In The Skoghall Mystery Series, my main character, Jessica Vernon, buys an old farmhouse at a bargain price. This house is a major piece of the setting for the whole series, but it is the centerpiece of The Murder in Skoghall. Most of the action takes place in or around the house. As a result, it’s critical that I know this house inside and out, and that the reader does, too. After all, if a ghost is moving something from one room to another or walking through a wall, I want the reader to be able to track the movement.
I have a thing for old houses. I love charm. I love built-in buffets and butler’s pantries. I love leaded glass windows and big front porches. I don’t have any of those things, I’m afraid. But Jess does! Part of the fun of writing this home-centric story is that I get to give Jess the house of my dreams.
Vicarious living, anyone?
I went ahead and imagined an old, but not too old, whitewashed farmhouse. I decided to make it a foursquare because I happen to like those. I wrote the scene when Jess moves into it, walking her and the reader through each room. It was a good house.
Then I went online to do a little research. I don’t remember what my specific question was, but there was one tiny detail I wanted to sort out. I searched for foursquare homes. My little researcher’s heart skipped a beat, and I gave up a day of writing to research I hadn’t planned on doing.
It turns out that, while the house I imagined was perfectly fine–I saw plans for a real house very similar to mine–it was not all it could be. For one, I had put the staircase at the center of the house, which forced two narrow hallways along either side of it upstairs, which cut into the bedrooms’ floorspace. How inefficient! I realized looking at actual foursquare house plans. The foursquare typically has the staircase on one side of the house with a landing midway between floors and a window that lets light onto the landing. I had also imagined a cellar with a dangerously steep staircase off the kitchen and a cellar door outside for coal delivery. Again, I found an actual house plan with a cellar stairway off the kitchen, but it was not typical. I decided my house was built in the early 1920s. Do you know what they had in the 1920s? Perfectly modern basements with cinderblock walls and cement foundations. That wasn’t actually a surprise once I had thought about it, because I’ve owned old houses. With basements!
As I said, I gave up the better part of a day to research, which set me back a bit because I am working with a strict daily word count. If I miss a day, the count goes up for each day thereafter.
It was worth it.
The house I imagined for Jessica was plausible. It was fine and I doubt anyone would have questioned it. Maybe someone who designs houses for a living would roll their eyes at the inefficient use of space on the second floor or the creepy cellar, but otherwise, it really was fine. Now, however, I know that Jessica lives in a house with twins all across the country because I am using the plans from a Sears, Roebuck & Co. catalogue for an actual mail order home kit.
I think that’s really cool. I’m geeking out a little.
Remember the Sears Roebuck catalogues? My grandma was an antique dealer among other things. She had a few of them on a shelf over the twin beds where the grandkids slept. I used to spend hours paging through them. They carried everything I could ever want and some things I couldn’t even imagine: hair tonic, horse-drawn carriages, kitchen ranges, corsets, hunting rifles, carpets, banjos, and wedding rings, why you could order quinine pills and a tanning solution to make your own furs off the same page…all of it beautifully illustrated with descriptions that would test the limits of people’s attention spans today. I remember being fascinated by these belts people wore over their underwear, designed to stimulate certain areas of the anatomy. They looked like a series of metal disks on a leather belt that dipped below the waist. The women had their hair up in those loose buns and the men had bushy mustaches. Despite posing in their underwear with these mysterious belts zapping lightning bolts, uh, you-know-where, they managed to look completely dignified.
This isn’t what I remember from those old catalogues, but it gives you the idea.
How could I not set my novel in a Sears Roebuck mail order foursquare? Besides the fact that I think it’s really cool, it connects the story, and the reader, with part of our nation’s history that I doubt many of us are aware of. Or maybe the part we aren’t so aware of is how much like today the past actually was. I liked to picture craftsmen with hand tools meticulously carving each piece of wood that became a scroll on a cabinet or a flower on a drawer front. You know, an artisan. Let the Sears Roebuck catalogue disillusion me now. That beautiful old furniture I admire with so much detail work was mass produced in factories, shipped by rail freight to warehouses where it would wait for purchase. Once an order came through, the piece was shipped post haste to the customer’s nearest rail station from the warehouse nearest the customer. I don’t know about you, but it reminds me of online retailers. Whether you love them or hate them, they are a one-stop catalogue shop with warehouses all over the country and the lowest possible shipping costs. See? Times don’t change that much after all.
(Yes, I know, the flower on my drawer front was still hand carved by a skilled craftsperson, but he or she was in a factory carving dozens of those a day, and maybe not so lovingly what with the monotony and carpel tunnel.)
Here’s a sneak peak of Jess’s house. I think I’ll save the actual floor plan for another day…or maybe for the book itself.