Write what you know. That’s long been the popular advice for writers.
Dr. Michelle (Haberberger) Oyola was an East Central College student working part time at The Missourian back in the mid-2000s when a story assignment took her to an area truck stop that is supposedly haunted to interview a group of paranormal investigators.
It was a weird and wild experience, but a fun story to write, said Oyola, a 2003 graduate of Washington High School who now works as an eighth-grade language arts teacher at Grand Center Arts Academy, a charter school that focuses on dance, orchestra, band, visual arts, choir and theater, located across the street from Powell Hall in St. Louis.
After Oyola left The Missourian to accept a job with the nonprofit group Teach for America and start a career in education, she didn’t forget about that brush with the paranormal. In fact, it inspired her.
One of the two main characters in a new young adult (YA) thriller that she has written is a paranormal investigator, Lex, who was partly inspired by one of her very first students who didn’t like her very much on her first day teaching. The other main character, Penelope, is a student reporter, like she was once upon a time.
“The Ghost and the Wolf,” which was just released Tuesday by Owl Hollow Press, is the first book in a series, The Broken, by Oyola under the pen name Shelly X. Leonn. There are three books in the series so far, and all three have been accepted by Owl Hollow for publication.
Plans are to release the second and third books in the coming years, one each fall.
Oyola also has written a fourth book that she is currently editing and is beginning to write a fifth which she describes as a psychological horror story.
Scene From Franklin County
“The Ghost and the Wolf” is set predominantly in St. Louis, and numerous landmarks and locations are named through the story. But one of key events occurs in Franklin County, inspired by that same haunted truck stop from Oyola’s days as a reporter.
“There is a scene where they go down Highway 44 and they end up in an abandoned truck stop that I did not mention by name,” said Oyola.
A big part of Lex’s background is defending his late father’s legacy, she explained, noting Lex’s father was one of the first paranormal investigators before the work became part of pop culture. “There was a lot of mud that got thrown around on his dad’s name after his dad passed away, so (Lex’s) whole thing is defending what his dad did and to finally prove the existence of the paranormal.”
Lex’s dad left him with keys to the abandoned truck stop, and he and Penelope end up going in as part of their urban exploration, or “urbex” as it is often called, which is the exploration of manmade structures, usually abandoned ruins or hidden components of a manmade environment.
Penelope is a student reporter struggling to find her identity after a childhood of tragedy.
“Desperate to prove herself to her peers, she chases a story tip on a secret organization of teen urban explorers called The Broken,” the book jacket reads. “The group demands she complete a test before they let her write the story.
“While following the clues of their twisted scavenger hunt, she encounters Lex, a paranormal investigator with a knack for hacking, and together they work to uncover the organization’s darkest secrets. As they tag along on some of the group’s urban exploration missions, including an abandoned farmhouse, a vacant mall, and a haunted truck stop, they became entangled in the group’s inner fighting and their leaders’ plans that turn out to be much more nefarious . . . and deadly . . . than they had believed.
“Realizing her mistakes too late, Penelope will have to fight for her own life and the lives of her friends as she learns what it means to be one of the broken.”
“The Ghost and the Wolf” is the shortest of the three books in The Broken series at 273 pages. That includes a teachers guide at the end.
Although the book is in the YA genre, Oyola said it may be too much for some readers as young as eighth grade. There is a fair amount of violence (particularly in the second and third books) and a couple of instances of bad language.
It could be a good option for a high school summer reading list or even a book club.
“The whole concept of this series is what makes us different and why do we push away certain places and people from our society, and I feel like everyone can relate to that, at least in some way,” said Oyola.
Daughter of Jim Haberberger, Washington, and Cathy Sanders, Union, Oyola earned a degree in print journalism from Webster University before launching her career in education.
Writing has long been a hobby of hers, going back to the second grade when she wrote her first story. Although she has no formal training in creative writing, no Master of Fine Arts, Oyola used her knowledge of journalism to drive her storytelling.
She began writing what has become The Broken series on Wattpad, an online “social storytelling platform for writers and readers. That’s what led her to create a pen name.
