It all started with a house.
If I had to give my current work-in-progress a tag, I’d say that on its most basic level, it’s “Jane Eyre set in the deep South.” The first spark of an idea came to me when I was posting photos on my blog of a cool Flickr stream I’d found of pictures taken in abandoned buildings.
Something about dilapidated, abandoned buildings – particularly houses – is so appealing. The neglect lends an air of infinite sadness, and the mysteries are endless. Who lived there? What were they like? Where have they gone, and why is no one around to care about this house any more? And always, always this one: was somebody murdered there?
(That last question I can chalk up to all the Nancy Drew and Mary Higgins Clark I read growing up. It’s truly sad the number of times I’ve just been walking around and thought, ‘that would make a great hiding spot for a body.’)
When you think about it, those are the same kinds of questions we ask when we’re creating our characters and our story.
I was raised in Alabama, so as I looked through the Flickr stream of abandoned houses, I wondered what it would be like to stay in a dilapidated old plantation house in the deep South. But I didn’t want to set the story in modern times, or during the actual plantation era. I eventually settled on 1919 because it was a time of change, ushering in the modern age, yet still cautiously attached (especially in the South) to a bygone era.
My sister is in Charleston getting her master’s degree in historical preservation. She loves old buildings, natch, and we e-mailed back and forth about my book idea. (She loves historical mysteries, too.) She sent me a link to this house and I fell in love:
It inspired what became my novel’s central setting: a once-great Plantation house, still home to the last members of the family line but so neglected that the damage is almost irreparable. It’s as sinister as Manderley and as tragic as Thornfield Hall.
But the funny thing about architecture is that it can inform your writing in more ways than one. I was still musing over details of the mystery surrounding my creepy plantation house when my sister sent me an e-mail with her own thoughts about the house, and why it might have sunk into disrepair in the first place:
“The comparison between the almost aristocratic way of life that the planter class carried off vs. the ‘New South’ industrialization [after the Civil War] is very interesting. Whereas in Charleston, the planters were extremely hesitant to move forward into the twentieth century, places like Alabama did not have as strong of roots (colonial) and were more willing to change. That would explain the dilapidated/forgotten plantation house in your story. If you placed it somewhere south of Birmingham, [the family] might have moved away and gotten into the iron and steel industry, while keeping the house since it was the family seat.”
And as I thought about what exactly the house and the land around it might look like, she e-mailed me again, and as I read the e-mail, I suddenly had a light-shining-down-from-above-with-angels-singing experience…OK not exactly, but this paragraph solved one particularly prickly plot point in a way I hadn’t considered:
“If there are any slave quarters/outbuildings left over [on my fictional property], and there should be some, maybe have the house servants living there, or other black people whose families used to be slaves of the old plantation. A lot of times if they didn't go north, black people would stick around and continue working for the same masters because it's all the work they'd ever known. Depending on whether the property is still being cultivated, you might not have that many black people still living around there. Maybe [character] lets certain families live there, like the family of [mystery plot point omitted here!], out of guilt or obligation or because he feels a kinship with them.”
I’d rather not reveal more about the plot, but the above paragraph really put things in perspective for me. I’d forgotten that traditional plantation architecture dictates that slave outbuildings would almost certainly still be on the property. And there it was: I had another twist to add to my mystery and the house that sits at the heart of it.
But hands-down the most inspirational writer’s resource I’ve found is actually Flickr. You could browse there for hours – days – finding photos on anything you could ever possibly need.
In the last story I wrote, I didn’t seriously consider what exactly the buildings looked like. But as I outline this novel, I’m finding that just considering the architecture and its cultural and historical relevance fuels my imagination and helps me weave a deliciously twisty plot.
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Thanks so much for joining us, Anna Claire! I look forward to reading about your deliciously twisty plot! :)