Guest Post: Jennifer C. Wilson on Reluctantly Writing a Ghost Story.

Jennifer C. Wilson is a regular guest on this blog as well as a regular attendee of Elementary Writers.

Although she’s the author of ‘Kindred Spirits: Tower of London‘ (which is celebrating its first birthday), Jen’s here to tell us about how a self-confessed scaredy-cat manages to write ghost stories. 

I’m a little worried about how Jen will react when she performs at ‘The Visitation‘ this Saturday night although I actually think she’s tremendously brave for facing her fears. 

To see Jen and other members of Elementary Writers perform original ghost stories and poetry, order your tickets for ‘The Visitation‘ now!

Vic x

Jennifer C. Wilson: The Reluctant Ghost Story Writer

I’m a coward. Anyone who knows me well enough will know that I really am an absolute scaredy-cat. I don’t watch horror films, I don’t particularly like visiting ruined or quiet places in the dark (or even on my own, to be honest), and I don’t read ghost stories. Slightly ironic, then, that the biggest success I’ve ever had as a writer (i.e. the publication of my debut novel), is by having written what? Yup, a ghost story. Although in my defence, I have always categorised ‘Kindred Spirits: Tower of London as ‘a story about ghosts’ rather than ‘a ghost story’. To me, that’s a big difference.

Wandering around the Tower (especially during a freezing February blizzard), my mind was buzzing with the characters who have lived there down the years, either willingly (or decidedly unwillingly), and what stories they would tell. I tried so hard to set a piece of ‘true’ historical fiction there, drawing on the adventures of Anne Boleyn, Katherine Howard and, of course, Richard III, but nothing seemed to work, no stories were crying out to be told. But that was when I was trying to channel the living – the dead, on the other hand, refused to shut up. The notion that Richard and Anne might have plenty in common to chat about really appealed, having been sparked as an idea for a poetry competition. But ghosts? For me? Lonely and creepy dungeons, rooms where people (including possibly children) were tortured and murdered – surely the ghosts of the Tower would be your classic, chain-rattling, terrifying-the-visitors type? I wasn’t sure I could handle that.

Then it struck me. If they were still hanging around, then this little community would have been stuck together, in some cases, for centuries. During that time, surely there would be politics, based either on their thoughts whilst alive, or those which developed in death? There would be arguments over virtually everything, and there would be friendships. And what comes with friendships? Humour. If I could find even the tiniest hint of the petty bickering and raucous laughter which comes with almost any tight-knit group of friends, then maybe this was my way in. Plus, it meant I could work on it after dark, without scaring myself witless!

This is not how I would categorise ‘Followed’, the piece I’m performing as part of ‘The Visitation‘ this Halloween. I was genuinely uncomfortable writing it, and decided part-way through the first draft that it would be a daytime project only. Sad, I know, but I’m already a bad sleeper – there’s no way I was working on that in the dark…

But, I believe in pushing myself, and trying new things, so I’ve made it to the end, and after a couple of rewrites, hopefully it will go down ok, if a little lighter than some of the pieces you’ll hear on the night. After all, if the coward can find success with a ghost story, surely a werewolf is a piece of cake?

About ‘Kindred Spirits: Tower of London

A King, three Queens, a handful of nobles and a host of former courtiers…
In the Tower of London, the dead outnumber the living, with the likes of Tudor Queens Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard rubbing shoulders with one man who has made his way back from his place of death at Bosworth Field to discover the truth about the disappearance of his famous nephews.

Amidst the chaos of daily life, with political and personal tensions running high, Richard III takes control, as each ghostly resident looks for their own peace in the former palace – where privacy was always a limited luxury.

With so many characters haunting the Tower of London, will they all find the calm they crave?

