Sunday, October 28, 2012

Putting Flesh on the Bones of a Ghost Story

With Halloween upon us, R8 is delighted to introduce ghost story hunter, Karen Yaffe Lottes. Karen, an historian and museum educator, has been collecting the ghost stories of Montgomery County, MD for over twenty years. Karen just celebrated the launch of her first book In Search of Maryland Ghosts: Montgomery County (Schiffer Books) on Sunday, October 28. Karen is also working on another non-fiction book and a mystery novel.
Welcome, Karen!

What are the main ingredients of a great ghost story? For me, it’s more than just a ghost. It’s putting a little history into your haunting that makes a great yarn.

Collecting the ghost stories is the first challenge. How do you find them? My co-author, Dorothy Pugh and I relied on old-timers and word-of-mouth. If we heard a rumor about a place, we weren’t afraid to knock on the door. I talked to people knowledgeable about their community. Sometimes they’d give me a story, sometimes a lead to someone with a story, or sometimes it was a dead-end.

PicadillyWilson Flickr
Once we had the bare bones of a narrative, it was time for research—the second challenge. We were looking for key historical facts that would flesh out the story. Our research included local histories (self-published folksy remembrances), formal histories and visits to the libraries and archives maintained by local historical groups.

We’d start with some key research questions: Who is doing the haunting? What tragedy or significant event happened that might make a restless spirit? What history is revealed by the story? The ghost stories in our book take place in houses, farms, mills, roads, bridges, even a carousel. We’d look up who lived there, how old the property was, how the site was used, and if it had any unusual features. Did anything violent happen there? Any tragic events?

Ghosts are often associated with someone who died an unnatural death. Stories about unrequited love, murder, burning, and illness all may supply the necessary elements for the incorporeal. For instance, Honeysuckle Hill is home to a tragic spirit that haunts the house only in the month of November. Twentieth century owners of Honeysuckle Hill tell of unexplained noises, and once, the owner felt someone shake him awake--only no one was there. Research revealed that a former daughter of the house, Annie P. Linthicum, hung herself in the attic in November 1869. Research didn’t expose the reason for Annie’s suicide, but her haunting confirms the correlation between tragic deaths and ghosts.

Sometimes the historical record doesn’t support the claim of a supernatural presence, but the ghosts themselves provide compelling evidence such as sightings, objects that have been moved or are seen moving, and unique sounds. Brookeville Woolen Mill is home to the spirit now known as Lily Lilac. Lily was so named because this ghost leaves behind the scent of lilacs whenever it appears as well as the occasional lip prints on mirrors and windows. How can you say a place is not haunted when such things are reported?

Lastly, fleshing out a ghost story is not just a cerebral activity. Visiting the haunted site is a good way to put flesh on the bones of your story. Exploring the creepy old gold mine near Great Falls (MD) where the Tommyknocker resides or the dilapidated, deserted Norma Miller House where Montgomery County’s most written about ghost – Nanny—abides, adds an element of emotion and color to your narrative.

To learn more about Annie Linthicum who returns every November to haunt Honeysuckle Hill, my children and I visited the old family cemetery. While very overgrown, we did manage to find Annie’s tombstone which reads ‘”Though he slay me, yet, will I trust in him.”

To learn more about In Search of Maryland Ghosts: Montgomery County click here.


  1. Karen ~ Thanks so much for visiting us this weekend. What a wonderful post. I will certainly go buy your book. Is it available in e-format? Or do I order the paper copy? I love ghost stories. And how awesome to have a compendium of stories close to home. Perfect!

    It seems that some people are more sensitive than others to seeing & experiencing ghostly activity. Have you found that in your research and story collecting?

    Thanks again for visiting this week!

  2. Oh, I LOVE ghost stories, Karen. A friend of mine says ghost stories are another form of time travel and I thought that was brilliant. That's why the history of them is so fascinating. Thanks for blogging with the R8!

  3. Thanks for visiting the Rockville 8 during such a dark and stormy week!

    Recently, I heard a guest speaker at a writing event state that scary stories, just like love stories, are similar becasue they are the stories that put us in touch with our deepest emotions. And ghost stories seem to have all those qualities, don't they? Sometimes they're a little scary, they're often bittersweet, and they always pull emotion from us even if we want to pretend we're too old or too sophisticated or too modern to react viserally. Ghost stories prove we're human!

