Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Location, location, location

I have a posse of mystery writer friends (I should say goddesses or divas!) I hang with when I’m in Raleigh: Margaret Maron, Sarah Shaber, Diane Chamberlain, Katy Munger, Mary Kay Andrews and Brynn Bonner. We’re more a regular lunch group than a critique group, but several times a year we go on retreat to the beach or the mountains or some generally fantastic place. We work all day long by ourselves and then convene at night to drink wine and brainstorm on any problem that any one of us is having (and of course, compare page counts!).

And one of our favorite retreats is the Artist in Residence program at the Weymouth Center in Southern Pines, NC.

Weymouth is an amazing place – a 9000 sq. foot mansion on 1200 acres (including several formal gardens and a 9-hole golf course) that’s really three houses melded together. It was what they called a “Yankee Playtime Plantation” in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, the fox hunting lodge of coal magnate James Boyd. James Boyd’s grandson James rebelled against the family business to become - what else? - a novelist. Boyd wrote historical novels, and his editor was the great Maxwell Perkins (“Editor of Genius”), and in the 1920’s and 30’s Weymouth became a Southern party venue for the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sherwood Anderson, and Thomas Wolfe. That literary aura pervades the house, especially the library, with all its photos and portraits of the writers who have stayed at the house.

It’s a fantastic place to write – pages just fly.

We have our own rooms, meet for coffee in the morning and set goals for the day, work all day, and then reconvene at night for dinner and to discuss progress and spitball plot problems.

When I started plotting The Unseen, I needed a haunted mansion that I could know and convey intimately - the house in a haunted house story is every bit as much a character as the living ones. So of course the Weymouth mansion, with its rich and strange history, convoluted architecture, isolation, vast grounds, and haunted reputation, was a no-brainer. I truly believe that when you commit to a story, the Universe opens all kinds of opportunities to you. And as it happened, we were able to stay in the house again for a week as I was writing the book last year.

We came down to the house on the very day that my characters were moving into THEIR haunted house.

(I’m telling you, writing is a little scary. More than a little scary, in this case…)

Now, some of us had some truly spooky encounters in that place. Every time I turned around there was knocking on the walls (the pipes in the kitchen), weird manifestations (a ghostly team of horses trotting by with a buggy on the road outside) and rooms that were just too creepy to go into after dark. One night I had to go all the way back upstairs, across the upstairs hall and around to the front stairs to get to a room I wanted to go to because I was too freaked out to cross the Great Room in the dark. And another one of us had the classic “Night Hag” visitation: she woke up feeling that someone or something was sitting on her chest. Brrrrr…..

One prevalent theory of hauntings is that a haunting is an imprint of a violent or strong emotion that lingers in a place like an echo or recording. I’ve always liked that explanation.

Well, this house was imprinted, all right, but far beyond what I had expected.

Because besides the requisite spooky things… that house was downright sexy. There’s no other way to say it. Seriously - hot.

I had ridiculously, I mean – embarrassingly - erotic dreams every night. There were rooms I walked into that made my knees go completely weak. The house, the gardens, even the golf course, just vibrated with sex.

Now, maybe that was just the imprint of creativity – the whole mansion is constantly inhabited by writers and musicians, and as we all know, creativity is a turn-on.

But also, consider the history. As I said – Weymouth was a “Yankee Playtime Plantation”. Rich people used that house specifically to party - in the Roaring Twenties, no less. (Think The Great Gatsby!). God only knows how many trysts, even orgies, went on. So could sex imprint on a place, just as violence or trauma is supposed to be able to imprint?

It makes sense to me.

And the history continues today - the mansion and gardens are constantly used for weddings, loading more sexual energy into the place, and last night, for example, there was a junior high cotillion practice in the great room, which I snuck down to watch – talk about sexual energy bouncing off the walls!

That sexual dynamic surprised the hell out of me, but it completely worked with my main character’s back story - she’s a young California psychology professor who impulsively flees to North Carolina after she catches her fiancé cheating on her. (Actually, she dreams her fiancé is cheating on her, in exactly the scenario that she catches him in later.) So her wound is a specifically sexual one, and one of her great weaknesses is that she’s vulnerable to being sexually manipulated.

