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.