  4. Thank you for the wonderful comments. The book is only available in paper form. On-line you can get it from Amazon or Barnes & Noble. Since it is just out, the Montgomery County Historical Society is the only place locally that is carrying the book. (BTW - if you can, tour the museum which is one of the stories in the book)

    Some people are more sensitive or more willing to consider the possibility of ghosts. I think that's why we found stories from some owners and not others of the same house. I think it's especially obvious with some of the ghosts that have been documented over a long period of time by many people.

  5. Hi Karen,

    I've got a ghost story to share. It's true. It happened to me. I was visiting friends in Charleston SC one weekend and was put in the guest room for the night. During the night, my friends's cat jumped on the bed, kneaded the covers over my legs and finally settled down purring happily. All that activity woke me of course and in the unfamiliar and very dark room, I never actually saw the cat, but I heard and felt it.

    The next morning I mentioned this to my friends who stared in disbelief. Their cat had been hit and killed by a car earlier in the day before I had arrived. They had put me in the room the cat liked to sleep in.

    The cat did not come back the next night, but I am sure it was there the first night going about it's nocturnal routines, unaware perhaps that it was doing so on the astral plane!!


  6. Shellie, that's a really freaky ghost story! Yikes! When I was about seven years old, I lived in a house where my bedroom walls were painted in scenes from Snow White from the little girl who lived there before me. I would often feel something poking me through the matress from under my bed at night. Fun times! Great post ladies and Karen, wow! This sounds very cool. I think the creepiest ghost stories would come from people who were really reluctant to share...yikes!

  7. Karen, fantastic post and quite apropos for the time of year. Ahhh, ghosts, love to love them hate to see them. I just saw the "mockudrama" Paranormal Activity 4 and I have to say, it was scary because the director closely mimics how a ghost haunting might happen. I've experience some visitations and more often than not, I've prayed to God to make them go away, so I'd hardly have enough to write about. Ha! Most recently my fiance was asleep on the couch and I in the bed, I felt something twist me in the sheets and twirl me around so I was looking at the headboard with my feet toward it and my heat toward the foot of the bed. It was damned scary and turns out I was in a dream because I fought my way out of it and was lying in bed in a normal position. I think the dead communicate through many ways. But, as for me, not interested in pursuing such. Best of luck with your book!

  8. Karen your post is so apropos as Halloween approached. I've had a couple of ghostly experiences but each time a visitation occurred, I prayed to God to have it stop. And he did it, much to my relief. Most recently I was sleeping in bed and felt a strong presence wake me, twist me in my sheets and twirl me around so I was lifted in the air looking at the head of the bed. Turns out I was in a dream and I fought my way out of it finding myself in a normal position. The spirits have many ways to communicate with us, sometimes to protect us. As for me, I'd rather not communicate with them. But there's nothing like a good scare. I wrote a post about haunted houses we've visited this season, if your interested, check it out at
    Best of luck with your book Karen.!

  9. Karen - Thank you for visiting the R8!! I love-love-love ghost stories. Whenever I travel, I look for local ghost stories. I actually took a ghost tour a few years ago in Old Town Rockville. It was a lot of fun. I'd love to read your book. It sounds great. I'll have to look for it.

    Thank you again for visiting us!

  10. Hi Folks,

    It's the Day after Sandy! I hope Karen can join us today and respond to your comments. She lives in a very tree-ful community and may be without power today.

    Thanks for sharing your ghost stories with Rockville 8.


  11. I hope everyone survived the frankenstorm intact. I managed to escape without a scratch. Although, with the wind, it sounded like a legion of ghosts were trying to pry the roof off.

    I want to thank you again for the opportunity to blog about writing ghost stories. The other day, I had a reporter ask me if there were any ghost stories that alone could be a book. Of course, the answer is yes, there are the makings of a few good adventure stories in there. It does remind me that there is writing inspiration everywhere.

    And, I feel I must ask, if you have any Montgomery County ghost stories, I'd love to hear them.

  12. Spooky! I don't go out of my way to learn about ghost stories - I guess I'm too apt to freak out! I love (and am terrified) by the idea that something lingers after death. Strong emotion, it seems, for the most part - love, hate, overwhelming sadness. Ghost stories I think help us remember our humanity all the more.