What does a productive day of writing look like to you? Are there any changes you made that helped you become more productive?
I deal with a lot with side effects after going through chemotherapy a few years ago. I wake up every morning feeling hungover. By the time I’m well enough to write it’s afternoon. I don’t have the luxury to believe in writer’s block. Steven Pressfield’s books War of Art and Turing Pro both helped me get past any of that. I keep trying to be healthier too. I think people underestimate the power of nutrition and exercise. Everything is interrelated in our body and mind. You’d be surprised how many successful writers have dogs they walk daily. I can’t have a dog where I live, but I make sure to get out and get the blood flowing through my body. I think a lot of young writers start out sharp, but then slowly lose their edge due to physical negligence. The healthier I am, the stronger my mind is.
Do you have any tips for writers trying to promote a finished or nearly finished work?
I think a lot of people make the mistake of trying to promote themselves directly. Build your social media network and your blog followers, but not in a way that’s sales focused. Find people that reciprocate and are supportive and support them back. I’ve never asked anyone directly – even family – to buy my work or retweet any of my posts (other than recent giveaways). Instead, I share what’s interesting and read and like other people’s posts. It’s not all about me. I also go to other author’s readings and signings without expecting anything in return. Networking this way got me a book deal. I was able to put followers, post hits, readers, likes, etc. in the book proposal I gave my publisher to show that people were interested in my work and that I could promote a published book if given the opportunity. Today, you need to market your own writing. It’s not easy. If you don’t have the means to do it you’re in trouble. Publishers know this and want to see that you’re ready. Good writing isn’t enough. You’re a salesperson. Public speaking is a must.
I believe Twitter is misunderstood and underutilized by Canadian writers. It takes a while to build a presence, but it’s a powerful tool. That being said, I dedicate a small portion of my day to social media and then sign off. I’ve got writing to do. It’s rare for me to share a #nowwriting post. How can I be writing if I’m on Twitter or Instagram?
A final thing is that I value anyone who reads my work. I try to sign books with a sentence or two saying thank you. I’m nothing without readers and other people who helped me along the way. If you write like I do, you know you’re always going to keep writing. You’ll never stop. It’s not an easy road. I remember when I first posted online I would get one or two readers for some posts and I was happy. Now, I think about posts that have gotten thousands and try to remember that they’re the same people, coming in ones and twos, there are just more of them. Gratitude is everything.
"If you write like I do, you know you’re always going to keep writing. You’ll never stop. It’s not an easy road."
One reviewer’s editor made her review less favourable by adding sections to what she had written. He compared me to an author from the eighties who described himself as a “wizard exorcist.” This editor insinuated my book was no different than his for real. He did this using another author’s name, not his own. He had never even read my book. There isn’t a single similarity between my work and this other guy’s books, which included spells and such. The editor then only allowed her to publish the review online but not in their print version, which is widely circulated. I’m a veteran. I’ve won awards for my writing. I’ve been recognized multiple times in my previous career for various criminal arrests and large dollar recoveries. I might be a lot of things, but I’m not a wizard or an exorcist. For strategic reasons, I had to accept the review and say nothing, even to her, though clearly I was able to figure out what happened as I was confused. The industry is rife with nepotism. There are a lot of politics.
"The industry is rife with nepotism. There are a lot of politics."
Readers really liked The Haunting of Vancouver Island though, which is why it has done so well. Even academics who gave it a chance have contacted me to say they liked my approach to the subject. It’s being carried in museums all over the island. To me, this is a huge win. The Haunting of Vancouver Island is also being sold in a lot of First Nations galleries. I’m honoured by that. Most ghost books are really just white settler stories or sensationalized scary non-white ghosts. Some authors even call Indigenous content “myth” when it’s in the same collection as white stories. Many people approach this subject with old fashioned thinking. How can a title claim to be about a geographical area but really just be about the white settler ghosts? Yet, some of the First Nations ghost stories I’ve been told are my favourite. There is more of an acceptance of the spirit world in First Nations culture. If I die tomorrow, I’ll be most proud to have written something that honours all Vancouver Island residents.
"If I die tomorrow, I’ll be most proud to have written something that honours all Vancouver Island residents."
One more negative thing is that since The Haunting of Vancouver Island has been published I’ve had a lot of content stolen – other authors and online writers telling stories from my book without attributing them. News stations around Halloween too. This doesn’t happen with any other nonfiction subject I know of, like cooking books, journalism, or photography. After being published, I joined the Writer’s Union of Canada. I think appropriation of writers’ works needs to be shut down. The problem with ghost stories is that writers present the stories as fact – nonfiction – yet because the stories are not being treated as folklore or in a cultural context they’re actually being stolen and repackaged, either from a kid on the street, a community, or another author. It’s theft. When the story is embellished – made scarier for profit or ghost tours – it’s a type of folklore fraud that is only now starting to be called out all over the world. Some authors have been rewriting history for their own gain, when they claim someone was murdered somewhere when it never happened, or have made unfounded accusations of sexuality or abuse committed by an actual deceased person (amazing what psychics conveniently come up with). It bleeds into historic records sometimes. There are several examples I found on Vancouver Island. Plus, the slandered dead often have living family members. Like I said, the subject is not well respected. A lot of authors try hard then have their work stolen and repackaged. Other use psychics to say whatever they want. As soon as a psychic is involved, it’s not folklore or nonfiction even. It’s religion. That distinction needs to be made clearer when the book is packaged by the publisher.
