Free In Its Entirety For The First Time: Ghost Tour Story
The ghost tour story was the cover piece for the Halloween 2009 issue. You can see the cover art here, and buy a copy of the whole issue if you’re so inclined. It’s weird, in a good way, to remember that I once appeared in a table of contents alongside Mike Resnick and Gregory Benford, but there you see it.
Man, I had fun writing that story.
When I’d just left academia to work on the (now trunked) Big Book, my first attempt to get my professional feet under me was the weekend version of Orson Scott Card’s writing boot camp. This was before he became almost as well known for saying problematic things about LGBT people as he is for writing fiction. I had read a lot of his short stories when I was in my teens, and revisited them before I went to his boot camp — they hold up impressively well. It was a mixed experience. On the one hand, Card’s classroom persona was deeply humane and generous. On the other hand, he had such a chip on his shoulder about academia that, when he made offhand comments intended to encourage the kinds of students he most often gets, he conveyed to me that my Ph.D. in English was a huge liability, and for a couple of years afterward I had the impression that I must never mention it among writing and publishing professionals in my chosen genre. Whatever. I got over it.
Anyhow, Card gave some wonderful writing assignments, the centerpiece of which was to spend at least three hours wandering in the nearest town and come back with several story ideas. We were to talk to whatever locals would talk to us, look at everything we could look at without getting arrested, and produce more good starts to stories than we would probably use. I found a local bar, not yet open at one in the afternoon, whose waitress stood smoking on the front step. She let me in to look around when I told her what I was up to.
“So, anything happen here that belongs in a work of fiction?”
“Well, we have a ghost in the attic,” she said. “Ellie, from the Civil War. I’ve never seen her, but the ghost tour guy brings people around for her at Halloween.” There was a ghost tour flier taped to the bar’s window.
I went back to my dorm room to figure out what would be the most outlandish thing that could possibly happen to a ghost tour operator. The answer turns out to be for the ghosts to unionize.
I followed Card’s instructions for an outlining exercise, and for a writer who makes different use of outlines than I do, that might have made it easier to write the story. But I’m a seat-of-the-pants writer, primarily, so it took me about two more years to finish it, coming back to it in fits and starts when I took breaks from the Big Book and its sequel, Big Book II. It was always a welcome, refreshing change of pace, moving from a sprawling multivolume family saga to a standalone piece I eventually brought in at about 9000 words.
Every day I worked on the ghost tour story, I laughed. Not all my stuff is like that, but the Rugosa Coven stories are, so I let them cross-pollenate a little. As a result, Bob Baines and his family, from “Closing Arguments,” appear on stage, and Jane, the main character in “Atlantis Cranks Need Not Apply,” has a cameo, too.
My beloved critique group, The Writers of the Weird, workshopped the heck out of this story. In addition, Scott Hungerford and his brilliant but publicity-shy wife both gave me crucial feedback on the ending, through three or maybe more drafts until I got it right. (Scott’s short story in Trafficking in Magic, Magicking in Traffic is similarly haunted and hilarious, and you should all rush out and get a copy right now just to read him.)
I sold “New Jersey’s Top Ghost Tours Reviewed and Rated” to the first place I submitted it to, and the editor, Eric Flint, ran it with no changes. He also wrote me a lovely check for eight cents a word, which bought all the materials to rebuild the big Craftsman style porch on my old house in New Jersey. Thank you, Eric Flint, without whom the eventual sale of that house would probably have been impossible. Oh, and I suddenly qualified for an associate membership in SFWA, which gave me a nice moment of vindication in the morass of self-doubt that is the writing life.
Welcome back, little story. It’s sweet to see you again.