Lessons on Writing from an Old House

When we first moved to Maine, we lived in a “newer” house. A newer house, in this case, is defined as one built within the last 40 years.
I longingly looked at the old “antique” houses in town. An antique house, in this case, is defined as a house built at least 100 years ago, the commonly accepted definition of antique.
At the time it seemed like such a good idea.
A) They are beautiful to look at.
B) They have “character,” that is nooks and crannies.
C) They are convenient to everything, in my town at least.
D) They are the most valued, therefore a better investment.
After a couple of years of waiting, I finally fished my wish (how we did it was pretty crazy—that’s another blog). And almost 14 years ago we moved into our very own antique house. It’s been grand, except that:
A) It constantly needs work. (And is falling apart.)
B) It is drafty and cold. (It costs a fortune to heat.)
C) It’s a money pit (apparently I didn’t see that movie enough times to learn). There’s always something to fix, remodel, or renovate.
D) It has holes in the granite foundation that let water and random furry creatures inside (who do not confine themselves to the basement).
E) It has very few closets. (Or other storage places.)
F) All of the above (and more) in spades.
So what the heck does living in this old house have to do with writing?
1. I get countless story ideas out of living in a house with so much “character” and age—from the creaking old timbers to the coal bin in the basement to the things we’ve found in the walls—and how others have seen and heard these very same things and walked these very same floors.
2. It made me figure out how to describe in words the absolute beauty of craftsmanship in the detailed parts of the house, like the staircase, the front door, and the wood molding around the doors and windows.
3. I’ve found some amazing characters through researching the history of every previous owner, back to the woman (yes, woman!!) who built the house in 1885. It’s so interesting to get to know all the past inhabitants and intuit the incredible stories they all have to tell.
4. I’ve learned how to fix everything from a leaky faucet to falling plaster to a header over a door (okay, sometimes, not so well, but nonetheless). And I’ve learned how to write about how to do them, too. (A short story I had published actually was about someone who was renovating an old house.)
5. It creates a comfortable writing environment that suits me so well. It’s peaceful and quiet and truth be told, I love where I work: my desk is in a room with high ceilings and pumpkin pine floors, with views of old trees and a 100-year-old lilac hedge surrounding the house.

Where do you find inspiration? Do you get story ideas from things around you like I do? Or do you travel far in person or imagination?
Cheers,
Julia

Comments

  1. CMSmith says:

    I’m envious. It sounds wonderful.

  2. Thank you! Although, as I wrote it, I have say….envy was not at all the emotion I was thinking I’d evoke; maybe pity. Thanks for dropping by!

  3. Leah says:

    Great post! I’m like that too, getting ideas just as I walk around my house. And speaking of houses, it’s a tough decision. When we were buying our current home six years ago, we wanted a newer home with all the new bells and whistles. Yet now, we wish our house had more character and didn’t look like a track home. I guess there’s no perfect answer.

  4. We’ve gone from our very first house (not the one mentioned in the beginning of this blog) being brand new, like yours, to this one — house by house progressively older. Next time, I’m going brand new again, much better, easier! But I know I’ll still second guess, because as you say there are no perfect answers!

  5. hilary says:

    In the fall, winter and spring, I write from a woodstove-heated “newer” cabin in a maple bush, looking out over Lake Ontario. In the summer, I write from a tiny 150 year old house on the east coast that has a view of the Gulf of St. Lawrence. In both cases, I am blessed by history or solitary space. The atmosphere is what a writer(and dweller) makes it.

  6. Your spaces and locations sound lovely and amazing! So glad you dropped by to read about the atmosphere I’ve made in my old house!

  7. Julie Musil says:

    I’m guilty of having a romantic view of old homes like yours. All that history and character within those walls. True, they have their pitfalls, too. But wow, what a beauty.

  8. Thanks for the comment (about the house & the post)! True, the house is a beauty, and I’m romantic about it (most of the time), too. I’m guess I’m just feeling burdened by the cost of upkeep! 🙂

  9. Liz says:

    A woman to build a house in 1885??? That truly is amazing! I love the idea of an antique house, but I don’t think I could go through with owning one.

  10. Exactly! It’s just so much. So beautiful but so much work!

  11. Ohhh… I’m so jealous. Old homes have so much to say, don’t they? I’m JUST like you … the minute I walk into a historic home, my mind starts rolling: who lived there, what were their stories, what happened in this room, etc. And I can’t believe THAT staircase is YOUR staircase. How wonderful. (And the research about past owners … so, so exciting) I can see how you’d find inspiration in such a lovely home – even with the constant fix-its (we bought a ‘historic’ home in Phoenix … our first house … though our state’s relative youngness meant it was built in 1942. Even so, there were constant repairs. But well worth it. So unique and so NOT cookie-cutter like everything else built now).

    As you know, I find inspiration from the things around me – outdoors mainly. But if I lived in your house, I’m sure I’d be rooted to my office seat over that pumpkin pine floor! Keep on writing and enjoy the gift of your home.

    PS – Do you like the renovation work? I found that I really enjoy it (with hubby’s guidance, of course. We’re building a new home together — just the two of us — now).

  12. Thanks for the comment, Melissa — oh haha, yes the stairs are ours, but I’ve photographed them strategically so you can’t see the wabi-sabi or the dog hair or the 100 year old dirt! 🙂

    We’ve done a lot of the work ourselves along with a series of odd helpers (another blog!); I do enjoy it as long as money isn’t an object. Then it stresses me out. I am very envious of you guys building a new house. One of my dreams in life! (Isn’t it so funny how out west houses are old from the 1940s, and here they’re considered newer from the same period?)

  13. You have a beautiful home, Julia, and I love reading about it and its history. Thanks so much for sharing!

    I had to giggle a little when you mentioned the definitions of old vs new homes. The house in my book was built in Miami in the 1960s, which makes it, by Miami standards, an old home. But then again, we’re talking about a city with just over a 100-year history 🙂 It’s funny because when I was querying agents I actually referred to it as an old house–I guess the definition varies, depending on where you’re from!

  14. Wonderful post! As delicious as the chocolate I was eating as I read it. 🙂

    Congrats on the published story based on your character renovating a house. Very cool synergy on that one. Is there a link where we can go read it?

    And please tell us more about the woman who built the house you live in?!?!

    I wrote about a house once in a story called “Jack’s House” from my book. I didn’t live in the house myself – a funky old Swedish guy lived there, and his house was every bit as eccentric as he was. This was back when I lived in Australia, so the setting was exotic too (at least to people who lived elsewhere – to me at the time it was everyday normal – but almost 25 years later and continents away I can see that, yes, it was exotic!).

    Hmm, you’ve made me nostalgic for that story – and for Woolgoolga, where I was living when I wrote it.

    ~ Milli

  15. Natalia and Milli — for some reason your comments just came through on blogger….sorry about not responding sooner to your comments! So glad you enjoyed the blog post.

    Natalia, It is so interesting how different parts of the country have such different definitions of old for houses; same for CA where I grew up!

    Milli, No link to the story (only print), sorry. It was pure fluff but fun to write! And Annie’s story (the one that built the house, will be featured in a blog once I find all my research!