04/1/17

Researching Were-Jaguars and Mayan Culture

April Fools’ Day seems like the perfect time to announce that everything I’ve told you about the third Death Witch book has been a lie. Or rather, a bad miscalculation. I had book three – working title “Blood, Dirt, and Lies” written and ready to go, when I was seized with the desire to make book three Indigo’s story. But the more I wrote, the more I realized my childhood stories weren’t enough. I needed to do more research.

At the same time, I went back and gave Blood, Dirt, and Lies a thorough re-read, only to discover it really worked as the third book. It flowed naturally from where the story ended in Fire in Her Blood. Adding a book in between would mean a tight timeline (the mystery could last a week or two but no more) and reworking a lot of relationship details for the supporting characters (Anna, Phoebe, Mark, E). Indigo’s story excites me, but it needs to wait until I have done the research to write it well.

So I sent the manuscript to my editor on Thursday, and was at the Michael C. Carlos Museum researching jaguars in Mayan culture on Saturday morning.

When the sun leaves our sky to visit the underworld, it does so in the form of jaguar. An incense burner depicting the Mayan Sun God as an old man during the day and a jaguar at night.

The bedtime story jaguars I grew up with came from tales set in Honduras. Before the Spanish invaded in the early 1500s, the area was Mayan. Most of the jaguar stories I know are from the Mayan culture, where shaman transformed themselves into jaguar spirits.

The change didn’t happen the way it does in my books – shaman didn’t shift completely into animal form, but instead took on traits of a jaguar to become an animal-self. One of the ways to tell if an artifact shows a shaman in jaguar form or a jaguar is to look for the tail. No tail means it’s a shaman, not a jaguar. I didn’t want to appropriate a culture I loved, so I made a point of using a more ‘Hollywood’ style transformation. Indigo isn’t a man using mystical knowledge to transform his spirit. He’s a shape-shifter who completely becomes a large cat but retains consciousness, thoughts, and sense of humor.

The jaguar on this vase as no tail, which means he’s actually a shaman’s animal-self. The vase was part of the collection at the Michael C. Carlos Museum.

My first real life jaguar came when I helped build the Brevard County Zoo. The majestic cinnamon (yellow-brown) jaguar was in residence in his enclosure as I volunteered building the boardwalk in front of it. It didn’t take much of an imagination to think he could understand English. If anyone stopped and complimented the jaguar (saying pretty or wow) he would leap on to the highest rock and pose. A lot of those poses made it into Under a Blood Moon.

But culturally, tawny jaguars aren’t the most revered, that position goes to the black jaguar, whose fur is covered with deep black rosettes. Black jaguars are a mystical animal because of their ability to disappear into the night.  Oddly, black fur is a dominate trait not a recessive gene. A pair of black jaguars can have young with a variety of fur colors, while a cinnamon jaguar will only have more cinnamon offspring. Indigo’s daughter originally had cinnamon fur. While that’s still genetically possible (I haven’t explored her mother yet at all) I’m not sure it makes as much sense. She might need to have a dark coat like her father.

KaKaw vessels, also from the Michael C. Carlos Museum.

But my museum trip influenced more than the look of my new character.  The ancient people of Honduras traded their salt for chocolate. The chocolate drink, also known as kakaw, was a status symbol. The drink was prepared cold and unsweetened, sometimes with the a few vision inducing chemicals and held in tall, straight sized pitchers decorated with complex designs and mythological scenes. A number of chocolate pitchers were on display, and a few of them will make them to Indigo’s shop.

11/1/16

Skagway’s Sex-Workers and Specters

I recently found myself in the very tiny town of Skagway, Alaska. While there are only about a thousand full time residents, the summer months bring nearly a million tourists (the local paper estimated 900,000 in 2014). To support the tourists a temporary work force comes in each season.

Any quilters or knitters want to run away to Alaska for the summer?

Any quilters or knitters want to run away to Alaska for the summer?

All those people only staying for a few hours, plus nearly a thousand people coming for a few months, in a town that’s only a handful of blocks seems like the perfect recipe for mystery. Within a few hours of touching its gray weathered shores, I knew I wanted to set a novel there. Thick ropy clouds loomed above me while halfway-to-hurricane-force winds tried to knock me over. It was perfect. Thankfully, the town is also filled with ghosts, I learned about them on a “Ghosts and Goodtime Girls” Tour put on by the Red Onion Saloon.

