Back at the manor

by Alexandra Sokoloff

I have a posse of mystery writer friends (I should say goddesses or divas!) I hang with when I’m in Raleigh: Margaret Maron, Sarah Shaber, Diane Chamberlain, Katy Munger, Mary Kay Andrews and Brynn Bonner.   We’re more a regular lunch group than a critique group, but several times a year we go on retreat to the beach or the mountains or some generally fantastic place.   We work all day long by ourselves and then convene at night to drink wine and brainstorm on any problem that any one of us is having (and of course, compare page counts!).

 

And one of our favorite retreats is the Artist in Residence program at the Weymouth Center in Southern Pines, NC.  

Weymouth is an amazing place – a 9000 sq. foot mansion on 1200 acres (including several formal gardens and a 9-hole golf course) that’s really three houses melded together. It was what they called a “Yankee Playtime Plantation” in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, the fox hunting lodge of coal magnate James Boyd.  James Boyd’s grandson James rebelled against the family business to become – what else? – a novelist. Boyd wrote historical novels, and his editor was the great Maxwell Perkins (“Editor of Genius”), and in the 1920’s and 30’s Weymouth became a Southern party venue for the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sherwood Anderson, and Thomas Wolfe. That literary aura pervades the house, especially the library, with all its photos and portraits of the writers who have stayed at the house.

It’s a fantastic place to write – pages just fly.  

We have our own rooms, meet for coffee in the morning and set goals for the day, work all day, and then reconvene at night for dinner and to discuss progress and spitball plot problems.

When I started plotting THE UNSEEN, I needed a haunted mansion that I could know and convey intimately, so of course the Weymouth mansion, with its rich and strange history, convoluted architecture,  isolation, vast grounds, and haunted reputation, was a no-brainer.    I truly believe that when you commit to a story, the Universe opens all kinds of opportunities to you.    And as it happened, we were able to stay in the house again for a week as I was writing the book last year

We came down to the house on the very day that my characters were moving into THEIR haunted house.

(I’m telling you, writing is a little scary.   More than a little scary, in this case…)

Now, some of us had some truly spooky encounters in that place.   Every time I turned around there was knocking on the walls (the pipes in the kitchen), weird manifestations (a ghostly team of horses trotting by with a buggy on the road outside) and rooms that were just too creepy to go into after dark.  One night I had to go all the way back upstairs, across the upstairs hall and around to the front stairs to get to a room I wanted to go to because I was too freaked out to cross the Great Room in the dark.   And another one of us had the classic “Night Hag” visitation:  she woke up feeling that someone or something was sitting on her chest.    Brrrrr…..

One prevalent theory of hauntings is that a haunting is an imprint of a violent or strong emotion that lingers in a place like an echo or recording.   I’ve always liked that explanation.

Well, this house was imprinted, all right, but far beyond what I had expected.

Because besides the requisite spooky things… that house was downright sexy.  There’s no other way to say it.   Seriously – hot.

I had ridiculously, I mean – embarrassingly –  erotic dreams every night.  There were rooms I walked into that made my knees go completely weak.   The house, the gardens, even the golf course, just vibrated with sex.

Now, maybe that was just the imprint of creativity – the whole mansion is constantly inhabited by writers and musicians, and as we all know, creativity is a turn-on.  

But also, consider the history.   As I said – Weymouth was a “Yankee Playtime Plantation”.   Rich people used that house specifically to party – in the Roaring Twenties, no less.   (Think THE GREAT GATSBY!).   God only knows how many trysts, even orgies, went on.   So could sex imprint on a place, just as violence or trauma is supposed to be able to imprint?

It makes sense to me.

And the history continues today –  the mansion and gardens are constantly used for weddings, loading more sexual energy into the place, and last night, for example, there was a junior high cotillion practice in the great room, which I snuck down to watch – talk about sexual energy bouncing off the walls!

