Writing That Novel: The Paranormal Method

21st Jun 2013

Writing That Novel: The Paranormal Method
Let’s face it, none of us know what happens when we die. Since time began all manner of perfectly intelligent, sane people have been investigating the possibility of an afterlife and spirit contact, and who’s to say that, just because they’re in a minority, they haven’t hit on something?

So how could spirituality and psychic ability help you get that book written?

1. Just talk to the dead

When is a psychic like a historical novelist?

As riddles go it’s not quite up there with any of Lewis Carroll’s, admittedly, but at least it has an answer: “Always, if you ask Hilary Mantel.”

Mantel, who once visited a psychic out of curiosity, thinks the two professions have a lot in common: “You talk to the dead one way or another, and you make it pay.”

She has said that she’s ambivalent about the existence of ghosts, but her memoir does feature an anecdote about encountering an evil spirit in the garden when she was seven.

2. Write it ‘automatically’

In her 2005 novel Saving Fish from Drowning, Amy Tan’s protagonist is a ghost whose story is told through ‘automatic writing’, a method whereby spirits get their messages out by ‘speaking’ through the hand of a psychic.

Tan wrote that the novel was inspired by a collection of real automatic writings, though she later recanted this claim.

Automatic writing as a phenomenon was first reported in the 19th century, when Spiritualism was at its peak. Plenty of women were making good livings out of psychic abilities, including Achsa Sprague, a medium from Vermont who was also a women’s rights campaigner, an abolitionist and a poet.

According to her biographer, her poems tended to focus on freedom and liberty when she was writing them herself, but became ‘spontaneous expressions of spiritual anguish’ when they were produced via automatic writing.

Spirit channelling apparently caused Sprague to write a 4,600 line poem in six days, though the biography doesn’t say whether it was any good.Many writers, including A S Byatt, have said their books sort of wrote themselves, though if you go with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s assertion that “Great books write themselves, only bad books have to be written” then spirits have exclusively great taste.

3. Use your spirit guides

Hilary Mantel’s wonderfully bleak satire Beyond Black tells the story of a medium, Alison, whose spirit guide Maurice is a mega pain in the arse.

Amy Tan’s have been rather more helpful, particularly her grandmother, who died from an opium overdose. In a story Tan wrote early in her career, the protagonist committed suicide that way – proof, Tan’s mother believed, that Grandma had visited, and confirmed that her death wasn’t an accident.

“Over the years,” Tan says, “I have included other details in my writing I could not possibly have known on my own: a place, a character, a song. Sometimes their clues have come so plentifully, they’ve made me laugh”.

Chilean author Isabel Allende lived with the spirit of her clairvoyant grandmother while she was growing up. Her grandparents were the starting point for her 1982 novel The House of the Spirits, which features a clairvoyant as one of its main characters.

4. Visit the Akashic library

The Akashic Records is supposedly a compendium of everything that’s ever happened and ever will happen, that’s stored, inconveniently, on the astral plane.

Elizabeth Chadwick, a historical novelist whose 20+ novels are set mostly in 11th/12th century England, says that with the support of a psychic called Alison King she ‘accesses’ The Records to delve into the thoughts and personalities of her characters.

“Of course,” she says, “such psychic observation is not permissible in the body of conventional historical research.” “Imagine,” she continues, “feeling the emotions of the characters and tuning in to their thoughts…  It’s all out there, waiting.”

Sounds like a source that most historical novelists would kill for.

So the lesson here is to keep your options open. Other contemporary writers known to believe in ghosts include Charlaine Harris and Susan Hill, and Sarah Waters doesn’t ‘disbelieve’, so you’d be in good company.

Jennie Gillions