn't yet been reflected in what I write ;)

I'm really glad you enjoyed the post. As I was saying to Ken, I probably should have mentioned Fortean Times as one of my original sources too. It slipped my mind at the time, but I really recommend it if you don't already get it.

*g* Thank you! But yes, the cover was more luck than skill on my part, I think :)

K. Z. Snow said...

My pleasure, Alex. I've been hearing about and seeing so much exceptional M/M historical fiction lately that I'm tempted to try writing some myself. I just have too much urban fantasy in the works right now.

Don't be impressed by the number of books an author has out. It's quality that counts, not quantity.

Intergalactic empires with elves? Now that's one subsubsubgenre I've never considered! (Actually, sci fi isn't my forte.) I say you should go for it! In the meantime, though, I'm really, really looking forward to the ghost-story anthology. Wish there were more such tales in M/M fiction.

Josh Lanyon said...

What a great, informative and interesting post, Alex.

I can't wait to read your story in The Mysterious. I'm really looking forward to this collaboration.

Alex Beecroft said...

I've been hearing about and seeing so much exceptional M/M historical fiction lately that I'm tempted to try writing some myself.

Yay! That sounds like a great result to me. I enjoy reading all sorts, but historical is still such a very small genre that you can make a really big impact in it. And we're always on the lookout for new talent ;)

*g* But from what I've seen you have quantity *and* quality, which is the best of both worlds.

The elves thing is more of a space opera than real SF, but I'm glad you like the sound of it. I'll have to pull my finger out and get it finished in that case.

Thanks again!

Alex Beecroft said...

Hee! Thanks Josh! *I'm* really looking forward to this anthology too, but with some trepidation. I'm just keeping my fingers crossed that I don't let you and Laura down by being the weak link in the chain. I do like my story myself though, which I hope is a good sign :)

Jeanne said...

Thanks, everyone for commenting on Alex's post.
Tune in for even more diverse guest bloggers!