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The Red Onion Saloon built in 1897 when Skagway a lawless town described by police as “little better than a hell on earth”.

Skagway boomed during the Gold Rush in 1896. At the time there were two ways to get it rich: you could mine for gold or work the miners. The town offered all of the illegal indulgences someone could want. Drinking establishments, dance halls, and brothels made up most of the businesses. Skagway never developed a condescending attitude to its sex workers. Most women worked for about two weeks, using an assumed name to allow them to return to their normal lives untainted. It wasn’t unheard of for a brother or a husband to set his wife up in a ‘crib’ and allow her to work in safety.

That’s a pretty surprising idea but my tour guide, a lovely lady named Rosy Peaks, insisted that in the bleak frontier town people were too busy surviving to worry about morals. The town did have a few shocked folks who attempted to curve the sinful ways, but efforts were often meant with sly derision. Sex workers would often advertise themselves by sitting near the windows of their rooms only partially dressed. To stop the practice morality laws decreed all windows had to have curtains. Lace and sheer curtains became all the rage almost immediately.

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My tour guide stands in front of a stored historic “crib” where women would have posed in the large window.

But even an open permissive atmosphere can’t stop ghosts. My tour guide was more than happy to take me to the corridor where phantom footsteps ran away from police more than a hundred years after the brothel was closed down. Local wisdom says the runner is a prostitute named Lydia, who never left her workplace. A block away another girl, who died from tuberculosis, can still be heard coughing through the night. Not all of the town ghosts are former sex-workers though. Mary, who haunts the Golden North Hotel, died of a broken heart when her gold miner fiancée never returned to her. She’s still looking for him today, usually by checking the beds of the hotel guests.

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Coughing still rings through the halls of this building which was been everything from a social house to an orphanage.

I’m sorry that I only got to visit Skagway for a day. After speaking with everyone at the Visitor’s Bureau, the local town historian, and my tour guide, it became obvious that the locals didn’t think there was anything remarkable about their town. I’d love the chance to explore its history more closely, and discover more fantastic stories waiting to be told.

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As a quilter I couldn’t resist a photo of this crazy quilt made up of the girls’ fancy dresses over a hundred years ago. It’s currently on display in the upstairs Brothel Museum at the Red Onion Saloon.

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09/15/16

Oakland Cemetery mysteries

One of the things I love about the Halloween season is the way cemeteries open up to the public. While the Victorian cemeteries were parks for playing in, and other cultures gather as a group in cemeteries, most Americans only visit cemeteries when someone dies. That’s a mistake. There’s a huge amount of history and some great stories to be found. As a bonus, cemeteries tend to be a green space even in very urban areas.

That’s definitely the case in Atlanta, where the “in town” neighborhoods with their small parks are nothing compared to the 48 acres of pleasure gardens and trees that comprise Oakland Cemetery. The space is a certified wildlife habitat, with special bird friendly and butterfly friendly designations. On top of that it’s rather people-friendly with benches, level walking spaces, and very well kept gardens.

Not to mention some interesting headstones.

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Rosemary bushes and pomegranate trees heavy with fruit were planted by cemetery volunteers who recreated the Victorian look from the cemetery’s first years. While there are always tours, Halloween season brings a special batch. Careful planning netted me tickets to the sold out Capturing the Spirit tours, but some beautiful weather last weekend meant I took the tour of the day. It happened to be right up my alley: “Murder, Mysteries and Mayhem”.

Some stories were not so mysterious but definitely sad, like the playhouse fire that killed several young performers acting as angels. Their paper wings caused the conflagration, so they remained angels forever.

An angels surrounded by rosemary

An angel surrounded by rosemary

Others lived up to the title, like the grave of a maiden aunt who dreamed she would drown the night before taking a boat tour. She claimed to have written a will in her sleep, but insisted on going out on the boat. There was indeed an accident, and her family buried her dress, the only remains ever found, in Oakland. The promotion seems a little suspect, and finding another dress makes me wonder – the garments of the 1890s weren’t exactly easy to get out of. It’s easy to imagine the aunt running away with a lover under the cover of an elaborate plot.