Jennifer is a marine biologist by training, who developed an equal passion for history whilst stalking Mary, Queen of Scots of childhood holidays (she has since moved on to Richard III). She completed her BSc and MSc at the University of Hull, and has worked as a marine environmental consultant since graduating.
Enrolling on an adult education workshop on her return to the north-east reignited Jennifer’s pastime of creative writing, and she has been filling notebooks ever since. In 2014, Jennifer won the Story Tyne short story competition, and also continues to work on developing her poetic voice, reading at a number of events, and with several pieces available online. Her debut novel ‘Kindred Spirits: Tower of London‘ was published by Crooked Cat Publishing in October 2015.

You can find Jennifer on Facebook and Twitter.

Guest Post: Martyn Taylor on Ghosts

Today on the blog, writer Martyn Taylor is on the blog to talk about ghosts. Martyn read at the inaugural North East Noir at the Bar in Newcastle in June and since then has been a regular at Elementary Writers workshops. 

You can join Martyn and other members of Elementary Writers for original ghost stories and poetry on Saturday, 5th November at Tynemouth Volunteer Life Brigade’s Watch House for ‘After Dark’. Email to book your seats. 

Thanks to Martyn for this very interesting post. 

Vic x


Martyn Taylor on Ghosts.

I make no bones about it.  I am a Shakespeare fan.  As far as I am concerned, anything that needs to be said about the human condition has already been said, by him, and better than we can ever hope to do (not that it will ever stop us trying). The English language is packed with aphorisms taken from his writing.  The one that concerns me here is ‘There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamed of in your philosophy’ (Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 5). Hamlet is, of course, talking about the ghost of his father, but to me this simple statement applies to everything, our lives, our society, our planet, our universe.  The more we discover, the more we realise there is yet to discover.  In an effectively infinite universe, as we understand it today, we humans have hardly scratched the surface much less dug down to deep and meaningful levels.

Hamlet spoke of a ghost.  Ghosts, so far as I can tell, are universal in human societies, at least until recently.  Let me say that I do not believe in ghosts.  In scientific terms they are like a faster than light drive, something devoutly to be wished but beyond our comprehension now.  That statement may not apply next week.  But I do not believe in ghosts, which is not to say there may not be echoes of individual human spirits that persist after physical death, possibly even the spirits of societies.  I have not been presented with any evidence that convinces me about this the way evidence about gravity and quarks does.

Yet I have ‘met’ two ‘ghosts’.

One was at our local church on Easter Sunday several years ago.  When the time came to offer a sign of peace, a young girl in the pew in front turned around and smiled at me.  I knew instantly she was our daughter, Lucy, who was stillborn.  I heard her say ‘Be at peace, I am’.  My heart hasn’t broken over her death since then.  Now I know there are all sorts of psychological explanations.  I may well have imagined her just to fulfil the wish that had tormented me for fourteen years and more.  Nobody else in our party saw her.  I suspect most ghostly encounters have their genesis in such need, and I have not sought any further contact – I talk to myself more than enough anyway – unlike my mother and her sister, both of whom frequented spiritualist churches, somewhere you will need wild horses to get me.

The other encounter was completely different.  It was the day of my elder brother’s wedding, which was being held from our house rather than Amanda’s parents’ (I had no idea of the reasons then and am not going to rehearse them here).  It was just before tea time and while the grown-ups were doing whatever it was grown-ups did, I was kicking a ball against the garage door.  A middle-aged man came in through the front gate.  Even I could tell that the suit he wore under the tightly belted gabardine raincoat was old-fashioned (what I later came to know was a Demob Suit).  This was late summer, and nobody needed to wear a raincoat.  He was tallish with thinning fair hair and an almost invisible Clark Gable moustache.  I had no idea who he was and had never seen him before.

‘Do the Taylors live here?’ he asked.  I nodded.  Just then the ball rolled off the garage roof and began to bounce towards some flowers.  I turned to catch it, not wanting to risk Mam’s displeasure. When I turned back, he was gone.  The only sign he had ever been there was that the front gate was open.  Mam was most particular about the front gate being kept closed at all times.  Eventually I got bored and hungry, and went inside.  After a while, I had to tell my story.  As I described the man all the colour left Auntie Lilian’s face.  When I was finished she produced a cracked and crazed black and white photo from her handbag.  Was that the man?  Yes, it was.  The man was her husband, Bert, who had been dead a good decade and whom I had never met, or if I had met him I had no memory of it because I would have been about three at the time of his death.  Tea was rapidly served after that and nobody made any mention of the encounter to me ever again.

