Friday, May 27, 2011

In which I haunt two schools in Leeds....

This week two schools in the Leeds area were haunted by a strange apparition....the figure of an author carrying a stack of out-of-print books, a carved wooden cat, a pair of binoculars and a piece of paper with the words "Remember the well between four yew trees" written on it in red ink. Actually by the end of the week I probably will be half-dead, on account of rushing about all over the place as well as trying to plan for an international move - but that's another story.
Following the fabulous Leeds Book Awards (see previous post) I went to Morley Academy and Benton Park School to run workshops in ghost story writing.
Ghost stories lie very close to my heart. Long before I had my first novel published in 2009, I was penning supernatural tales, nearly all of which were published by small press magazines and anthologies (you can read one of them, The Sea Change, elsewhere on my website). Nowadays I write novels which are often categorised as "crime" or "thrillers", but I feel I learnt a huge amount from both reading and writing spooky stories. Ghost stories, as I was telling the pupils at the two schools, are (obviously) about ghosts, and not about serial killers, sparkly vampires, werewolves, zombies, etc. As such they represent a challenge to the writer, since you are trying to make the reader's flesh creep rather than make them want to throw up in a bucket. It's fairly easy to gross someone out by filling a story with graphic dismemberment and gallons of blood; it's harder to make them so uneasy that they are afraid to put the light out at bedtime. So ghost story writing is a great way to hone your literary skills.
We spent some of the workshop talking about the structure of ghost stories and then did some group exercises about style; the final exercise was for the students to split up into small groups and produce their own outline for a ghost story plus, time permitting, the first sentence or two. I'd like to showcase some of the results at the end of this blog post. These are the story openings created by the pupils at Morley Academy. (Hopefully I will be able to post some of the work by Benton Park later.) I was amazed at what they achieved in a relatively short time (only about fifteen minutes) - especially the group who spent the first five talking about the Apprentice (you know who you are, boys! ;-) ). Each of the groups was given a "prop" from a classic ghost story - the aim was not for the group to recreate the original story, but to use the prop to inspire their own story. As well as the carved wooden cat, the binoculars and the note about the yew trees, I also gave out an opened padlock, a postcard from Stresa addressed to Miss J.Strangeways and a wooden doll's house doll. Can anyone correctly identify all the stories? If you can, I'll gladly send you a signed copy of my story The Red House at M√ľnstereifel, presented in chapbook form by Swan River Press. In the event of a rush of correct replies, the first correct answer gets the booklet! (NB A clue: don't forget I am an absolute fiend for the stories of M.R.James....)
Anyway, here are the opening lines produced by Morley Academy.

The binoculars (by Chris and Ryan)
A mere boy sat atop a hill, his eyes sore and his mouth dry, his binoculars pressed hard against his eye sockets. In the distance, there came an army of something not of this world, as though death had sent his pawns out to capture the lives of all which is good, and as they marched in perfect lines, they vanished...

The carved cat (by Sophie and Chloe)
I thought he loved me. I told him, I told him on the night that he left me that I would die without him. He was my life.
After one year of being with me, I thought I meant something to him. On the worst night of my life - when he left - I told him that I would die without. He was my life.

The postcard from Stresa (by Charlie and Charlotte)
It was the first and the last time I had ever been climbing with the Strangeways. Regret consumed me the moment I left him...

The well between four yew trees (by Tonicha and Tom)
In the woods on the outskirts of the village, local legend told that a well would provide salvation for lost travellers. This well was positioned among four yew trees, and the lost traveller would find it when they needed it most.

The wooden doll (by Tom B, Tom S, Ben and Jack)
Every day I come home and find more is written upon the wall. One day I came home not to find it on the doll's house wall but my bedroom wall. The feeling of being watched disturbs me. I see the doll and it looks at me, a sign of menace in its eyes. In the dead of night it will come for me...

I was thrilled by these opening sentences. Great work - I'd love to see a finished story if anyone has time!


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