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The trouble with plotting a novel in which your protagonist encounters challenge and change is that you have to experience her losses with her. Eliza Harris, protagonist of my long-labored mystery novel, is going to end up moving into a “senior community” of highly eccentric academics. When I thought this up, it seemed full of promise. That was before I invented Fallowfields, the house she is going to leave.
Near my own real home (I am, unfortunately, a real person) is a short stretch of country road where, around 1800, six New Hampshire tycoons built their mansions, one right next to the other. Remember the old ads for Dewar’s Scotch that had a rich guy trotting across the yard to his neighbor’s palatial home from his own, to borrow a cup of Dewar’s? It’s like that. Without realizing I was doing it, I created Fallowfields from bits and pieces of the three houses I’ve visited.
Externally, Fallowfields is unlike the Ridge houses. It’s a Victorian brick monstrosity, rather like the house of the Addams family. Inside, though, it’s a dream. In fact, imagined houses are like dreams. Bits and pieces of places we’ve known are plugged in or detached as needed, logic not included. As in Terry Pratchett’s Empirical Crescent (built, you will recall, by Bloody Stupid Johnson), the door of Number 3 can open into the back bedroom of Number 14, entirely without consequence.
Once you import these mysteriously significant spaces into a story, though, the pieces need to fit. The staircase and the fireplace in Fallowfields’ living room have changed places three times. In the end, the fireplace settled on an outside wall – less likely than a central position in a house of its vintage, but I needed a staircase open to the living room, so one character can overhear a remark not meant for her ears. Of course, she could simply have been walking in from another room on the same floor. But by that time, I had the stage set in my mind, and her descent from above pleased the director in me.
The layout of Fallowfields has reached the point of proprioception for me. I can feel the living room on my right as I stand in the dining room looking down the corridor to the front door. This south side of the house has been grafted onto the layout of the local mansions – it is an apartment that my mother lived in for only one year while I was mostly away at college. So although Fallowfields is a very large house, with big rooms, when my mind is absorbed in the action of the story, the walls shrink in around me. When space is needed for, say, a large party or for a character to be far enough away from another for a whisper not to be heard, the walls ease out again. These contortions warn me to be careful; they’ll be fertile breeding ground for howlers in the logistics of the story.
The furnishings are much to my taste. Eliza’s desk is huge and heavy, made of the same mahogany as the pieces brought into our household by my English great-grandmother. It sits beside a tall window with six-over-six panes of glass. Outside is an ancient maple, huge and close enough for Eliza to watch lines of snow fall from individual twigs on a sunny February day. There is a liquor cabinet well-stocked with Scotch, bourbon and, at the back, an old bottle of rye that comes in handy for a rough-and-tumble visitor. The kitchen has a soapstone sink, hewn from the (perfectly real) soapstone quarry near my home on the side of Cottonstone Mountain.
Fallowfields has outbuildings linked together in the big-house-little-house-back-house-barn configuration of early New England farms. These, unmagicked, are cobbled together from the back house and barn of the original farmhouse on our property plus my grandmother’s chicken house in Peacham, Vermont.
My mystery plot requires that the back house have a loft, the barn’s tack room be turned into a laboratory and its hay loft into an apartment. They lost none of their reality in these renovations. The horse stalls in the far end of Eliza’s barn still bear the faded names of Shetland ponies who lived, long ago, in ours: Jennifer, Princess, Duchess.
So it will be very hard for me to force Eliza out of Fallowfields. I console myself with the thought that it will remain enshrined in the story, holding in place a lifetime of memories.
What about you, readers and fellow writers? As a story streams through your brain, what parts of your world does it clothe itself in?
PLAYING IN MUD
We’re in the dog days of summer, when that mysterious star, Sirius, rises somewhere on the horizon.
Take a hike, Sirius.
Most everyone feels sluggish and irritable during these sticky mid-summer days. There are some, I hear, who come alive while sweating but as for me, I’m looking forward to the crisp days of autumn, even though those crisp days herald the cold of winter.
