As a spooky MG author, I read a lot of spooky MG books, and one of my favorite things is meeting new wonderfully creepy and creative beasts. Spooky books have all kinds of villains, and they generally feed some fear of the main character. In fact, the Beast in my own book, THE BOY, THE BOAT, AND THE BEAST, is directly from the Boy’s biggest fears.
Here are some of the beasts I love from spooky MG books:
In TWIST, something has made Neha’s drawings literally come alive on the page. At first it’s cute and fun, until some beasts invade her sketchbook. When the characters escape to the real world, the beasts want to come too. TWIST has a number of beasties, but the big bad is The Howler, the biggest, baddest, most terrifying beast to come out of Neha’s friend Eli’s imagination. My imagination can conjure up some pretty scary monsters, so I can imagine The Howler is scary!
In this Pura Belpré Honor Book, Nestor has just moved to his latest new town, this time living with his abuela. Nestor has the unique talent of being able to talk and understand animals, and he quickly discovers that animals all over this neighborhood are going missing because a tule vieja is terrorizing his town. Shapeshifters can be really scary because you never know what’s the actual monster, and that’s one of the things that’s so spooky about Adrianna Cuevas’ tule vieja. In the book’s author’s note, Adrianna talks about how she changed the legendary tule vieja for this story. The original is scary, but her’s is terrifying.
Having grown up in the Caribbean, I love reading books set there. Tracey Baptiste grew up in Trinidad and uses the island and its folklore for this fantastic spooky series. It features Corinne La Mer, who claims she’s not afraid of anything—which quickly lets us know she’s going to have to face something scary! Sure enough, she does: The Jumbies. When the evil jumbie Severine wants to take over the island for all the jumbies, Corinne must learn ancient magic to stop Severine and save her home.
What’s worse than a horde of angry outlaws? A horde of angry zombie outlaws! That’s exactly what young Keech Blackwood has to deal with in the LEGENDS OF THE LOST CAUSES series, starting with Bad Whiskey Nelson (love that name!). Set in the Old West, these books have a new twist on the zombie apocalypse, and it’s so so scary.
I know what you’re thinking: Cuddly bunnies are not beasts…but these are! In NIGHT OF THE LIVING CUDDLE BUNNIES, the hottest new Christmas toy is coming alive and terrorizing the town of Gravesend. Soon Devin Dexter and his cousin Tommy are on the trail to save their town from the mob of bunnies and the warlock controlling them. It’s hilarious and scary all rolled into one.
There are plenty more fantastic beasts in spooky middle grade books. What are you favorites?
To celebrate, we wanted to heard from Adrianna about this wonderful honor. You can also read more about the book in this interview.
Congratulations, Adrianna! How are you feeling? Has it sunk in yet?
I’m not quite sure it’s sunk in yet. I watched the awards announcements, screaming and cheering for my author friends. When my book popped up on the screen, I was still completely surprised, even though I knew it was going to be there. It didn’t seem real.
Tell us about that moment you found out your book had been honored.
I was notified on Saturday. They had to call me four times because I have a phobia of talking on the phone and kept ignoring their calls. I was out for a walk in my neighborhood when we finally connected. I’m fairly certain my neighbors are now concerned for my well-being since I sobbed all the way back to my house.
If your neighbors had known, they would’ve been sobbing along with you! When you were a kid, did you dream of this moment?
I loved writing and telling stories growing up but being an author didn’t seem like a real job so it wasn’t something I dreamed of. So being a Pura Belpré Honor author was even farther out of the realm of possibility for me.
I would advise them to tell the stories that make them happy, that make them laugh, and that are just bursting through their fingers to be put down on paper. Don’t worry about what other people are writing or what you think others want to read. Tell the story you want to tell. I wasn’t sure anyone would connect with my farting talking animals but now I can say I’m the author of AWARD-WINNING fart jokes. So you never know what might happen when you tell the stories you want to tell.
This is the BEST advice! And we all need more farting talking animals in our lives.
I always love interviewing debut authors. I once heard Judy Blume say that she loves reading debut books because it’s the first time she gets to know a new voice, and I can’t agree more. It’s very exciting. So that’s why I’m excited to go behind the spooky scenes of the debut middle-grade novel SUMMER OF L.U.C.K. with the book’s author, Laura Stegman.
Laura is a Los Angeles-based author and arts publicist. She loves reading, L.A. Dodgers baseball, classical music and theater.
SUMMER OF L.U.C.K. tells the story of three kids who meet at a summer camp. When they hear mysterious calliope music coming from an abandoned warehouse, they sneak inside and discover that it bursts into a magical carnival. They meet a ghost called Leroy Usher, who asks for their help convincing his family to restore the carnival to its former glory.
Sounds spooky! SUMMER OF L.U.C.K. is out now from INtense Publications and a sequel is coming out in 2021.
What was your inspiration for this book?