That sexual dynamic surprised the hell out of me, but it completely worked with my main character’s back story – she’s a young California psychology professor who impulsively flees to North Carolina after she catches her fiancé cheating on her.  (Actually, she dreams her fiancé is cheating on her, in exactly the scenario that she catches him in later.)    So her wound is a specifically sexual one, and one of her great weaknesses is that she’s vulnerable to being sexually manipulated.  

Add to that that the most prevalent explanation of a poltergeist is that it’s hormones run amok:  that the projected sexual energy of an adolescent or young adult can randomly cause objects to move or break.

So of course I went with it.   It wasn’t anything to do with my outline, but California girl that I am, how can I not go with the obvious flow?

I think it adds a great dimension to the story, in a way I never could have anticipated, and I’m pleased to have been true to the – um, spirit – of poltergeists.

And this year, one of the books I’m working on at the manor is my dark paranormal for Harlequin Nocturne, about a witch and a shapeshifter.   Shapeshifter erotica – in THIS house – well, you can imagine…

So I have two questions, first, re: research.    Has a place you’ve researched ever significantly changed a story for you?    How?

But also I’d love to know – what’s the sexiest place you’ve ever been, and why?    I wouldn’t mind having a list to file away.   You never know when you might need it.

–        Alex

 

And here’s a bit of the introduction to the house, from The Unseen:

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……..They had turned off the narrow road and onto a dirt one that led up to the stone gateposts from the photos.     Laurel felt a little buzz of déjà vu at the sight of the sleek stone hunting dogs seated atop them, permanently frozen at attention.

            A metal gate stretched between the posts, padlocked.   Audra reached for the keys  on the dash, and Brendan gallantly jumped out to unlock and open the gate for her.

            As he did, Laurel caught Audra eyeing her in the rear view mirror and felt uneasily that they might not be pulling as much over on her as Brendan assumed they were.

            But before either of the women could say anything, if either was going to, Brendan was back in the car, presenting the keys to Audra with a smile.

            They drove forward, gravel crunching under the tires, past a perfect curve of pink-blossomed crape myrtles lining both sides of a split rail fence along the road.   Wind stirred the tall, spare pines around them.   Laurel found herself craning forward to look.   As the house appeared between the trees, she felt a jolt.

             It was an English country house of white-painted brick with a steeply pitched roof of what looked like real gray slate, two chimneys, a round upper balcony with white-painted iron railing, and gray shutters.    It seemed whole from the front, but the overwhelming feeling was that it was not.    There was part that just seemed to be missing.

            And angry, Laurel thought absurdly. 

            As Audra drove the circle to come up to the front, Laurel got a glimpse of the rest of the house, and realized what was so wrong.   There was another whole house connected to the front one, this one much longer, made of brick with white columns and trim, set perpendicular to the white front part.   Unbelievably, there seemed to be yet another white house behind that, at the other end of the brick part, but just as soon as Laurel had spied it that glimpse was gone.   Audra stopped by the path leading to the front door and shut off the engine.

            “Welcome to the Folger House.”

 

            The solid oak door creaked open into a small entry with glazed brick floors, surprisingly dark compared to the lightness of the house outside.   The room had a greenish tinge, from the garden green-painted wainscoting running halfway up the wall.   Laurel was reminded of the Spanish-style houses around Santa Barbara, and she had a sudden, painful memory of  – the dream – and her midnight ride from the hotel.   She pushed the thought away and forced herself back to the present as she followed Audra and Brendan into the house.

Across the green entry there were two steps up into a second, larger entry with a fireplace and a long wood bench like a church pew facing it.   Laurel glanced over a family portrait above the fireplace mantel, a crude, colorful painting of two parents and two children that gave her a strange sense of unease, but she had no time to study it before Audra stepped forward to begin her narration.   “This is actually the newer portion of the house,” she explained, “The part that was added on when James and Julia moved in permanently.”   Laurel looked around her at the cool, quiet rooms. 