So, I was tending toward feeling heavy, hot and brain dead one late afternoon when I came home from a challenging couple of hours playing Mah Jongg. I found my son making a giant mud puddle in the backyard. My backyard is big enough that a swamp of mud the proportions of a grave site would not be readily seen, but I wasn’t ticked but rather intrigued; what the heck? I said to myself.
“What the heck, Whitt? You’ll have all the warthogs and hippos here by morning, wallowing, trying to get cool.”
He had a lot of sound equipment hovering near the muck which I hadn’t noticed at first. My son is not five years old, the typical period of a muddler, he’s going on thirty-five, a reasonable age for a film-maker. He’s a man of few words. “Did you win?” he asked.
“I did pretty well, considering the heat. What’s up?”
He showed me a list of sounds he needed for his film: a cartwheel rolling through muck, boots walking through sucky mud. Sounds of water; water being drunk, being splashed, drifting through my fingers, splashing from a basin, and being poured from a pitcher into various metal containers, and etc.
I became a trekker through mud. I became the gofer, looking through my kitchen for all the different vessels that made water not taste better but sound better. I became a Gunga Din and manned the hose when the mud was not viscose enough, stopped the flow when the mud overflowed its banks. I gulped water and sipped water, sloshed it and stirred it. I pushed start and stop buttons when Whitt became too mud encrusted to touch his equipment, and I listened through headphones to mucky, yucky sucky sounds inaudible to the naked ear.
It was fun. I forgot the heat.
Then, while he made a fire in the pit to record the crackling sounds, I made us some dinner.
Being a filmmaker is a lot like being a five year old. It’s infectious, too.
This was in my inbox this morning, from one cousin, by way of another. High excitement indeed!
“In case you are not current in world news, here is the unbelievable scoop. The Tour de France is going to go through Roudouallec on Wednesday. No, they are not lost. They will be on the route Lorient/Quimper for stage 5. From what has been described to me they will come from the south (Guiscriff) on the road past Kerzellec. Then enter the Bourg of Roudouallec, make a left and then make the turn on the route to St Goazec still going north. After a short while, they will turn south towards Coray and then onto Quimper.
I imagine that crowds will be coming into Roudouallec from the surrounding towns and create the biggest excitement since the US Army rolled through in 1944.”
Roudouallec? Where’s that?
Roudouallec is in Brittany, France. It’s on the Armorican peninsula immediately before Finisterre, or Land’s End, the furthest west that you can be in France
So, what’s the big deal?
The big deal is that Roudouallec is my family homestead. My father was born there in 1909, the youngest of ten children. Half of his siblings eventually came to the United States because of the deprivations of WW1 on the little farming community. Two of my father’s brothers had been gassed in that war. Nothing was the same again for those who lived there, farmers for the most part.
My father was born in a stone, mud-floored house. To lay a mud floor was considered an art back then, only done by specialized craftsmen. He came to this country when he was 17, following in the footsteps of older siblings. Throngs of Bretons came to NYC to work in the hotel industry and for Michelin Tire in New Jersey. Roudouallec and many other small towns lost large percentages of their populations. The old folks held their neighborhoods together by sheer willpower.
My father died in 2002 at the age of 93. Two years later my daughter and I took his ashes back to Roudouallec to be buried in the family vault. It was my first trip to the old country, as he had liked to call it. It was the first time in my life that I didn’t need to spell my maiden name, LeGuillou, for strangers. That was surreal enough, but even stranger was the feeling that I belonged in this one street village overshadowed by the ancient church, only a few years away from the twice-daily cow parade through the center of town. I’m sorry I missed that but, hey, can’t stop progress.
Tomorrow, instead of taking refuge from cows in the shallow doorways and side streets of Roudouallec, tourists will be watching from windows and roofs as bicyclists streak down the narrow mile-long main drag that extends from a most excellent creperie at one end to my cousin Mimi’s house at the other. This will undoubtedly be the biggest excitement since 1944.
I know that my cousins will be watching from the front yard of Mimi’s home, the first house in Roudouallec after you leave Finisterre.
I’d like to be there too.
I will be watching coverage online.
