History Hoydens

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Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

25 June 2007

Abodes

One of the topics that I see discussed quite a bit is that of the historic home. How does a writer create these? How do they imagine them? How do we know what they would have been like?

Good question.

I can't answer for anyone else, but for me it's a combination of things. First and foremost it's about visiting such places and simply letting the atmosphere soak in (but this option is not easily available to everyone). The option that is, are the numerous books that exist to show you this world.

One of my favorites is The English Country House in Perspective by Gervase Jackson-Stops. This wonderful book shows you 3D renderings of castles and grand estates. It's so useful to be able to see how all the rooms connected, how they were used, how the house was situated. For the town house, there is London's Georgian Houses by Andrew Byrne. This gem shows interior layouts for numerous town houses for a wide variety of people, from dukes to silk weavers to alms house dwellers.

Another favorite is Private Palaces: Life in the Great London Houses by Christopher Simon Sykes. This book shows the interiors of a great many houses, as well as providing interesting and useful information about the cost of building or purchasing such a dwelling (it's good to know, for example, that Mr. Bingley, with his one-hundred thousand pound inheritance could indeed have afforded to purchase a country estate, though it would have taken one quarter to half his worth to do so).

When you read do you find yourself picturing the house? Or is it merely a stage set for the characters? Do you think it shows when an author has a clear understanding and vision of the homes their characters occupy?

18 Comments:

Blogger Mary Blayney said...

As a reader, the feeling of the house is very important to me -- how the characters respond to it.

As a writer I visualize the house at the same time that I begin to know the characters. It IS a character. I spend an inordinate amount of time on its design. I am pretty good with townhuses and small country houses but in the case of a Great House, I look through books to find one that suits the family I am creating.

3:42 PM  
Anonymous Tracy Grant said...

I really like to have a good visual sense of the setting of a book I'm reading, particulary a house which is so part of the fabric of the characters' lives.

As a writer, it's imporant to me to know any houses that are major settings in great detail. I based the exterior of Charles and Mélánie's house in "Secrets of a Lady" on an actual house in Berkeley Square. I took tons of pictures (several of which are in the Gallery section of my website under "Charles & Mélanie's World") and last time I was in London I went straight to Berkeley Square after I checked into my hotel and sat on a bench as the sunest set to soak up the atmosphere. I felt very at home. I drew my own floorplan of the inside of the house.

In "Beneath a Silent Moon", I based Dunmykel largely on two Scottish castle/country houses I visited on a research trip, though some of the interiors are based other rooms. I had already started the book when I took the trip, and I'd written an early scene set in a room based on a photograph from Scottish country house book. On the trip we visited that house, and I had the eerie feeling that I was stepping into my book.

Books are wonderful. I love both The English Country House in Perspective and Private Palace. I obviously have to get London's Georgian Houses. Christopher Simon Sykes also wrote "The Perfect English Country House" and Gervase Jackson-Stops and James Pipkin wrote "The English Country House: a Grand Tour". And there's a wonderful Georigan House in New Town in Edinburgh which I've both visited and have the booklet for. Great for a house that's elegant but not a private palace.

4:20 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

I think interiors are critical -- perhaps for any writer, but certainly for an erotic writer. I especially like what might be called limnal spaces -- doorways, hallways; I think I have a special love for staircases. I had a lot of fun in The Slightest Provocation, where I have Mary and Kit arguing but also pacing around a room in an inn, both of them trying to hog the warm space in front of the fire (probably comes from living in an old house in San Francisco that didn't have central heating until last year when we caved and had it installed). I also love sexy movies that give you a sense of space, like Last Tango in Paris.

4:52 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Sense of place is vital, as far as I'm concerned. I love it when the authors get the room proportions, the right wall colors and textiles, a sense of the grounds, of the spaciousness, or claustrophobia, of the abode. GEORGIAN HOUSE STYLE, by Ingrid Cranfield, and CLASSIC GEORGIAN STYLE, by Henrietta Spencer-Churchill are wonderful "coffee table" volumes with sumptuous color photos of interiors and exteriors.

6:26 PM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

I have my collection of "Victorian homes" books, not because I write in that period, but because we bought a modest, run-down Queen Anne Victorian (okay it looked like a crack house) and put heart and soul into renovation. I loved studying period photos and trying to match crown moldings and baseboards, and light fixtures...

Sad to say we just sold the house and after 10 years, it feels like the ending of a long story, one I enjoyed tremendously.

Homes and interiors are settings, and as they say, settings are characters...

7:19 PM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

As a writer I visualize the house at the same time that I begin to know the characters. It IS a character.