By way of background, Summer of L.U.C.K. is about three kids finding their way to self-acceptance with the help of a ghost who haunts a magical carnival. It was inspired by my favorite middle grade book, The Diamond in the Window, whose 11-year-old main character was the same age as I when I read it. She had freckles, like me, and, she hated her freckles. So did I. But this character learned to accept her freckles — and herself. Not only was it one of the first times I recognized myself in a book, but it also made me feel like I wasn’t so alone. Decades later, this book still spoke to me so powerfully, which moved me to write Summer of L.U.C.K. I hope it will mean as much to readers today as The Diamond in the Window meant to me.
What’s the best part of writing about ghosts and ghostly carnivals?
Writing about ghosts exercises my creativity because there are no limits to what I can come up with. It’s fun to devise whatever wild, magical elements and rules I can imagine. And threading those elements through real-life lessons about friendship and perseverance was a thrill. For example, Summer of L.U.C.K.’s three kids struggle with speaking in some form or another – one stutters, one is just learning English, and the third simply stops talking. So when the ghost, who can’t rest until his family is reconciled, needs their help, he grants them power to communicate telepathically. As a result of helping the ghost and his family, the kids learn to find their voices. To create L.U.C.K.’s ghostly carnival, I started with memories of the amusement parks I visited with my family as a kid. Then, I built on those. Though L.U.C.K.’s rides and games don’t exist in real life, I wish they did!
Do you have any real life ghostly experiences?
Interesting question! The answer is, “Not really,” but I’ll tell you this. My Dad passed away in October. Even though he was very old, it was a bit sudden and unexpected. For the first week or so, I “chatted” with him via “Dear Dad” letters. Every night, I wrote to him about what was going on and how much I missed him. In one of the letters, I asked him for a sign. And a day or so later, as I was falling asleep, I got something that I’ve chosen to interpret as that sign. This “ghostly” process was really helpful in transitioning from my dad’s and my daily phone calls to saying goodbye.
What’s your best spooky writing advice?
Establish the rules for your readers so they’re very clear. Then let your imagination run wild!
Great advice! Find SUMMER OF L.U.C.K. at Bookshop.org, or buy from Children’s Book World for an autographed copy with an official bookmark.
Adrianna Cuevas is a first-generation Cuban-American originally from Miami, Florida. A former Spanish and ESOL teacher, Adrianna currently resides in Austin, Texas with her husband and son. When not working with TOEFL students, wrangling multiple pets including an axolotl, and practicing fencing with her son, she is writing her next middle grade novel.
The Total Eclipse of Nestor Lopez is about a boy from a military family who’s used to moving to a new town every few years. When he finally gets the chance to live with his grandmother in New Haven, Texas, his one goal is to make sure that no one finds out his biggest secret- he can talk to animals. But when a tule vieja, a witch that can transform into animals, starts threatening his new home, Nestor must decide whether to risk revealing his secret to save his friends.
How did you get the idea for the story?
There’s a slight chance (and by slight, I mean 100% true) that I was sitting in a high school faculty meeting four years ago, doodling in my notebook as I tried to pay attention. I thought about how my family had just moved to Texas and how my son had lived in five houses in six years. He’s always asking me hypothetical questions like “If you could have any superpower, what would it be?” or “If you could be any animal, what would it be?” From those ideas, I came up with Nestor—a Cuban-American boy with a secret ability, looking for a home.
And I don’t think I missed any crucial information from that faculty meeting while I brainstormed.
Ha! We won’t tell. 😉 Can you tell us more about the real-life tule vieja legend?
The tule vieja is a legend from Panama and Costa Rica, two countries I lived in when I was younger. She’s a bit different from the tule vieja I present in my book since the traditional tule vieja has permanent animal features like bat wings and crow feet. She also walks around topless… perhaps not the best look for a middle grade story? She’s very similar to the legend of La Llorona, since she can be found snatching unruly, truant children off the streets. I thought it would be more fun to connect the tule vieja to Nestor’s animal communication ability by having her kidnap New Haven’s pets and livestock in a bid to increase her power.
She’s also fully clothed.
Are any of the characters in the book like you? Can you secretly talk to animals like Nestor?
I’d love to say that I’m brave like Nestor or that I can cook and sew like his abuela. But, alas, I fear I’m most like Cuervito, the snarky raven that pesters Nestor, and Val, the coyote with a penchant for making jokes in serious situations.
And most of the communication I have with animals tends to be one-sided arguments with my dog and cat about how I’ve already fed them.
I hear you! I have the same conversation with my dogs. They never believe me! What’s your favorite thing about writing spooky stories like this one?
I love the ability of spooky stories to be a vehicle for exploring deeper themes and issues. For someone like me with the attention span of a single-cell bacterium, action-packed, quick-paced scary stories are an accessible way to address themes of family, belonging, and identity. Also, showing young readers someone like them overcoming monsters, both imaginary and real, is something I treasure as an author.
Absolutely! Did you have a favorite spooky book, movie or character growing up?
