What is it about a spooky house that sets your imagination on fire? I love taking photographs of abandoned old houses. They spark my curiosity. They feel loaded with meaning. It’s so much fun to make up strange stories about what might have happened inside.
In All That’s Missing, Maywood dares Arlo to explore a haunted house on Cemetery Hill. Not one to back down in the face of a challenge, he agrees. To his surprise, Maywood’s confidence wanes once they are standing in front of the forbidding structure. What will Arlo do?
This scene was great fun to write. I drew on memories of old abandoned houses I have noticed over the years. Here’s an excerpt from pp. 221-222, just in time for Halloween.
Under the canopy of pine, the air was cool. Arlo slowed his pace, waiting for his eyes to adjust to the darkness. They dodged tree stumps and lumpy hillocks until they were on the other side of the woods, in a clearing where a gloomy house stared down at them.
Leered, actually. As if it were daring them to step inside.
Maywood lifted her chin. “It’s just an old falling-down house,” she said. “It can’t hurt us.”
“Right,” Arlo said.
The house was made of weathered gray boards, some of which had rotted away, leaving gaping holes in the walls. None of the windows had glass in them. And the front door was missing.
When a crow squawked again from the top of a giant hemlock, Arlo whipped around.
“It’s following us,” Maywood whispered.
“No,” Arlo said. “It was here before we got here.”
“How do you know?”
Arlo nodded. “I saw it in the hemlock.”
“But, that’s worse.” Maywood shivered. “That means it knew we were coming here. Maybe it understands what we’re saying.”
The wind stirred up dust from the bare dirt around the foundation. Arlo’s nose twitched. He peered through the open doorway.
“We can’t go in.” Maywood squared her shoulders. “The whole thing could collapse any second.”
“You mean we came all the way up here just to stand outside and look?”
Arlo tapped on the bottom step. It felt solid enough. Though Maywood put a hand out to stop him, Arlo couldn’t ignore the irresistible pull to go inside.”
I won’t tell you what happens, but this scene in the cemetery is a prelude to a later scene in Arlo’s grandmother’s house. And yes, it involves a ghost.
I like to use this scene when I lead writing workshops with students in fourth, fifth and sixth grades, asking them to identify places where I used the five senses. It helps them think about using sight, touch, hearing, smell and taste in their own stories. It’s a tangible way of encouraging them to “show, not tell.”
Since ghost stories are a favorite with middle grade readers, it’s also a good launching point for writing stories of their own. I loved to make up ghost stories when I was in fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh grades. Truth be told, it’s still fun. In fact, I’m working on another one now. . .