As I say, I have a ready explanation for my encounter with Lucy.  I’m too imaginative for my own good.  As for my encounter with Uncle Bert… well, there may have been subconscious triggers but I have not found them yet.  I cannot explain it.  The rationalist in me would like a rational explanation for it while the writer in me wants it to be what it seemed to be.

Which brings me back to Shakespeare, and there being more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in any of our philosophies never mind a courtier called Horatio in Denmark’s medieval royal palace.  And we do so like our ghost stories, don’t we?


Guest Post: Gill Hoffs on the Collywobbles

Gilll Hoffs has been a guest on this blog many times before and it’s always a pleasure to have her guesting for us. 

Today, in the wake of her second book being published, Gill shares with us the nerves related to the release. Thanks to Gill for being so honest about this topic. 

Vic x


Killing your collywobbles: how to handle the release of your next book.
By Gill Hoffs.

My second shipwreck book has just come out and while I’m delighted to have 18 months’ work come to fruition, I also feel kinda sick about it.  With my first book, The Sinking of RMS Tayleur: The Lost Story of the ‘Victorian Titanic’” (Pen & Sword, 2014, 2015), everything was new and exciting and the only way was up.  As a relatively unknown author writing about a long forgotten shipwreck, I could reason with myself that whatever I did was an improvement on the status quo and no matter what, my research and writing would raise awareness of the people involved and help memorialise them – so whether my book was a success or not, it was something.  And something is better than nothing.


But fast forward two and a half years from that first book’s release and you’ll find me fretting, full of excitement mixed with fear.  My Tayleur book has been in national newspapers, on TV and the radio, and led to trips to Ireland, the wreck site, and to meet descendants of people involved.  It’s been wild and I’ve loved every second of it but – and it’s a big BUT – this means the stakes are raised, considerably, for Book 2.

The Lost Story of the William & Mary: The Cowardice of Captain Stinson (Pen & Sword, 2016) came out in September and although the advance reviews and feedback so far has been great, I still feel queasy with nerves.  What if no-one reads it or likes it? What if, what if, what if… Many of you reading this have felt (or will feel) the same with your own second book or subsequent title, so here’s a list of things which have helped me through the summer and will hopefully help you too.

Do add suggestions in the comments section – killing collywobbles is a work in progress!

  • Keep lists in a project book of precisely what you’re doing to promote your book, e.g. a section on reviews (who approached, when, yes/no, what site or publication, etc.), interviews, articles, talks/signings. When you’re panicking and struggling to sleep you can look at all the positive steps you’re taking to get your book out there and noticed, and rest easier knowing that this is in hand and still to come.  Of course, this only works if you have put effort into promotion…
  • Remind yourself that people who enjoyed your first book are now rooting for you. They want your new book to be great, they want to love it, and they will come at your new title with a positive state of mind.  Make the most of connections made during your research or via your first book, keep in touch with readers and reviewers and if you can send them something extra (not a bribe, think bookmarks, pens etc.) then do so.  Don’t point out to them what you’re unsure of in your work, or otherwise try to put them off it – most people get the jitters and that’s no reason to sabotage yourself (and your publisher).
  • Celebrate every little thing to do with your new book. Enjoy the ride!  You’ve earned it!

Gill Hoffs is the author of Wild: a collection (Pure Slush, 2012), The Sinking of RMS Tayleur: The Lost Story of the ‘Victorian Titanic’” (Pen & Sword, 2014, 2015), The Lost Story of the William & Mary: The Cowardice of Captain Stinson (Pen & Sword, 2016), and hundreds of short stories and articles.  She lives in Warrington, England, and can be contacted via email and on twitter.

