NUTS & BOLTS: INTERVIEW WITH NOVELIST AND HAUNTED TOUR OWNER JAN-ANDREW HENDERSON
By Tom Joyce
While working as a ghost tour guide in Edinburgh, Jan-Andrew Henderson found a spot with all the makings of a real-life horror story – an eerie graveyard, a long-buried (literally) human tragedy on a grand scale, and a vicious supernatural entity called “the Mackenzie Poltergeist.”
That served as the inspiration for City of the Dead Tours, which he now owns and has turned into one of the UK’s most popular haunted tours, renowned among tourists and travel writers for its mix of entertainment and historical fact. Jan-Andrew, a multiple-award-winning author and HWA member, did the research and wrote the scripts for his guides (although he encourages them to improvise). In this month’s edition of Nuts & Bolts, he discusses tactics that City of the Dead uses to keep visitors on edge, and how you can employ them in your own writing.
Q: How is scripting a haunted walking tour similar to writing a novel? How is it different?
A: The core concept is the same as writing a novel. You want to tell a story filled with drama, excitement and interesting characters. The difference is it has to be presented to a large crowd, standing outside with lots of distractions. To keep them entertained you have to incorporate elements of improv theatre and stand-up comedy. That’s the essence of oral storytelling as opposed to writing.
Q: How do you balance entertainment value on the tours with conveying historic background? And can you give us any advice on combining historic fact with a scary narrative?
A: Comedy is important but Edinburgh’s history does a lot of the heavy lifting here. It’s absolutely fascinating, excessively gory and far enough in the past (just) that we can keep the stories light. And we concentrate on that history rather than the supernatural. Nobody is going to be scared by a story about some green lady from 200 years ago. Instead, we keep the scary stuff to the end and change tack completely. We drop the humour. Tell them this particular area is still haunted. Sound scared. Talk in the present tense. Recount our own experiences. It’s a tonal rug pull that works every time. That and the fact that we’re locked in a walled 16th-century graveyard with the world’s best-documented supernatural case.
Q: Are there any techniques/tactics City of the Dead uses that HWA members can apply to their writing?
A: Though I wrote a script, I encourage my guides to abandon it and do their own thing. I especially want them to improvise. Keep their eyes open and adapt their stories to whatever they encounter. I believe it’s a skill which can enhance any story. After all, a writer wants to be unique. Innovative. For me, a great way to do that is to incorporate what is around you. Watch the news. Read interesting articles. Keep your ears open to gossip. Chat to taxi drivers. Look around and take note of random objects. Pictures on walls. What you find in side streets. Adverts on TV. If anything you hear, see or experience grabs your attention, consider incorporating it in your story. I don’t mean in a superficial way. I mean make it integral to the plot, even if it derails your carefully thought-out existing plan.
This has worked for me so many times.
Q: What attributes tend to make for a good tour guide, and how can writers replicate those qualities in their prose?
A: Good guides have a loud voice, a sense of humour and are never satisfied with their performance (excuse the pun). They are always experimenting with different ways to tell the same story. When some new quip or fact gets a laugh or a gasp, they keep it. If there’s no reaction, they drop it. That’s the benefit of having an audience and it’s something writers can replicate. If you’re working on an important scene, try a couple of variations then give them to your nearest and dearest. Friends and family are always reluctant to tell you if something you’ve written sucks but, if given a choice, they will pick a favourite.
And never think humour and horror are mutually exclusive.
Q: Can you give us any general advice about writing?
A: I’ve got so much advice I’ve just finished a book on writing! (Let’s Write a Page Turner!). I include some fairly unorthodox advice but, in the main, I favour a nuts-and-bolts approach. A lot of writers talk about themes and voice and imagery and stuff like that. To me there is a Holy Quaternity (a word I had to look up). Plot, prose, character and dialogue. Get those right and the rest will fall into place.
Oh. And watch more movies. When it comes to plot, characters and dialogue movies are great for analysing what works and what doesn’t. Plus, you can get through three movies a day.
You’re on your own with prose, I’m afraid.
Q: Can you give us any advice about marketing yourself as an author?
A: I’d like to say something zen-like “I write for pleasure and I’m not interested in fame and fortune.” While this is true, to some extent, I’m also rubbish at marketing. It’s my Kryptonite. My editor at Oxford University Press once called me “the best writer nobody has ever heard of.” I’m still not sure whether to be pleased by that.
Q: Do you have any books or other projects in the works that you’d like HWA members to know about?
A: As well as Let’s Write a Page Turner!, I’ve been having a horror short story spate. I just edited a trilogy of offbeat horror anthologies: That is SO Wrong!, That is TOO Wrong! and That is ALL Wrong! Now I’m writing a collection of horror stories for kids and testing them on my own small children. We have a score sheet that goes from “lame” to “utterly traumatised.” If you can think of a good title, feel free to email me.
Where can people follow you online?
A: I’ve got a website and so does City of the Dead. I also run the Green Light Literary Rescue Service, offering editing and manuscript advice. Or Google Jan-Andrew Henderson for my social media. The benefit of having a pretentious name is that you’re easy to find online.
Jan-Andrew Henderson (J.A. Henderson) is the author of 38 children’s, teen, YA and adult fiction and non-fiction books. He has been published in the UK, USA, Australia, Canada and Europe by Oxford University Press, Collins, Hardcourt Press, Amberley Books, Oetinger Publishing, Mainstream Books, Black and White Publishers, Mlada Fontana, Black Hart and Floris Books.
He has been shortlisted for fifteen literary awards in the UK and Australia and won the Doncaster Book Prize, The Aurealis Award and the Royal Mail Award – Britain’s biggest children’s book prize. He runs The Green Light Literary Breakdown Service, offering advice and editing to authors and teaches online courses for the Romance Writers of Australia Academy and Infostack. He has appeared at numerous writers festivals and given talks and workshops across the UK and Australia in conjunction with Literature Live, Authors Abroad, Nexus Arts and Speakers Ink.
He is a professional member of the Institute of Professional Editors, an industry assessor/mentor for the Queensland Writers Centre, a mentor for the Horror Writers Association, an ambassador for Australia Reads, a peer/grant assessor for the Australian Council for The Arts, a convenor for the Aurealis Awards and Writer in Residence for organisations as disparate as Ipswich Kindergarten and The Catholic School, Townsville. He features in many anthologies, as a contributor and editor and has written several plays – performed as far apart as New York State, Texas, Leeds and the Edinburgh International Festival.
He is also the founder of Black Hart Entertainment which runs the famous City of the Dead Ghost Tours in Edinburgh and Black Hart Press.
Tom Joyce writes a monthly series called Nuts & Bolts for the Horror Writers Association’s blog, featuring interviews with some of the most knowledgeable people in horror about the craft and business of writing. Watch for upcoming interviews in which HWA Mentorship Program manager J.G. Faherty gives advice on getting the most out of your beta readers; and Bitter Karella, two-time Hugo nominee and creator of the Midnight Pals microfiction series, talks about writing humor and building a personal brand. Please contact Tom at TomJHWA@gmail.com if you have any suggestions for future interviews. For more about what he’s looking for, see here.