I was obsessed with Edgar Allan Poe growing up. I had an illustrated anthology of his poems and short stories that I read constantly. The Pit and the Pendulum was my favorite short story of his because I was enthralled with how Poe’s gruesome descriptions put the reader directly in the scene. To prove I wasn’t a completely blood-thirsty child growing up, I also loved his poem Annabel Lee. That one definitely ushered in my strong emo phase as a teenager. My poor parents.
Oooh, I love Edgar Allen Poe! I have a pop-up version of his The Raven. It’s awesome. What’s your biggest fear?
You know in horror movies where a character sticks their hand in the garbage disposal because they think it’s broken, only to have it suddenly turn on? Yeah, that’s not my biggest fear. How about when you turn off all the lights in your bedroom so you have to race and jump on top of your bed before anything lurking below can grab you by the toes? That’s not it either.
My biggest fear has nothing to do with the supernatural or anything imaginary. There’s a scene in The Total Eclipse of Nestor Lopez where Nestor’s mom mistakes two high school ROTC students for an Army mortuary affairs detail coming to tell her something has happened to her husband. That was my fear every day for the years my husband was deployed as a military policeman. Writing Nestor was a healing way to process those emotions and use my fear to show young readers a way to confront separation and grief.
Wow. That’s a deep fear a lot of readers will experience. It’s wonderful that they can learn to deal with it through your book. You’ve got another book coming out next fall. Can you give us a sneak peek into what it’s about?
I’m so excited for my next book, Cuba in My Pocket! It tells the story of a young Cuban boy who immigrates to the United States by himself in the 1960s. I based it on my father’s experiences and I’m so thrilled to honor him with this story. It will also clearly show that my sarcasm and snark is genetic.
Fantastic! I can’t wait for CUBA IN MY POCKET, and I know all our readers can’t either.
I’ve been a fan of Cory Putman Oakes and her books for years. Afterall, she’s the author of the fabulously magical young adult novel WITCH TOWN and the fantastically fun middle-grade DINOSAUR BOY series, among others. But my excitement was ratched up a thousand when she told about the newest middle-grade book she’d sold, because it has ghosts!
THE SECOND-BEST HAUNTED HOTEL ON MERCER STREET is “You’ve Got Mail” meets “The Haunted Mansion,” but for a middle grade audience. The idea is that there are two competing haunted hotels on Mercer Street: The Hotel Ivan (small, quirky, family-owned), and The Hauntery (part of a big, soulless, corporate chain). There are also two main characters. There’s Willow, a living girl, whose family has owned the Hotel Ivan for 400 years. Willow’s mother has died and come back as a ghost – she and all of the other friendly ghosts who haunt the Ivan are starting to fade (along with the hotel’s business). Willow is desperate to save her beloved home and the ghosts who are like family to her. Then there’s Evie, a ghost, who works for The Hauntery where she is forced to play the role of “Spooky Little Girl.” Evie longs to play the Terrifying Phantasm, but neither hotel management or her own family will let her prove she’s terrifying enough. The two girls meet at their local library (they’re fans of the same mystery series) and hatch a daring plan to help one another, but can they pull it off before the dreaded Hotel Inspector decides, once and for all, which hotel is the “Best Haunted Hotel on Mercer Street”?
So much fun! What inspired you to write this story?
I spent an entire night walking my infant son around a decidedly not-haunted hotel. He wouldn’t sleep and he’d fuss whenever I tried to sit down so we walked around empty ballrooms, meeting rooms, down quiet hallways, and through the deserted lobby. We didn’t see any ghosts, but seeing a hotel in the dead of night like that – all that emptiness and quiet, with only echoes of all the parties and proms and weddings and life events that have happened there – was the most haunted thing I’ve ever experienced. I knew immediately I had to write a book about a haunted hotel.
You’ve written some other spooky stories. What do you like best about spooky stories?
I love to tell stories that have a spooky (or magical) element brewing right under the surface of “normal.” There’s something very fun about a world that looks a lot like ours except for one, big, spooky/magical difference. In this case – the world of Mercer Street is just like ours, except ghosts exist and are woven into the fabric of everyday life. I love having paranormal elements brush up against modern things like WiFi and Instagram and toxic corporate culture – it allows me to really play with these concepts in interesting ways.
I’ve always loved spooky stories in particular because they are so layered. On the surface, spooky stories are fun in that spine-tingling, oh-no-don’t-open-the-door, deliciously frightening way. But, especially when spooky stories deal with ghosts and hauntings, they always have a deeper layer of meaning that venture into subjects like death, moving on, living life to the fullest, and what it means to really be “alive.” These are all subjects that kids wonder about and often have a hard time discussing because adults don’t always know what to say about them. The great thing about middle grade ghost stories is that they’re safe places for kids to explore these topics – they allow kids to dip their toes in the heavier stuff while they’re still floating on that cushion of surface-level, spine-tingling fun stuff.
What are your favorite spooky stories that you’ve read?
