Kaitlyn Dunnett/Kathy Lynn Emerson here, today talking about one of the things I always do during the planning stages of a novel. Even if I’m going to be writing about a fictional place, I collect maps of the real surrounding area, and I choose real buildings upon which to model my fictional houses and businesses (or castles and manor houses, if it’s one of my novels set in the sixteenth century). I make changes and additions to suit the plot, but at the core there is likely to be a house I know or once knew well . . . and it’s often the same one.
I’ve confessed in previous blogs to giving Mikki Lincoln, the sleuth in my Deadly Edits series, the house I grew up in. As my parents did, hers sold her childhood home and moved away at the same time she left town to start college. The history of the house from then on is pure fiction. Now I’m working on the fourth Deadly Edits Mystery, tentatively titled Edited Out, and for this one I decided to make use of another house that played a huge role in my childhood.
Known only as “the farm” by family members, this was the home of my maternal grandparents. It had been in the family for generations and was operated as a summer boarding house from the 1890s until 1958, when my grandmother died and the property, which she owned jointly with her brothers and sisters, was sold. A couple of years later, the farmhouse was destroyed in a fire, but my memories of the place are still vivid more than a half century later.
In fact, I’ve used versions of the farm before. Its floorplan was the basis for the house in Ho-Ho-Homicide, one of my Liss MacCrimmon Mysteries, and it is the central setting in a book for middle-grade readers, Boarding House Reach, that I wrote a long time ago and was never able to sell. I still like it. One of these days, if I can find the time required for such a project, I may publish it independently. It’s set in 1922 and based on my mother’s memories of life when she was a girl.
But I digress. In Edited Out, which is due on my editor’s desk next June and won’t be published until a year after that, I’ve given Mikki an unexpected inheritance—a farmhouse that has been abandoned since 1958, when a murder was committed there. I won’t go into the plot here. In fact, I can’t really say much about it because I write by the seat of my pants and I haven’t worked it all out yet. The floorplan, however, is settled.
I was ten when I last saw the real farm, so I asked the help of my remaining cousins on that side of the family to fill in some blanks. Adding what they could recall to what my mother told me when I “interviewed” her back in 1987 and my own memories, I was able to piece together what I think is a pretty accurate reconstruction of the layout. I’m not sure the proportions are right, since the only thing I had to go by was the position of windows in photographs of the outside of the house, but now that I’m actually writing, these plans give me a handy reference for moving characters through the rooms.
As Mikki sets out to discover the secrets the old house holds, I get to enjoy the (mostly) good memories evoked by writing about a place I loved. I’ve even given a few of those memories to Mikki, although in her fictional world she only visited the farm once when she was young.
I find nostalgia can be wonderfully inspiring. What about you, readers? What places from your past are still as vivid in your mind today as they were decades ago? And if you’re a writer, do those same places tend to turn up, thinly disguised, in your fiction?
With the June 2019 publication of Clause & Effect, Kathy Lynn Emerson/Kaitlyn Dunnett has had sixty books traditionally published. She won the Agatha Award and was an Anthony and Macavity finalist for best mystery nonfiction of 2008 for How to Write Killer Historical Mysteries and was an Agatha Award finalist in 2015 in the best mystery short story category. She was the Malice Domestic Guest of Honor in 2014. Currently she writes the contemporary Liss MacCrimmon Mysteries and the “Deadly Edits” series as Kaitlyn. As Kathy, her most recent book is a collection of short stories, Different Times, Different Crimes. Her websites are www.KaitlynDunnett.com and www.KathyLynnEmerson.com and she maintains a website about women who lived in England between 1485 and 1603 at A Who’s Who of Tudor Women.