Having recently attempted to mend a badly boggled plot, and as a result scattered a whole book to the winds, I decided it was time to work stupid. Plagiaristically, even. I pulled off my bookshelf a favorite old textbook. Not from a creative writing class – I never took one of those (and that was a bad mistake.) My chosen instructor was Vladimir Propp, Russian scholar of folk tales and author of Morphology of the Folk Tale.
Morphology analyzes the structure of the stories in a huge corpus of Russian folk tales assembled by Alexander Nikolayevich Afanasyev, who was the Russian brothers Grimm rolled into one.
Afanasyev’s collection, published between 1855 and 1867, filled eight volumes and included some 600 tales. Propp found that he could condense everything that happened in every single one of the tales into a list of no more than 31 narrative events. He called these “functions.”
Better yet, for those of us with plot blindness, Propp claimed that whatever subset of the functions was included in a tale, they always appeared in the same order. That is, a tale might include only functions 2, 3, 8, 14, 16, 18, 30 and 31, but in the chronology of the tale, those functions will always appear in that order. Marvelous! Pick your functions, fill in a few details and there’s your story! Right?
The subset of functions above is not random: they’re the ones I picked out for my ready-made plot. Here are their definitions:
INTERDICTION: A forbidding edict or command is given.
VIOLATION OF INTERDICTION: The prior rule is violated.
VILLAIN CAUSES HARM, not necessarily to the hero.
HERO ACQUIRES A MAGICAL AGENT.
COMBAT OF HERO AND VILLAIN
VILLAIN IS DEFEATED.
VILLAIN IS PUNISHED.
HERO IS MARRIED AND ASCENDS THE THRONE.
Now, about those details….
Brainstorming is where I always get into trouble. It’s not that I can’t do it. I just find myself unreasonably delighted with the characters, settings and odd little objects that pop into my head. Once I’ve thought them up, I can’t sacrifice them just to make some stupid plot work.
The hot dogs are a case in point. I’m currently re-re-re-reading The Circus of Dr. Lao, Charles G. Finney’s 1935 masterpiece about a very strange little carnival. So my brainstorm around the Propp plot naturally begins by setting my story in a carnival. A magical carnival, of course. That decided, I need a combat at a carnival. Bingo! A hot dog eating contest now infests my story, and I can’t get rid of it. And wait! Carnivals always have lots of stalls selling food. Like state fairs… Have you heard about the deep-fried Oreos at the New Jersey State Fair? The deep-fried butter in Wisconsin? How about those Twix-stuffed Twinkies wrapped in bacon at the North Carolina State Fair? I’ve got to get stuff like that in.
Then, instead of casting about for an interdiction, my mind leaps ahead to the magical agent. It’s my favorite function, and my favorite form of it has always been the magical animal. Propp lists multiple ways in which these may fulfill the function; I end up combining three of them. The third, a bag of dragon’s teeth, wandered in from my long-ago dissertation on the Argonautika.
So now I’m knee-deep in hot dogs, fried butter and dragon’s teeth. When I finally start the search for a good interdiction, food is still on my mind. I get a good long way with “no magic in the food for customers,” but then that gets tangled up with a princess (actually the carny owner’s daughter) who isn’t allowed to eat because it messes up her magic…. Did I mention that Propp also condensed the character list into only seven people?
I showed my brainstorm to date to my writing group. They said, “???”
I’m determined, though. I’ve already caught myself in three intolerable contradictions and wrestled my way out of them. I will get a story out of this exercise, or eat a Twix-stuffed Twinkie wrapped in bacon.
Or, as they say, not, in France, Gharrbahggge. They don’t call it that, but they do put it into a poubelle, which sounds so much more beautiful than a garbage can, or trash can, or even circular file.
While I was working my way through Sleep School, aka, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for my insomnia, I whiled away many evenings reading mysteries, watching movies, TV mystery series, doing Sudoku puzzles, playing scrabble, indulging in long phone calls with people on the west coast, all in a seemingly never-ending struggle to stay awake until my appointed bedtime. Bedtime was at midnight but has moved slowly and incrementally up to a more reasonable 11PM. Now I’m aiming at 10:45. Not bad. I’ll still have time to read.