Add to that that the most prevalent explanation of a poltergeist is that it’s hormones run amok: that the projected sexual energy of an adolescent or young adult can randomly cause objects to move or break.

So of course I went with it. It wasn’t anything to do with my outline, but California girl that I am, how can I not go with the obvious flow?

I think it adds a great dimension to the story, in a way I never could have anticipated, and I’m pleased to have been true to the - um, spirit - of poltergeists.

And this year, one of the books I’m working on at the manor is my dark paranormal for Harlequin Nocturne, about a witch and a shapeshifter. Shapeshifter erotica – in THIS house – well, you can imagine…

So I have two questions, first, re: research. Has a place you’ve researched ever significantly changed a story for you? How?

But also I’d love to know – what’s the sexiest place you’ve ever been, and why? I wouldn’t mind having a list to file away. You never know when you might need it.

And here's a bit of the introduction to the house, from The Unseen:


……..They had turned off the narrow road and onto a dirt one that led up to the stone gateposts from the photos. Laurel felt a little buzz of déjà vu at the sight of the sleek stone hunting dogs seated atop them, permanently frozen at attention.

A metal gate stretched between the posts, padlocked. Audra reached for the keys on the dash, and Ian gallantly jumped out to unlock and open the gate for her.

As he did, Laurel caught Audra eyeing her in the rear view mirror and felt uneasily that they might not be pulling as much over on her as Ian assumed they were.

But before either of the women could say anything, if either was going to, Ian was back in the car, presenting the keys to Audra with a smile.

They drove forward, gravel crunching under the tires, past a perfect curve of pink-blossomed crape myrtles lining both sides of a split rail fence along the road. Wind stirred the tall, spare pines around them. Laurel found herself craning forward to look. As the house appeared between the trees, she felt a jolt.

It was an English country house of white-painted brick with a steeply pitched roof of what looked like real gray slate, two chimneys, a round upper balcony with white-painted iron railing, and gray shutters. It seemed whole from the front, but the overwhelming feeling was that it was not. There was part that just seemed to be missing.

And angry, Laurel thought absurdly.

As Audra drove the circle to come up to the front, Laurel got a glimpse of the rest of the house, and realized what was so wrong. There was another whole house connected to the front one, this one much longer, made of brick with white columns and trim, set perpendicular to the white front part. Unbelievably, there seemed to be yet another white house behind that, at the other end of the brick part, but just as soon as Laurel had spied it that glimpse was gone. Audra stopped by the path leading to the front door and shut off the engine.

“Welcome to the Folger House.”

The solid oak door creaked open into a small entry with glazed brick floors, surprisingly dark compared to the lightness of the house outside. The room had a greenish tinge, from the garden green-painted wainscoting running halfway up the wall. Laurel was reminded of the Spanish-style houses around Santa Barbara, and she had a sudden, painful memory of - the dream - and her midnight ride from the hotel. She pushed the thought away and forced herself back to the present as she followed Audra and Ian into the house.

Across the green entry there were two steps up into a second, larger entry with a fireplace and a long wood bench like a church pew facing it. Laurel glanced over a family portrait above the fireplace mantel, a crude, colorful painting of two parents and two children that gave her a strange sense of unease, but she had no time to study it before Audra stepped forward to begin her narration. “This is actually the newer portion of the house,” she explained, “The part that was added on when James and Julia moved in permanently.” Laurel looked around her at the cool, quiet rooms.

Past the fireplace were stairs down to a small empty room of indeterminate function to the right, with the same glazed brick floors, and what looked like a bathroom beyond. On the left there was a short hall with a glimpse of a dark-paneled study at the end. Very odd rooms to have at the entry of a house, Laurel thought. There was dust like a fine sprinkling of baby powder everywhere, but otherwise the house was in surprisingly good condition.

“Hmmm,” Laurel smiled vaguely at Audra.

On the fourth wall of the second entry there was a door into a much wider and taller hall with dark hardwood floors and white walls. Laurel and Ian followed Audra into it. An elegant staircase curved up to the right, with a tall bay window that looked out over enormous, overgrown gardens. Past a window seat, the stairs took another upward turn and disappeared.