A less elaborate but equally mysterious burial was an unnamed man found after a tornado hit the cemetery in 2008. While his body was found in an above ground vault filled with members of the Holland family, he wasn’t a Holland. No records existed of him ever being buried, and his clothes were modern. More telling of hasty burial, his shoes were facing west. In Christian cemeteries, bodies are almost always buried facing east so they can rise up on Judgment Day.  The cemetery sexton is still hoping someone will claim the poor fellow.

He was found in the upper right most shelf, in case that helps you remember his name.

He was found in the upper right most shelf, in case that helps you remember his name.

The tour ended with a few short ghost stories. There’s a shadowy visage who haunts the bell tower. Maybe he’s waiting for the bell ring again? In days gone past, cemeteries rang the bell to chase away the sins of the dead. Twelve rings for men, eight for women, and only six for children, who were presumed least sinful of all. Down another path over three thousand unnamed soldiers from the Civil War supposedly rise up to a ghostly roll call each Confederate Memorial day.

I’ll be back to Oakland for another tour or two at least. The 5k “Run like Hell” sounds like fun too. If you get a chance, take a walk through your local cemetery this fall. I’m sure the folks there would love a visit.

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06/15/16

Picking Sea Monsters Georgia Aquarium

I grew up hearing my father’s sailing stories of fierce mermaids who tore ships to pieces and drown sailors for fun. Between Dad’s stories and the mermaids in classic literature, I had pretty much all I needed to start the Monster Beach books with The Mermaid and the Murders. As I grow the series, I need new sea monsters, which meant a Research Road trip to the Georgia Aquarium.

I have two plot outlines sketched for alligator shifter novels, but neither of them include an albino ‘gator like the one who posed for me. I haven’t found any good alligator shifter lore, so I’d be creating something from scratch. I like the idea of a white alligator being more magical than the rest. They were certainly prettier than most of the gators I’ve seen in the wild.

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Otters are one of my favorite creatures. I doubt they’ll make it into a book, but I couldn’t resist watching them for an hour or two. They’re tool users, and most aquariums challenge them to solve puzzles like how to break into a block of ice to get the shrimp froze inside.

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Another personal favorite that I can’t find a way to fit in is the cuttlefish. These colorshifting Cephalopods look back at you with intelligence. Urban legends swear that you can mimic the movement of their tentacles to interact with them. Besides the great Cthulu, there isn’t a lot of lore surrounding these calm creatures which is odd when you consider that some of them are toxic enough to cause blindness or death when touched. They’d be a good character, but I’d have to think of something better than just “cuttlefish-shifter” to do with them.

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Here’s where inspiration struck, the whale shark.

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This picture doesn’t do the size of the shark justice. At 18 feet long they’re the largest of all fishes. Their graceful glide filled me with awe, immediately reminding me of Dakuwaqa – the shark god of Fiji. Dakuwaqa can shift form between being fully human, half human/half shark, and a very large shark. Unlike the whale sharks I saw Dakuwaqa has massive jaws to devour anyone who harms his reef or his people. While I’d be uncomfortable putting a god in my story, a descendant of the shark god might slip into a romance. Perhaps in a story inspired by this picture:

When I made up the salt golem sea monster (an ocean dwelling salt vampire) for The Mermaid and the Murders, it felt like I had to do a lot of explaining. I worked hard to weave the explanations into dialog and story scenes. I’m hoping my next monster will be a bit more familiar.  I want something easy to relate to but also a little scary. The aquarium gave me some good ideas, now it’s time for some book based research…and maybe a trip to the swamp.

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02/15/16

Research Roadtrips: Edgar Allan Poe Museum Richmond, VA

For almost eighty years someone left a bottle of cognac and three roses on Edgar Allan Poe’s grave each year on his birthday. The wonderfully Gothic and slightly spooky story is close to one he would write: a shadowy figure in black formal clothes commits a mysterious act on a dark winter’s night. When the tradition stopped in 2010 I admit that I briefly entertained thoughts of heading out to his grave in Baltimore. It wasn’t that far away, and I’d fallen deeply under Poe’s spell at the tender age of sixteen when I read Annabel Lee.

