People lie. Do houses lie? Is it in their brick and mortar to start tales in a writer’s head? When does a house become old enough to pass on story ideas over the sound of cell phone ringtones and refrigerators humming in the background?
My great-grandfather was a cabinet maker and lived for a time in the town I write about. The house still stands but I suspect his cabinets were tossed for Formica and fake wood in the 70’s. If ever I was granted an audience with this house I’d ask after the cabinets. Would the house tell the story of my great-grandmother’s fight with cancer and her husband’s grief? Maybe the house would play stoic as my great-grandfather does from the photograph I have of him.
I don’t mind if houses lie. A story is a story (and a gift) no matter how false. If a writer listens carefully especially to an old house (one on the verge of demolition is even better) a house will open its treasure trove of memories false and true. Bring a notebook. Bring your heart. Don’t bring a cynical or talkative friend.
Some people think historical fiction is a boring history teacher wrapped in sugar-coated romance, but old houses beg to differ. They tell me real people with dogs who scratched at the fine wood doors lived once. Arguments happened, furniture was bought and sold, children were sent to their rooms. The scars, the additions and subtractions on an older house tell of rising financial successes and the death of loved ones. A house down the street from where I live now told me all about the man who lived there for 89 years and only spent one night under a different roof. The old kitchen wood stove remains in the house like a senile relic–speechless.
You see, in that one disclosure my mind wonders what would take the man away for a night? What would keep him there for 89 years? Houses like to keep you guessing at details. In pantries of old houses I fill the shelves–researching the desserts. I discovered once that Buck Crenshaw (some of you know who he is) hates strawberries. In the yards of old houses I plant imaginary trees– Simon McCullough plants a willow in his mother’s garden upon returning from war–the houses gladly play along.
A friend of mine used to smell the cigar smoke of a previous owner of her house. He’d been dead for a hundred years. He moved things around sometimes. He appeared at her bedside more than once and was quite handsome, but writers don’t need ghosts when houses tell enough of what you need to know–or at least send you off pondering.
***Thank you Sharon Bonin-Pratt for the writing prompt!