Writing Spooky Stories for Children
I love ghost stories! My parents never knew this, but I began reading Stephen King when I was ten years old — Carrie, progressing rapidly to The Shining, It (fantastic title) and The TommyKnockers. While I hate horror, and my kids say I’m a total wimp, I love the spine-tingling freakiness of a great ghost story.
And because a good ghost story is EXCITING, they are a great way to encourage kids to read.
Technique and Terror
While ghost stories are great at hooking kids into reading, writing them for children is surprisingly difficult. You have to keep the reader at the edge of their seat, but in no way do you want them traumatised. Writing a good ghost story requires breakneck pacing, comic relief to offset the bleak moments (and there’s no way you can avoid the bleak moments, it’s a ghost story) and characters and settings that are so extreme they’re almost a parody.
Think of The Addams Family, or Ghostbusters: scary, funny but never dull.
So when I learned that my wonderful editor, Sue Copsey, had just finished her first box set of horror books for kids — think RL Stine, but with a New Zealand twist — I grabbed the chance of an interview. I just had to ask this expert writer: ‘How do you do it?’
Here’s her replies. Hope you enjoy.
How to Write a Spooky Story
What makes a story spooky?
Spookiness in a story is mostly about creating an atmosphere: a waft of chilly air, the feeling of being watched, shadows, darkness, and of course the ever-reliable creaking front door, thunderstorms, and moaning wind!
Spookiness is very different to full-on horror, which I wouldn’t want any child of mine reading. While horror can send you screaming from the room, spooky will have you looking over your shoulder. It’s all about the suggestion of something. It’s … Shh? What was that? Something’s not quite right, something’s making your spine tingle.
Why do you write ghost stories?
I guess most authors write the sort of thing they like to read, and I’ve always been a fan of ghost stories. As a child, there was something delicious about being tucked up in bed reading a scary story by torchlight. I grew up in England, where every village has its myths and spooks, and I was fascinated by the history behind haunted spots. Places like old battlefields, ruins and deserted WWII airfields have such an atmosphere. Is this just because we know what happened there, or is there some sort of echo that we pick up on? I like to explore these ideas through writing.
There’s so much scope in writing ghost stories for children. I can include history, mystery and adventure, as well as the creepy stuff. Generally, I’m keen on finding ways of teaching history that will grab children’s interest. For example, most kids probably have little interest in the Otago Gold Rush (the theme of The Ghosts of Moonlight Creek), but weave that information into a story about a lost golden nugget and a ghostly gold miner, and they might learn some history without even being aware of it.
Have you ever seen a real ghost?
Maybe! It was on my wedding night (yes, you may make your smutty joke here). It had of course been a long day with a certain amount of champagne, and I was possibly tired-and-emotional enough to be hallucinating, but I’m still pretty sure the figure silhouetted in the bedroom doorway wasn’t imagined (the door flew open and shut in a matter of seconds). And when I discovered the next day that the hotel was notorious for spooky goings-on, then I thought, maybe …
How do you make sure your stories are exciting but not too scary for kids?
I aim to give the reader a little thrill rather than a nightmare. One reviewer said my stories have ‘just the right amount of tingle for the spine’. To make them exciting I keep the pace fast – I want the reader to keep turning the pages. Today’s kids have such short attention spans and soon get bored if there’s nothing much happening, and I’m very aware of this as I write – I’m competing with apps and computer games for kids’ time. And I won’t give up; I really really want kids to keep reading!
As far as ‘not too scary’ goes, out of all the ghosts in my books (a total of seven spooks in three books so far), only one turns out to be nasty. The others are benign. I didn’t initially plan it that way, but no matter how I tried to write them, my ghosts wanted to be lost souls trying to right past wrongs, or sending warnings, and for that they needed the help of my hero, Joe, who has the ability to see ghosts.
What are some things you’ve learned through writing ghost stories?
As a writer, the most important lesson I’ve learned is how to slash and burn my text to keep the pace moving along. My first in the ghost story series (originally published in 2011) was full of surplus words, and I recently re-edited it to fix it. After three books I think I’ve nailed it – I’m now a demon with the red pen (OK, the delete button, but red pen sounds better). I’ve also learned how to get plenty of tension into a story – how to keep the reader turning those pages.
On the factual side, because my books are set in interesting and historical New Zealand locations, I’ve learned a lot about my lovely adopted country, and have greatly enjoyed my ‘research’ trips J
What advice do you have for people wanting to write for children?
Start by reading a wide variety of children’s books – picture books, chapter books, novels – so you can recognize what makes a great kids’ read. Don’t assume that writing for children is easier than writing for adults. Many authors will tell you it’s harder! If you haven’t grabbed them by the end of page 1, you’re doomed. If you have kids of your own, try and put your finger on why they like certain books and not others. Then learn the craft of writing. Even if you have talent and ideas by the bucketload, you still need to learn what makes a story work, how to write a great character, how to nail your beginning and ending, and how to write text for the age level you’re aiming at – not too many difficult words, for example. Don’t send off your first draft to a publisher or agent. Get feedback – attend workshops and join writing groups, and draft and redraft until everyone is telling you, ‘It’s there – submit!’
Where can people find you?
My website is at www.suecopsey.com. It’s a mish-mash of information on my books and editing services, and spooky stuff for kids, like jokes, a colouring-in, and a list of the most haunted places in NZ.
What are you working on next?
I’m having a break from spooks; I’m a short way into a middle-grade fantasy. Against all advice (publishers don’t want books set in New Zealand, apparently – fools!), I AM making it a New Zealand book, because I want Kiwi kids, as well as the rest of the world, to know what a unique and unusual place this is. I have some vague, hopelessly optimistic idea that in making them aware of how awesome it is, and how lucky they are to live here, the next generation might be inspired to protect New Zealand to a greater degree than my own is failing to do. For an author, there is so much scope here – vast areas of mountain and forest wilderness, full of strange animals found nowhere else in the world. Weird birds, prehistoric reptiles, strange sea creatures … wait, did I say fantasy? Actually, this is our reality! I won’t say any more, I’m only a couple of chapters in but the rest of it is there in my head, waiting for me to find the words. I’m excited about it, can you tell?
Sue Copsey is an award-winning writer of spooky adventure stories for older children. Her 2015 title The Ghosts of Tarawera was a Notable Book Award. As well as children’s fiction, Sue has produced many non-fiction books, including the UK Times Educational Supplement award winner Children Just Like Me, and Our Children Aotearoa, which also won a Notable Book Award. Sue has two children and lives in Auckland, where she edits AMAZING books (sorry Sue, just had to put that in!)