Hauntings, History and Headway – Notes on Writing the Paranormal, Historical and Queer

Jerico Lenk, author of YA paranormal The Missing and absolutely terrible blogger, crawls out from the landslide of end-of-semester papers and thesis projects and graduate applications to offer some insight on writing paranormal fiction, historical fiction, and queer representation at large.

Paranormal Fiction

Write what scares you.

Scaring yourself is a must – whether it’s literally, with ghosts and hauntings, or figuratively, like the most monstrous parts of human nature. Shock yourself. Make yourself uncomfortable. If you succeed with that, you’ll probably succeed in scaring the reader, too.

Like – dolls.

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I wouldn’t say I’m scared of dolls, though some creep the hell out of me. Especially those porcelain-faced clown marionettes. Of which, of course, my dad had a handful when I was really little. Thrilling (sarcasm). I still remember, very vividly, a nightmare about being alone on a public bus surrounded by shelves and shelves of dolls. China dolls, the one with curly hair and lace collars. They began to slowly turn and look at me, all at the same time. They never met my eyes directly, though I remember knowing they wanted to – because I had a tactic back then to wake myself up from nightmares (I guess I had a lot?). Once I realized I was dreaming, I’d make the conscious effort to blink twice, hard – and voila, I’d wake up. At the same time, I’m fascinated by the things that frighten me.

And one 19th century doll that never fails to fascinate me is the Edison Talking Doll. 

The doll was discontinued after a while if I remember correctly because it terrified children. Surprising, said no one ever. I’m sure it would terrify anyone.

Especially, say, if it is brought along by a Victorian-era ghost hunting team, to a girls’ school somewhere off the Strand … and, say, the doll begins talking with a different voice than the one it’s supposed to …

Wouldn’t that be horrifying?

Historical Fiction

When you’re writing historical fiction, fall down rabbit holes. Jump down them, in fact. Writing and editing The Missing had me lost in warren after warren of them.

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I’m a History major, but I haven’t taken a single class that has taught me the things I found rabbit holing. Things like precursors to the Ouija Board (like the Tuttle Psychograph), old cholera warning flyers, household items sold in bustling weekend markets…

It starts with as simple a Google search as 19th c. drug use, and ends with a plethora of images of pharmaceutical adverts. Drug use in Victorian London was not necessarily encouraged or celebrated, but it was a lot more prevalent – and available over the counter – than one might think. Daffey’s cough syrup (with opiates) to soothe colicky babies or congested adults. Menthol rubs and tawny bottles of anodyne. Cocaine tablets prescribed to treat things like asthma, or insomnia, or morphine withdrawals – and for which of these reasons Clement holds a prescription for the good powder … Will still doesn’t know.

Sometimes it takes a lot of searches, getting more and more specific, but the things you find are never what you expect. Casebook.org has a wealth of references regarding Jack the Ripper, from maps of Whitechapel to newspaper interviews with one of the charged suspects. Somewhere along the way, I also stumbled upon a book with Victorian-era death records and examples of legal certificates, types of recorded diseases, etc. – The Statistical Register of Victoria, by William Henry Archer.

“Accidentally trod on by a dray horse; chest crushed; lived 5 minutes.

“Suicide by arsenic; probably 20 grains in one dose; lived 20 hours.

“Fracture of the skull, caused accidentally by a brick falling on him whilst descending a coal-pit shaft.

“Strangled with a cord, by the mother; wilful murder.”

The death ledgers of the bone-snatcher Mr. Zayne’s burial club must be wild. Thank goodness he keeps all his receipts.

* Check out How to Be a Victorian (Ruth Goodman), Lost London: 1870-1945 (Phillip Davies), and Anglophenia’s “One Woman, 17 British Accents.” 

Queer Representation

Queer representation in media whether on-screen or on the pages has been a lot of trick-or-treat for a long time. (Get it? Halloween joke.) Lgbtq+ characters and identities so often fall to stereotypes or stock characters, plot devices or exploitations. Finally, books are showing up on the shelves with queer protagonists, but it frustrates me sometimes that they, logically, are confined by genre.

I write a lot of queer protagonists. In fact, I … couldn’t tell you the last time I’ve written a non-queer main character. But, for me, I don’t go into books thinking, “I’m going to write a lgbtq+ book!” I’m just – writing. Those identities are simply part of my characters, not the point of the story.

 That’s a key part of The Missing. It’s not a book about a gender-queer teen; it’s a book that just so happens to have a gender-queer main.

I want more characters that are gay, or bisexual, or on the ace spectrum, or non-binary/gender-queer – but whose sexuality or gender identity is not the crux of the story. I want “normal” boys who disrupt the idea that cis males with a lgbtq+ identity present or belong (or perpetuate) within a certain set of stereotypes. I want gender-queer or non-binary kids asserting their place. I want to write books that challenge the notion that lgbtq+ identities define a character – or an individual for that matter. I’m bi/pan somewhere around gray-romantic. But that’s not the full definition of me as a person. (Actually, a friend of mine recently informed me I have two modes: grumpy coffee-drinking reclusive old man writer yelling at kids to get off his lawn, or party-and-make-out-on-the-beach-like-an-Abercrombie and Fitch-commercial wild child hipster. I mean, he’s not wrong.)

In The Missing, Will does not define himself by his gender ambiguity. He is, as he says, just Will. That’s all there is to it.

And I’m excited to introduce more characters to the world, soon – characters who just so happen to be queer.  

Jerico is an undergraduate double majoring in History and Creative Writing, with an emphasis on Western European history/Russian history, and a Minor in Classics. You can follow Jerico on Twitter @lenkwrites