Haunted by the past

I was 15 when I first met a ghost. It lived in a big, old, isolated house in County Fermanagh, Northern Ireland. From the way it behaved, it seemed to be an unhappy spirit - unhappy in particular at having to share its house with a family of noisy, living people and their pets.

We had borrowed White Park from friends. Although it was miles away from the nearest town, it was a lovely house and in a beautiful spot, down a long drive, surrounded on three sides by trees and facing a long grassy slope down to a trout stream. It had disadvantages too. Having been unoccupied for some time, its former grandeur was distinctly tatty.

Then there was the lack of mains electricity. White Park had its own generator, which was situated in the basement, so that, when it was time for bed, one of us had to go down the damp stone steps to turn it off before making our way back by torch or candlelight. Once the generator was off for the night, the house would be in darkness until the next day.

One or two slightly odd things had happened that summer. My mother had seen a shadowy figure in the room of my brother Philip, looking down at the bed late at night - strange, that, since everyone else in the house had gone to bed. Then there were sounds, inexplicable gusts of wind that stirred, even when the weather outside was still.

One night, after the generator had been switched off, I was in bed, drifting off to sleep, when I became aware that I was not alone. From nearby, at the end of the bed, there came the sound of someone or something. It was exhaling a long, slow, single breath - quite loud and distinct. It continued for about 30 seconds, then stopped. Silence returned to the room for a minute, maybe two. Then, low and sad, the breath was there once more.

I was frozen with fear. No animal could make that noise. It was too close, too human. I called out in a small, strangled voice to Philip, who was in an adjoining room, but he was asleep. There was no light to switch on. I was too terrified to move.

The breathing lasted for about half an hour. The next morning, Philip reported that he had been awoken by the sound of breathing. Janice, a woman who helped look after our horses and whose room was at the other end of the house, had heard the same noise at the end of her bed.

Sensibly my parents played down all talk of ghosts, but I now know they became convinced that the house was haunted. On our last night, a sudden, violent gust of wind lifted a carpet in the hall over the head of my mother. The ghost was saying goodbye.

I have been back to White Park many times since then - but only in my head. Twenty years later, I left my office job to become a writer. Making up stories for children and adults was, I discovered, what I most enjoyed doing. After many wrong turnings, I had found a job which, while it was often scary and lonely, was uniquely satisfying.

Of course, stories are not just made up. The idea that they are produced by flashes of inspiration is a myth in which only amateurs and romantic fools believe. The only true inspiration, one which takes time and mental sweat to reach, is yourself - what you have seen and heard, experiences in your life which you can then rework, and sometimes try to make sense of, in the form of fiction.

So that night in County Fermanagh has returned to me as I have sat at my desk. The wispy presence of the undead has been evident in several of my stories, from Revenance, a novel for adults about a girl returning to her Norfolk village 450 years after her death, to my recently completed story You Have Ghost-Mail. I could even trace the creation of my favourite paranormal operative, Ms Wiz, back to that first meeting with a ghost.

But then it is not just ghosts which haunt stories. As a writer, you have to be prepared to use anything. White Park has appeared in my fiction, as has the pet rat, Whiskers, which my brother had at the time. And, of course, like all authors, I have ruthlessly and cunningly exploited the members of my own family in my writing.

As for the house itself, I have never seen it again and never will. A few years after our visit, White Park was razed to the ground. It was said that the site was needed for a newer house but I think I know better.

Working with the extract

This autobiographical account describes an early experience that led to its author becoming a professional writer.

One of the characteristics of autobiography is that it provides an opportunity for the writer to focus on the key incidents in his or her life and to describe the main influences.

This is a scary account of an experience which Terence Blacker cleverly links to becoming a writer. He describes how real experiences and people from his life are used in his fiction. The place, White Park, plays an important part in the account. Look at how the writer achieves his effects and builds the tension.

Suggestions for writing Write about a time and a place where you were very frightened by something that you could not explain. Try to create an air of mystery and suspense for your readers. Read your draft to a partner and use the feedback to improve the final version.

About the author Terence Blacker says, "I live in Norfolk and I write regularly, seven days a week, in the mornings from 9 to 1 o'clock. I write by hand and then type it up in the afternoon.

"I went to boarding school between the ages of seven and 17 or 18. I haven't used that much in my books, although there is a boarding school in Homebird. I plunder my own children's childhood more than my own for ideas. As they have grown older - Xan is 25 and Alice 23 now - I find I write more naturally for children aged 10 and upwards. When Xan was about 11 he said he didn't like books which were just funny or too serious and I wrote Homebird to grip him. I don't usually write more for boys than girls, except for The Transfer, which is about football."

Books by Terence Blacker include The Transfer, Homebird and The Angel Factory, all published by Macmillan.

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