Edgar Allan Poe, madman, genius, poet

Edgar Allan Poe, madman, genius, poet

Unfortunately, the pull of my warm bed was too much for me to overcome, but a trip to the Edgar Allan Poe museum went a lot smoother. There are actually a number of Poe Museums scattered across the country, but I started with the formal sounding “Edgar Allan Poe Museum” in Richmond, VA. Housed in the oldest house in the state (built in 1740, almost six decades before Poe was born), it contains a strange collection of artifacts and memorabilia.

I was impressed by the Virginia Star quilt on Poe’s bed and the chair he sat in. While the first edition manuscripts and antiques books were impressive, seeing the furniture his family owned made him come alive to me. A lock of his hair and old photos felt haunting, as if the museum was trying to grasp at the life of the man with only a few precious things. His sister’s piano, his trunk, and a chart of his sad family history all felt like threads when I wanted a rich tapestry.

I’m obviously not alone in that desire. Outside the two historic buildings, a third more modern structure is devoted to modern artwork that depicts Poe and his work. The most disturbing offer was a portrait done in the artist’s blood. It wasn’t the media that bothered me, but the deplorable smell. Upstrais, in a small attic room painted in a similarly sanguine color images from his stories were displayed along with the modern diagnosis for the characters. Most were psychological, depression was common but there were physical aliments as well, The Fall of the House of Usher may have been a horrible curse, or perhaps it was Lupus disease.

 

Edgar cat Poe museum

Edgar relaxes against some vintage furniture inside the main building of the museum.

Jupiter cat Poe Museum

Jupiter enjoys a shady spot in the garden, but does not enjoy being photographed.

 

Two darling cats came and went freely, sitting on antiques and ignoring roped off areas. Named Pluto and Edgar the pair are part of a trio of black kittens found mysteriously inside the garden.

Poe bust in the garden

The end of the garden, a place to sit in the shade.

The garden is fairly perfect for that sort of thing. A small space with bricks and a tiered fountain bubbling, at the end a brick columned shrine to Poe holds his bust and vintage iron wrought seating. Poe himself had a black cat, as well as a tortoise shell cat who enjoyed riding on his shoulder.

It was facts like that, tiny humanizing things, that made the museum worth the trip for me. In South Carolina I learned about Poe’s brief military service, and listened to a tour guide swear that the real Annabel Lee was a local girl. In Philadelphia I toured the hotel hallway that inspired the Raven and heard about how he created the detective novel. But it wasn’t until Richmond that I found out about Poe as a person, with a dramatic dysfunctional family, lost loves, and a life outside of his work. I’m glad someone is working to preserve it.

 

10/15/15

The Jefferson Hotel — Research Road trips

The Jefferson Hotel opened on Halloween night in 1895. With towering marble columns decorated with intricate fruit and a alligator pond by reception, the posh hotel was anything but typical. From the gentleman’s lounge and smoking room, to the soaring ceilings and stained glass every detail of the property spoke of Victorian splendor. I was lucky enough to spend a romantic weekend at the recently restored Jefferson, a weekend that quickly became a research road trip.

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After a recent renovation the historic property replaced the live alligator pond with marble alligator statues.

If you ask the front desk staff or the concierge they’ll tell you there are no ghosts at the Jefferson. Oddly they all use the same phrase “Isn’t it a shame? Ghosts would be fun.” The repetition seemed forced and when I caught a younger employee on break I learned why. Employees are strictly prohibited from speaking about the ghosts, which can cause a problem for guests.

Six years after the hotel opened bad wiring lead to a fire that nearly consumed the building. While the press reported no fatalities, ghost stories from the sixth floor seem to indicate otherwise. Or perhaps the ghosts come from the March 1944 fire which claimed six lives? In either case, guests report footsteps running up and down the halls, the sound of childish laughter, and televisions that turn themselves on and off in the middle of the night. The staff member I talked to experienced all of these things, each accompanied by the acrid smell of smoke.

The Grand Ballroom hosted hundreds of parties and cotillions. It remains a popular wedding location in the modern era. Apparently one party guest refuses to leave. A security guard described the specter as a tall, thin woman wearing her hair up and a dress with a full skirt. The uninvited guest appears in the early morning hours. She can be seen clearly in the mirrors on the far side of the room, but disappears when the guard walks to where she would be standing.

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The Grand Ballroom’s mirrors, no ghost lurking in this photo. (That I can see.)