Recently, I’ve really enjoyed GHOST SQUAD (by Claribel Ortega), GREENGLASS HOUSE (by Kate Milford), GLOOM TOWN (by Ronald L. Smith) and THE TOTAL ECLIPSE OF NESTOR LOPEZ (by Adrianna Cuevas). While I was writing this book I also re-watched a lot of old, classic scary movies like The Shining, Poltergeist, Halloween, and The Haunted Mansion – in fact, a lot of my secondary character names ended up coming from those movies!
Have you ever seen a ghost in real life?
I have never seen a ghost in real life. My Gram used to see them with some regularity and at various points in my life, I’ve worried that I might have inherited this talent of hers. But I’m turning 40 this year and it hasn’t happened yet, so I think I’m safe. Thank goodness! As much as I love literary ghosts, I know I’d be absolutely terrified if I ever encountered the real thing.
I love the cover too! This book actually has illustrations throughout – they (and the cover) are all the work of a talented artist named Jane Pica. I LOVE the way she captured the personalities of the characters.
And yes, let’s meet them! On the bottom left we have Willow – Willow’s family owns the Hotel Ivan (which everybody is standing in front of). Evie, the other point of view character, is on the bottom right, wearing her “Spooky Little Girl” outfit (which the Hauntery forces her to wear and which she hates with every fiber of her being). Above the girls are some of the Hotel Ivan’s resident ghosts. Going clockwise (starting above Willow’s head), we’ve got: Molly the Headless Horsewoman (she frequently loses her head), Alford (a WW1 veteran who wears his uniform when he’s nervous), Leonata (a drag performer who is married to Alford. When she’s not in drag, she’s Leopold, a former opera singer and the Ivan’s resident Terrifying Phantasm). Bree (the Ivan’s Social Media Coordinator, whose dream is to open her own photography studio). And right at the bottom between Willow and Evie is Cuddles, the Hotel Ivan’s resident ghost dog.
Do you have a spooky craft or recipe to share?
I do! If you’ve been anywhere near my Instagram, you probably noticed that I like to bake. I always try and find a way to sneak baked goods or other recipes into my books. In THE SECOND-BEST HAUNTED HOTEL ON MERCER STREET it was pretty easy – there are actually two other Ivan ghosts who I haven’t mentioned yet (who aren’t on the cover): Antonia, the Ivan’s Head Chef and her niece, Francesca, a Chef-in-Training. They make a number of interesting dishes throughout the story (including one, very memorable dinner party menu). But my favorite, and probably the best one to pass along, is the recipe for the chocolate chip scones they bake for the lobby. This recipe is adapted from one of my all-time favorite scones recipes in The National Trust Book of Scones (by Sarah Clelland).
THE HOTEL IVAN’S CHOCOLATE CHIP SCONES
(Adapted from The National Trust Book of Scones by Sarah Clelland)
16 oz self-rising flour
4 oz butter, cubed
3 oz caster sugar (or granulated sugar if you don’t have caster)
4 oz chocolate chips (plus more to snack on while baking)
1 egg, beaten
200 ml whole milk
Pre heat oven to 400 degrees.
Sift the flour. Rub in the cubed butter with your fingertips or a pastry blender until it resembles fine crumbs. Stir in the sugar and the chocolate chips.
Add the egg and mix in almost all of the milk (saving a little bit to brush on top of the scones before baking) to make a soft dough.
Knead the dough lightly on a floured surface until it just comes together. Press the dough out with the palms of your hands until it’s about an inch thick then stamp out the scones with a small round biscuit cutter. Re-roll the scraps and stamp out more until you run out of dough. (If you prefer triangle scones, then flatten the dough into a large circle and cut the dough, pizza-style.)
Brush the top of the scones with the remaining milk and bake them for 10-15 minutes until they’ve risen and are golden brown on top.
Eat them while they’re warm and melty. Share with your favorite ghosts.
Mmmm. My mouth is already watering. Thank you, Cory, for stopping by Spooky Middle Grade. We can’t wait for your new book!
Samantha M Clark is the award-winning author of the spooky and mysterious middle-grade novel THE BOY, THE BOAT, AND THE BEAST (Paula Wiseman Books/Simon & Schuster). Find her on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram or her website.
Thanks for joining me on Spooky Middle Grade, Q! What made you want to write spooky books for kids?
My family is British, so ghost stories are programmed into my DNA. When I was a child, we moved to Florida and lived on an island in Tampa Bay. There were a few kids about my age on the island. We’d often hang out and trade comics. While my friends picked out Archie or Superman, I forked over my allowance for House of Mystery and Strange Tales. I also loved TV shows such as Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Twilight Zone. It didn’t take long for me to start writing my own stories, which I would share with my friends whether they wanted to hear them or not. A neighborhood mom once complained to my mother that her daughter couldn’t sleep because of my spooky stories. I was sent to my room early that night. My mom crept in later with a bowl of popcorn, and I shared my scary tales with her.
I won my first school writing contest at age nine and my first city-sponsored contest at age eleven. By that time, I was hooked on the horror genre. Swimming Lessons, the opening story in my first Scary Stories for Sleep-Overs book, is based on something spooky that happened on the island when I was a kid.
Can you tell us about some of your recent books?
