Other people’s houses

I’m interested in other people’s houses. 

This fascination isn’t voyeurism; it’s the stuff of fantasy.

I first started thinking about my approach to other people’s houses in March.  That’s when I started our new dog on his canine fat camp regime. In order to get our 3-6 miles/day in, Chance and I explored neighborhoods I’d never traveled before on foot. We’d pass a beautifully manicured lawn and I’d think about the person who cared so much about creating that perfect expanse of green. Was he obsessed with order in other parts of his life? Did he have walk-in closets with clothes organized by color? Was he a loner. a retiree with only one chair at his dining table?

We’d walk a little further and spot a house with solar panels on its roof. Were the homeowners former hippies? Did they hope to get completely off the grid someday? I imagined their floor-to-ceiling bookshelves in a skylit foyer. Their master bedroom would have a real fire place rather than than a gas one. And they have to have a vegetable garden in their backyard.

What about that place with high fences and growling dogs? Why all the secrecy? I mentally wrote the bullet holes in the wide wooden table in the living room, the mildewed carpet with cigarette–or dope–burns. Was there a safe room with gun racks in it? Was the building used for cooking meth? A nice neighborhood would be the perfect cover.

I had many questions but . . .

On the rare occasions I actually saw someone from one of those houses walk outside to pick up the morning paper or trim a hedge, my imagination spluttered.

I didn’t want to know the reality.

I didn’t want a peek at their furnishings or the insides of their cabinets.

I had a lot more fun with the truths I made up myself. Building worlds in those houses, peopling them with the characters I imagined, gave me a wonderful creative rush. A buzz of pure pleasure.

Ever since I noticed this curious tendency, I’ve been reading books with an eye toward how authors handle the little things in their characters’ homes. The extra-enjoyable element in this process is playing with what’s left out of the descriptions.

What type of faucet is in Poirot’s bathroom? I like to imagine a really cool deco one with sleek lines and, maybe, some kind of interesting black and white marble inlay.

What does the dresser in Sookie’s bedroom look like? I think one of the drawers might stick, maybe a handle is a little loose?

We know Susan spends time in Spenser’s kitchen, but do we know what color his stove is? I suspect he’s a black or chrome appliance kind of guy.

Nancy Drew’s kitchen could very well be done in avocado green with a cheery yellow dinette set, the kind with plastic-covered cushions that stick to bare thighs on hot summer days.

I don’t know if all this fantasizing will influence my writing. I’ve found that most creative exercises flex muscles that often get used in ways I don’t anticipate. But that’s not why I play with this. It’s just a kick to let myself go with these vignettes, to see what I come up with.

How about you?

Is there a house or building in your neighborhood you’ve already populated and furnished in your mind?
Tell us about it.

Is there a room in a favorite character’s house or place of work that you’ve spent time imagining–filling in the blanks left by an unsuspecting author?
What does it look like?

27 thoughts on “Other people’s houses

  1. Brett Battles

    I know exactly what you’re talking about, Pari! I’ve often done the sake or similar things. Not only is it a great mental writing exercise, but it’s a hell of a lot of fun! In L.A. you see dozens of passenger planes fly over the city every day. I often look at them and wonder what fascnating destination they are heading toward or arriving from, and that natural turns into me imaging what that destination is, and what the people aboard did or are goin to do there.

    It’s the lot of all fiction writers to live strattling the line between reality and fantasy…and I would have it no other way!

  2. karen from mentor

    I loved the visual of you walking the dog and populating your neighbors with hippies and nefarious characters.

    I wonder what they’re thinking about you? lol

    Do you walk along dreamilly, staring hard at the things that interest you and start if someone engages you? (if there’s a notebook involved, we may need to get you into a twelve step program)

    I was AMAZED once when having a conversation with someone who said that they liked film or tv because it was too hard to imagine what things looked like in books…..I didn’t get that…I fill the rooms with rich details while I read…it just happens….maybe it’s a writer thing…writing even when you’re not…yours is cool process..thanks for sharing.
    Karen 🙂

  3. J.D. Rhoades

    There’s an old house a few blocks from mine. At one point it must have been magnificent: a sprawling three story Victorian structure with wraparound porch on the first floor and smaller balcony porches above. There’s a wing on one side that ends in what looks like a tiny chapel, complete with stained glass window. But that window’s covered in dust and cobwebs, the other windows are dark, the first floor porch is rotting and falling in. The only signs of life are in the wing opposite the chapel, where you can see lights and the blue flicker of a TV behind drawn curtains at night. Someone still lives there.

    I’ve spun a dozen sad stories around that one.

  4. Dana King

    I am spectacularly uninterested in people’s houses, and I know it hurts my writing when i need a scene to be in a house. My ex used to like to go to open houses just to see what they looked like inside, a true real estate voyeur. I’d rather have carpet tacks pressed into my eyeballs. I use the houses of people I know when I need a house, but I don’t know a lot of people, and most people like ti that way.

    I do look at the outsides of houses when walking and wonder what the house says about the person. I think the next time I need a house interior I’ll look for an open house for a place that looks like I imagne the outside of my fictional house will look, and go with it.

  5. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    The VERY LAST thing I do when I write a scene is describe the furnishings of the room or house. I have a real mental block about it. I can appreciate fine interior design and I love architecture, but the only thing I can recognize is Art Deco, and so every character I write owns Art Deco furnishings. I need to take a class on styles. If I were to describe a wealthy home it would go like this – "They had a big green yard out front and French windows that looked onto a kitchen with a big, silver refrigerator and stainless steel countertops and….Art Deco furnishings."
    Terribly unimaginative.

  6. Pari

    This is an interesting discussion so far.