In the mysteries I entertained myself with, past and present, written or filmed, it dawned on me that the detective (professional, or the more entertaining amateur) might have to search through dumpsters, landfills, dumps, and sweet sounding poubelles to find clues. On the way to finding clues, there was a lot of yuck. Sometimes the yuck was a clue. Yuck.
Amateurs braved the garbage themselves unless they were independently wealthy and had an assistant to do it for them. They probably won’t have that assistant for long. Professionals had a string of underlings who aspired to reach the top rung in the ladder of detection and therefore dared not give up. They were given Hazmat suits. Lucky them.
I considered my own personal poubelle at the side of my desk this morning and wondered what clues it would yield to the inquiring mind. At the moment I’d wondered I had just tossed in a chocolate wrapper. It was exceedingly good chocolate, and I would recommend it to anyone who asks. In the same receptacle is a potato chip bag. Also a good quality chip.
What would those items tell a snoop?
However, the bulk of the trash is folded, smashed, wrinkled and torn up paper; my attempts at writing. They are the critiqued pages of my stories, handed back to me in good faith by my faithful companions. The notations had been gone over, the comments were read and may be applied.
There is nothing physically yucky in there, no need to suit up. I try to keep it all burnable.
But what would it tell someone who thought I had committed some heinous crime?
The crime indeed would not lie in my choice of snack. My taste in chocolate is impeccable. Quality over quantity every time.
But what about the paper? Quantity over quality?
Ah, there might lie the crime.
I was whining away on a Facebook page the other day (Golden Age Detection) about how the current “rules” for mystery novels are turning them boring. So today, a positive note: a review of one of my favorite Golden Age mysteries that breaks many of those rules, Dead Water by Ngaio Marsh.
The book begins, as Marsh’s always do, with a list of the “dramatis personae.” Marsh worked in the theatre, and some of her best mysteries take place during theatre productions. (Her very best book, in my view, is Light Thickens, in which she violates the most sacred commandment of the Detection Club by…
SPOILER ALERT: if you haven’t read Light Thickens yet, scroll past the single line in italics immediately below this one.
…ending the story with the entirely satisfactory discovery of a homicidal maniac.
I love to make my way through the dramatis personae list, imagining likely interactions, spotting promising eccentrics and provokers of conflict. In Dead Water, the obvious candidate is “Miss Emily Pride, Suzerain of [Portcarrow] Island.”
Dead Water comprises only nine chapters, and the first of them is that major no-no, a prologue. Its title is actually “Prelude.” It recounts the alleged appearance of a fairy in a modern-day (that’s 1963) UK fishing village, and village’s resulting transformation into a folklore-y spa. Conflict is confined to minimal levels of discomfort as the whole cast of characters is introduced. Far from leaving anyone hanging from a cliff, the final sentence of the Prelude informs the reader that the story is about to leap over the following two years. This prologue takes up its full 1/9 of the text.
(“Prelude” also sets up one rule-blessed plot thread of which Marsh was fond: a romantic young couple, who will – the reader always knows – live happily ever after once the inevitable murder is cleared up.)
The first quarter of Chapter Two is very heavy to backstory, another no-no. The vivid characterization makes it perfectly smooth and perfectly fascinating. One of Marsh’s best creations, Miss Emily Pride, born ca. 1880, was formerly French coach to rising members of His Majesty’s diplomatic service. The rest of the chapter sets the scene for future confrontations, but the participants in the main conflict of the story remain hundreds of miles apart.
In Chapter 3 the enemies meet and conflict escalates, but nothing worse than threats and minor assaults occur. Not until the end of the chapter does the detective/protagonist appear on this scene of not-quite-crimes. In this reader’s opinion, the threatened victim beats out our hero for character and interest. (I’ve never been hugely enamored of Marsh’s detective Roderick Alleyn. He and the mysteries he unravels serve, it seems to me, largely as an axis for the galaxy of her dramatis personae.)
We are now 1/3 of the way through the book. The first quarter of Chapter 4 is a comic and entirely believable account of a disastrous village festival, ending in nothing worse than a thunderstorm. Not until the end of the chapter, at the 40% mark, does the first and only corpse in the story appear, and it is not a cliffhanger but an elegant switcheroo.
