Published: January 18, 2005
|Eight of my 31 novels and a few of my short stories are either paranormal or contain paranormal elements. I have to admit they scared me when I was writing them! Why, then, did I write them? Because the topics--reincarnation, magic, psychics, ghosts, voodoo (what I call "woo-woo" elements)--fascinated me, and I wanted to explore them.|
My paranormal novels have sold well, and brought me a bunch of mail, indicating that there is a healthy interest in the topics.
Whenever I give talks about my various books at conferences or conventions, there are always people who ask me when I'm going to write another paranormal story. Interest in this genre is heightened by the popularity of films such as The Sixth Sense, The Blair Witch Project, Minority Report, Signs and, of course, the Harry Potter series. A few years ago, Time-Life tapped into this market with a series of books on such paranormal topics as reincarnation, astral projection, out-of-body experience, extraterrestrials, poltergeists, telepathy, channeling, clairvoyance, psychic healing, the Bermuda Triangle, the great pyramid, ancient astronauts and the Shroud of Turin.
Fiction publishers are also catching on to the trend. In the past few years, a number of imprints have published paranormal novels, including Leisure Books, LionHearted Publishing, Del Rey Books, ImaJinn Books, DAW Books and Speculation Press. Silhouette Books is currently reprinting some novels from the Harlequin Dreamscapes series, including my novel This Time Forever.
When I began using paranormal elements, I realized that the key to writing good paranormal fiction is to incorporate bizarre, unexplainable events into the narrative without losing believability.
To write a paranormal romance, it isn't necessary to believe in paranormal subjects, but it is necessary to know something about them, just as it is usually necessary to know something about police procedure, pathology and abnormal psychology before writing a murder mystery; something about love in all its guises before writing a romance; and something about science before writing science fiction.
A whole world of theory, for example, has been developed around reincarnation. So when I write of it, I generally stick to that theory for the sake of believability. Whatever you are writing about, you have to make the reader believe in the story, the characters and the plot--at least for the length of the book.
The first paranormal novel I wrote was The Other Child, which dealt with voodoo. It came about because I had an elderly neighbor who really liked my little son and daughter. She kept feeding them and giving them presents. Then she started giving me presents. This bothered me. As it turned out, she was just a nice, generous, perfectly harmless woman. But what if she hadn't been? In the book that this unease triggered, I changed the neighbor to a beautiful woman whose child had died.
Later, I was in my local grocery store and overheard a man in a long black coat ask the butcher if he had any animal blood. That made me think about voodoo and then research it. The novel became a story about possession--not just physical possession of the child in the story, but an attempt to have the living child become the possessor of the soul of the dead child. And that's about as woo-woo as you can get.
Otherwise ordinary lives
To make this believable--and here's a key to making a paranormal novel believable--I tried to make the elements that weren't paranormal very ordinary indeed. The mother of the child was a divorcee who was having a love affair with a police officer. The husband of the woman who was practicing the voodoo, though terrified, was a likeable, fairly normal guy. If absolutely everything about the story is unusual or weird, it's difficult for the reader to suspend disbelief.
My next attempt involved reincarnation, which I'd always wanted to look into. In fact, my stories often come out of research. I get interested in something and a story presents itself. It's a backward approach, but it works for me.
What presented itself in this case was a fact--I discovered that Nobel Prize winner John Galsworthy, author of The Forsyte Saga, died on my birthday. Not the same year, but that didn't matter. I had loved his books when I was younger. Gradually, I developed a plot in which Andrea, a young female author, discovers that her newly published book had been previously written by someone else. Later, she finds out that she had written it herself in a former life, and had been murdered because of it. Andrea is determined to find out who had murdered her. The novel, Forever Love, is mostly set in England and goes back and forth between contemporary times and World War II.
The next topic that caught my attention was ghosts. In When the Spirit Is Willing, the 19th-century ghost is an American matchmaker, a handy spirit to have around in a romance. I had read books and articles and I had seen movies starring ghosts. These entertainments often stretched the believability quotient far too much. So in Spirit, I had my ghost give her opinion on what is possible for ghosts and what isn't.
The Enchanted Bride, a novella, came about from an experience my husband and I had while driving around Cornwall, England. We happened upon some standing stones--the Merry Maiden Stones--in a field by the side of a road. The maidens were females who had danced on the Sabbath and had been turned into stone as punishment. My ghost wasn't one of them, but she had died in that field not too long ago and hadn't quite made it to the other side.
I've had other ghost ideas that I haven't used. I'll tell you about one and you can certainly adapt it you want to. People often make replicas of antique items. It seems to me that if there are any spirits roaming around from that period, they'd be delighted to move into the replica of a house, car, movie theater, live theater, art gallery, restored ghost town or recovered sunken ship. Lots of possibilities there.
Time travel and reincarnation
Time travel fascinates me, though I haven't written a time-travel novel yet. Reincarnation is similar, but in reincarnation the character stays in this time period while mentally experiencing scenes and actions of his or her own life in another time period. The person did, however, actually live previously in that time. When the person is experiencing that former time, he or she feels quite at home, but has no knowledge of the later life. With time travel, the character physically goes backward or forward to another time period, and to a whole other way of life that is very strange to him or her. At the same time, the person knows where he or she really belongs. So in each case, there's a very different approach to the storytelling.
Another thing to bear in mind is that you can use just one woo-woo element in an otherwise "normal" novel. I wrote a romantic suspense novel in which a woman who read tea leaves kept telling the heroine what was going to happen to her. I wrote about a psychic child in an English country-house murder mystery, The Wainwright Secret. I didn't know she was psychic until she walked on the scene and started seeing "fuzzy things." Virginia Ellis' wonderful The Wedding Dress, a Civil War-era historical romance, is not a paranormal book, but it's a great example of including one unexplainable element. The heroine has a very well-grounded family and a perfectly normal, if difficult, life. But ghosts of soldiers killed in the Civil War show up from time to time, trying to find their way home.
I like to use contrast. If I have something really weird going on, I'd rather have it happen in the daytime with the sun shining than during a thunderstorm in the middle of the night. When you call up a storm, there's a danger of melodrama.
Here's something else to watch out for if you are writing a paranormal romance: Don't forget that you are writing a romance. You need to achieve a balance between the paranormal elements and the love story.
Bestselling author Michael Connelly (Chasing the Dime and Blood Work) has said that writing a mystery is a lot like the old juggling trick of keeping several plates spinning on top of dowels at the same time, and making sure to keep them all up in the air. Writing a paranormal, or woo-woo, romance, presents a similar challenge.
The article first appeared in the April 2003 issue of The Writer.