Tag Archives: Victorian mansion

Creating New Worlds

 

Writing novels is all about creating alternative universes with stories that play out according to the laws the author creates. People often ask how I create these worlds . . . so here’s a brief explanation, using This Madness of the Heart as the model.

coal mine fire

For me, creating a fictional world always begins with research—or at least research comes close on the heels of the original germ of inspiration (that is, if I want my created universe to resemble reality as we know it). Before I knew anything else about This Madness of the Heart, I knew I wanted to write a book about a sleazy preacher-man in a small college town deep in the old coal fields of Kentucky. Right there I had several general research subjects:

  • the history of coal mining in Kentucky

  • small towns in Appalachia, layout and architecture
  • small Appalachian colleges, size, administration, issues, architecture

  • different types of religious groups and pastors in Appalachia

 

 

And that was just the setting for the story. When I started considering the characters, research subjects literally popped out of the trees. For instance, Miranda:

  • She lived in an Appalachian old-growth forest: what would it have been like?

  • What was involved in gutting and remodeling a 100-year-old chapel for a home?
  • Her hobby was quilting: I needed details of Appalachian quilting patterns and techniques

  • She was researching Appalachian superstition: I needed to find reliable examples.

 

Jack Crispen was a military vet with PTSD, who worked as a carpenter and stained glass artist. In his spare time he was a caver and a binging drinker, so:

  • What PTSD symptoms did military vets often experience?
  • How would a single artist in a small studio make stained glass windows?

  • I needed details on Kentucky caving
  • What exactly was involved in making moonshine, and were there different kinds?

 

Viola Ricketts was the last living descendant of coal baron Obadiah Durham, whose entire family, except for himself, had died in a fire caused by a vodun curse that still haunted the family, so:

  • I needed to know more about vodun among Southern plantation slaves

  • What kind of home would a wealthy coal baron build in the mid-late 19th C?

 

And that doesn’t take into account things like the violent deaths of various sorts that I needed to study, or the characters’ names. To make sure that the names were authentic I spent a couple of days wandering through old graveyards, copying names off tombstones.

 

Of course, if I hadn’t had a fairly good grasp of much of my subject matter, I couldn’t have written the book at all. For instance, I needed no research in any of these areas:

  • College faculties, departments, and their personal and political relationships
  • Appalachian ecosystems and hiking trails
  • Living with cats
  • Teaching religion and doing first-hand research using a phenomenological model
  • Religious charlatans
  • Southern and/or Appalachian society
  • Southern/Appalachian worship practices
  • World religions
  • Spiritual/paranormal phenomena
  • Women’s support groups

And then there are the maps. I always make maps to help orient myself geographically in the broad area where the story takes place. Madness has one of my maps inserted just before the first chapter (below). I often make interior plans of buildings as well, especially if they’re large.

Once I’ve mastered what I see as the essential research topics, I soon start feeling the need to write, whether the plot is complete or not. Having the broad strokes of my new world laid down allows me to begin weaving imaginary details freely. I know the practical limits and essential imagery involved in every aspect of the story. It’s kind of like understanding the basic skills, proportions of ingredients, and appliances involved in baking a cake before deciding to create new recipe. Some things you can change as you will, other changes result in disaster!

“Angustia,” Remedios Varo, 1947

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Durham’s Eyrie and the Howard (Steamboat) Mansion

Howard Mansion Living Room

Something I’ve discovered while talking with readers is how fascinated people are by how an author gets from general ideas to a finished story. For me, one huge part of preparing to write is setting up locations–almost as if I were preparing to shoot a film: that means deciding exactly where the book’s action will take place. Not just Appalachia, but a particular ridge, and a particular holler, with a river and a mine and a town with streets and businesses. Not just a college, but a college with its own unique personality and reason for being, with its own history. And not just a big old house, but an architecturally viable and complex one, with its own history and odd little quirks.

So when I decided that my ill-fated college founder was going to build himself a house, it had to be one that worked–on all those levels.  Durham’s Eyrie is that house:

The house rose like a fortress from the hillside, surrounded by ancient tulip poplars. In the distance, under the eaves of the forest, I could see the family crypt. But the house itself held my eye, as always. Red brick towers and turrets, peaks and gables rose from a limestone foundation into three stories of massive wall. Decorative chimneys towered above the slate roof, and relief sculptures carved in red sandstone flowed up the main shaft. Moorish columns flanked the broad entryway above the front steps, framing the jewel-like stained glass doors.

But how did I get from “I need a big old house,” to the house I just described? Well, first I knew it had to be Victorian, because that was the time period when Obadiah would have been setting up housekeeping. Second, no self-respecting coal baron–and particularly not one fleeing a curse–would built a light, airy, clapboard Painted Lady: he’d build a castle.  Once that was decided, all I had to do was start doing research on Victorian mansions . . . stone mansions. I didn’t want to go far afield in my research, because I wanted something authentic for the area. And since I was in Louisville at the time, that’s where I started looking.

