I have been writing a lot of book reviews lately, so I’ve been thinking about what makes a good book, particularly when it comes to the subject of folklore and ghost stories. In the past 10 years, interest in the paranormal has rapidly grown, and every year we see more books coming out on the subject. Sometimes it seems like nothing new could be written about this subject, especially in my home state of Illinois, where there are more than two dozen books on Illinois ghost stories (literally hundreds if you count everything Troy Taylor has written).
Many of these books fall short of satisfying, let alone come close to what I would consider to be a decent book on the subject. There are some gems to be sure, but they are rare. I don’t feel that my standards are too high–what I think is going on is that authors are rushing to meet the demand for these books and they are not putting very much thought into them. Some authors, under pressure to produce, have taken the low road and plagiarized much of their content. Some authors (like one mentioned above) cannibalize their own work in order to produce book after book with basically the same content rearranged in a different way.
So what would I consider to be a “Class A” book on folklore and ghost stories? In an ideal world, what standards would a book have to meet to be truly excellent? Here they are in no particular order. Keep in mind, I don’t consider this list to be unachievable. Every author out there can produce a book to these standards, it just requires time and effort. These are the standards, by the way, to which I try to hold my own work.
- The writing should be polished, easy to read, understandable, and free of major errors. Every book has mistakes that its editors overlook, but some of the writing I’ve seen in books about the paranormal is atrocious. I’ve read stories written by kids in junior high that are higher quality.
- Sources should be cited. This is probably the most important on this list, because it’s something so many authors in this genre overlook. I want to see citations, footnotes, bibliographies–anything that properly acknowledges sources. It is not okay to just take something you read somewhere else and credit it as your own. That is not “research.” If someone else has found some insight into a story or event before you, acknowledge them.
- Pictures. Depending on what type of book you are writing, pictures and illustrations are always helpful. Pictures should be high quality–300 dpi at least. That is the lowest resolution for acceptable printing.
- Original content or insights. Because there are so many books on folklore and ghost stories, it is very difficult to find original content, but it can be done. Interviews with eyewitnesses, never before seen source material, or even your own experiences can all lend a fresh perspective to an old story. There are plenty of “new” tales out there as well, it just takes some digging.
- Accuracy. For the love of God, check your facts. Make sure that everything you write is as accurate as possible. It is one thing to get creative when it comes to ghost stories, but it is another to screw up or completely fabricate a historical fact. Everything you write should be verifiable. If you are properly citing your sources (see above) and make a mistake, at least you can go back and blame your source. But there is no excuse for sloppy research. Verify. Verify. Verify.
- Well organized content. As a writer, your job is to make it as easy as possible for your readers to locate information. It’s nice to have clever chapter titles, but at least include an index so that folks can look up places they are familiar with. If you are writing a book about haunted places in Illinois and include Bachelor’s Grove, for example, I should have no trouble locating Bachelor’s Grove in your book.
- Be well read. This might seem like strange advice, but I’m telling you, reading other books in this genre will make you a better writer. You are ignorant about a subject until you read what has already been written about it. Remember my advice about including original content? Readers do not want to waste their money on the same thing they’ve read 10 times before. How do you know you aren’t reinventing the wheel unless you have become familiar with what has come before you?
If you apply these seven principles, you will be able to write a book that not only sells well, but also has the distinction of being in the top ranks of books in this genre. It is not worth it, in my opinion, to write a “throw away” book that people find mildly entertaining and then forget. You want to write a resource that people keep coming back to for years to come.