I’m lucky enough to spend my days writing novels of gothic suspense in which family secrets and scandals bubble to the surface in big, old, haunted mansions. Ever since my first book hit the shelves a few years back, I’ll oftentimes find myself on panels with other authors at various book festivals and conferences, and one question we’re always asked is: “What inspired you to write your story?” Believe me, when you’re asking mystery, crime, thriller or suspense novelists this question, you’re going to get some strange, eerie and, let’s be honest, borderline psychotic answers. Mine included.
Erin Hart’s imagination shifts into high gear when she reads news stories about ancient bodies being pulled out of the peat bogs in Ireland, perfectly preserved. In her four novels, the most recent of which is The Book of Killowen, her lead character investigates these archaeological sites and usually unearths a present-day murder in the bargain. David Housewright revealed that, while attending a crowded music festival, he looked around at the sea of faces and began to marvel at how easy it might be to kill someone and simply slip away unnoticed… and thus began his novel Highway 61, in which an unfortunate fellow wakes up next to a dead body after attending a similar music festival, and thinks he has made a clean getaway until the blackmail threats start arriving.
Now that I’ve got two novels on the shelves, one in the pipeline set for release in January 2014 and a fourth rattling around in my brain, I think it’s safe for me to say that I’m most inspired by place. I need to create the setting where my characters are going to do whatever it is that they do, and then the story flows from there.
My current novel, The Fate of Mercy Alban (2013, Hyperion), bubbled to the surface during a tour I took of Glensheen Mansion, a stately, old home on the shores of Lake Superior in Duluth, Minnesota. Once a private home and now a museum, Glensheen has its own haunted history — matriarch Elizabeth Congdon and her maid were murdered in the house by Elizabeth’s daughter and her husband, no less, and reportedly both of the slain ladies remain — but I wasn’t interested in writing their story. I wasn’t looking for story inspiration at all. I was just taking the tour.
It was a gorgeous summer day on Lake Superior, and after wandering from room to glorious room inside, I walked out onto the patio that spans the whole length of the house. I stood there gazing at the meticulously-manicured lawn that flows out to the lake, which was glittering in the summer sun.
I thought: “What a great place to host a party!” And I started imagining it — men in their summer suits, women in long, cotton dresses, servers in black circulating with drinks and hors d’oeuvres. I could almost see the ghostly images of the revelers there in the yard, talking, laughing, listening to music wafting through the air.
And then, being the type of writer I am, I thought: “Ooo. What if somebody wound up dead at that party?”
I could clearly imagine that, too. A gunshot, a scream piercing the night air, the confusion that would follow — stunned onlookers, too traumatized to move, others running for the door, a police siren, faint at first and then growing louder. The anguished cry of grief as a love is lost forever.
I don’t know how long I stood there, caught up in the scene playing out in my own mind. The thought of it just wouldn’t let me go. And so began The Fate of Mercy Alban, a novel centered around a long-ago summer party at a stately old mansion much like Glensheen, where one of the party guests, a world-famous writer, winds up dead, and the daughter of the host and hostess disappears without a trace.
Now I’m looking for inspiration for my fourth novel. Know of any haunted mansions to tour?
Wendy Webb is the author of the Heartland Indie bestselling novel, The Fate of Mercy Alban (2013, Hyperion), and The Tale of Halcyon Crane, (2010, Holt), which won the Minnesota Book Award for genre fiction. Her newest book, The Vanishing, will be released in January, 2014. Visit her online at www.wendykwebb.com.