I write in a variety of genres and age ranges, but my favorite is scary middle grade. My most recent is Spine Chillers: Hair-Raising Tales. There’s no link between them, but Spine Chillers is in the tradition of Scary Stories for Sleep-Overs. It’s a collection of short stories that includes classic ghosts, a monster or two, invented urban legends and one tale that is an homage to The Twilight Zone. The stories are created for reading aloud at a sleep-over or under the covers with a flashlight.
Picture book author Mem Fox once said, “Writing for children is like writing War and Peace in haiku.” I think that describes short stories perfectly. They oblige the writer to develop characters and plot concisely, while still telling a satisfying tale that’s fun to read. I’m currently working on the next collection.
You host the YA and MG days of the Haunted Nights Live podcast. Can you tell us about the podcast and how you got involved?
Thorne & Cross Haunted Nights Live! has been part of the Authors on the Air Global Radio Network since 2014, and it’s one of their top-rated shows. The hosts, legendary horror writers, Tamara Thorne and Alistair Cross, have interviewed many of my favorite adult horror authors and filmmakers. I was thrilled when they decided to expand the show to include books for younger readers and invited me to join them as MG/YA host. I have a lot of wiggle room when it comes to guests, so I also cover mystery, fantasy, and science fiction. It’s a wonderful opportunity to chat with the authors of books and films I admire. The show can take some surprising turns, and it’s always fun and illuminating.
Tamara and I are close friends. We started chatting at a book signing some twenty years ago and haven’t stopped talking since. We occasionally take road trips together to visit haunted hotels, abandoned buildings, and ghost towns for research. I must admit that Tamara is the brave one and I’m a chicken. When we encounter something a little bit frightening, I’m the first one to the exit.
Why do you think spooky books are important for young readers?
Of course kids have varied likes and dislikes when it comes to reading, but I think spooky books can have many benefits for those who enjoy the genre. Children of all ages deal with tough feelings like anxiety, fear, and uncertainty. Books are a safe way of experiencing a scary situation without any real risk. A scary book gives kids a chance to think through difficult circumstances and build confidence. They can also put the book down if they feel uncomfortable. Scary stories can help children recognize the consequences of making poor choices; like going into that abandoned old house alone! In a very real sense, it empowers kids and can turn reluctant readers into lifelong book lovers. Still, horror for young readers is a balancing act when it comes to age range. What’s scary to a first grader probably seems silly to a fifth grader, so an author has to know the audience well.
What were your favorite spooky books when you were a kid?
When I was a kid, I didn’t read a lot of scary books specifically for children, but I devoured scary comics. On the first Saturday of every month, I’d ride my bike across the bridge to Mr. McKelvey’s drug store to buy a cherry Coke, a Clark Bar and the latest comics.
As far as books, I was first drawn to mysteries and fantasy. I read the Enid Blyton books and Nancy Drew, particularly those with ‘ghost’ or ‘haunted’ in the title. The Chronicles of Narnia was a favorite. Finally I discovered ghost stories by Edith Wharton and H.G Wells. That led to Richard Matheson, Ray Bradbury and Shirley Jackson. The Haunting of Hill House is one of my two favorite books of all time. The other is Animal Farm. Ray Bradbury is my hero. I love his writing style. I had the opportunity to hear him speak once. He was just as wonderful in person. My favorite quote of his is, “We are cups, constantly and quietly being filled. The trick is knowing how to tip ourselves over and let the beautiful stuff out.”
Q. L. Pearce began her career as a writer and editor with Lowell House/ Roxbury Press in Los Angeles. She has since written more than 150 books for children, both fiction and nonfiction. Her published work includes a dozen collections of scary stories and mysteries, such as Scary Stories for Sleepovers and Spine Chillers, as well as film tie-in books for the Fox animated film Titan AE and the Universal animated series Land Before Time. Red Bird Sings, co-authored and illustrated by Gina Capaldi, received the Carter G. Woodson gold medal for nonfiction picture books, the Moonbeam gold medal, and the Eureka silver medal. It has been adapted for the stage by the Ophelia’s Jump Theater Group and performed at the San Gabriel Valley Literary Festival. Q lives in California with her research scientist husband, two very spoiled dogs, a talkative cockatiel, a bevy of fish and a host of wild squirrels who believe her life revolves around delivering their meals.
Readers often tell me my writing is very cinematic and that as they read, they can see the scenes like a movie in their head. I didn’t set out to write in a cinematic way–it’s how I see the story in my head–but it got me thinking about how to make a book memorable like a movie (or, in my made-up word, more movie-able 😉 ).
I studied writing for the stage when I was in college then writing for film while I was working within the entertainment industry while I lived in Los Angeles, many years ago, and the two forms are very different from writing a novel. As a playwright or a screenwriter, your primary focus is story and character. You choose settings, like “Garden” but you don’t design them any more than what is necessary for the plot. And with film, you might offer suggestions of camerawork, like “We pull in on the letter”, but the director and cinematographer determine how that pull in is done, and they can and often do change what’s in the script dramatically. Even the editor can make the flow of a story completely different from what the screenwriter originally intended with a snip of the film–or click of their mouse today.
