Write What You Know: A Haunted Hotel Story

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photo by TexasExplorer98

One of the things writers hear most often is “write what you know.” Now, that doesn’t mean your heroine has to be the best toilet scrubber in the country or have the county-fair winning recipe for meatloaf just because you do. It just means you should take your life experiences – your emotions – and pour them into the characters to give them depth.

I’ve always loved a good ghost story – tales around the campfire, slumber parties with a bunch of giggling junior-high girls, the creepy, fun stuff of childhood.  When I started writing I never thought about writing a ghost.  After all, my single title books are contemporary romance and most people don’t believe in haunts and spooks. But I was determined to find a way, and booked a stay at the most haunted hotel in Texas, The Jefferson Hotel in Jefferson, TX.

I checked in on a Sunday afternoon, and the clerk handed me a key to my room and a code for re-entry into the hotel after five p.m., since there was no hotel staff onsite after that time.  Then she added that I should feel free to walk around, sit on the balconies, etc. because as I was the only person currently staying in the hotel, I wouldn’t have to worry about disturbing anyone else.  I couldn’t believe it – all alone in a haunted hotel!  It was the kind of stuff those campfire tales were made of, and I could hardly wait for the sun to go down.

I’d like to tell you I saw a ghost, but unfortunately it wasn’t to be.  Of course, you have to take into account that I sleep like, well, the dead, and then there’s that whole snoring issue.  Heck, for all I know there were five ghosts in my room playing poker and singing karaoke.

But I did experience several interesting things.

Before I turned in the night before, I checked every room door to make sure they were locked. I was on the second floor, staying in the “most haunted room” and as I was on vacation and am an early riser anyway, I didn’t set an alarm. The next morning, I was awakened to the sound of an alarm going off.

It took me a second to realize it wasn’t in my room, so I jumped out of bed, threw on shorts and sandals and headed out into the hall. I drew up short when I saw every single room door standing wide open. I crept down the hall, expecting to find a housekeeper, but the hotel was empty. The alarm in one of the bedrooms was going off but when I checked the settings, it wasn’t turned on. I unplugged it, and finally the noise stopped.

As I walked back into the hall, the smell of lavender wafted by me. I checked for scent plugs and room deodorizers—I even removed the air vents to make sure no deodorizers were hidden inside (yes, I brought tools)—but I found nothing to explain the smell, which disappated quickly and never returned.

One of the most interesting things to me was talking to the residents in a café where I ate breakfast each morning. I typed away every morning over loads of coffee and fresh-baked cinnamon rolls and on the third day, the waitress asked me if I was a writer. I told her I was and wanted to capture the ambiance of a haunting. I told her I was staying at the hotel and she nodded and said simply, “Oh, yeah, it’s haunted.”

Now, this wasn’t remotely surprising to me because people who grow up in small towns with the legends and lore of the place often believe it without question, but in further conversation, I found out this woman wasn’t a local at all. She was a former executive from a large bank in Houston. She’d had a heart attack and decided that Corporate America was killing her, so she relocated to a tiny town and took a job in a café. The woman held a master’s degree and had held a multi-six-figure salaried job.

Yet, she knew absolutely that she’d seen ghosts in the Jefferson Hotel.

My Ghost-in-Law series features the interfering, maddening ghost, Helena Henry. I had to work a bit to get a ghost in a contemporary humor story, but my editor went for it and three books feature the meddling Helena and her many escapades creating trouble for heroines and heros alike.

One of the most valuable things a writer can do to sustain a writing career is to diversify. I’d been reading the Harlequin Intrigue line forever and loved it, so that’s what I tried next. And guess what’s contained in my first book—you got it, a ghost! Intrigue was a totally different writing experience as the format is almost half the length of a single title book and there’s no humor. So I wrote a “gothic-lite,” complete with a spooky, old mansion deep in the Louisiana bayous. I’ve gone to contract for several more Intrigues since that first, and they all feature spooky settings deep in the Louisiana swamps.

I’m still holding out hope to one day actually see a ghost, but in the meantime, I’ll have to get my fix with books and movies. And of course, deciding what to scare people with next.

Copyright © 2010 Jana DeLeon. All rights reserved.

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