Guest Post: Dawn Tindle on Literary Prizes

I’m not sure how I first came into contact with Dawn Tindle, the brains behind Book & Brew, but this year we’ve bumped into each other at countless book events and I like to think we’ve become bookish friends.  Dawn’s dedication to literature is really inspiring and I love the articles she posts on her site.

Here’s Dawn sharing her thoughts on literary prizes. Thanks to Dawn for being involved today.

Vic x


Literary prizes: are they for readers or for authors?
By Dawn Tindle

The literary calendar is full of prizes honouring the great and good of the book world. From specialist awards to international accolades, prizes recognise authors who push the boundaries of literature to create new narratives for their generation. But, who are they really for? The reader or the author?

Books and brews

My book group, Book and Brew, started in January 2015 and we’ve met every last Sunday of the month since in Pink Lane Coffee. We started as five but have grown to seven. We huddle around the distressed (hipster) table with our favourite brews (they range from Americano to white hot chocolate) and (not so) healthy breakfasts (red velvet cake, croissants, bagels, sometimes toast) to discuss our latest read.

We are fairly like-minded when it comes to our taste in books but there is always a lively discussion about the text in hand. Would we read something by the author again? What did we learn from it? Did this book stay with us long after we had read it? Did the author keep us gripped or did we finish just because we had a book club deadline? All valid questions that get their fair share of the typically two-hour debate.

Meeting monthly has helped us all hone our critical skills. Sharing our thoughts on the books is a really valuable experience, both in terms of developing our own confidence in shaping and presenting our ideas, and because we get to consider the book from a different perspective with every comment offered by our members.

We didn’t know it, but the last year of reading and reviewing was training for some pretty import roles to come.


Becoming official readers

The Reading Agency is a fabulous charity that promotes the joy of a good book. They have a fantastic website called Reading Groups for Everyone that has resources, competitions and reviews to inspire and support book clubs. I registered Book and Brew with the site very early on and still use it to source freebies from publishers keen to get book clubs’ opinions on their latest titles (check out the noticeboard section if you’ve not already – it’s a hidden gem for review copies of books).

So, when I saw a feature on the site asking for book clubs to shadow the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction I signed us up. There’s nothing to lose, right? There’ll be loads of clubs entering so little old us up in Newcastle won’t have a look in, will we?

Well, we bloomin’ did. I got an email in May to say we’d been chosen as one of only 12 groups in the country to shadow the prize, and would receive a box full of The Portable Veblen to review. Sweet!


Our Baileys gig was so successful that we were picked again in August to shadow none other than the Man Booker Prize 2016, one of (if not the most) prestigious literary prize of the year. This time we were one of six clubs to be selected. Not bad, eh?

We were clearly doing something right. But what was it?

Hashtags, retweets and online stalking

The role of a shadow judging group is to read your given book prior to the prize announcement. Each member of the club reads the book, shares their thoughts on social media and then we all get together to discuss our views on the novel before logging our reviews on the Reading Groups for Everyone website. Using the prize hashtags and Twitter handles means you get attention from all kinds of people who are also following the prize, and you get to join conversations with bookworms you didn’t even know existed.

If you follow me on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram you’ll know I’m obsessed with taking pictures of books next to an assortment of hot beverages, as well as pretty book stuff in general. So is the rest of the book club, and our social media feeds during shadowing duties are packed with pictures, quotes, comments and content about the book.

It’s this passion for books that keeps getting us shadowing roles. We are utterly thrilled if an author likes our tweets – there is something magical (and quite meta) about the author of the book you’re reading knowing you’re reading it. It’s even more exciting when they read our reviews and thank us for commenting on their work. Reviewing someone’s book is not easy – especially when you know how much of an author’s heart and soul goes into their writing – so it’s nerve-wracking to produce a critique you know the author, their publisher, The Reading Agency and anyone else following the prize could see. But, so far, all of our comments have been received gracefully. Phew!

We’re not professional reviewers, and we’re not analysing the books to examine which ideologies they purport or what faction of the literary cannon they are subverting or supporting. We just give honest reviews. We love books – they sustain us, entertain us and enrich us – and we’ll shout very loudly about the ones we admire.