From that point, detection takes over, with no diminution of character interest or involvement with the setting. Marsh’s brilliant plotting picks up from the early chapters clues and red herrings –– including the fairy and the thunderstorm – so subtle as to have been invisible even to experienced mystery readers as they passed by. When the usual climactic scene of derring-do is complete (another rule that Marsh generally followed), Chapter 9 continues with an extended explanation by the detective, a happy ending for the lovers and charitable provision made for innocent sufferers. This denouement covers two days.
Marsh’s editors seem to have had no problem with passages inserted for sheer fun. Here’s one of my favorites. A now-deceased character, whose sole function is to have made a plot-generating bequest to Miss Emily, is described:
My sister, Fanny Winterbottom,” Miss Emily announced, “was not free from this fault. I recall an informal entertainment at our Embassy in which she was invited to take part. It was a burlesque. Fanny was grotesquely attired and carried a vegetable bouquet. She was not without talent of a farouche sort and made something of a hit. Verb. Sap.: as you shall hear. Inflamed by success she improvised a short equivocal speech at the end which she flung her bouquet at H.E. It struck him in the diaphragm and might well have led to an incident.
So there’s an instance of brilliant, rule-breaking mystery writing. A small prize (a blog shout-out) is offered to all who can name a recently published equal.
I Told Myself That I wouldn’t Write About This. . . but, here I am, about to bore my gentle readers to tears over my tale of woe, and seeming success.
Anyone out there with insomnia? You might be the only ones who won’t be put to sleep by this post.
Almost one month ago, after decades of dealing with insomnia, I went for a sleep consultation at a nearby hospital. The doctor called my condition ‘Pure Insomnia,’ though I’m not at all sure about its purity. She said I was a poor candidate for spending the night hooked up to various things because I’d never fall asleep. I didn’t have sleep apnea because I didn’t sleep. She suggested Cognitive Behavior Therapy.
CBT. Of course, I was familiar with the term, but not the actual practice. It was torture for the first few days. Waterboarding looked like a fun way to pass the time.
How hard could it be to change a life-long habit? Hard. Maybe the first few days for a heroin addict, or an alcoholic, to go without their substance of choice might be more painful, but my experience was undoubtedly similar to physical and mental withdrawal. My end-of-the-day reward, my life-long habit of reading in bed, was about to be ripped from my life. I would not be permitted to snuggle up to a book in the comfort of my memory foam mattress and the nurturing love of my pillow. For three hours, 9 PM to midnight, I paced the floor outside the door of my bedroom, not allowed to enter lest I fall into temptation, and bed. I struggled mightily, not knowing what to do.
I carried on like this for a few nights until my husband suggested a movie. That passed some time. Knitting helped. But for some reason reading outside of my bed at night never felt right.
As I said, that was one month ago. I’m doing better now.
I don’t think that reading in bed caused my condition. After all, I’ve read in bed since I could, and that was early. I was the flashlight-under-the-blanket type of kid, unable to get up in the mornings because of the adventurous life I led before dawn. But, when insomnia began because of some cruel twist of fate, the reading habit exacerbated it. I’d lie in bed for hours after lights out waiting for sleep that never showed up. I’d lie in bed in the mornings hoping to catch some z’s and couldn’t. I’d lie in bed for ten hours to get 3 hours of sleep.
What the CBT did, through forced sleep deprivation (amusingly called Sleep Restriction Therapy), was to limit the time I could be in bed. An amount of sleep time was determined using hard, cold calculations, and a predetermined rising time set. For me, it was midnight to bed, and 6 AM to rise. Yes, 6 AM even if I didn’t sleep! Well, if I could sleep for the whole 6 hours, I would have twice as much sleep as I was getting, so I leapt at the proposal.
The first few nights, even after strenuous pacing, and pulling out my hair, I slept as usual. Lousy. Then the forced sleep deprivation took hold, and I slept almost the whole 6 hours.
No napping was allowed.
No lying in bed if I wasn’t sleeping.
No breaks, like sleeping in on the weekends. I was in the army now, my hand behind the plow.