Howard Mansion in 1900

Enter the real-life Victorian mansion built by the Howard family of Ohio River shipyards fame and located on the northern bank of the Ohio. You can see it set back from the Jeffersonville, Indiana waterfront, right across the river from Louisville. Durham’s Eyrie would have been built around 1880, ten years before the Howard home, so the period was right, and I was already familiar with the house. Add a few blast screens to cover the oversized windows, and the building could almost withstand a siege. What more could I want? In the end, except for its location, the Howard house reinvented itself almost exactly as Durham’s Eyrie–at least on the outside.

Edmonds and Laura Howard 1904

By the way, the “Howard Home”  (as it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places), was built in 1890 by Edmonds J. Howard of the Howard Shipyards family. Today it welcomes visitors as the Howard Steamboat Museum, featuring displays from the shipyards and  Howard family history.

Howard Boatyards, 1901

Anyway, with the house selected, I needed photographs so I could play around with visual details as I wrote. So I went, camera in hand, to ask the Howard Museum docents if they would let me creep around places tourists didn’t normally go, so that I could get an idea of the house’s layout for my book . . . and they very kindly took me all around, even onto the third floor and into the attics. Unfortunately (for my purposes), much of the house is now used for the steamboat displays and looks little like it did when the family lived there, so I’ve supplemented my own photos with some turn-of-the-century photos from The Howard Steamboat Collection at the University of Louisville.

And . . . the stained glass doors described in Madness are not from the Howard house, but from the Old 851 Mansion in Louisville.

So follow me now on a virtual tour of the original inspiration for Durham’s Eyrie. Below is the main entrance, with the original beveled glass. As I just said, for This Madness of the Heart I changed the doors to resemble the ones at the Old 851 Mansion since the Howard glass doors weren’t stained glass.

Howard Mansion front door and Old 851 Mansion

 

The main entrance of the Howard mansion faces the stairway leading up to a landing and on from there to the second floor.  In Durham’s Eyrie, Jack’s magical stained glass window was on the landing where the red and gold glass is in the photo.

Jack’s stained glass glowed above a daybed, filling the landing like a half-remembered dream. Mythical birds and flowers intertwined in a jeweled mosaic through fantastic trees, dappling the dark stairs with their bright shadows. Fragile, delicate, glorious, this window Jack had fashioned for Viola rivaled Tiffany at its height. We stood silent, worshipers at a shrine.

Main staircase from front door and Looking down at landing from 2nd floor

 

The room where Viola entertains guests (and torments college administrators) is a combination of several Howard rooms, including the  room at the top of this page. There’s a period photo of the parlor below and an alcove in the dining room–which inspired the “cherries” in Viola’s windows.

My tale of high tea at Durham’s Eyrie floated through the air around us as I painted Probeck’s predicament amongst the tea cups, his stunned face splashed red with the light of the cherry windows. I enjoyed the afternoon all over again, and this time I didn’t have to choke back the laughter.

Howard Parlor 1905
Dining Room alcove with cherries

 

Viola’s library is partly based on this old photo of the Howard library, although, since no bookcases have survived in the house, I used other Victorian libraries as models as well. Viola’s desk is based on this handmade original from the Howard mansion.

He led me straight to Viola’s library, a handsome room lined with glass-front bookshelves that doubled as her office. Viola beamed at us around the gilded oak leaves and acorns festooning her heavy carved oak desk. The giant secretary towered over her, transforming her for a moment into a bright-eyed child rather than the matriarch she was.

Howard Library 1904
Howard Library 1905
Viola’s Desk

 

Here’s another view of the dining room (with cherry window), and the masculine domain, the smoking room.

Howard Dining Room 1905

 

Smoking Room

 

You can see the master bedroom (Viola’s) below, both in my recent photos and the 1905 versions:

View into the bed-sitting room
Master bedroom dressing room
1905 view into the bed-sitting room
1905 master bedroom
1905 Master bedroom tower

 

The bathroom and water closet . . .

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The third floor isn’t open to the public–or at least it wasn’t in the mid-90’s when I visited. Below are the bedrooms, including the tower bedroom I used as a model for Djinn’s room at the Eyrie.

Djinn only stared and then led the way to her room, an attic tower with folded shutters and a round ribbed ceiling. Djinn walked over to a heavy roll top desk, pulled out a large sketchbook, and started drawing with quick, fluid strokes. The soft scratching of her pen was the only sound I heard. Even the house had ceased its creaking.

3rd floor tower and bedroom

 

Djinn’s desk and tower bedroom

 

3rd floor bedrooms

 

And last, the attics . . . hobby horses, bicycle frames, and a stuffed owl!

Left: stuffed owl and bicycle frame. Right: hobby horses

 

I hope you enjoyed your tour! Any details I didn’t explain probably came out of my own teeming imagination.

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