Thursday, April 7, 2011

Ghosts & Writing Fiction

By E.J. Copperman
E.J. Copperman is the author of the Haunted Guesthouse Mystery series, which began last year with NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEED, and continues now with AN UNINVITED GHOST. The paranormal/comedy/mystery follows Alison Kerby, a divorced single mom who buys a Jersey Shore Victorian to turn into a guesthouse and finds it haunted by two very opinionated ghosts. In AN UNINVITED GHOST, Alison investigates the murder of an octogenarian in her house and has to deal with a reality TV crew who invades her home to film its new season.
I have a friend who is a very famous journalist and has been for a good number of years. (I’m not dropping names here because I’m not a name dropper, but the fact is, it’s all over my new book An Uninvited Ghost, published last Tuesday.) And when she decided to dip her toes in the concept of fiction, she called up one day to ask a question, not because I’m the next Kurt Vonnegut, but because I have, in fact, written fiction before.
She said she was setting her story in a region that had conflicting legends about it, and the origin of those legends would play a part in her intricate plot. But given all the research she’d done on the area, and the great number of possibilities the local folklore had to offer, my friend was stumped—how to proceed when you don’t know what’s true?

“It’s fiction,” I reminded her. “Use the one that works best for your plot.”
This was a revelation to my friend. She didn’t have to go with every fact she found; she could make stuff up! Professional (and terrific writer) that she is, she has not looked back and is still typing away, as far as I know. I’m waiting to see which legend she chose.
The point is to indulge the cliché—never let the facts get in the way of a good story. Yes, research adds authenticity, and you don’t actually want to make errors that will take a reader out of the story and ruin all your good work. But there’s a reason our stuff is shelved in the Fiction section, and we should embrace that concept and lie like rugs whenever possible.

“This is the West, Senator,” says a newspaperman in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. “When the legend becomes truth, print the legend.”
I’m not a huge fan of research, although I do what I need to do in order to keep my story at least seem realistic. But I’m writing about a woman who lives in a house with two ghosts who can change their clothes at will (and no, I don’t know why they might want to), float through solid objects, manipulate other solid objects and in general do whatever I’ve decided they should be able to do—or not—depending on what suits my story.
Forgive me if this intrudes on your sensibility, but I’m not going to talk to everyone who has ever claimed to feel the presence of an undead spirit just to find out what their experience might have been. My character Alison Kerby is going to have her experiences with ghosts. I don’t want them based in fact.
So if you’re writing a story and you can’t decide which legend to use, remember: It’s fiction. Use the one that fits your story best.
And if someone complains after the book has been published, remember this: It’s been published. That’s got to stand for something.