 Past the fireplace were stairs down to a small empty room of indeterminate function to the right, with the same glazed brick floors, and what looked like a bathroom beyond.   On the left there was a short hall with a glimpse of a dark-paneled study at the end.    Very odd rooms to have at the entry of a house, Laurel thought There was dust like a fine sprinkling of baby powder everywhere, but otherwise the house was in surprisingly good condition.

            “Hmmm,” Laurel smiled vaguely at Audra.

             On the fourth wall of the second entry there was a door into a much wider and taller hall with dark hardwood floors and white walls.   Laurel and Brendan followed Audra into it.    An elegant staircase curved up to the right, with a tall bay window that looked out over enormous, overgrown gardens.   Past a window seat, the stairs took another upward turn and disappeared.

            Brendan took Laurel’s hand again as they walked forward.  She frowned at him and he nodded ahead toward Audra, shrugging helplessly (with a  What can I do? look.)   Laurel pressed her lips together and went along.   His hand was strong and warm around her fingers and she was suddenly electrically aware of his presence beside her.

            At the end of this hall there was an archway, with three short steps leading down, and then out of nowhere, a huge room, the size of a small ballroom, with two fireplaces, smoky mirrors in gilt frames lining the walls and a wide, rectangular expanse of hardwood floor.  

Laurel was about to follow Audra through the archway when she felt a chill run through her entire body.

            “Here,” she said aloud, and Brendan turned back to look at her.   Laurel pulled her hand from his and touched the doorjamb and thought she felt the faintest shock, like static electricity.   “They cut the house here.”

            “Yes, I believe you’re right,” Audra acknowledged, with an appraising glance at Laurel.

            They all moved down the steps into the great room.  Aside from a few end tables with marble tops, the only furniture in the room was a battered, dusty grand piano.

            “This is the older house,” Audra said, unnecessarily; the feeling of the room was completely different, much older and more complicated.   The ceiling was high with a raised ornamental design in the dome, and the crown molding had plaster medallions  at intervals all the way around the room.  Two bay windows with dusty panes flanked a set of equally filmy French doors which led out onto what must have been absolutely stunning gardens, several acres of them, now so overgrown with wisteria and yellow jasmine and honeysuckle Laurel thought instantly of Sleeping Beauty’s castle.

          The bare floors shone even through their layer of dust and Laurel noted they were heart of pine (heart pine) but far older than the floors in her own house… she could see the wide planks had been fastened by hand-carved wood dowels instead of nails.

            Then she froze, staring at a spot halfway across the floor.

            Brendan opened his mouth to speak to Audra, but Laurel dug her nails into his palm and pointed.

            In the solid layer of dust on the floor, there were footprints.    Smallish and soft-soled, like footsteps on the beach, headed away from them, toward the archway to the next room.

            But they began in the middle of the floor, and left off well before the doorway, just five or six of them, and then nothing but undisturbed dust.

23 thoughts on “Back at the manor

  1. JD Rhoades

    As I’ve mentioned before, Weymouth’s in my hometown, and I’ve been there dozens of times. A friend of mine was married in the gardens there. So I can REALLY see the place from this description.

    Reply
  2. R.J. Mangahas

    That sounds like a really great writing environment. Seems like a whole story could be set there. Hmmm. A bunch of writers at a retreat and then….oh, come on, you didn’t think I would just tell you? πŸ˜‰

    Reply
  3. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Cool. Great opening. How can I go there for a week? Do they have rates, like a hotel? Or is one invited there, like a writer in residence?
    Research definitely changes my work. Research actually tells me what my story really is. If I have an idea of what I want to write, good research usually changes that. I love the fact that you added this sexual energy to your book, based on what you were experiencing at this location. It definitely adds greater depth to your story, introduces universal themes that connect to the reader at the subconscious level.
    Sexy locations….hmmm….Spearment Rhino. When it comes to sex, I’m not one for subtlety.

