Not too long ago, I received an email from another author about to start work on a story that involves ghosts. She was asking for help establishing the parameters of the supernatural world. In other words, she asked, what are the rules of writing about ghosts?
There aren’t any.
I don’t type that last sentence lightly (in fact, I don’t type anything lightly since my shoulders started to tighten up, but that’s another story entirely). The great thing about writing “paranormal,” particularly if like myself you’re not being terribly serious about it, is that you can make up pretty much anything you want and operate on that level. The ghosts can do this; they can’t do that.
Go ahead. Find someone who can prove otherwise. I’ve got time.
In the Haunted Guesthouse mystery series, I decided early on that the ghosts would not be scary. For one thing, I’m not interested in writing horror. I’m more a comedy person, and was aiming to write something that would make people laugh when appropriate. I don’t like to skimp on the suspense, but if Alison Kerby (the central character and narrator of the series) drops in the occasional—okay, frequent—sarcastic comment, it’s to be understood. Alison lives in New Jersey. It can’t be helped.
So the ghosts, Paul Harrison and Maxie Malone, were going to have particular personalities and not be interested in simply haunting the place. They were residents of the guesthouse, situated in the (fictitious) Jersey Shore town of Harbor Haven. They could float around, were somewhat transparent, and eventually could move objects around easily enough. But they weren’t mean and they weren’t frightening.
In the latest installment, The Thrill of the Haunt, for example, Maxie has developed the ability to leave the property at 123 Seafront Avenue and wanders the shore. Except she needs a ride wherever she goes, so she shows up in Alison’s car, uninvited, more than once. Maxie is a little bit more mischievous than Paul. Early in the series, someone said to me that Maxie must be a poltergeist because she liked to mess with the living and move stuff around. I said, “Um… yeah. That’s it. She’s a poltergeist.”
I haven’t done a ton of research on ghosts. I’ve done very little research on ghosts. Okay, I haven’t done any research at all on ghosts.
Research would just mess me up. If I knew too much, I wouldn’t be able to set the parameters. What fun is it creating your own universe if you have to follow someone else’s rules?
In The Thrill of the Haunt, in which Alison investigates two deaths, Paul is still the resident detective, something he was just beginning to pursue when he was murdered (See Night of the Living Deed). He still can’t leave the grounds of the guesthouse, but he can communicate with other spirits in a sort of telepathic fashion that Alison calls the Ghosternet. It comes in handy because Alison doesn’t like to investigate crimes; she wants to run a guesthouse. Paul wants to investigate, and his clients are usually ghosts, who communicate with him through the Ghosternet. I’m thinking of adding Ghostmail for instant messages.
The point is, I get to decide what the ghost world is like. Paul likes to tell Alison that there “is no handbook” for the people who become ghosts—they’re making it up as they go along just like the rest of us. That means I can change the rules whenever I feel like it.
I like to have growth and progress in the characters; having them act the same and do the same things in each successive book is not interesting to me as a writer. So they can gain abilities, find out things about being dead that they didn’t know before, and put them to use. In other words, I can fit the rules to the story I’m telling.
So when the other author got in touch and asked, I didn’t really know what to say. “Do whatever you want” seemed inadequate somehow, but it was the advice I had to give.
If you thought I had the answers, I sincerely apologize. I hope not to become a ghost for a very long time, but if I ever do, I’ll try and get back to you with more concrete information.
Unless there’s no handbook.