I know Terri Bruce as a fellow member of Broad Universe, a society that supports women authors of speculative fiction. As a comrade in literary arms, I was delighted to host Terri's blog tour for her new novel, Whereafter.
And be sure to scroll down to the giveaway!
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Making Believable Ghosts
by Terri Bruce
I’m so thrilled to be here today, celebrating the release of my third novel, Whereafter (Afterlife #3). This is the third book in my Afterlife series, which tells the story of a woman named Irene Dunphy who dies and must learn to navigate the afterlife as a ghost.
I love mythology and the origins of myths, and one day while driving to work, I started thinking about afterlife mythology. I wondered why there were so many different and disparate descriptions of the afterlife if they were all describing the same thing. I mean, realistically, if there is an afterlife, we’re probably all going to the same place. So why is it described so differently by different cultures? I started thinking maybe it was like “The Blind Men and the Elephant”—that is, that all the stories were only describing a part of it. So I tried to imagine what the afterlife would like if all the afterlife stories were true. How would all these very different and sometimes competing places exist together? When I read one myth that said the dead travel to the afterlife via a tunnel of light but another that said it was via a bridge, I tried to imagine a way in which that was possible. Well… maybe different people saw different things—maybe it’s all based on perception. Maybe they weren’t all crossing at the same place. After all, having lived on the North Shore of Massachusetts for many years, I can tell you that sometimes I traveled to work in Boston via a bridge (the Tobin Bridge) and sometimes by tunnel (the Sumner and Callahan Tunnels). It depended on which road/route I was traveling. It was also dependent on my mode of transportation—when I drove, I took the bridge and when I took the bus/public transportation, we went through the tunnel. So maybe that’s how it is for the dead.
When it came to reconciling the many different descriptions of the physical landscape—especially the more strange/outlandish elements—I realized that this could be explained as being different places within the same world and also through the idea of higher planes of consciousness. This is where I borrowed heavily from the Buddhist state of Bardo—an intermediate stage between the physical realm and enlightenment where the person wrestles with demons and visions that are a manifestation of the person’s subconscious. As the person learns and becomes wiser/more enlightened, he/she is able to see through the outward appearance of the demons to their true meaning. If we thought of the afterlife as a place where people gain enlightenment, then things might appear confusing or unexplainable at first. But as the person gains more knowledge and insight—and ascends to a higher and higher planes of being—then they can see more clearly. So, for instance, in the second book of the series, Irene meets a cat that seems to be leading her through the afterlife. To her, it looks like a cat, even though she’s pretty sure it’s not an ordinary cat. Because she isn’t enlightened enough/ascended to a high enough level, she can’t see its true form.
While I was trying to find a way to make all of the various descriptions of the physical landscape work together, I also wanted to write a world that was believable. I didn’t want it to be fantastical fantasy; I wanted the mechanics—the physical rules of it—to be realistic, or, at least, plausible. So I set out to also create realistic explanations for various beliefs and folklore elements. If there really is an afterlife, why do people travel to it through a tunnel of light? Why is it far away and not right here? And why a tunnel of light? What is the function of the light in helping move spirits from the physical realm to the afterlife? Or how about, why do some ghosts see a tunnel, some seem to instantly be transported to the other side, and some get stuck here and can’t cross over? What is the mechanics of that and why it happens?
Another example: how is it that ghosts can walk through walls and yet also move objects? To walk through walls they’d have to have no mass and/or be pure energy. But if they move objects, they have to have mass, right? So how can they both? At times, I began to feel like a physicist trying to describe quantum mechanics (and honestly, after reading all the various mythology, I’m starting to think it could all be plausible at a quantum level!).
I’ve tried very hard to make sure that my world building is realistic and consistent—this has often led to problems that were hard to solve. If ghosts have mass (because they can move things) then how come we can’t see them? But how come we can see them sometimes and other times they are invisible? It’s been really difficult at times being consistent in the world building when the stories are so inconsistent! But once I started thinking of the afterlife as different planes/levels all stacked together and started thinking in terms of different scales – the way that sub-atomic particles and planets exist in the same space—then things began to make more sense… or, at least, be more easily explained
Part of why I’ve loved writing this series is the world-building challenge. Because I created these self-imposed rules (use ALL of the stories and myths and make it all plausible) that I had to adhere to, it really forced me to stretch and grow as a writer. It turns out, coming up with realistic explanations for fantastical things requires MORE creativity than just coming up with the fantastical things themselves. I always thought all of the imagination and fun was in imagining new things, but then getting those things to adhere to a set of rules requires a lot of ingenuity as well. And it’s helped me to develop discipline as well. I could have given up on making the world-building adhere to a strict set of rules (it certainly would have been easier) but I don’t think the books would have been as good. Many readers of the series like how the books feel like they could be real/how the world-building is believable. So, developing that discipline has been a good thing for both me and my readers.
For anyone that loves afterlife mythology or wants to learn more about the Afterlife series, during the month of April I will be participating in the “A to Z Blogging Challenge,” and every day, I will be posting a video blog (at http://www.terribruce.net) in which I reveal all of the hidden references to afterlife mythology and “Easter Eggs” in the series. I encourage everyone to stop by each day and check out the videos! You can also sign up for my newsletter to stay up to date with all my latest news. In addition, I love interacting with readers, so please feel free to email me or connect with me on Twitter!
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Excerpt from Whereafter:
Andras grunted, the sound filled with suspicion. Irene bent down to tie her shoelace, as much to avoid eye contact as anything. When she straightened up, something in the distance caught her eye, shimmering like a mirage. She squinted, not sure she was really seeing what she thought she saw.
“You know, now might be a good time for you to tell me what it was like to live in a castle,” she said.
Andras shook his head, sadly, as if Irene had disappointed him. “You cling too much to the past. Forget the trappings of life. Free your mind from these longings, and so, free your soul. Only then will we be able to escape these shackles and enter Heaven to rest at the side of God.”
Why did he always have to argue about everything? “For God’s sake,” she said, exasperated, “just answer the question!”
Irene pointed to the hulking structure in the distance. “Because,” she said as Andras whirled around to see what she was pointing at, “correct me if I’m wrong, but that looks like a castle.”
“Wow!” Irene said, her eyes roving over the dark, crenellated structure hulking in the far distance. It gleamed dully, the color of burnt blood in a fading afternoon sun. “What the hell do you think that is?”
Andras grunted. “As you said—Hell.”
Irene frowned at him, but her lips quirked in amusement. “Why do you have to be so negative? It could just as easily be Heaven. God is supposed to live in a palace, right—the whole ‘my father’s house has many rooms’ thing? A castle is just a type of palace.”
Andras gave her a dry look. “Does that look like Heaven?”
Irene was on the verge of agreeing that the castle did not in any way look how she imagined Heaven when it shimmered, as if the fading sunlight had been redirected by mirrors. Light rippled across the castle’s surface and the dull, dark, burnt-blood color transformed into gleaming, bright, silver-white. Crisp white pennants flapped from the corners as if whipped by wind. Irene thought she could hear them snapping crisply.
Irene looked at Andras, and he looked at her. His expression made it clear that he had seen the same transformation she had. It was as if the building was trying to trick them into coming closer.
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Purchase Whereafter at Amazon and other retailers.