CBT is not for the weak. But it is for the determined.
If, after every seven days, my actual sleeping time increased I’d be permitted to add 15 minutes to my allotted time. You have no idea how I look forward to that little reward. Like a prisoner in solitary who watches for the hand with the tin plate at the door slot, I looked forward to the hands of the clock moving toward my new bedtime. At the end of this week, I can hit the sack at 11 PM.
Still no books in bed, but I’m getting used to reading sprawled out on the sofa, fighting off sleep till I’m allowed to close my eyes in the sanctity of the bedroom.
Now, I don’t want to wake you if you’ve fallen asleep reading this, but I’m done.
The To Be Read pile is an ambiguous object.
On the one hand, there’s a genuine guilt factor: “I really shouldn’t spend any more on books till I’ve read these. Or at least till the pile is smaller.”
On the other hand, there’s the built-in humblebrag: “You should see my TBR pile! The floor joists are starting to creak!” (“Why, what a very cultivated kind of youth this kind of youth must be!“)
Neither argument is relevant for a book hoarder deciding to buy a new book. Books aren’t substitutable. This is something that non-bibliophiles find hard to understand. Raise your hand if anyone has ever said to you, “Don’t you have enough books already?”
The fact that David Mitchell’s sixfold fantasy Cloud Atlas, acquired a month ago at the Five Colleges Book Sale, is waiting on my TBR pile does not mean that I can pass up The Devil I Know by Claire Kilroy, a novel based on Ireland’s Celtic Tiger property boom.
But is it fair to call this book accumulation hoarding? The book hoarder – or let’s just say ‘owner’ – fully intends to read the books. True, all those people living between stacks of decades-old newspapers also defend their possessions fiercely, claiming that they will, or may, or might read them someday. The social worker brought in by the family claims to know better.
Let us try for objective truth here. The Literary Hub website provides a scientific calculation of the number of books you can read before you die. Plug in your age and your own estimate of your reading speed (“average,” “voracious” or “super”) and they will tell you how many books you’ve got to go.
Getting the number is like hearing the first Bong! of the church bell for your own funeral. My number is 875. Only three digits. On the bright side, my TBR pile is much smaller than that. Even if I count all the TBRs that have moved over the years from the Pile to my shelves, unread, because a higher pile threatened an industrial accident, I can probably buy a few hundred books and still die absolved. Only a few hundred.
Suppose your number is smaller than your TBR pile, honestly counted. Is it hoarding then? According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders published by the American Psychiatric Association, the criteria for hoarding concern an inability to discard hoarded items. Nothing about how much you acquire. (Note that the APA is vaguely aware of a definitional difficulty here: they are currently debating whether to say “regardless of the value others may attribute to these possessions” or “regardless of their actual value.”)
No problem there. I just donated seven cartons of books to the above-mentioned book sale. I now have exactly enough room for my TBR books on my shelves. The only remaining problem is where to put the next 875.
However, the DSM also stipulates that “the symptoms cause clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning (including maintaining a safe environment for self and others).”
Again, we have a definitional problem. Distress or impairment to whom? I don’t mind the occasional spilled coffee when I miss the one remaining mug-shaped space on the table with my current reads because my eyes are fixed on the text. Is the pained expression on my husband’s face “clinically significant”? If so, he must need a psychiatrist.
It might be spring if you just planted a couple of pansy six-packs in outdoor planters and then had to bring them in the house because the temperature would be dropping below freezing.
It might be spring if you had the back door open for the noonday sun to warm the house but you still wanted something hot for lunch.
And it might be spring if, while you were heating up said lunch, the cat who had been soaking up rays on the back deck came streaking through the house warning you that there was something outside and that something was a cute, rumply, cuddly, year-old black bear with his nose twitching away at the door in eager anticipation of a home cooked meal such as Mom might have taught him to enjoy.
I shut the door on his cute little nose, and he never batted an eye.
He was awfully cute with his mussy fur coat decorated with twigs and bits of leaves. I watched from the windows as he walked around the house investigating empty planters, glass globes hanging from the naked branches of hydrangeas and lilacs, and turning over with his thumbless hands and huge claws items of suspected gustatory interest.