Does it really matter?

With every book prize comes the inevitable media coverage about their worth. Do we still need a women-only prize in the 21st century? Yes, if you look at the divide between the number of titles commissioned by female and male writers.
Is it just a marketing tool to increase the sales of the big publishers? Yes, sometimes but the little guys are increasingly getting their share of  the pie.
Are they just pretentious, back-patting events for the London literati? They can be but that’s changing, too.

I recently attended the announcement of the Gordon Burn Prize on the first night of this year’s Durham Book Festival. The nominees sat patiently on the stage for the Q&A and were asked by the chair whether literary prizes are important. The room went silent. No one answered. A few of them shuffled nervously in their seats, swapped over their crossed legs, recrossed their arms. Seconds felt like minutes as not one of the authors said anything. Then the room burst into laughter. I wasn’t sure if the authors were being very British in their modest reluctance to extol the virtues of being elevated above their peers, or if they were genuinely struggling to answer the question. Obviously, saying prizes don’t matter when you’re at a prize-giving event would not go down well, but the fact that none of them were forthcoming with a positive response really made me think about the prize process.

Some authors will lap up the attention, while others will shy away from it. Sales will rocket until the prize is announced when they’ll slowly trickle back down the charts. The prize winner will have their fifteen minutes (or two-book deal) of fame while the shortlisted nominees go back to their writing desks. It’s all part and parcel of any process in which only a few writers and books are selected for attention above the thousands of others printed in the same year.

Whether an author views prize giving as prestigious or painful, I guess, is up to them and their level of comfort in the spotlight. What I do know, however, is that book prizes are a wonderful thing for readers. And shadow judging them is even more special.

We’ve read more books than ever (we usually try to get through the full shortlist before the prize is announced), we’ve talked to more authors than before, we’ve engaged with more bookworms than we ever thought possible, and we’ve been retweeted by publishers countless times. We’ve become better reviewers, more confident in our critiques, and our debates are more eloquent and considered.

Our experience as shadow judges and the response from the nominees at the Gordon Burn Prize leads me to one conclusion: literary prizes may be enjoyed more by readers than by authors.


Guest Post: Rob Walton on Challenging Yourself.

When I put a call out for performers to volunteer to write original ghost stories for ‘The Visitation‘ , I received a message from Rob Walton. Last year, our performance at The Cumberland Arms – ‘Blood from the Quill’ – featured three guests and they went down a storm so I was very keen to have more ‘guest performers’ (i.e. people who may not necessarily be regular attendees of Elementary Writers).

Rob’s taken time out today to talk to us about the challenge of writing – then reading – an original ghost story. Thanks, Rob! 

Vic x


So I’ve taken a year out of teaching commitments to do more writing and creative projects. So I see a tweet about the Old Low Light in North Shields, a great local venue I’ve recently visited.  So there’s a hint of some Hallowe’en writing/reading shenanigans.  So here I am, in the same month as the event and with my story almost finished.  So I need to work on some Sentence Openers  (‘SO’ for short).

I wanted to take part in the event for various reasons.  I’d never written a ghost story and had absolutely no idea if I could.  I really liked the venue and it’s very local (I’ve got a chance of running home if I get too scared).  I like being part of evenings with other writers, sharing work and experiences.  I hadn’t actually completed a short story for a long time, finding myself writing flash fictions as ever, and more and more poetry for both adults and children.

How to start?  Well, when I was teaching very small people I’d often bang on about listening and talking coming before reading coming before writing coming before rejection from your best friend’s poetry magazine.  I had copies of ‘Phantoms at the Phil’, Volumes 1,2 and 3 on the shelf, so I pulled out all the stops and took one down.  Then I read it.  Then I realised I could at least have a go, if only the dead bloke in the corner would give me my pen back.