But writing a novel, you take on every job: You are the location scout, set designer, director, cinematographer, actor, sound technician, visual effects artist, editor… You even get your own craft services (yes, I’m talking about your fridge).
Call me controlling, but there’s something so fun about being able to create on all these different levels while writing a novel. And the more I can do to make my scenes movie-able, the closer I’m getting to what I see in my head.
So, how do I write a scene that reads like a movie? Here are three tips:
Think Like a Cinematographer
Have you ever watched a movie where the scene shows a character hurrying out of the door then the camera pans over to their glasses on the coffee table? We immediately understand what the movie is trying to show us: The character is going to be in big trouble soon because they’ve left behind their glasses and won’t be able to see the danger ahead. In movies, shots will move in close to an object to tell the viewers it’s important, and in novels we can use cameras in the same way.
Imagine you’re writing about a person going to a haunted house for the first time. You might start out by describing the house as the character sees it from the outside (the wide angle shot), then give a bit of foreboding when the character thinks they see a flutter of a curtain in a upstairs window. As they move closer, they see more intimate details, like the grime on the brick, the crushed can hiding under the bushes. Then we move the camera even closer to focus on the scratches on the doorknob and the character’s hand hesitating before they press their palm on it and turn.
Use your descriptions to show wider views of scenes and closeups of important details to pull your readers into the action.
Think Like a Set Designer
Screenwriters can simply put “Int: Living room” to describe the setting of their scene, maybe adding “A large bookcase is against one wall,” if one of the characters will need to use that bookcase in the action of the story. It’s the set designer’s job to dress that set, decide the colors of the walls, whether there are curtains or blinds, whether they’re open or closed, the style of the furnishings, whether they’re new or worn, the artwork that’s hanging on the walls. All these things must show the time period of the story, the economics of the owner, and the taste of the owner, but also support the tone of the scene.
As novelists, we do all that plus we have the added benefit of using the sense of smell to describe a setting. Let’s go back to our character going to the haunted house. Perhaps when they open the door, the stink of stale air slams into them and they step back to take a breath before proceeding through the door. Inside, they notice the peeling flowery wallpaper that hasn’t been in style for thirty years. They walk down the hall and run their fingers over the top of a table against the wall, revealing a thin line in the thick layer of dust. Below their feet, the carpet looks orange, even though under the table it’s still a darker red, plus there’s a line in the center of the hallway that’s threadbare from years of being trodden on.
One caution for novelists here: Just like a set designer will choose a few choice items to standout to signify the mood and/or time, we’ll do the same. We want to describe some big items and some smaller but choose just the right ones that show what we’re trying to get across the best way. We might not include the World’s Best Dad mug that we see sitting on the coffee table if it does nothing to help our readers learn about our characters and world. We don’t want to give every single detail, because we want to leave some for our reader’s imagination. Maybe in their minds, there’s a water bottle on the coffee table or a vase of flowers. Novels are collaborative efforts between the writer and the reader and we want our reader to be able to fully participate by filling in the rest of the set. Give them a few good, solid, specific details so they can start to see that scene in their head, then let them do the rest.
Think Like an Actor
Good directors will tell you that their job is to guide the actor so they can do their best performance. It’s the actor’s job to get across all the nuances of the emotion of the scene through their actions and voice, trusting that viewers will know what it means when they raise one eyebrow while saying, “Really?” To get the best performance, an actor must become the character. They must understand what the character wants in this scene and for the whole story, whether they’re shy around other people, scared or angry.
Novelists must be actors too. We must be able to get into the heads of not just one but ALL of our characters. We must know their motivation, how they move, the nervous ticks they might have and the ways they express themselves. We also need to know why they do all these things and how it affects them. Let’s go back to our haunted house, but this time we’ve got three friends walking down that hallway when suddenly, a cat leaps into their path. Character A screams and runs away. Character B freezes then shakes their hands their hands in front of them like they’re trying to catch their breath. Character C furrows their brow then laughs at their friends. From their reactions we can see their individual personalities without them even saying a word.
Use these tools to make your spooky scenes more movie-able.
Samantha M Clark is the award-winning author of the spooky and mysterious middle-grade novel THE BOY, THE BOAT, AND THE BEAST (Paula Wiseman Books/Simon & Schuster). Find her on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram or her website.
Two of the Spooky Middle Grade authors had new novels published earlier this month, and they’re both within book series. Angie Smibert continues her GHOSTS OF ORDINARY OBJECTS series with the second book LINGERING ECHOES, and Kat Shepherd began the new GEMINI MYSTERIES series with book one, THE NORTH STAR. Writing a series has its own set of unique challenges from writing a stand-alone book, so I asked these two spooky authors to give us some insight into their process.