That was two days ago. The cat hasn’t come out of hiding except to snatch a bite to eat now and then. The sight of bears does that to him. And as adorable as that little tyke of a bear was I also hope he doesn’t come back.
It’s spring when the days are warm and dry, and you want to be out in the yard doing things rather than hunkering down by the wood stove. But hunkering, I think, is more conducive to thinking great thoughts than is basking in the sun. Should I be glad that I live in the north country where summer is literally only 12 weeks long? Would the other 40 weeks give me enough time to write great American flash fiction? Forget the novel. Can anyone in more torrid zones (south of New Hampshire) think clearly enough to imagine great things when they had all those temperate months to bask? I suppose if anyone south of New Hampshire read this post they could accuse me of being a latitudinalist, and they might be correct.
Being anything ‘ist, or phobic these days is bound to get you in trouble. Am I an ursidist, or maybe even ursaphobic if I prefer that cute little feral creatures not wander through my yard when big mama might be close behind? My cat is. And my pansies are exothermistophobes, but then they are pansies; they don’t want to be left out in the cold. Who can blame them?
I’m not sure where this post is going, but I’m going to sit in the sun before it freezes, which it will again tonight. It might be spring in the day, but at night it’s another story.
I had already invented a historic house for my murder. It dated to pre-Revolutionary times. I knew how it had begun –smallish, built by a hard-working tiller of the stony New Hampshire soil – and how it had grown as the family prospered. The foursquare, four-room shelter expanded, front, back and sides, as the nineteenth century progressed. The second story lost its sloping bedrooms and acquired an attic. Greek Revival doohickeys appeared. Even the sheds and barn grew neat.
This week, I got a chance to visit the kernel of my mysterious house. A kindly neighbor is selling his 1775 farmhouse, and he gave me a royal tour. I found myself regretting that I had allowed my fictional Stark House to be tinkered with by a bunch of equally fictional ancestors.
We stepped from the narrow front porch into a graceful swirl of centuries. A narrow wooden staircase on the left of the hall was painted in a deep, vivid blue, like the rich colors that once graced Mount Vernon. The paper on the walls reminded me of the papers Americans imported in the eighteen hundreds, when they established themselves among the nations — as consumers with the best of them.
To either side of the hall were parlors, each with its fireplace, rooms deliberately kept small to conserve heat and prevent drafts. There were signs of new prosperity here, too: the wood-paneled walls may have been the work of a carpenter known to have come through town in the 1830s. He dressed up a number of the local houses – no one wanted to be left behind the fashion. My neighbor had stripped off the centuries of paint that disguised it; you can now stroke the original wood of this 19th-century upgrade.
Behind the smaller parlor was the “warming room.” It shared a chimney with the large kitchen behind the company rooms. Here babies came into the world and the old left it, tended by the women of the family as they kept the kitchen fire going and the stew on the simmer. Our woods here in the Upper Valley still grow good lumber, but the trees that provided its wide floor boards and the original rafters above the kitchen are no more.
The old kitchen has become a living area, its original rafters once again visible, and the extension of the house to the back now houses a modern kitchen. One thing hasn’t changed: my host had a stew in progress that any Puritan goodwife would have envied (or at least asked for the recipe.)
When we made our way down to the basement, I knew that I had missed a great opportunity for my fictional Stark House. Its walls were made of fieldstone, like the walls that run through all our woods and pastures here, but with a big difference. These had been matched and placed with such care and skill that the corners were militarily precise. Just over our heads – we’re both about middle height – huge wooden beams lowered over us. Many had been replaced over the years, but some were still unsquared trunks from those ancestral forests. Think what crimes I could have committed – and concealed! — in such a basement. Just a little monkeying with the light fixtures….
Outside, under the lawn, there are signs of another foundation, probably the barn. I ached to know whether it had once been connected to the house by sheds and work buildings in the style known as Big-House-Little-House-Back-House-Barn. Those convoluted connections figure largely in my murders.
I can see that I’ll have to write a sequel, if only to add the counterpart of this lovely place to my fictional Oxbow, New Hampshire.