What’s your favorite place in the universe, ever?
For me, that place was my grandparents’ farm in Maine. It was a typical New England farmhouse, with white clapboards, a wide front porch, and a big barn.
Whenever I write about my Western ranches, I can’t help bringing back memories of that place, even though Maine is about as far from Wyoming as you can get. To me, it represented love, home, and tradition, and offered the kind of warmth I want my fictional homes to offer.
That’s why my Western ranch homes almost always have wide front porches. It’s why they often smell of molasses cookies baking, and why barns are such a central image in my books.
But I wanted the house in the book I’m working on now, How to Unwrap a Cowboy, to be different, so I started poking around the internet, looking for a new cowboy home. I wanted this house to have the same sense of love, home and family that all my ranch houses have, but I wanted it to be a little eccentric.
I started with two images from memory: the huge Victorian house from Days of Heaven, and a very interesting and peculiar home I remember from my old hometown, a house that looked like a crazy-quilt assemblage of architectural eras and styles.
I didn’t want the house in my book to be as extreme as either of these examples, but I wanted it to have their spirit. Like the house in Days of Heaven, I wanted it to stun and surprise.
I Googled terms like “Rustic Victorian Western House” and whatever other phrases I could come up with. Once I found a place that was close, I printed it out, but it didn’t look right.
It needed trees–cottonwood trees. I love the way cottonwoods grow all raggedy and determined, pulling whatever sustenance they can from our hard soil, surviving Wyoming’s droughts and heat waves, floods and cold snaps. They would give my fictional house a slight hint of Wild West toughness.
So back to Google I went, looking for my trees. Once I found them, I printed the trees and the house in various sizes until I had a match, and then, with scissors and glue-stick, I put together the two pictures the old-fashioned way. This is what I came up with.
It’s not perfect. It’s not even that close to what I’m imagining. But looking for perfection would have pulled me away from writing for too long, and this was enough to help me create something different – a house that stuns and surprises my heroine, Trina, when she arrives there on the back of a snowmobile.
Here’s Trina’s reaction to the house, which may or may not make it into the book:
From all Jess’s talk of home and hearth, tradition and coziness, Trina had expected a Western version of a Thomas Kinkade cottage, with golden lights glowing a welcome from within.
But instead, the Maynard house was an eccentric conglomeration of architectural styles ranging from rustic to Victorian to contemporary. Successive generations had left their mark on it, each doing their best to represent the popular style of their time with no regard to how their additions blended with the original structure. The result was a history of the West in one very strange house.
The main section had been built of logs back in the day when a log home had been a necessity to be hidden rather than a virtue to be trumpeted; the logs were cut straight, in order to look as civilized as possible, rather than left round and rustic. A front porch had been tacked to the front, its style crisp and simple as most 1920s farmhouses.
On the left was an addition nearly as large as the original house. At one time, it had been meant to appear vaguely Tudor, but a recent generation had slapped on cedar siding and replaced multi-paned windows with sheets of solid glass.
But what really stood out was the turret. It was grandly Victorian – hexagonal in shape, and generously frosted with gingerbread carpentry that looked absurd above the staid square-cut logs. Its shingled roof was topped with a weathervane that featured, of all things, a grinning whale.
Despite the fact that the house seemed to be at war with itself stylistically, it appeared peaceful and welcoming to Trina. Maybe that had something to do with the fact that she couldn’t feel her feet. Her boots were back at the wrecked Prius, and her socks had frozen to the footholds of the ancient snowmobile.
And so it goes. Once Trina gets inside, the house gets even more interesting, with staircases that lead nowhere and hidden compartments built into the walls.
Changing the house has given the book a new energy, and made it more fun to write. Plus, it’s changed the personalities of the people who live there, and reactions to its unique aspect offer clues to the character of everyone who encounters it.
What is your favorite place in the universe–a house? A natural setting? A town?
What fictional houses stand out in your memory – Tara? The House of Usher? Anne’s Green Gables? – and why?
If you could create a house for yourself as easily as I created this one, what would it be like? What’s your dream house?