Angie, tell us about your GHOSTS OF ORDINARY OBJECTS series…
Angie Smibert: The series is a blend of history, mystery, folklore, and magical realism. Set in 1942 in a small coal mining community in Southwest Virginia, GHOSTS centers around Bone Phillips (12) and her family and friends. In the first book, BONE’S GIFT, she discovers she’s coming into her Gift, as her Mamaw calls it. Almost everyone in the Reed/Phillips family has some sort of ability. Bone finds she can, with a touch, see the stories—or ghosts—in ordinary objects. People leave emotional imprints on objects. In the first book, Bone is faced with many changes besides her Gift. Her best friend goes to work in the mines. Her father gets drafted. And she has to go live with her dreaded Aunt Mattie, who does not hold with the Gifts. All the while, Bone needs to learn to use her Gift in order to solve the mystery of what happened to her mother.
How does the story continue in this new book, LINGERING ECHOES?
Angie Smibert: In the new book, Bone is a bit more at ease with her Gift, or at least she’s getting there. This time Bone needs to use her Gift to solve the mystery behind a seemingly haunted or magical jelly jar. Her best friend Will—Silent Will Kincaid—inherited this jar along with his father’s dinner bucket from when he goes to work in the mines. One day, Will hears sounds coming out of the empty jar. In fact, it appears to capture sounds. Bone suspects solving the mystery of the jar might help her get to the bottom of why Will can’t talk. Oh, and this story happens at Halloween!
Oooh, extra spooky! Kat, can you tell us about THE GEMINI MYSTERIES 1: THE NORTH STAR?
Kat Shepherd: THE GEMINI MYSTERIES is an interactive mystery series that follows the adventures of four teenage sleuths. At the end of every chapter is a picture with a clue hidden in it. Each hidden clue leads the detectives onto the next stage of solving the mystery. In Book 1, THE NORTH STAR, twins Zach and Evie and their best friend, Vishal, are hanging out with the twins’ crime reporter mom when she gets a call that a priceless diamond necklace has been stolen just before a charity auction. The friends quickly find themselves right in the middle of a crime scene, and they discover there is no shortage of suspects of who want the necklace for themselves. With the help of new girl Sophia Boyd, the detectives are soon chasing down clues in a race against time to get the necklace back before it’s too late.
Wonderful! Kat, this is the first book in a series. What are the challenges and/or joys of writing a book that’s starting a series?
Kat Shepherd: One of the things I love about starting a new series is getting to build a world for the reader. I love the opportunity to create an immersive experience, figuring out the rules of the world and the intricacies of my characters. And then figuring out how to introduce the reader, deciding what they need to know right now and what can wait. The fun of a series is it’s a slow burn, so you don’t have to tell everyone everything in the first book. Not every question has to be answered. Some things you get to keep for yourself to reveal later.
The challenge of a new series is the other side of the coin. You’re starting from scratch. Everything is new. There’s no shorthand the way there is with later books in a series. You can’t take anything for granted. And you have to build something strong enough in that first book that a whole series can stand on it; you have to create something that makes your readers want to come back for more.
Yes, interesting. Angie, what made you want to write ghost stories?
Angie Smibert: This isn’t precisely a ghost story. (The next book, though, does have a ghost dog in it.) The ghosts that Bone sees are more memories that have left their marks on these objects. Bone loves stories—everything from folktales to movies—as long as they aren’t true. So, of course, I gave her a Gift that she’d hate, seeing real stories in objects. Eventually, she’ll learn that her Gift is to give voice to unheard stories.
But, that being said, I do love ghost stories! I can still remember when my fourth grade teacher told us about the ghost that haunted her childhood home in Alabama. It was the ghost of a young slave girl who’d been killed by her owner for revealing to the Union troops where the household silver was buried. The girl could still be seen walking down the grand stairs and out into yard. She’d disappear precisely where the treasure was buried. So that’s probably when I got hooked on ghost stories.
Wow! Cool story. Kat, we know you love spooky books, because your other series is BABYSITTING NIGHTMARES. How was it different writing this mystery series?
Kat Shepherd: There are lots of similarities between spooky books and mysteries. There are thrills, chills, and suspense in both. Suspense is what keeps the reader turning the pages. You want cliffhangers, you want surprises, you want peril, all that great stuff that keeps the story going. I think the biggest difference between them actually comes with the pre-writing. With spooky stories I have my concept and the basic plot mapped out. I know about where the setpieces will go and how the story will end, but a lot is left to be discovered as I write. I get to play a little, seeing how I can up the spookiness factor or what twists I can add to build suspense or atmosphere. But with mysteries I have to know everything in advance. This is especially true for the interactive mysteries, because every chapter has to lead to a hidden clue. That means I have to know in advance what every clue will be, and I have to know exactly how every scene will play out to lead the characters (and the readers) to the clue. For THE NORTH STAR, I had a 6,000 word outline and color-coded timeline for every major character before I wrote a single word of the story. Because of that, once I finally sat down to write the book, it went very quickly. I knew exactly what was going to happen, and my only job then was getting it down on paper and making it come to life on the page.
That pre-writing can really help. Angie, was it easier or harder to write this second book in the series and why?