I’d previously had an idea for something with a specific local setting using a specific song, so I tried it and got somewhere.  This was followed by a certain amount of research – some online and some walking the mean streets of Shields.  For the latter, what I actually did was collect my nine-year-old daughter from school in the car (I was trying to raise the spectre of global warming) and drive along, stopping every so often for her to write down details.  Apologies if you were driving behind us, but we’ve all got to suffer for my art.

As I wrote I discovered that my original idea for using a song wasn’t the right fit so it, along with much of the research, wasn’t used – but it was important in getting me to that stage.  The final choice of song made much more sense and helped me make progress, and the whole thing started to come together.

I’ve really enjoyed writing it, and now only need to fill my pen with the right blood group for the last few edits.

Guest Post: Bernie Steadman on Writing Groups

Bernie Steadman is our guest on the blog today. Bernie is here to talk to us about writing groups. 

Obviously, as the facilitator of two regular groups, I am an advocate of writing groups. But don’t take my word for it – have a read of what Bernie has to say.

Thanks to Bernie for taking the time to write this piece for us.

Vic x

Bernie Steadman

Bernie Steadman on Doing it together (an antidote to the loneliness of the long-distance writer. 

It can be a lonely business, writing. At some point the avoidance tactics have to stop, the bottom gets attached to the chair, fingers flex and the process of creating a new story begins. You settle into long hours teasing out the plot twists and fleshing out the characters.

It’s easy, however, to fall prey to doubts when you are alone for so long with only a screen or notebook. Is it any good, or is it total rubbish? Even worse, you read a brilliant book and want to throw yours at the wall.  Support was needed. I tried several ways to build it; a local writers’ group which meets regularly, an on-line community, and attending as many writing festivals as I can afford.

I belong to Bow Wharf Writers. We meet in the back room of Art Tea Zen in Langport, Somerset.


Regular critiques from the members and having to do ‘homework’ or plan and lead a session are invaluable in keeping me fresh and open to new ideas. I started writing short stories and poems; things I hadn’t done since school. We read and critique each other’s work, find stimuli to get us writing during the session, and enjoy days out in places with a bit of atmosphere to spark our creativity.


A few of us finding inspiration in the history of Bridgwater.
Also enjoyable are the twice-yearly ‘Ways with Words’ evening which form part of the Langport and Ilminster Litfests. It can be challenging for writers to stand up and read their own work aloud, but it’s an invaluable skill to develop.

Reading an extract from Death and Deception

When I first started writing I joined the Word Cloud, an on-line writing community that takes particularly good care of new writers. On there I could submit short pieces, and learn the language of critique, as we were all expected to comment on other writers’ work. I had to learn how to give criticism fairly, and to receive it graciously (yes, that was hard…)

In the meantime I was working so hard on drafting and re-drafting my first crime novel. Writers’ Workshop (parent company of Word Cloud) offered an on-line ‘Self-Edit your novel’ course, so I signed up for that, and learnt a huge amount. After applying the skills learnt on the course to the first novel, I can honestly say writing the second one was a lot more straightforward. Not easier, of course…

So, five years after starting to write seriously, Death and Deception, which took two years to complete and was rejected six times, was signed up by independent publisher Bloodhound Books (never give up!). They are about to publish the second in the series, Death and the Good Son on December 6th, and I’m already getting butterflies.

Death and Deception

Do look in your local area for writers’ groups and go along and see what they do. Take care to find one which is serious about writing, but not full of its own self-importance. You need to feel able to experiment there, to challenge yourself… and to fail. A supportive group will enable all that, and you may well find some good friends and the support you need.

Bernie taught English for many years but only dabbled in short fiction and poetry.  She completed her debut novel, Death and Deception, when she escaped the classroom and could finally stop marking essays.

Death and Deception was the first in a series featuring DI Dan Hellier and his Exeter-based team. She has also completed the second, Death and The Good Son, which will be published by Bloodhound Books on 6th December 2016.

Bernie lives in a small village in East Devon with her husband and two cats. She is a Trustee of the Ferne Animal Sanctuary and a keen practitioner of Iyengar yoga. Regular application of cake and coffee may also feature in her writing lifestyle.