October was a lousy month for writing. I blame the flu shot that I got for making me feel lousy and giving me a serious case of the blah’s. I didn’t feel like editing, revising or writing for most of the month. It wasn’t writer’s block. It was more like that I lacked a clear motivation to get anything done. Especially since revising my first novel was like banging my head against a brick wall. Nothing worked. The story was stillborn after the first three chapters. Something was missing but I couldn’t put my finger on it.
After watching “Stephen King’s Rose Red” DVD this past weekend about a haunted mansion, I realized what was missing from my story: a brick wall.
My first novel is about a video game company with a mischievous ghost that develops a homicidal streak. Wherever you have a ghost, you must have a place for the ghost to haunt. I spent a year writing the 700-page rough draft by focusing only on the main characters who reacted to the actions of the ghost, but the ghost and the building were a mere afterthought in the heat of composition.
I spent year trying to figure out how to revise the thing. I came to the conclusion that I had to painstakingly develop the rest of the novel that I had put off for several years. The main characters became sharper and less knowing about their circumstances; minor characters became real and more knowing about their circumstances. The ghost took a more active role than before. I was putting in new material that added to the word count that I desperately wanted to shrink, and rearranging the material to develop a better narrative flow. Then I hit the brick wall and couldn’t proceed further.
The story mythos for the “Red Rose” mansion came from the Winchester Mystery House, a nationally designated “haunted house” in San Jose that I had never visited even though I lived in Silicon Valley all my life. (Another item added to my never-ending to do list.) Sarah Winchester, heiress to the family fortune that came from the Winchester repeating rifle, became convinced by a Boston medium that the spirits of the people killed in the Indian Wars and the Civil War by the rifles that her father-in-law had created were haunting her, and moved out to California in 1884 to start building a massive mansion that never got finished in thirty-eight years to keep the spirits away.
The producers for “Rose Red” wanted to film at the Winchester Mystery House. Unfortunately, located next to the busy I-280 freeway and across the street from the Santana Row shopping center that was under construction at time (where one building would catch on fire by accident to become the largest structure fire in San Jose), and the Winchester House was too small to accommodate a film crew, it wasn’t practical. They ended up filming the exterior shots at the Thornewood Castle, a 400-year-old Elizabethan mansion relocated brick by brick from England to Tacoma, Washington, in 1908, and creating 20,000 square feet of interiors at an abandoned naval base in Seattle, Washington.
The one thing that caught my attention was the level of the detail that went into the Red Rose sets: the brickwork of the exterior shots, the library with the mirrored floor, an arched hallway that appear to extend to infinity, and a 1950’s office built upside down.
Although the ghosts were lurking in every shadow, it was the mansion that stood out the most with its ominous presence. Since this was Stephen King’s take on the “The Haunting of Hill House” by Shirley Jackson, the Red Rose mansion was a bad place. But it wasn’t the ghosts that made the building a bad place. The building itself was inherently evil from being built on a desecrated Indian burial ground, becoming a larger-than-life character that influenced the events in the miniseries.
That was the brick wall I kept banging my head against.
The building that my ghost haunted was an old brick warehouse converted to an office building. I was drawing upon the three years that I worked as cook at The Old Spaghetti Factory in downtown San Jose in the mid-1990’s, which occupies a converted warehouse made from brick. But the only reference to the brick building in the entire manuscript was after the good-versus-evil confrontation at the end triggered the collapse of the building into a heap of bricks. I needed to peel back the plaster in the first chapter to reveal the brickwork and introduce the building as a character.
Since description is my greatest weakness as a writer, I spent four hours last night working on this one paragraph :
Amy crossed her legs underneath the table and folded her hands in front of her, looking prim and proper, and expecting someone to come in shortly to interview her. When five minutes went by without the door opening, she turned her attention to the floor-to-ceiling window that cut across the outer corner of the interview room at forty-five degree angle. Red bricks and gray mortar lined the inside of the window frame, with the headers protruding past the drywall on all sides, the shiners lying flat at top and bottom, and the stretchers stacked on the side. Beyond the narrow double-pane window that separated the inside from the outside, the brickwork repeated itself. It was like looking out the arrow slit of an ancient castle.
Although I spent two years working in masonry construction with my father, incorporating the brick terminology into description was a challenge. The most important descriptive detail about the building in this paragraph was comparing it to an ancient castle. Since my fictional video game company has its roots in the Dungeons & Dragons role-playing game, an ancient castle was a suitable place for a ghost to haunt. (As to whether or not that this is a bad place, the ghost hasn’t told me yet.) With the beginning motif of an ancient brick castle in the heart of Silicon Valley done, I can go back to revising my novel now that I’m not banging my head against that particular brick wall.