Writing Ghosts

The picture on the book cover at the upper right was taken in 2005, on a tiny cross-country road in England, not far from Bodiam Castle. I was taking a shortcut off the main road from Hastings, had just driven through a village the size of a postage stamp, past a thatched cottage with a Thomas Kincaid flower garden, and came to a halt here, right in the middle of the road.

"I'm in Hobbiton," I thought. "Down the rabbit hole and through the wardrobe. The England of my imagination still exists. And here it is!" If you want to know where stories come from, visit the land that imagined them.

When I returned from that 2005 trip, I was still finishing my first novel, The Year of the Crow, but already a title, Ghosts of Great Britain, was bubbling around in my brain. I don't actually believe in ghosts, but everywhere I went the place seemed filled with them. Historical ghosts, literary ghosts, the ghosts of characters and events, the ghosts of my own could-have-been's and never-can-be's. They manifested in the landscape, appeared in the windows of thatched cottages tucked between the green fields and dour stone houses built to stand against the winds of the moors, wandered through gardens and still-cobbled streets, rose in hopeless fury from deserted battlefields.

They were still there when I got home. Every time I looked at this picture - and others - I was right back where I'd taken them. But I wanted to do more than look - I wanted to write about them, describe them, give some inkling of what it was that I experienced being there. I wanted to go back. I wanted to be one with them.

So that's where I started. I named a character for a favorite great-aunt and took her on my own trip. But it wasn't going to work, just taking her from place to place in a mythical, faintly-disguised travelogue. If there are going to be ghosts, there had better be ghosts. Ghosts of my own. I had been intrigued with the Norreys family, enshrined in a small chapel in Westminster Abbey. One of them, Maximillian, seemed to suit my purposes. Killed fighting in Brittany in 1593, he was the right age and, with little else known of him, suitable for reinventing. So Max followed her out of the Abbey. I didn't even know why yet.

And Mom? Sophie has the same flat tire I had and for the same reasons in the village of Bridge just outside of Canterbury, but I swear I didn't know the ghost of her mother was with her until my fingers were typing, “You know how I feel about swearing.” It seemed that Sophie had mother issues similar to my own. But that's where the resemblance stops. She's much prettier, smarter, and her father is as distant from my own as my street in Seattle is from that English country road.

The other pieces of the story came together piecemeal. I simply took them on my own trip, creating another major character out of bits and pieces of two other men I met along the way, drawing ghosts out of the ground at every landing, and doing major damage to a very real, too-persistent taxi driver from Manchester I encountered on Glastonbury Tor. A word of advice to all the pick-up artists out there. Be careful you don't tread where you aren't really wanted. That could be a writer you're bothering.

The story arc itself didn't emerge until the end. I knew I had good characters, and I knew they had gone to interesting places, and I knew there were lots of fun encounters with very real ghosts, and a couple of - well, nevermind. Read the book. But what the whole thing was about, I didn't know until the second and third times through.

What happened then, what happens in most of my fiction, is a process akin to remembering. And it doesn't happen until I write the words "The End." It's only after I write those magical words, only when I know what happened to everyone, that I can go back, add a bit here, delete a bit there, rewrite this part, polish that part - make a story from a series of otherwise unrelated incidents. That's when I remember what really happened. That's when I can tell the whole story.

And when I was done with that process, Ghosts of Great Britain, my re-created travelogue, became Ghosts of the Heart, a novel of the many things that haunt us, both real and imagined.