by Meredith R. Lyons
If you don’t believe in ghosts, a realistic paranormal may seem like an oxymoron, but regardless of how you feel about the supernatural in real life, it can be a fun and spooky addition to your fictional universe. So, how do you take a fantastical element and slide it seamlessly in our world?
Set it in a location you know well
Setting a book in a location you’ve spent chunks of life in frees up your mind to imagine and research other aspects of your story while effortlessly dropping in some local flavor. Accents, local foods, iconic locations; all will ground the reader in the reality of your story. If they’ve been there, they’ll appreciate it even more. If you write in a location you’re familiar with—especially if you lived there for a period of time—the details add themselves.
Establish rules clearly and early, adhering to real world physics when possible
There are so many ghost tropes to choose from. Unlike writing about some well-known fantasy creatures like fae or established mythological beings, very few people will come at you for not “following the rules” as long as you solidly establish the parameters for ghosts in your world. It can be fun to explore known ghost conventions and play with them. For instance, one commonly named ghost is the poltergeist, usually gifted with the ability to affect physical items in the moral realm. In Ghost Tamer, I decided that all ghosts had the ability to move things, they just had to learn how. It took energy, and some were better at it than others, much like how a living person hones a skill.
Tie action into your real-world setting
If you can take a unique feature of your location and twine it into your story, you automatically generate the image of a real, known element of our world and ground your paranormal event making it feel even more realistic to your reader. In Ghost Tamer, I used Chicago’s distinctive el trains in many of my scenes. Even readers who haven’t been to Chicago have likely seen the trains in movies, on television, or in photos.
Have at least one underlying theme that would work without a paranormal element
It’s always great to have a latent psychic master her telekinetic powers, but to tie your story a little more firmly into reality, make sure there’s an arc that anyone could identify with. Overcoming grief is an example of a theme that ties in well with the presence of ghosts, but is also something that everyone has experienced. Everyone will react differently, of course, so you’re free to have your character flow through that arc however you like, but more readers will be able to relate to your character and empathize with her journey.
Remember to have your characters act naturally–at least at first
A person who has been seeing ghosts or spirits for their entire life will likely behave differently than one who suddenly gains this ability. Chances are you have at least one person in your work that will be absorbing the existence of a spiritual world for the first time. Even if they’re merely a side character who learns of your MC’s abilities. Your characters should struggle with this as a normal person would. I love these sections myself because there are great opportunities for humor. When in doubt, look to the stages of grief for reference. Your characters are grieving their old, normal lives, after all, once they learn that ghosts exist and they have to deal with them, they likely can’t go back to their blissfully ignorant ways.
Once your character has reached the acceptance stage, remember that if she can see ghosts, chances are she’s going to do her best to order her Starbucks without letting the baristas know that a spirit is chattering in her ear. You can use this to create both comedy and tension.
Under this same umbrella, if a normal human is learning to manipulate, control, or in any way delve into the spiritual realm, have them struggle at first. Readers like a struggle and it gives you a chance to explain why they are able to access this realm as they learn the way forward themselves. Pulling from real world psychology and physics can not only give you ideas, but ground your story even further.
Ultimately, it’s your book, and you’ll write the story that you need to write, but if you’re aiming for a degree of realism, there’s probably enough in your own experience and the real world around you to get started.
And if you do know a ghost, go ahead and ask it for input, but remember, the truth is stranger than fiction sometimes, so don’t let your ghost dictate what goes in your novel.
How will these tips help you? ANd what would you add? Let’s talk about it on the Career Authors Facebook Page!
Meredith Lyons grew up in New Orleans, collecting two degrees from Louisiana State University before running away to Chicago to be an actor. In between plays, she got her black belt and made martial arts and yoga her full-time day job. She fought in the Chicago Golden Gloves, ran the Chicago Marathon, and competed for team U.S.A. in the savate world championships in Paris. In spite of doing each of these things twice, she couldn’t stay warm and relocated to Nashville. She owns several swords, but lives a non-violent life, saving all swashbuckling for the page, knitting scarves, gardening, visiting coffee shops, and cuddling with her husband and two panther-sized cats. She’s a member of International Thriller Writers and Sisters in Crime. Ghost Tamer is her first novel.