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Writing Supernatural Adventures

Aislinn O’Loughlin’s YA debut was published by Dublin-based publisher Little Island earlier this month. Speaking to The Bookseller in March, Aislinn said, “I’ve always adored stories of quippy monster-hunters, found family and geeky girl-power — so I’m over-the-moon to be working with Little Island to bring my own rag-tag of band monster misfits to the world,”

We thought Halloween would be an excellent time to invite Aislinn to write a guest blog about the supernatural. Read the blog and encourage your young writers to have a go too.

What’s scarier: secretly battling a dangerous monster over and over? Or not being able to protect your little sister? Leaving your family? Or staying and ruining their lives?

Hiding who you are? Or embracing your big, bad inner beast … and loving it!

Evie and Kate Wilder, the narrators of my YA debut (Big Bad Me), find themselves facing these questions, and more, after hitting the vampire-infested town of Brightside in search of their missing Mom – only to find themselves in the middle of a supernatural grudge-match. And the fact Evie’s a werewolf doesn’t help matters…

But while the stakes in Big Bad Me are supernaturally high, when it came to writing the characters and relationships, I tried to keep it ‘real’ – or as real as possible, anyway.

It’s hard to know exactly how a teenage werewolf would react after stumbling across a dead body, being attacked by a vampire and having to rip through him to save her sister – but a mix of grief, rage and some guilt-tinged elation (over protecting her sister) felt right. It’s relatable, even if Evie’s lycanthropy and “living in a blood-soaked hellmouth” set-up isn’t.

And that’s important.

Urban fantasy stories – these “real world” paranormal adventures, where the mythical and the mundane exist side by side – live or die on a writer’s ability to convince readers this could all happen to them. So it helps to create characters the reader feels could be them. Or one of their friends, or – heck – even their arch nemesis at school. Characters don’t always need to be likeable, but it helps if they feel familiar or relatable.

Readers will happily suspend their disbelief for, say, an excitable werewolf and her slayer sister dusting vampires in Creepy Murder Central, but they’ll be yanked right out of that world if they can’t buy into your characters’ feelings or motivations.

Sure, they can’t literally relate to Evie’s tendency to morph into a hideous beast and attack her beloved sister (I hope), but we’ve all worried about accidentally lashing out and hurting someone we love  – emotionally, if not physically. Likewise, most of us probably don’t worry about being rejected over an actual inner monster, but we’ve all got that weirdo side we hide sometimes.

Evie Wilder just found out she’s a werewolf. Now her mom’s gone missing, she and her sister Kate have to go into hiding, and there’s not a single helpful vampire slayer to be found. With the help of Kevin, the dorky-hot manager of the guesthouse where she and Kate lie low, Evie starts to harness her wolfish side.

But Kevin seems to know a suspicious amount about vampires… Meanwhile, animal attacks are increasing, local teens are going missing, and Evie is about to find herself at the centre of a supernatural showdown.

When I’m writing my characters, I try to find their real-world core  – all the emotional, relationship-driven stuff that makes them ‘just like us’. Then I layer the paranormal around it, but always with one eye on where we started.

For example, while Evie and Kate Wilder are dab-hands at battling monsters and quipping their way through danger – they’re also just teenagers, doing teenage things like homework and movie marathons and getting awkwardly tongue-tied crushes. In fact, the first time we meet 17-year-old Kate, she goes straight from flipping a werewolf into her hallway wall to babbling incoherently around the girl of her dreams. Even the most badass of us aren’t immune to the pitfalls of romantic pining!

The Wilder sisters get whisked away from their “slightly unusual, very happy life” pretty early into Big Bad Me – but I kept the heart of their adventure ‘real’ by focusing it on their relationship. After all, they might be a werewolf and a monster-hunter stuck in a small town straight out of a Stephen King novel, but they’re also sisters. Deeply devoted, fiercely protective sisters who would die for each other (if they don’t kill each-other first). It’s a regular sibling relationship, just dialled all the up to eleven on a supernatural amp!

But while writing supernatural adventures can mean filtering everyday emotions through a paranormal lens, it also means looking at the supernatural through a more contemporary lens – then twisting that lens like a kaleidoscope and seeing what happens! Because, like Scream with slasher movies, we all know the tropes by now.

The fun these days is in playing with them.

Like: what are the rules for modern-day vampires? We know folklore says they can’t show up in mirrors. But what about video footage on a mobile phone? Or a Zoom call?

And what happens when the dark, brooding love interest has already read Twilight? Or when your Big Bad Wolf is, say, an excitable Buffy The Vampire Slayer fangirl with thing for dorky-superheroes, and the ability to channel her monster-side like Ms. Marvel with claws?

One of my favourite ‘research’ moments for Big Bad Me involved working out how long to microwave human blood to get it back to body temperature. Which, it turns out, isn’t something you can google. But apparently, you can tweet it and find the answer in about five seconds, no questions asked (for the record, the guy who answered seemed perfectly nice, and his calculations were all very non-creepy –  I was definitely the weird one in this scenario).

It’s things like that that make writing modern-day supernatural adventures lots of fun. And probably get you on a police database somewhere, but whatever. These days, it feels like we’re born with the “monster rules” pre-etched into our brains. So, why not try muddling them about yourself – then pour them onto the page and see what kind of cocktail of the familiar-but-brand-new your imagination creates? Maybe it’ll be something readers are howling to get their claws on! Or maybe something just for you.

Whatever the outcome, the magic – and adventure – is in writing it.