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Write on

Posted on July 29th, 2009 by annakjarzab

I realize that it’s been a while since I talked about my current works in progress, and that’s probably because I’m a little bit stalled. I’m not panicking, because A.) it is fruitless and B.) I don’t expect to be stalled much longer. I think what’s been happening is that between all the traveling to California, weddings, graduations, friend and family visits, trivia, work and work-related shenanigans, and putting the finishing touches on AUT, plus life maintenance such as grocery shopping and laundry (el oh el as if I’ve done laundry) and assorted errands, I just haven’t had the time, and when I’ve had the time I haven’t had the energy, to write.

I also realize that I meant to put up a post about my trip to California in June, when I visited the semi-ghost towns up near Sacramento, and I never did that. Now would be a good time, I think, considering that it was all research for GR.

Here’s the thing about my writing this summer. I have about three projects that I’m actively thinking about/working on, albeit in the small spurts that I’ve been able to fit in to my schedule. One is “big”, in the sense that it’s probably going to be on the long-ish side (and considering that my YA debut is going to be 352 pages, you might want to adjust your definition of “long-ish” in this situation), and that it’s what I’m calling a quasi-post-apocalyptic pseudo-mystery. It’s sort of a thriller, too. It’s crazytown, basically, and I’ve been referring to it as GR.

Then there are two “smaller” books in that they are going to be shorter (probably shorter than AUT, although maybe not, who knows). One of them is a family-type drama, and one of them is a comedy (by my definition, at least–you should know that I consider MB a comedy, and it’s about a boy who goes missing and has the word “murder” in the title, so…). The family-type drama doesn’t have a name (well, I have one for it, but it’s ridiculous and I’m a little embarrassed of it, so here I will call it “Fluffy”), and the comedy has a tentative name that is pretty boring so here I will call it “Lancelot.” I probably won’t be talking about either of these much, to be honest, because they’re not that hard, they just require time at the computer and a steady hand.

GR, however, is the bane of my existence. There are these moments in writing where you know what you want the end product to look like, and you know what you have so far, and there is such a huge gulf between those two things that you think you’ll never get across it. It’s so discouraging. Right now, I’m 80 pages into GR and just verging on the start of the action, which is a PROBLEM, and also the story itself is losing steam. I had a hard time building an outline for GR, so I decided to write up to the point where my outline stopped and then try again, because I have beats I want to hit, ideas for scenes, the end, and a good grasp of the character arcs, but I don’t have a sure-fire plan as such. This morning I think I might have thought of a way to accelerate the action, and some pieces seem to have fallen into place because of that, so that’s good progress. I have a long weekend starting tomorrow, so I should be able to get at least some serious thinking done, if not any actual work.

But whatever! Vacation pictures. For whatever reason I’m pretty protective of GR, so while these pictures and explanations might give you an idea of what I’m doing with it, I’m not going to be explicit about how the places and things I show fit into the story–you’ll just have to guess. And wait.

Okay, so first of all, this is apropos of nothing, but my sister graduated from high school:

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Fun facts: the last time I was sitting in that pavilion (at the Alameda County Fairgrounds) I was there to see a Bj√∂rn Again concert. True story! Also, that blue dress I’m wearing, I wore that to every single event this summer: two weddings, two graduations, plus a bonus BEA! It’s getting a workout, but it’s cute so that’s okay.

Earlier that day, my mom and I had gone to the Winchester Mystery House, for my research purposes. I took so many pictures and videos that I can’t possibly post them all here, but trust me, this place is awesome. This was my third time going, and I had just as much fun as I did the first time. We took the big tour, which is the Mansion Tour plus the Behind the Scenes tour, plus the Garden Tour, although that’s free and self-guided. The only thing we didn’t do was the Winchester Firearms Museum, which I plan to go back and do over Christmas. If you’re ever in the Bay Area, believe me, the Winchester Mystery House is totally worth it and fun for the whole family.

BUT: It is not scary. You should see the billboards that are up on all the freeways in Northern California, they’ve got, like, skulls and crossbones on them and give you the impression that the WMH is a haunted house, but it’s not. They’ve got their ghost stories, of course, all old houses have them, but for the most part it’s just a really weird place. Sarah Winchester moved west from Connecticut in 1884, after the death of her only child, Annie, in infancy and her husband from tuberculosis. Back then, San Jose was a total farming community, so she purchased 162 acres of land, most of which was orchards, and an eight-room farmhouse, which she built upon for the next 38 years–twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, to the tune of $5.5 million, which in today’s money would be about $70 million. ON A HOUSE. A house that was worthless after she died, because the eccentricity and, in some ways, impracticality of its design, its size, and the massive amounts of money it cost to keep it up made it unlivable for anyone who wasn’t Sarah Winchester. And even SHE had other homes.

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The house from the front, facing Winchester Blvd.

Now, there are all sorts of stories about what Sarah Winchester did or didn’t believe, why she built the house the way she did, who she was, etc., but the truth was that she was very private and left behind no written account of her intentions with regards to the house–no letters, no journals, not even blueprints. They say she moved to San Jose because a medium in Boston told her to. Supposedly she believed herself to be haunted by the ghosts of those killed by the Winchester rifle, and the Boston medium told her that if she were to go west and build a house without ceasing, she would never die. Sarah could afford to do this because she was, like, a gazillionaire. Truly. She inherited $20 million after the death of her husband–and this was before there was income tax, so she got to keep it all–and 50% ownership of the Winchester Repeating Arms company, which provided a $1,000 a day allowance. That’s still a lot of money! Back then it was a huge fortune.