    Reply
  4. Louise Ure

    I’ve never used the location in my stories, but the sexiest place I’ve ever been was Ubud, Bali, with its terraced rice fields cascading down the hillside and the private outdoor bathing pavillion with two masseuses and rose petals. Oh to be back in Bali!

    Reply
  5. Alexandra Sokoloff

    JT and Steve – it’s a writer-in-residence kind of thing. You have to be a North Carolina resident, and then you get two weeks a year free – the most amazing thing. I think there are writers-in residence programs in other states, too.

    Reply
  6. Kaye Barley

    Alex – I’m excited about seeing more books coming out of these stays of yours at Weymouth. I’m drawn to books that have a house as a character – especially one as wonderfully done as yours in "The Unseen." Brilliant!! My "house fixation" may have started with ARS’s "The House Next Door." Soak up lots of energy and stories while you’re there and give those other women a hug for me, please!!

    Reply
  7. pari noskin taichert

    Alex,
    I love love love Southern France, near Antibes. The deep blue of the Mediterranean, the embracing warmth of the air, the incredible fresh red strawberries picked that morning and brought still dew-wet to market. I was there on May Day and bought dozens of bouquets of lilies of the valley and put them in my little B & B room and felt enveloped in sensuality . . .

    Reply
  8. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Kaye! The House Next Door is one of my all-time favorite books – I just did an interview on it for an article about best horror novels that have never been adapted to the big screen.

    We should drag you to Weymouth next time, just for inspiration.

    Reply
  9. Catherine Shipton

    Australia. The sun, the heat, the unexpected, the odd frissons of ancient inexplicable connections to the earth and the almost enforced languid pace. All of it…dead sexy.

    Reply
  10. BCB

    I’ve never thought of a place as being sexy. Honestly, that never occurred to me. Now I want to visit Weymouth. And I feel incredibly stupid asking this, but… can just any writer stay there? Do you have to be published? Or go with a group? I looked at their website but it doesn’t give much information. Can I email you for details? Oh, duh. I can call them.

    Several places I’ve visited have given off spooky vibes. The old sections of Savannah make me feel very unsettled. But the strongest ever was the old cemetery in Beaufort (NC). Completely unexpected since cemeteries don’t bother me. As soon as I got close enough to see the corner of it and the old iron fence surrounding it (we were walking up from the pier), it just stopped me in dead in my tracks. The closer we got, the stronger I felt it. Not malevolent. I can’t describe it. Sort of like the reverse push of a strong magnet. I had to force myself to keep walking. We had planned to walk through on the paths, but I couldn’t do it. Got up to the fence, but couldn’t touch it. When we left, it was several blocks away before the feeling was completely gone.

    On second thought, maybe Weymouth isn’t a good idea. πŸ˜‰

    Reply
  11. billie

    As you know, I love that place too.

    Every time I go I get a gift from the ghost in the very upper bedroom. I was there not long ago and wrote about 90 pages in less than 5 days.

    Not everyone finds it so wonderful though – a number of people, some of whom I know personally, find the house very spooky and not conducive to writing. I think it depends on whether you’re comfortable being open in that environment – if you open to the writing, you also open yourself to everything else that’s floating about.

    If I could take my horse it would be perfect!

    Reply
  12. Kaye Barley

    ooooh – I would adore hanging out in a big sexy spooky wonderful old house with you women! I can’t think of anything cooler.
    Sexy places – Savannah.
    Spooky places – Savannah

    Reply
  13. Kirsten

    I can’t tell you why but the mosque/church in Cordoba, Spain was the sexiest place I’ve ever walked into. I can’t explain it but while in there, I felt like Sigourney Weaver’s character in Ghostbusters, "the Gate Keeper" in search of "The Key Master". Never in my life have I ever felt like this in a church (or any public building) before. You asked.

    Reply
  14. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Billie, yes, I can’t help but think of you while I’m here. i think I’m in the bedroom with that ghost you talk about but no visitations yet – I brought a few ghosts of my own this time that might be edging her out.

    Reply

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