Worldbuilding: When Research Fails

Sometimes RL sources are no help whatsoever in worldbuilding. Take ghosts and hauntings. Please.

I’ve been trying to research some RL ghosts and haunted places to add a bit of spookiness for a character. Said character’s a night-creature himself, so another monster isn’t going to freak him out. A human ghost, however….

I thought I’d lucked out with a series of books in the library specifically on Florida hauntings. Ghosts set in specific locations, should be fairly easy to come up with descriptions, alter them slightly to fit a fictional town….


Of a ten-page entry on, say, Naval Air Station Pensacola, one page is contact info. Three pages are history of the location – which, good, that’s useful. And the rest of the entry is a whole lot of speculations, legends and feelings, with only a few paragraphs on what the suspected ghosts are actually doing. When I read about a haunting I don’t want the author to spin pages of “visit X place and imagine the hardships and tragedies that took place here,” I want info on what actually happened.

Grump. Grump grump grump.

I am particularly less than impressed because the author makes noises at several places in the books about being associated with the ghost-hunters organization S.P.I.R.I.T.S. that’s supposed to observe and make reports of exactly what they found at hauntings. It’d be nice to know some of that information, instead of more “feel this, imagine that”.

So what can you do when RL sources let down your worldbuilding research?

First allow yourself some time for sheer argh. Research time is usually stolen from writing time or sleep. Feeling like you wasted that time can be frustrating to the point you can’t even think. Get something to hydrate with – research tends to dry you out due to the concentration involved – and take a minute to sit and breathe out the fiery snarl.

Then go back to your disappointing source and skim it. Don’t bother reading in detail. Let your eyes slip over the pages and see if they hit anything worthwhile. If so, stop and see if it’s intriguing enough to take a note. Otherwise just go on.

(If you’re really wrought up, grab a pad of small sticky notes and just mark any “might be useful” spots for later so you can power through the whole thing. Come back after you’ve calmed down for the actual notes.)

For the NAS Pensacola entry one of the reported ghosts is Captain Guy Hall, a flight instructor with the USMC who died in a training mission, trying to land on Correy Field in 1926. Apparently he was an avid poker player and the barracks and officers’ quarters still hear the crashing and snapping sounds of the captain dropping his poker chips on the table. That’s pretty much the sum of the info available on what the actual haunting is like.

For worldbuilding you’d have to take that little fragment and add info gathered from other sources. Maybe a history of Marine aviators of the time. Possibly biographical info on the captain himself. And then you need to decide what a ghost is in your story. A spiritual “recording” without a conscious being behind it? The actual spirit of the captain himself? Something else? Once you have that, you can come up with something more dramatic than just the sound of poker chips in the night.

Though I have to admit, the idea of a Big Scary Monster getting unnerved by just some unexplained noises is amusing….

38 thoughts on “Worldbuilding: When Research Fails

  1. I don’t know if it will help with your specific characters, but if you want a extremely haunted location with a lot of history try looking up Penhurst Asylum. If you want a good idea of what went on there watch a documentary called Suffer the Little Children. Just be warned it’s kinda soul crushing in I should be not surprised how low humans can treat each other but I am way.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. You could take it the other direction too.
    The Supernatural Monster completely freaked out by more mundane events.

    Can you imagine a vampire having Sleep Paralysis?

    Liked by 3 people

    1. IIRC, PN Elrod did something like that with her vampires. They need a bit of their grave dirt nearby or they get horribly disconcerting sense impressions and no rest all day long.

      Liked by 3 people

  3. Part of why they talk so much about the “feel” is because that’s what a lot of haunting is– like those chips that were mentioned?

    “Huh, that’s not that scary, why do I have chills and my hair is standing up?”

    Liked by 4 people

  4. Well, yeah, but there’s “Let me tell the folklore and experiences of others, and myself too” and then there’s “me me me is medium me me me me.”

    What you want is some Depression-era WPA folklore. Every state had collectors.

    Liked by 5 people

  5. I don’t know how useful it would be for your specific needs, but have you ever heard of the Weird Series books? They’re a collection of “Local Legends and Best Kept Secrets” of different states. I don’t know about Florida, but I have the Indiana one here and it has a lot of interesting stuff.

    If nothing else, you might get an idea of what to look for in more depth.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Indiana doesn’t need ghost stories. Indiana’s the state that’s afraid Belle Gunness might be alive!

      (Lillian de la Torre’s theory, that Gunness tried to fake her death and run, but the sheriff killed her to protect his own role from coming out, is one that I like. Mostly because it would mean she faked her death _and_ was safely dead.)

      Liked by 2 people

  6. I’ll admit my favorite ghost stories are in song form…mostly ’cause they’re less freaky when you sing about them or they’re completely made up. For example: Silver Ghost – Wildwood Valley Boys, Mallon’s Bridge – Mustard’s Retreat. They also tend to have a bit more of ‘this is what happened to cause the haunting’ by their very nature.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Have you read Martin Caidin’s Ghosts of the Air? Lots of pretty specific stories about aerial-related hauntings–helped by the fact that Caidin himself worked in the archives for an Air Force unit at one time. Some of what’s in the book is kinda out there, even for the subject, but it’s still fascinating.

    …I also only read it once in a blue moon myself, admittedly, because I have trouble with dark rooms for a week or so after, but still….

    Liked by 3 people

      1. One thing I can tell you about it right now: I may never be able to bring myself to visit any RAF base left over from WWII. Apparently those places are _spooky_. Not too surprising, I guess, after the Battle of Britain.

        Liked by 2 people

      2. Re: spookiness, it’s very much “Your Mileage May Vary.” I’ve been on a ton of major Civil War battlefields since I was a kid, and never felt anything particularly spooky. Graveyards? Indian mounds? Massacre sites? True crime from olden days? Dark woods with ghost stories? Yup. Don’t feel nothing.

