I love houses. I love to write about them. Houses heavily influence my fiction because they so easily become characters. Sometimes the house in my book insists on upon development, an emotional arc. It wants me to tell my readers its age and to describe it, warts, mold and all. As a fictional device, a house is a valuable character coming in with mystery, history and best of all, secrets, secrets that it shares with a human being, or a pet, or a fallen tree. A fire.
The character house can be of any type, but it’s helpful if it fits the story. A one-story mid-century ranch can harbor a lot of secrets. A tiny, tidy bungalow, with original built-ins and one stained-glass window, can be as alluring and mysterious as a fairy or an angel. Even a stick-built, two story suburban cookie-cutter of a house, new construction, one of hundreds in a labyrinthian development, may harbor evil.
18th century manors, medieval castles, desert palaces, and mountain-top oriental citadels are all intriguing, but I’ve been exploring our new town, an obscure metropolis in the middle of Oregon. Albany, named after Albany, New York by its founders in the early 19th century, is said to be the town with the most variations of 19th century architecture in the state.
Albany’s historical district, a grid of wide, tree-lined streets and well watered lawns, is a collection of dozens of such houses. No two are alike, except for a scattering of ranch homes or workers bungalows built on spec by the same builders. What follows are brief descriptions, published in the Albany Visitor’s Association’s “Seems Like Old Times” brochure, available for a free download on their website, of houses I have loved writing about.
In a contemporary romance I’m working on, the old farm house inherited by a brother and sister clamors for a bigger part. Higher pay and bonuses, too, I assume. In the first draft I hadn’t planned much for the house and it let me know that my attention to it was inadequate. So, toward the end of the book, when the house discovered I was going to use it for a wedding, it had a fit, and began to demand to be transformed into a Colonial Revival. I’ve gotta re-write the thing, any way, so no big deal.
In my Book View Café publication Finding the Eye, Dante the Time Mage’s house is extremely magical, almost sentient. I fashioned it after what I now know is a Stick and Eastlake style house on Rainier Avenue in Seattle, a mysterious, solo house in the International District that is long gone now.
For Witch’s Child, the key house is a burned hulk, important as a portal to an underground world and central to the wizard Vesuvio’s influence over the little village of Escudillo, with its own strange proclivities.
There is a plenitude of sinister houses in the fiction of Shirley Jackson and both the Bronte sisters and many, many others, including multiple children’s books about haunted, abandoned houses.
Describing houses in fiction is more than simple grounding. It conveys character perception and emotion. The house is a snapshot of a scene or episode, and likely a place one or more characters will never forget. And if you are, like me, an author of people in communities with their own personalities, you’ll need to know the houses that make up that community, and listen when they tell you what you’re doing wrong.