“When I first started my account on Watt Pad I needed a user name, and I wanted to create something that sounded kind of cool but honored my kids,” said Oyola, noting her sons are named Xavier and Leon. “So that’s where that name came from.”
She plans to use the pen name for all of her fiction, as a way to keep it separate from any academic writing she does in education. Oyola said she intends one day to write a book about education.
Popular on Wattpad
Oyola began writing “The Ghost and the Wolf” as a creative outlet after she had completed her doctorate. The writing she had to do for her dissertation was so rigid and formal that she wanted to break loose.
As she was writing the story for Wattpad, Oyola never envisioned that it would be put into print. She posted it for free hoping that maybe someone would enjoy it.
“It was just a hobby,” she remarked.
The response she received was overwhelming. In the end, the three stories in The Broken series received more than 200,000 reads from people all over the world, and Oyola developed a following of more 2,000 readers.
“The Wattpad staff up in Canada found it . . . they were all passing it around the office,” she said.
The metrics they keep on posted stories showed that although Oyola’s didn’t have huge numbers at first, most of the people who started the book finished it.
“So it rose to the surface that way. And (the staff) all ended up passing it around, and they featured it on the site, and when that happened, it really exploded,” said Oyola.
One of the best features of Wattpad is that it connects writers to other writers and editors who can help improve their work. Oyola said she was accepted into one of the site’s more rigorous editing groups, and her initial experience was not pleasant.
“I got slammed by them,” she recalled.
But her writing was better for it.
Oyola said one of those editing groups is how she found her literary agent. She had asked a friend of a friend in the group if they wanted to swap stories to edit, and the other person actually ended up being two people who were junior agents for the Metamorphosis Literary Agency in Kansas City.
“They said, ‘Oh, by the way, we’re also from St. Louis, and we love all the St. Louis references . . . I read your book in one night, and I’m forwarding it on to our agent,” Oyola recalled. “That was mind-blowing. I was shaking.”
Writes in Small Chunks
Despite having a day job and two young children, ages 8 and 4, Oyola said finding time to write isn’t really a problem. It’s an outlet that she craves, so she just finds time to do it.
It helps too that she writes in “teeny, tiny chunks,” a holdover from her days as a journalist, no doubt.
“It’s very rare for me to write over 1,000 words in one sitting,” said Oyola. “I know people who will write 2,000 or 3,000 words at once, but I like spinning on it and chewing on it . . .
“There’s a part of me that’s always working on something. Then when I sit down to write it’s not like I’m sitting there staring at a blank screen. I usually have something to say.”
Although that approach sounds very disciplined, Oyola described herself as a “pantser,” or someone who “writes by the seat of her pants.”
“In the writing world, we talk about ‘pantsers’ and planners,” she said. “I’m definitely a pantser, and I always will be. I’m so Type A and so rigid in making sure that I get things done in my life, that when it’s time for me to be creative, I just want to see where things are going to go.
“A lot of this book it was just, ‘All right, now what?’ . . . To me that’s the thrill of the creative process and the thrill of discovery.”
In addition to teaching and writing, Oyola also produces a weekly podcast, “The Writers XL,” with a friend and fellow writer, who goes by the name LL Montez, who she met through Wattpad.
The podcast is sponsored by Writer’s Block Coffee. It is available on Audio Boom, Google Podcast and Apple Podcast.
“We have some hard-core fans,” said Oyola, noting there’s quite a fan base in New Zealand, of all places.
A lot of the discussion is based on Wattpad, but they do often have guests in to talk about publishing, both from a traditional standpoint and also on a digital platform like Wattpad.
“It’s how I still do journalism,” Oyola commented.
Looking ahead, Oyola doesn’t have any plans to quit teaching anytime soon, but she admits it would be “a dream” to be able to focus more of her time on writing.
“I try not to think about it too much,” she said. “It’s a dream, but I have no idea how this is going to go.”
“The Ghost and the Wolf” is available at Neighborhood Reads bookstore, 401 Lafayette St., in Downtown Washington or online at Amazon.com. To read an excerpt from the book, go online to https://owlhollowpress.com/the-ghost-and-the-wolf/. For more information on Oyola, go to her website, https://drsxl.com/