Me too. I based Winsham Court in Lord Sin loosely on Osterley Park, which is one of my all-time favorite houses. Only in my version of the house the central courtyard has been glassed in.

Tracy, I totally understand about sitting and soaking in the atmosphere. That's one of the things I love most about travel. I've done exactly that in a lot of places (esp Prior Park just about Bath; I love that place).

Pam, the scene with the hot side of the room and the cold side of the room is simply brilliant, and I'm damn sorry I didn't think of it first!

Amanda, you're killing me here. Now I have more books to add to my must own list. LOL!

Kathrynn, have you been to Dunsmere House in Oakland? Once or twice a month you can book places in the tour group that gets to see all the crazy nooks and crannies that aren't open on the generanl tour. It's an amazing house. I'd love to go with you if you haven't been!

8:57 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Thanks, Kalen. The funny thing, I just realized, about our central heating is that The Slightest Provocation paid for it. And when we got our kitchen remodeled(the blue and white tiles and glass-fronted cabinets I wanted all my life), Michael called it "the kitchen that Phizz built," after my character in Almost a Gentleman.


And I do remember Charles and Melanie's London house, Tracy.

10:16 PM  
Anonymous Tracy Grant said...

Pam, the fireplace scene was brilliant. I have really clear images of the settings in "The Slightest Provocation"--the Mayfair house they lived in early in their marriage, her sister's house in the country, the ruined cottage (hermitage?) where they had their trysts.

11:01 PM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

I think place is vitally important when you're writing historical fiction. Even in my contemporary fiction, I have to know exactly what kind of furniture my characters would have, how they would decorate their apartments, the layout. I draw diagrams, make collages (Thank heavens for PowerPoint). It says so much about a person and their world. It's almost like another character in a book.

5:24 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

I have really clear images of the settings in "The Slightest Provocation"

Thanks, Tracy. The Penleys' country house, btw, is Fenton House, transplanted to Derbeyshire, with guest wings added on. I also like to think about the names of country estates, after some comments in Lawrence and Jeanne Stone's An Open Elite? about the possibilities (or not) of class mobility in English history. According to the Stones, older estates often are closely related to the family name, as though they have a similar provenance. So in TSP, I called Kit's family estate Rowan Castle, or just Rowan, after the family, which is very snooty about its long bloodlines (ironically, as it happens). While Mary's family estate is "Beechwood Knolls," to Kit's aristocratic ear an unbearably kitsch and bourgeois name -- fittingly, because it was purchased by Mary's grandfather, a brewer.

Of course, old estates also have the original names the monks gave them, like Donwell Abbey (or, as I have it in my current WIP, Wheldon Priory).

8:08 AM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

The Penleys' country house, btw, is Fenton House, transplanted to Derbeyshire, with guest wings added on.

That's too funny. I used the garden at Fenton House as the inspiration for a town house garden in my upcoming book Lord Scandal. LOL! I was even thinking of scanning my pictures and doing a blog about it.

8:47 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Well, Fenton House is so liveable and loveable. I haven't visited a lot of historic houses, but that was the only one I wanted to move into.

I have some happy childhood memories of literary houses I wanted to live in -- particularly the Melendy family's house in The Saturdays. Anybody remember that one?

I also wanted to live in Howard and Kiki's house in Zadie Smith's On Beauty. And the summer house in To the Lighthouse.

Other houses in books? romance or not...

Is this a girlie thing? Houses by men?

12:12 PM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Which Fenton House are you talking about? There seem to be several in the UK.

12:37 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

It's the Fenton House that's just north of London, in Hampstead, elizabeth.

2:32 PM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

Kalen, I've never visited the Dunsmere house. Sounds cool! I'll take you up on that invite...The Winchester house in SJ is just weird, ambling, and sometimes without much style or charm. Have you been there?

I need to make an old house viewing trip to Oakland. I love those run down Victorians you can see from the freeway. I see them and keep thinking...there's a story in everyone of them. They had their days of glory. ;-)

2:38 PM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

The Winchester Mystery House is the best place on earth if you can go for the night tour. We went all in Victorian costume, and our tour guide was so into it that he led us through parts of the house that tours don't normally go, but where the other tours could see us (it really freaked them out!).

3:02 PM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

Tee-hee, the Winchester house on Halloween...I tried to get tickets to that twice because it sounded so cool. Now you have me convinced to try again. It definately would be spooky at night. Mrs. Winchester was a little odd...to say the least.

...and I swear I could smell the chicken noodle soup they say you can sometimes smell when the ghosts are cooking in the kitchen. ;-)

4:40 PM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Cool, Pam. I'll have to visit when I'm in London this fall.

5:13 AM  

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