There was one ghost story that the employee I spoke to refused to support. A famous comedienne recently claimed to see the ghost of a female slave in one of the hotels guest rooms. The employee pointed out that the hotel was built long after the end of the civil war, so clearly that ghost isn’t real. I’d love to agree, but it seems equally likely that a modern woman wouldn’t know the difference between the dress of a slave and the clothes worn by a African American woman at the turn of the century.

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The staircase said to inspire the famous staircase scene in Gone with the Wind.

With its hand carved fire places, fine leather furniture, and gold leaf accents the splendor of another era remains at the Jefferson. It’s hard to say for certain what else has remained. As an author I can see a thousand ways to turn the Jefferson into a new version of the Overlook (the hotel from Stephen King’s  The Shining). In fact, I  outlined that story before my romantic weekend even ended.

07/1/15

Home to the Haunted Mansion

When I left Florida I swore I would never go back in summer, a season that starts with 90’ temperatures in March and refuses to leave until late September. But I find myself compelled to keep returning to one of the hottest parts of the state – the shade-less ocean of cement known as Disney World. Thankfully, one place stays refreshingly dark and gloomy.

 

Haunted Mansion full view

No matter how many times I go through the Haunted Mansion, there’s always something missing. Even the backstage tour lacked a cohesive story of how the mansion came to be. How did the opera company die in costume? What happened to all those ballroom dancers to keep them twirling into eternity?

The tale I heard as a child centered on a couple on their wedding day. Before the ceremony, they played a game of hide and seek. The bride hid in a trunk in the attack, but became trapped and suffocated. Her body was never found, and her empty hearse waits at the front of the mansion. Deeply depressed, her groom hung himself. His body is revealed during lightening flashes in the first room. The bride’s ghost, with her glowing red beating heart, stood by the trunk in the attic.

water color side door

Not too long ago the ride was restructured and the story changed. The bride is now a serial killer who murders husband after husband. The outside of the ride was themed to include an unrelated murder mystery so subtle you’d need to be trapped in line for more than an hour to realize that’s what you’re seeing. The mystery is solved at the very end of the ride – if you keep a sharp eye out. I’m more in favor of the nods to the old tale, like the dog tracks that lead to the servant’s entrance outside of the cemetery.

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Those tracks make me think about the caretaker – who was he? What was his dog’s name? Where did they and all of the 999 Happy Haunts come from? That’s a book I’ve wanted to read for a long time, so I’ve started writing it. I’m moving the mansion from Florida to a small seaside town in North Carolina. I’ll be visiting Edenton, NC and a few other cities, trying to find one with the right feel. I’m hoping for a layer of genteel decay, a sense of beautiful bones under an aged face. A place that was golden once, but has gone gray with waiting, abandonment and wood beams, gingerbread work on houses that need a coat of paint.

The story isn’t waiting for research, it’s forming itself in notes and drafts. A woman runs away from tragedy, going to a home she never knew she had. But homes are haunted with the things we could have done, the ghosts of the people we might have been. The poor dear doesn’t know it yet but she’s going home to a haunted mansion.

04/15/15

Reenactments as Research

I love the juxtaposition of historic values and modern settings. One of the reasons I write with vampires is the unique chance they give me to explore cultural shifts and changing social roles. In my book, Under a Blood Moon, I have two vampires, Jakob, born around 1360 and, Mark, born 1574. Jakob, a devout Catholic, values family and faith. Mark is more calloused and cynical. That’s probably enough to start writing but to really flesh out a character you need more. When you dig into the history you learn that most men in Jakob’s time couldn’t read. They knew famine personally and would have lost family members to starvation. Their church offered not only solace but also support and safety. Knowing that about him improves my writing. There’s no way around it, to really understand how historic characters think you need to do research.

While I enjoy the usual kinds of research, like reading academic articles and history books, my favorite kind of research is more hands on. I talk with and interview historic reenactors. Most people are familiar with Civil War reenactors. Many Southern states hold large scale battles and encampments in the summer. But there’s more than just the Civil War out there. In St. Augustine, where I went to college, encampments from the 16th century were common. I spent more than one summer night awkwardly pressed in a crowd of women and children forced into the old fort while cannons fired around me, trying to beat back English forces as if it was still 1586. For years I interacted with people who slept, ate, and dressed in that time period. It’s no surprise that I based Mark on what I learned. His favorite breakfast is the one I saw being eaten in the camps, his political views are shaped by the discussions I had with the reenactors while they ate.

