Old House, Tragic Past, Weird Families, Dark Secrets: Writing Where the Story Is

We're proud to bring you this essay by Nashville writer and blogger and friend of the Porch Betsy Phillips, about her writing process for her novel in progress. In it, she talks about how writing on an actual porch (!) is fueling her storytelling. —Ed. 

I love ghost stories. Most of my own fiction—perhaps all of it, if you squint just right and look closely—contains ghosts. I love movies about ghosts. I love books about ghosts. I especially love movies and books about haunted houses. Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, Caitlin Keirnan’s The Red Tree, Stephen King’s The Shining, Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves, and on and on.

One thing I noticed is that the haunted house story is a New England story. Even haunted house stories set someplace else are usually written by someone, like King, with deep New England roots. But the elements of a haunted house story—old house, tragic past, weird families, dark secrets—seemed to lend themselves to a story set in the South. Plus, the South has quite a few old houses that actually purport to be haunted. Why aren’t there any fictional Southern haunted houses?

We’ve all heard that we should write the kind of book we want to read, so I’m working on a haunted house story set in the South. I reread all my favorite haunted house books. I watched all my favorite movies. I visited as many old houses in Middle Tennessee as I could find time and money for.

Once I felt steeped in the genre and the location, I wrote a draft.

On the one hand, I’ve never written straight-up horror before. A lot of the draft was me feeling my way around the form, trying to make sure that my plot consistently aimed toward scary and unsettling. When I finished my draft, I reread it and I felt proud. It is scary and unsettling. It’s the kind of book I would want to read.

On the other hand, it stinks.

Not irredeemably. At least, I hope not. But as embarrassing as it is, I’ll admit it stinks. Extraneous characters need to be cut. Scenes need to be reworked. It needs a massive revision. The story’s good, I think, but the revision’s going to be tough.

I needed some place to sit with a notebook, a pen, and my thoughts and map this nightmare out.

One day, as I was pondering how stuck I was on my revisions, I was googling antebellum houses in the Nashville area and I came across a news item about a new park in Brentwood, which contained such a home. I drove to Smith Park which, it turns out, is an antebellum plantation—house included—that the city has put hiking trails all over. The house has been refurbished and you can rent it for events.

The house, Ravenswood, has a history very similar to the one in my manuscript—built in the 1820s, lived in by the same family for generations, and renovated over the years. If I wanted to see how a real family built and lived in a real home similar to my fictional one, well, here it is.

The house has three porches—the grand old front porch overlooking the lane that approaches the house, a small, Victorian-era addition side porch with two rocking chairs, and an L-shaped back porch that faces the hills.

The first time I sat on the Victorian porch with its gingerbread spindles, I looked out over the lawn and I thought, “This would be a good place to think about the book.” Two-hundred-year-old brick at my back, a comfortable rocking chair under me, the quiet of a part of the park with no paths nearby.

Like I said, the house is used for events and I don’t want to intrude. So, I check the house’s calendar and my calendar and on Saturday mornings, when we’re both clear, I go down and sit on the porch and work on revisions. I’ve sat there, just myself, thinking. I’ve brought a notebook and taken notes. I’m hoping to sit there with my laptop very soon.

I’m revising a book about a brick house built in the 1820s while sitting on the porch of a brick house built in the 1820s. If I have a question about how thick a wall is or how the bricks might feel or how many steps it is from the back door to the freestanding kitchen, I can just go check.

If I’m trying to imagine what it would be like to walk up the country lane to the house for the first time, there’s a country lane. I can walk it. I get a sense of the sounds of the place. The people talking to each other on the trails give some sense of the level of noise on a plantation full of enslaved people doing their daily thing off in the distance. The crows calling in the trees, the way the wind sounds as it whistles past the chimneys, the smells of the flowers planted up near the house, they all tell me something about what life would have been like for my characters over the years.

Plus, Ravenswood, the house itself, is noisy. Since I want to keep using the porch without fear, I keep telling myself those are just the sounds old houses make. But it clicks, it knocks, it pops, it groans. As much as I find it a little unsettling, I’m really glad to experience it. When my main character enters my haunted house, how does she decide which strange things are ghostly and which strange things are just the results of an unfinished war between a two-hundred-year-old house and gravity?

My time on Ravenswood’s porch has been instrumental in helping me write this book. I never know what I’m going to learn there, but it’s always worth going.

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Betsy Phillips is the author of A City of Ghosts and the artist's book, The Wolf's Bane. Her fiction has appeared in Apex and Betwixt and is forthcoming in Science Fiction & Fantasy