Angie Smibert: In some ways, it’s easier because I’ve already established the setting and characters. I don’t need to really do additional world building. But then again, the second book is harder because I still have to introduce the world to new readers—without overdoing it for those who read the first book.
That’s a challenge! Kat, the third BABYSITTING NIGHTMARES is coming out in August, THE TWILIGHT CURSE, then another GEMINI MYSTERIES, THE CAT’S PAW, in December. How does your writing change when you’re working on the second and third books in a series?
Kat Shepherd: What’s challenging about follow-up books in a series is that essentially you have to follow that old Hollywood studio line: “Give me the same, but different.” Readers love series books because they’re familiar and comfortable; they follow certain patterns or have similar themes, and writing a series needs to give that to them but still make it feel fresh. So it’s always a challenge to decide what parts of the patterns to keep and what to change up. For example, in BABYSITTING NIGHTMARES, each book follows a different girl with a different spooky problem; that’s the different part. But other things need to stay consistent, like the rules of the world, the Big Bad in the background, and certain beats, like the girls meeting up for doughnuts and strategy sessions at Kawanna’s costume shop. I want to give readers those familiar beats so the series starts to feel like home to them. What’s really nice about writing second and third books in a series is that by this time you’ve really spent a lot of time with your characters, so you know them well and you know their world. You’ve seen them grow and develop and unfold, so writing the later books is like visiting old friends again. I hope they start to feel like old friends to readers, too!
Oh yes, good tips. Angie, will there be more books in the GHOSTS OF ORDINARY OBJECTS series? What can we look forward to from you?
Angie Smibert: Yes, there’s one more book in the series (so far), called THE TRUCE. I’m working on the revisions right now. Or I should be! Book 3 comes out next March. The story is set at Christmas and involves a body found in the mine, Uncle Ash, a German soldier, and a ghost dog.
Samantha M Clark is the author of THE BOY, THE BOAT, AND THE BEAST (Paula Wiseman Books/Simon & Schuster). A former journalist and editor and constant wonderer, she’s convinced she’ll one-day find the wardrobe that took the Pevensie’s to Narnia. Until then, she’s writing about her own magical worlds. Find out more about Samantha and her books at SamanthaMClark.com.
I love a good mashup. My two favorite T-shirts are mashups, one of The Little Prince and Star Wars and another of Back to the Future and Tin Tin. They’re the best.
What is a mashup? If you haven’t heard of these ingenious things, mashups are where you take two things that aren’t usually together and put them together in a new, unique and wonderful way. Like Star Wars and Snow White, my third favorite T-shirt, where the designer used that classic picture of Snow White surrounded by forest animals and birds and swapped her for Princess Leia in the same pose.
Here’s another: the movie The Nightmare Before Christmas (that’s the movie in the picture above). I love this movie, and this is one of many story mashups that blend different types of stories to make something new, unique and wonderful. In this case, it’s spooky and Christmas and musical. Three types of stories you wouldn’t ordinarily think go together, but if you’ve seen The Nightmare Before Christmas (and if you haven’t, I highly recommend you rush to watch it — after you’ve finished reading this post, of course), you’ll know it is indeed unique and wonderful.
Blending a spooky story with another genre is one of my favorites to write. It keeps the spooky element but also takes it further. Like with my book, THE BOY, THE BOAT, AND THE BEAST, the boy is lost on a mysterious beach where everything is trying to hurt him. That’s the spooky part, but he’s also trying to discover what happened to him, so there’s mystery too. Plus there’s magical elements to the story, so it’s also contemporary fantasy.
Here are some other examples of spooky mashup books:
If you haven’t read these yet, do! They’re fun, and you’ll learn about spooky mashups. Reading is one of the best ways to learn about writing. (Also, all these books are in our Spooky Reading Challenge, so you could win prizes!)
But how can you come up with your own spooky mashup ideas?
For this, I want to borrow from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter world (a series that’s mostly fantasy but also has some spooky). Remember the boggart from HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN? If you don’t, check out the entry on the Harry Potter Fandom wiki. Since boggarts change into your biggest fear, Professor Lupin teaches Harry and his friends that the best way to combat them is to think of something funny so the boggart will be both! Ron Weasley’s biggest fear is a giant spider, so he imagines a spider wearing roller skates. Pretty funny, huh?
This is like mashups. Taking two things that ordinarily wouldn’t go together to come up with something new, unique and wonderful.
You can use this idea to create your own spooky mashup. Step 1: Think of something spooky. Step 2: Think of something that’s very different. It can be something funny, an action you love doing, or a different type of story that you love to read.
For example, say in step 1, you think of werewolves. They’re pretty spooky. Then in step 2, you think of skateboarding.
Now, with the help of a what-if question, you can turn this into a mashup story. What if a kid had the chance to compete in the world’s best skateboarding contest, but the night before he’s bitten by a werewolf? And the contest is at night and during the full moon? And the kid discovers that a group of werewolves are planning to be at the contest to attack everyone in the audience???