Ian took Laurel’s hand again as they walked forward. She frowned at him and he nodded ahead toward Audra, shrugging helplessly (with a What can I do? look.) Laurel pressed her lips together and went along. His hand was strong and warm around her fingers and she was suddenly electrically aware of his presence beside her.

At the end of this hall there was an archway, with three short steps leading down, and then out of nowhere, a huge room, the size of a small ballroom, with two fireplaces, smoky mirrors in gilt frames lining the walls and a wide, rectangular expanse of hardwood floor.

Laurel was about to follow Audra through the archway when she felt a chill run through her entire body.

“Here,” she said aloud, and Ian turned back to look at her. Laurel pulled her hand from his and touched the doorjamb and thought she felt the faintest shock, like static electricity. “They cut the house here.”

“Yes, I believe you’re right,” Audra acknowledged, with an appraising glance at Laurel.

They all moved down the steps into the great room. Aside from a few end tables with marble tops, the only furniture in the room was a battered, dusty grand piano.

“This is the older house,” Audra said, unnecessarily; the feeling of the room was completely different, much older and more complicated. The ceiling was high with a raised ornamental design in the dome, and the crown molding had plaster medallions at intervals all the way around the room. Two bay windows with dusty panes flanked a set of equally filmy French doors which led out onto what must have been absolutely stunning gardens, several acres of them, now so overgrown with wisteria and yellow jasmine and honeysuckle Laurel thought instantly of Sleeping Beauty’s castle.

The bare floors shone even through their layer of dust and Laurel noted they were heart of pine (heart pine) but far older than the floors in her own house… she could see the wide planks had been fastened by hand-carved wood dowels instead of nails.

Then she froze, staring at a spot halfway across the floor.

Ian opened his mouth to speak to Audra, but Laurel dug her nails into his palm and pointed.

In the solid layer of dust on the floor, there were footprints. Smallish and soft-soled, like footsteps on the beach, headed away from them, toward the archway to the next room.

But they began in the middle of the floor, and left off well before the doorway, just five or six of them, and then nothing but undisturbed dust.


Tracy Sharp - Author of the Leah Ryan Series said...

Nice! Very nice.

Wendy Wagner; said...

Oh,I love the idea of taking a writing retreat with my writing gal-pals! I think you've started me scheming. ;)

Sexy places, huh? I recommend the soaking tubs at Breitenbush Hot Springs here in Oregon. When there's no crowd, the combination of steam, naked bodies and lush vegetation is ... pretty steamy!

Greg James said...

Hi Alex,

Very interesting post and I'm not a little envious of such lush surroundings now that England's grey skies are closing in for the winter ;-)

I've found when doing historical research that the characters of my work tend to be influenced by the material that I read and I usually insert certain incidents that have caught my imagination into their 'lives' so it changes things in that respect. I think having that external input can be invaluable, it adds variety as I think our own internal rhythms tend to be weighted towards a select few themes and character types.

The only place that I've written about that I've actually been in so far is my old high school and it did push the work down a much more metaphysical and less traditionally supernatural path than I originally intended once I got going with it.

As for my sexiest place, well, I'm British and I'm afraid we just don't do that sort of thing over here ;-)

Looking to forward to seeing The Price and The Unseen released on this side of the pond.


Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Thanks, Trace!

Winnie, there's nothing like writing retreats. You can easily triple your daily output, and it's not just about page count -it feels like you go deeper. There's this synergistic competition AND support.

Yeah, hot springs... I need to do more of that.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Greg, I always love that grounding with real historical events.

I'm writing about my old high school right now, too, and metaphysical is the word.

As for the rest of it, what utter British bullshite!

For my money London is one of the sexiest cities on the planet, and British men only pretend not to do that kind of thing so they can ambush you in places like the basement of the V&A and the London Dungeon.

Greg James said...

It's a fair cop, Alex. You got me banged to rights, guv. ;-)

laughingwolf said...

wunderbra! :O lol

happy turkey day to you and yours, alex :)