I’ve never been much of a fiction writer. The truth: I’ve never been a fiction writer at all.
But then something happened after I became part of a writing group. Everyone else wrote short stories, novels, poems, and music. They all had such vivid imaginations and could create characters, settings, and dialogues in their minds while driving a car or listening to a sermon. I wasn’t envious, just in awe. I wanted to be like them.
Recently I’ve come to know a woman who has a ghost living in her house. She’s not “real,” at least not in the physical sense. She (Penelope) is a fictitious character created by a member of my writing group. Since the first time I was introduced to Penelope, she’s developed a likeable, realistic persona. Or should I say, my writer friend has developed it for her.
At one time, Penelope was a successful retiree who had been spooked by a ghost living upstairs in a home she’d just purchased. Since then, the location of the haunted house has changed, and I’ve met several of Penelope’s family members…and I don’t just mean that I’ve learned their names. I’ve learned about some of their quirks, looks, and history. I’ve also learned about their relationships and the often tenuous ties that bind.
Many of my writer friend’s family members have ghosts living in their houses, too—including her. It’s inevitable, she insists, when people live in old homes. Most of the invisible inhabitants are friendly, that is to say they mind their own business and don’t create havoc or scare humans. They do make noise though, mostly by moving things around. And sometimes they might create a little mischief by overturning paint cans or scaring away unwanted guests.
In critiquing the writer’s work, members asked a lot of questions and then offered suggestions about how to make her good story even better. How long had Penelope been living there? Why had the ghost just recently begun to act in such a contrary way? Was the ghost female or male? What did the ghost want? Was there some unresolved business that needed to be taken care of before it left?
Here’s something I learned early on upon joining the group. Even in fiction, facts are important. Get them straight/right. The sun rises in the east and sets in the west. The United States has an individualistic culture; Japan favors collectivism. Juneau, not Anchorage, is the capital of Alaska. This ghost talked, but group members agreed that was unusual. They might talk, though not in a conversational way. And they never eat. Why would they?
What? They were talking about Penelope as if she and her ghost were real. Are there ghosts? Some say a deceased person’s energy goes into environment, but so far no ghost hunting detecting devices have detected any “bodily energy” that survives after death.
When I doubted the reality of spirits or presences, my writer friend said, “Don’t tell that to my mother. This ghost lived upstairs in her house.”
“Her house? I thought this was Penelope’s house.”
Seven pairs of eyes looked at me, all communicating something vital: Penelope’s ghost and house were fictions based on facts. The writer’s mother’s ghost provided the seed for Penelope’s character and dilemma
“Ooooo, I see.” And after a moment, “How do you guys do that? How do you create people and who seem real?”
They all spoke up and offered a little something for me to mull over. Observe life. Watch others and see how they move and dress and how they interact with each other. Pick up story ideas from the newspaper—or from Facebook. In addition to reading more fiction, actually study it to discover how the author uses words to set scenes, describe people, or evoke emotions. “Got it,” I said, still amazed at their creative gifts yet feeling a little less ignorant.
This afternoon I’m thinking maybe scientists could prove the existence of ghosts, ghouls, and spirits if they had more sophisticated ghost-busting methods.