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?
Singer and composer Donald Swann once said that writing about music is like dancing about architecture. You can walk around that simile for quite a while. The writing is pointless? Music is bigger, more impressive, more lasting and hence more important? The one can’t substitute for the other?
At the moment, I’m writing about architecture, and Swann’s dictum haunts me. I need to take my readers into a house that is as real to me as my own. I know that each reader will blend my descriptions with her own home, her family’s homes, her feelings about home in general and god knows what else. But I need her to see some parts of the house clearly, and I want her to experience much more than an architectural plan.
The fictional house in question, recently named Fallowfields by its snobbish owner, was built in the late 1800s in rural New Hampshire. It is an uneasy blend of Victorian-era ostentation and New England tradition. Both aspects are important to my plot and to the personalities of my characters. So both have to come through.
My plot requires that people sneak around the place, in and out, upstairs and down, undetected. So I designed Fallowfields on the model of ‘big house, little house, back house, barn.’ Farm housekeeping in the nineteenth century required more than one structure. The little house was usually built onto the back wall of the big house, which was where the humans lived. It might be a summer kitchen, a dairy, a woodshed or all three. A third structure, the back house, would share the back wall of the little house and shelter a different activity. One way or another, all the space that made up the house was formed around the chores and the home production of goods that supported the family.
The Fallowfields barn now has an apartment built into the old hay loft. My heroine has converted the tack room into a home laboratory for her botany experiments. Readers need to notice that proximity. The little house has, unusally, a second story and an internal flight of stairs. There’s another flight at the front of the big house. Before we can do exciting scenes of rushing up and down and dodging round the house, I must lay the routes out for the reader in the course of their ordinary use. Needless to say, my writing group read the early drafts and scratched their heads. “Wait! She was in the barn. How did she get to the bedroom?” Time to revise.
I want much more from Fallowfields than these mechanics. My heroine is facing forced retirement from work that took her around the globe. Unless I can convey her growing contentment with a life in northern New England, she and the book will come to an unhappy end, which is not my intention. Fallowfields and the rest of her home town must convey the possibility of that contentment.
Parts of Fallowfields are based on my grandfather’s house in Peacham, Vermont, purely for the pleasure I take in recalling it. To a five-year-old, its little house was Aladdin’s cave. It held pairs of rubber boots tall and thick enough for Jack-in-the-Beanstalk’s giant, or to survive a universal deluge. There were thin bamboo sticks as tall as my father and balls of bright green twine that would stake vines in the garden next summer. There were little, square wood boxes streaked inside with bright crimson, waiting for yet another year’s raspberry crop. There was a tub of something called paraffin, which I was forbidden to touch. It felt smooth and slick.
Grandpa’s back house was a chicken house. Every egg we ate in that house was less than 24 hours old. At Fallowfields, the old chicken house has been converted into a paradise for a pair of pet ferrets, but hovering sharp and dusty in the air, somewhere between a scent and a memory, is the smell of the feathers, droppings and dirt generated by a flock of healthy chickens. Even today, one breath of that scent takes a half-century off my age. Can I manage to show that? Because telling just won’t do.