    Like you, I like to fantasize about where people are going. I’m constantly spinning small stories about people in traffic or walking down the street.

    My realization about the houses was fun because I understood that I was doing the same thing with buildings that I saw every day.

    I HATE open houses and don’t go to them at all. But unlike you, I’m just fascinated by what people do to their homes, how their homes reflect or don’t reflect them. And I love pretending I know.

    Again, I’m not sure that this is doing anything for my writing — but I like playing with it in my day to day life.

  7. Pari

    I’ve been known to stumble and drool . . .

    Actually, it very much depends on my mood. One house may attract me on day and totally leave me blank the next. I do stare but rarely stop unless the dog is taking a break.

    As far as nefarious characters:
    There was a house one block over, a big fancy thing that always had young adults coming in and out of it. I never saw older adults there. I liked it because I ALWAYS found money on the ground on the driveway or sidewalk nearby. Well . . . it WAS a meth lab! The house was so bad that the city had to demolish it completely. Now its this large lot with pine trees — a small park that no one dares play in.

  8. Pari

    That’s exactly what I’m talking about.

    When I lived in DC I used to walk around Embassy Row and have a great time doing this — I just didn’t realize that was what I was doing.

  9. Pari

    I don’t know much about the names of furniture or styles, but I do this anyway. It’s not intentional, I just catch myself at it all the time.

    As far as really learning about furniture or styles, I imagine it’d be faster and more enjoyable to grab a couple of good interior decorating or architectural magazines and look that way. Most people I know don’t know the names of the kinds of furniture they like, but they do know what it looks like.

    Did that make any sense?

  10. Louise Ure

    There is an old Victorian a few blocks away that always gave me shivers. Painted entirely in black, with black curtains and a tall wrought iron fence with spikes at the top. I wasn’t surprised, years later, to learn that it was the headquarters of a Satanic worship cult.

  11. Fran

    I go past old brick tenements, and look at loft apartments, and go through all manner of interesting neighborhoods on my bus ride to work, and I find myself imagining me living there, what my life would be like, growing up in that neighborhood, never leaving that part of the city really, not for long. It’s an exercise in imagination, and I really enjoy it.

    Lillian and I sometimes deliberately get "lost" in unfamiliar neighborhoods and suburbs, just to see what they’re like, and I kinda try them on, like you do used clothes at Goodwill, never really putting them on, but kinda holding them up to see how they fit. It’s fun.

  12. Gayle Carline

    I LOOOVVVEEE walking past houses and imagining what they look like inside, who lives there, etc. Unfortunately, in southern California, most houses are very "cookie cutter" in structure, but I’m drawn to the landscaping and the details. One house in the neighborhood has a recessed door on the side, enclosed by a courtyard. I picture two older women, possibly sisters, living there, with oak furniture and lots of etageres filled with tchotchkes. Then there are the people down the street… cheap lawn chairs in the front yard and a tetherball pole, grounded by a tire. I see a bunch of guys hanging out there in the middle of the weekdays – adults, no shirts, tattoes, drinking beer. For some reason, I hum the theme to "Deliverance" when I walk by.

    When I was a child, I used to see people at the grocery store and imagine them at home, in their kitchen. In my mind, they always sat at a yellow formica and chrome table with matching chairs and drank their coffee out of stained melamine cups. It made me happy to not be them. I know. It’s weird.


  13. Pari

    You crack me up with your wonderful descriptions. I love the Deliverance house. There’ve got to be at least a couple in every neighborhood.

    And I know what you mean about imagining other people’s lives when you were a kid. I did that too but their lives were pretty wild, not as calm as my own.

    Basically, I thought everyone else had this magical "normal" life . . .

    Given my upbringing, normal seemed like a marvelous and desired fantasy to me.

  14. BCB

    Nothing to do with houses, but this reminds me of the time Lisa Gardner came to talk to my RWA chapter and she said none of her characters wore clothes. She didn’t like describing clothes, therefore none of her charcaters had clothes. Yes, it got the laugh she expected. This was a few years ago and now I wonder whether she’s changed her mind since then. I haven’t noticed while reading her books.

    I have to remind myself to describe physical things in my writing, though after taking Alex’s screenwriting class I’m certainly more aware of setting. 😉 Characters and emotion and dialog come more easily.

  15. Catherine Shipton

    Pari this post is so timely. I just spent the last week or so looking at apartments with my eldest daughter. I’ve been amusing myself (in a bleak noirish mind set) trying to match the crime to the scene. Friday evening there was the terribly stylish apartment conveniently located next to the refuse room for the entire building. The master bedroom smelt like bin juice. (internal musing…could leave a body undiscovered for quite a while in here)…oh and a handy back alley just a quick jump over the courtyard wall, with a train line parallel for all sorts of nefarious disposal and or escape routes.

    Yesterday was, yes ,actually an art deco apartment, beautiful at the front, increasingly bleak towards the back…the place furthest from passer by traffic. I wish now I’d taken a picture of the bathroom. It was so filthy that even the cockroaches had abandoned it…and the surgical glove over the shower head postioned over a stained bath tub really had me wondering.

  16. Pari

    I know I’ve said this before, but I truly love it when you post and share some of what goes on in that inventive mind of yours. Your attention to those details is the stuff of wonderful writing.

    You have tried fiction, haven’t you?

  17. Catherine Shipton

    Pari that’s quite the compliment…and yet somehow in the query ‘You have tried fiction, haven’t you?’ I hear echoes ‘You have tried crack haven’t you?’

    At the moment it’s like drive by writing, if I actually wrote with intent I could see myself being consumed in a delirium of words. Put that way it doesn’t sound a bad way to go.


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