Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Real-World Building

Nothing is worth more than this day. -- Johann Wolfgang van Goethe

Last weekend I took a break for a day (you can read about the reasons why on my writing blog here) and went with my daughter to a hotel that was actually built right after the end of the Victorian era in America. The owners, who are renovating the place, had posted a notice in the newspaper that they would be selling off 92 years' worth of furnishings and other contents from the room.

I've never been to such a sale and I was curious about what they might be selling off. I also wanted to walk around and see if I might get some Victorian-era inspiration (or at least a couple of ghostly vibes.) This isn't my usual method; when I go on a research trip I always write up a schedule, map out a daily plan and make sure I get to every place I need to visit. This was a day trip that was a spontaneous decision and really served no purpose. I'd never been there and honestly I had no idea what I might experience.

From the outside the hotel didn't look almost a hundred years old, at least not at first glance. I took out my camera and (after asking permission, of course) began taking random shots. I loved seeing this old upright piano sitting in the front courtyard, and was intrigued to see the manufacturer's plaque engraved with "Liverpool." Had it come over from England to grace the lobby, or the hotel bar? Who had played it, and what songs had come from it? It reminded me that there was no television or radio when the hotel was built. That piano may have been the only form of musical entertainment for the guests.

Inside there weren't many lights on (ongoing renovations had probably messed up the electrical system,as it looked a bit haphazard) so it was something like walking into a cave, or a dark labyrinth. The owners had grouped what was for sale in sections, so we walked through a maze of dressers and aisles of artwork. Nothing really matched, the furnishings were not in the greatest shape, and I doubt anything for sale predated the sixties, but it was interesting to see what had been in the rooms. There was a small forest of straight-backed chairs, and an entire room of night tables. Here and there were cardboard boxes filled with old brass door knobs and glassware; they had parked a shopping cart filled with rusty tools to one side.

Every corner we turned we found something unexpected, too: a lamp made of a bent rod, reel, with a shade fashioned from a fisherman's hat hung with hooks and lures; a dog-eared Gideon's Bible with notations on dozens of pages as well as people's names and there favorite passages noted on the inside back cover; a plaster hand holding a torch that had been wired into a wall light.

In the bar area I smelled the unlovely stench of spilled beer and saw like confetti dozens of caps still littering the broken floor tiles (and it was at that moment I flashed back to a bar scene in Stephen King's The Shining.) There was an ancient fireplace no one had used in decades, filled with spiderwebs and the powdery ash from the last log burned in it. For such a hot day it felt cool, almost cold inside the hotel -- and no air conditioning. The air seemed heavy, too, and very still, as if the hotel was holding its breath, just like you read in all those haunted-house books.

When I went outside the sunlight dazzled me a bit, and I looked up at the hotel windows. One had been broken and looked like a painful gap in a row of teeth. Another, very small and mysterious window across from it appeared to be made of stained glass -- the only one like it I could see. Other window frames on the upper floors sported enormous wasp nests, hanging like clusters of nightmarish fruit, and I didn't envy the job of the renovators when they got to those rooms.

The prices at the sale were excellent, so people were carrying away a lot of things. My daughter and I settled for an old oil painting (for her) and a set of old brass door knobs (for me). I put away my camera and walked around the sale areas again, and took in the colors and scents purely from a storyteller's perspective. I could imagine how beautiful the chandeliers must have looked when they were new, and families gathered around the fireplace to read by the light of kerosene lamps. Everything about the hotel whispered of journeys and lovers and stories that had already ended, but it didn't feel like an unhappy place. It felt like it was waiting to be cleaned up and repaired so it could live again.

All of what I've been telling you is just a small fraction of what I learned during the two hours I spent in this hotel. When I came home, I opened a file and wrote twenty-three pages of notes on what I'd experienced, the emotional and sensory surprises, the good and bad, the things that caught my eye and made me wonder.

Our imaginations are amazing and seemingly endless fountains of ideas, but so is the real world. When you go someplace, and you pay attention, and you keep yourself open to your surroundings, you will see things you've never seen, or perhaps never before noticed. You can't do this watching television or researching online because you're not immersed in it -- you're not there. To build believable worlds, sometimes you have to get out and explore the real world. Because out there you will find wonders like these:

LynnViehl's Day Breaks album on Photobucket


  1. Did you find out what room the stained glass window went to? I hope they keep it.

  2. We did ask permission to go upstairs to investigate it, but the lady supervising the sale told us the elevators weren't running, and many of the stairwells were still unsafe, so no one was allowed to go higher than the ground floor.

    I didn't mind, really -- not knowing kind of adds to the mystery. :)