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.
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.