I was recently lucky enough to find an event that focused not on one battle or time period, but brought them all together. Military through the Ages showcased encampments from a Roman Legion (64 A.D.) to the current Virginia Army National Guard. While it was hard to pull myself away from the Fenvald Vikings, the good people of La Belle Compagnie who reenact the Hundred Years War between England and France (1337 to 1453) were my best resource of the day. I learned about cooking, cleaning, women’s roles vs. men’s roles, and how fighting really worked in the time period. Reading about swords is good, holding the sword and talking to someone who uses period techniques to make swords is even better.

One of the ladies of La Belle Compagnie and a friend of hers from about 600 years in the future.

One of the ladies of La Belle Compagnie and a friend of hers from about 600 years in the future.

The event included a lot of hands on demonstrations, some of them given by people who aren’t just reenacting, but remembering. This lovely woman was a member of British Women’s Land Army during WWII.

The Women’s Land Army took on the jobs left empty by soldiers. They planted and harvested crops, milked cows, and ran the home front. Despite all this, I’d never heard of them. I folded their story into the background of Margaret, Jakob’s love from the 1940s and the grandmother of his adopted son. Not far from the encampment, one of the wonderful women offered to pin my hair up. While Margaret and I don’t have the same hair, I know the way the bobby pins scraped across my scalp will end up in a book somewhere.

The seated woman was a member of the Women's Land Army, while the standing reenactor is dressed in clothing from the Colonial era

The seated woman was a member of the Women’s Land Army, while the standing reenactor is dressed in clothing from the Colonial era

To me history is a dying solider on a battlefield telling you his story. Reenactments give us a chance to talk to those soldiers, and ask them about the little things we might not be able to read about so easily. When you’re lucky you get a chance to feel a piece of history (or something pretty close) for yourself.

 

 

 

03/1/15

Reseach Road Trip: Rosewell Plantation

As I type these words, a cold rain falls down, turning to ice almost the instant it touches something. Icicles cling to the eaves of the roof, the edges of cars, and any living thing that holds still. We’ve slogged through snow since Tuesday, but next Wednesday will be seventy degrees. More snow arrives on Thursday. The ping-pong of Spring weather makes me dream of the summer, when I took clear, dry roads into the middle of nowhere to find things to put in a book someday.

Ruins of Rosewell (photo is "Rosewell.VA" by Agadant  Licensed under CC)

Ruins of Rosewell
(photo “Rosewell.VA” by Agadant )

Last August, I sought out Rosewell Plantation. Just one or two steps above a road side attraction, Rosewell mattered once. These days, you’d be hard pressed to find the place. You take a rural highway, pass historic battlefields, go over a bridge, and then wind through farmland long enough to be sure you’re lost. The houses hide behind pines and oaks, bright red pickup trucks show in between the branches. If you’re lucky, you stopped at the 7-11 nine and half miles before for a bottle of water or a clean bathroom. Your only other option is the plantation visitor center or a tree.

Besides the bathroom and the small refrigerator with the cool bottles of water, the visitor center holds a one room exhibit of artifacts found at the house. Learn about the rough draft of the declaration of Independence that Thomas Jefferson wrote here or watch a quick movie about the restoration efforts. The gift shop boasts two display cases filled with out-of-print books, talked up by a volunteer who works hard to sell them. I couldn’t tell if her enthusiasm came from desperation, boredom, or devotion. In any case she walked out to the shell paved parking lot and pointed to the right. The land around the plantation is rented to farmers, corn in the front, soy closer to the main house. She warned me at least twice not to pick any of it, and to stay out of the fields.

The road to the plantation is paved only with dirt. If you let your hand drift outside the window you risk feeling the slap of corn stalks. An uncomfortable drop off exists between the soy bean plants and the road, a two foot rise of crushed shells and white dirt. It’s not like the car would have an accident, but the wire around the beans would surely snap, ruining a paint job, so it’s best to drive straight, trying not to think about what would happen in the one lane space if another visitor was leaving at that time.

In 1725 they called it the grandest home in the nation. In 1916 it burned to the bones.