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Stairs to the ceiling

Anyway, so she built this house, all day, every day, for almost forty years. She did eventually die, though, because obviously eternal life is bullshit. The house is crazytown because there are no blueprints and never were–she used to sketch out plans for rooms on napkins and scraps of paper and just hand them to her foreman. That’s why the place is a virtual maze, with stairways that lead to ceilings, cabinets that are one inch deep, chimneys that stop a foot before the roof, winding corridors, six kitchens, thirteen bathrooms, two basements, forty-seven fireplaces, and much more.

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The Room Where Mrs. Winchester Died, or the Deadroom

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A door leading out from the seance room–into the kitchen sink, a flight below.

Okay, like all good rich Victorian ladies, Sarah Winchester was something of a spiritualist, purportedly anyway. She had an interest in contacting the dead, which is understandable given the losses she suffered, and had a seance room built in her house for expressly that purpose, but there’s really no proof that she ever actually had seances in there. It’s kind of small. It does, however, have that weird door that leads to nothing but a short drop and a sudden stop, if you will. There’s a lot of things like that in the house. I don’t know what happened to the photos I took of the seance room, that one seems to be the only one I have at the moment. Hm.

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The north conservatory

The thing about Mrs. Winchester was that she was also something of a tech buff. I mean, she didn’t have an iPod or anything (although Apple’s headquarters aren’t very far away from the Mystery House–COINCIDENCE?! Definitely), but she liked cutting edge stuff. The conservatory pictured above has a slanted floor made of removable wood panels; when the wood is taken off, there is a second floor made of some kind of metal (tin?). This allows the plants to be watered and the unused water to fall to the floor, where it flows down the slant and into a container to be used again, in the conservatory or elsewhere. Go green! The conservatory also has an elevator, one of three on the property, which, as you might imagine, is a bit unusual for the Victorian age.

Other conveniences include steam and forced-air heating, indoor toilets and plumbing (including a hot shower), push-button gas lights, and a call system that allowed Mrs. Winchester to summon her servants to any part of the mansion from any part of the mansion. Pretty cool, if I do say so myself.

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So you know how before I was mentioning that Mrs. Winchester would just build a room on to the existing exterior wall? Well, here’s proof. This is the unfinished second ballroom (Second! Ballroom! Because she needed two! To entertain the guests she didn’t even have!)–the walls hadn’t gone up at the time of her death–and you can see how the walls of the ballroom were being built right smack up against the outside, covering up a window and the old paint job and everything. This is one of the reasons why the house is so freakin’ weird. It’s also one of the reasons it survived (for the most part) two extreme earthquakes, because half of it is built on a de facto floating foundation, because all the rooms were built separately. That provided enough sway for the house to stay upright. Science!

Speaking of ballrooms, here’s the finished one:

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Okay, this room is the best. First of all, it was built almost completely without nails. Second of all, it has a vault in it, hidden behind a wooden door, so heavy that it required its own foundation–and when it was opened upon Mrs. Winchester’s death, it was found to contain locks of hair from her daughter and husband, and their obituaries. That’s it. The silver chandelier came from Germany, with twelve candle holders. Mrs. Winchester, who was rumored to have a superstition about the number thirteen and scattered the number around the house (the thirteenth bathroom has thirteen windows in it, for example), had a thirteenth candle holder added. It looks terrible; as you can see in this larger picture, it’s lopsided. WHOOPS!

The stained glass windows each have a quote from a Shakespeare play on them. “Wide unclasp the the tables of their thoughts,” says the left-hand window (Troilus and Cressida, IV:5:60); “These same thoughts people this little world,” says the right-hand window (Richard III, V:5:9). What did they mean to Mrs. Winchester? Hell if I know. But they must have meant something to her. This guy has a theory, though, and it makes sense to me.

The grand ballroom cost $9,000 at a time when a whole house could be built for >$1,000. This was the point when my mom shook her head and said, “If she had to spend all of that money, why didn’t she just give it to charity?” The answer, of course, is that she did–she gave lots of her money away. But my mom has a point. What a colossal waste, and furthermore, if she really did believe building forever would make her live forever, what complete selfishness. HOWEVER. Now the house belongs to posterity, and we can walk through it and marvel at it and deconstruct it as a physical expression of one person’s psychology, and that is amazing.

Okay, I could show you a million more pictures and talk forever about this house, because it’s the coolest, but I won’t. As it is this post is super long; I’ll do another installment to talk about the semi-ghost towns we visited.

3 Responses to “Write on”

Shannel on July 30th, 2009 at 3:26 am Said:

There is an SCU alum making a movie about the Winchester house and there’s a clothing line too… my mktg prof was telling me about it at lunch a couple weeks ago!

Shannel on July 30th, 2009 at 3:28 am Said:

Just found an article… http://www.orovillemr.com/news/ci_12505099

Kate at Read This Book! on August 2nd, 2009 at 6:43 pm Said:

I read about this house a few months back and couldn’t believe it. It’s just wow. And I saw a pic of the house from eagle eye view and it’s HUGE. I have to go there some day, sounds really cool.

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