        OTOH, my dad’s fraternity house was widely accepted as being haunted, and my dad was in agreement. It was part of the Underground Railroad and had secret passages and such, too.

        Anyhoo… the point is that a lot of people think the Air Force Museum (okay, now it’s the “Museum of the United States Air Force,” bleh) is spooky and full of ghosts, and apparently David Drake was kinda spooked out by stuff like the atomic bomb casing exhibit, even though he’s a very deadpan kind of guy.

        But it’s not spooky a bit. It’s a happy place (with a few sad exhibits but a lot of funny ones) that kids love. A lot of the “obviously ghost filled” areas are exactly the happiest, friendliest areas. Okay, granted that the Bockscar should have some gravitas, but every kid loves that thing! It’s not a bad plane, and it’s not full of bad ghosts! The only thing I’ve ever heard people consistently worrying about is the Lady Be Good chair, but any jinxes on that thing seem to be behaving themselves.

        So I take this stuff with a lot of grains of salt. And if the ghosts are real, it’s obvious that some people are taking the wrong attitude or something. Either that, or they’re ghosts that like having kids around.

        What I think is that a lot of adults don’t like the museum lighting, because it’s designed not to fade anything, and it’s spread out in weird ways across the length of the hangars.

        Liked by 2 people

  8. Maybe not exactly what you’re looking for, but if you’re looking for concrete info on hauntings, possessions, etc., look up stuff by exorcists. “An Exorcist Tells His Story” by Fr. Gabriele Amorth is an excellent place to start. He covers a lot of ground, including possessions and oppressions of places (yes, there’s a difference). He tends to be a bit picky about giving details, which is understandable considering exorcisms are done in confidence, but it still might be a good read. For more readily available stuff along those lines, look up Fr. Chad Ripperger. He’s an exorcist who gives talks pretty regularly and has lots of material online.

    (Side note: if you browse other exorcists, be suspicious of the ones who say they don’t do exorcisms in Latin. Multiple unconnected exorcists have attested that exorcisms not in Latin just do not work as well, if at all. Doesn’t mean they’re not still legit, but it’s a warning sign.)

    Liked by 2 people

      1. Well, if you want specifics, that’s the book for you. He had a whole chapter, if I’m remembering correctly (it’s been a couple years), dedicated to categories and subcategories.

        Liked by 2 people

      2. Well, it’s all interesting, but it’s also good not to poke around too much in the demonology stuff. I mean, if you gotta you gotta, and that’s fine; but if you don’t have particular business like folklore research or a class, it tends to mess with people’s minds. Also, demons are arrogant and proud, and they like people to worry about them either not at all, as nonexistent; or way too much than they deserve to be worried about.

        So it’s like encouraging Clamps to troll you.

        It’s not a big deal, but I had a lot of strange happenings when I read for a podcast of St. Athanasius’ Life of Anthony (St. Anthony the Abbot, who got demonically attacked a lot and got very blase and insulting about their lack of power against him), and then they stopped after I put up the final part. All pretty childish junk, for the most part, but not very nice. Again, like Clamps. I didn’t have any problems when I was just reading the book beforehand. (Yeah, yeah, I know I just got done disclaiming spooky stuff. I’m not worried about the dead, I guess.)

        Fr. Amorth was kinda like Mad-Eye Moody for Italian newspaper reporters, at least to the extent of some pretty wild quotes. I haven’t read his full book, but it does seem to make a lot of people really worried. Then again, Italians tend to put some drama into their writing, so maybe he just comes over strong to Americans.

        Fr. Vincent Lampert has a book out called Exorcism, which I also haven’t read, but I did listen to some Catholic Answers talks he did about, or touching on, his work as an exorcist, such as “The Truth about Exorcism.” and another talk called “Jesus the Exorcist” on the casting out of demons in the Gospels. (It’s Hour 2 of this episode of Catholic Answers Live.) He works for the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, so I understand him better.

        Matt Baglio has an older book out, The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist, which follows the training of Fr. Gary Thomas in Rome. This guy was one of the first US priests to be trained openly as a diocesan exorcist, since the 1970’s or so, and it’s pretty interesting to have the various points of view.

        Liked by 2 people

  9. So, one of our local ghost stories(It’s a hotel that they’ve turned into a museum, mainly done in 1880s style) that might work for the art studio is their ghost appears in the windows(a lady in an old fashioned dress, she looks), Except for the self healing window, which is rumored to have been cracked by the bullet that killed her(not likely, to say the least), but will appear to bleed when she shows up in it.

    Although one of the ghosts I’ve personally experienced was not scary at all. If you lost something in the room and left overnight, you’d come in the next day to find it laid across the pillow. I suppose some people would find it creepy, but it was generally just something that fell into the day.

    Thought they didn’t really like one of my sister’s boyfriend, he kept losing things.


    1. I had exactly one sort-of-ghost thing.

      The week before 9/11, I was in Navy boot-camp, in the old barracks that had been there since forever.

      I sat up, in a panic– because the light said that it was afternoon.

      Then I realized the light was wrong for that time of year– it was summer-angle light.

      And the bunk beds were wrong, and oh yeah there were freaking dudes in shorts and undershirts standing at the end of the beds. A guy in one of the WWII style uniforms was coming down the middle aisle —
      and then the very freaked out night watch grabbed my arm, because I’d sat up and scared her half to death.

      It didn’t feel like a dream, a hallucination, nothing like that. It was just…. different.

      At that point, I didn’t know how old the barracks were, and obviously I didn’t have a reason to think we needed to be prepared for anything.

      Liked by 1 person

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