You draw a lot from local lore and history in your work. Do you have any advice for other history hunters in terms of where to dig up good stories?
Talk to people and be respectful. The most valuable stories are first-hand accounts. Learn how to research too. There are a lot of gems out there. One of my favourite accounts in The Haunting of Vancouver Island came from a published academic paper. It’s a more contemporary First Nations story about a cannibal spirit who shapeshifts between a giant snake and a beautiful woman. The source is clearly stated in the book. Both the author of the paper and the Elder the paper was citing.
I volunteered at the Nanaimo museum while I was still sick but before I returned to university. This is where I learned a lot about researching history. For years, I was an investigator of property crimes as I’ve mentioned already. There are similarities between putting together a criminal case and piecing together history. People who are good at either one learn to love the chase. There’s actually a rush when you piece some of these stories together.
"Talk to people and be respectful. The most valuable stories are first-hand accounts."
Could you offer any tips on what goes into making a story scary? And is there anything that people get wrong about trying to be scary?
For nonfiction, building trust by being as honest as possible makes those uncanny accounts more terrifying, especially when you begin to realize that people from every culture in history have claimed to have had these experiences. Due to social norms, there’s an inaccurate but widespread belief that promotes the idea that science disputes that people have these experiences. It does not. When we realize the phenomena of seeing ghosts is real, then we can decide if these are spirits of the dead or if there is another explanation, maybe something more academically digestible. To me, honest accounts are what separates children’s stories from unsettling stay-awake-all-night reads.
For fiction, pacing is important. You should give someone’s imagination a lot to work with, using as few words as possible when describing the entity or creature involved. The least scary stories to me are those where the being is over described. The reader should be offered a glance and then be forced to turn away. Part of what they’ve been shown will linger: It might be the reflective surface of its head, the pitch darkness of its eyes, or the way it twitches when it walks. These moments are critical. The rest of the story is just circling these few sentences so craft these scene carefully. Whenever a creature or ghost starts to have dialogue in a story I’m finished. Think about the scariest vampire or werewolf stories. The less human they are the better. They should not be logical. We’re talking about scares here. I know there’s a market for supernatural romance, but that won’t keep you up at night.
"The least scary stories to me are those where the being is over described.
What is next for you creatively? Do you have another project on the go?
I’m working on several projects. I’ve been collecting more folklore, but I don’t want this to be my next published book as I already feel like I’ve been pigeonholed a bit as someone who just writes about ghosts. I’ve also been labeled a nonfiction writer.
I self published a book a few years ago called Way of the Wraith,which is a prequel to many stories I’ve written that are set in a fictional world of ghosts and mythical beings. The sequel, Shadow Empire, is mostly finished. This world is a lot of fun for me to write. Basically, the afterlife is worse than anyone imagines. It’s a brutal place where ghosts are consumed as food or enslaved. Warriors who have fallen in battle have been recruited as soldiers for the Kingdom of Heaven for thousands of years. The society is a caste system of the haves and the have-nots, it’s psychotically violent, male-dominated, and white supremacist. The protagonists are the outlaw spirits. Many of them are just as bad as the agents of the Kingdom of Heaven, but there are also those who are damaged but good, who would like to see a wide-spread resistance. Multiple spirits play both sides. Most of the old gods are dead or became a part of the Kingdom centuries ago. You might appreciate that Odin still exists on his own due to a war treaty. Many suspect him of aiding outlaws.
The main nonfiction piece I’m working on is a memoir about my tour to Afghanistan, return with cancer, and how hard it has been to reintegrate into society. The side effects of chemo have been brutal to deal with, but that’s how I ended up going back to school for writing. I feel like I have to share my experiences because a lot of people have preconceived ideas about Afghanistan based on Hollywood or whatever. I also think my story might be interesting for anyone who has gone through hard times. I never gave up even though many people gave up on me. A lot of good came out of my challenges in the end, but I’ve been in some dark places. It’s probably why my writing’s so dark.
"A lot of good came out of my challenges in the end, but I’ve been in some dark places.
Where can we find more about you and your work?
My site livinglibraryblog.com is a hub for my writing and social media channels. There’s a lot of free content available for anyone interested in dark folklore as well as updates about upcoming projects.
Find Shanon’s book The Haunting of Vancouver Island here.
Joshua Gillingham is a Canadian author from Nanaimo, BC. He writes Norse fantasy, Celtic songs, and non-fiction essays about writing craft.