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For a few decades Rosewell was something of a local celebrity. Kids came out to play here, each one leaving their mark on the antique bricks. The names are clearly visible, some have dates scratched into them. I spent a few minutes trying to follow a timeline of my life in them. A brick for the year my brother born showed up quickly, one for the year I was born took a bit more time. They stop soon after the house won its place on the National Historic Register but Joey and TJ haven’t been erased.

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Restoration efforts seem shaky. Groups come out to plaster over brick. Modern beams are sunk to support the old structure. But somehow the work doesn’t seem to have gone on lately, certainly not this week or last, probably not in the last month. The volunteer warned us about ticks in the interior of the house. There was a problem with funding for the proper weed-eater, the bugs couldn’t be controlled in the high grasses. I didn’t mind, the wildflowers and high grasses added to the air of companionable neglect. You could tell from walking around Rosewell that a small group of people loved it. They wanted it to be grand again, to remind the world of how important it had been once. There’s something wonderful about local people fighting to keep a local place from being forgotten by the rest of the world.

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08/1/14

Ghost Touring

The wind blows down the city street and strangers huddle together against the dark. In front of them a storyteller spins a tale that’s almost unbelievable. As they walk through the parks and residences, alleyways and historic markers, the stories keep coming. The group leans in eager to hear. Scared or bored, their feet hurting or their hearts pounded, they have in common: ghosts.

I go on a ghost tour whenever I get the chance. On a regular tour, I’m the girl who asks if there have been any ghost stories. I tell myself I’m not obsessed, that ghost stories are some of the best stories around. They feature strong emotions, and deep dark moments. Most ghost tours share a few tropes if not entire stories. There’s almost always a bride, killed on her wedding day, and haunting in her wedding dress. In Philadelphia and Alexandria, VA she burned to death. In Savannah she died of greed, poisoned by embalming fluid in the dress stolen from her sister’s corpse. Typically a child ghost makes an appearance, sometimes bringing friends, usually playing or laughing in a way that should be cute but comes out as creepy.

Ghost tours used to be hard to find. My first Savannah ghost tour was conducted by a private guide. At $60 for the afternoon, she worked out to be cheaper than most, and more friendly. The last time I went back the city offered haunted carriage rides, pirate tours, haunted walking tours, and a ghost tour every night. With so much competition picking the right ghost tour becomes a tough choice. I’d suggest a tour lead by someone with a background in history or literature. Despite their very sensational website, Grim Philly tours were all written by a history professor and are given by history students. They were also the only tour I’ve been on that took us to specialists along the way.

A guide from the Christ Church Cemetery in Philadelphia, who only tells stories about those graves, took over our tour for half an hour.

A guide from the Christ Church Cemetery in Philadelphia, who only tells stories about those graves, took over our tour for half an hour.

Guides can be serious or eager, occasionally dressed in costume. Lord Chaz leads tours in the French Quarter of New Orleans wearing a vintage mortician’s suit and top hat. His tour didn’t offer any stories I hadn’t heard before, but it was the only one I’ve been on where my tour guide got arrested. Guides take their work very seriously, and may have even published a book of ghost stories (available for purchase at the end of the tour). It’s considered poor form to correct them, even when you know they left out a part of the story. Similarly, if your guide holds up a poorly rendered photograph that ‘proves’ ghosts, don’t heckle.

Glowing ghost orbs, or proof that I’m not a professional photographer

Glowing ghost orbs, or proof that I’m not a professional photographer

Ghost tours tend to focus on ghosts, but a few stories may slip in that are only ‘spooky’. In Charleston it was a failed love affair by Edgar Allen Poe. We sat on library steps in the moonlight, hearing about the inspiration for his Annabelle Lee poem – a very real woman he wasn’t allowed to court. Other options include historic buildings, markers of historic events, or criminal proceedings.

This building is the ‘twin’ the ‘Zuul’ building from Ghostbusters. Spooky! Or not.

This building is the ‘twin’ the ‘Zuul’ building from Ghostbusters. Spooky! Or not.

Adults don’t get to ask someone ‘tell me a story’. We read books, but that’s only close to the experience of a hearing someone spin a tale. If you’re lucky your family sits around a table telling stories. If you’re not, try a ghost tour. They might not be 100% true, or faithfully accurate, but they’re always a memorable time.