By Margaret Lucke
One of the great joys of fiction is the opportunity to visit amazing and wonderful places. Some books invite readers into a locale that is wholly an invention of the author’s imagination. Other books may be set in a place that really exists somewhere on the planet, but to a reader who has never been there it is still a fantasy, discovered through the details that the author provides.
My first favorite fictional location was Neverland—Peter Pan's place, not Michael Jackson's. When I was almost five I saw the Disney film, and I was so enchanted that I didn’t want to leave that magical realm. My mom made me a Peter Pan costume for my birthday and I wore it every day for weeks.
Since then I've been captivated by many fictional places, though I haven't tried nearly so hard to turn myself into a character who lived in one of them. The secret garden in the book of that name. Tara in Gone with the Wind. The Texas of Larry McMurtry's novels. Leadville, Colorado, in the days depicted by Ann Parker. Give me enough good vivid details and I'll happily go almost anywhere. A strong sense of place is a common feature of the books I enjoy most.
Right now I'm bestowing the honor of "favorite fictional place" to one I created myself. That's because this week I completed writing the book in which it's featured, and I'm taking a little time to bask in the heady sense of accomplishment before tackling all of the steps involved in turning House of Desire from a manuscript into a published book.
The place is the Burnham Mansion. A large Victorian home in San Francisco, it is "three stories of whimsy made of wood. Peaks and gables jutted up, bay windows protruded out, shingles and spindles and frills and furbelows covered every surface. At the corner a round tower rose above the roofline. It had windows peering in all four directions and was topped by a conical roof like a witch's hat."
My protagonist, Claire Scanlan from House of Whispers, gets caught up in a battle to save the historic house from developers. At a fundraiser for the cause, she is distressed to encounter a mysterious young woman whom none of the other guests can see--Roxane, a "soiled dove" from the 1890s. Unbeknownst to anyone in the present day, the house was a bordello in its early years, and Roxane has discovered a portal in the tower that allows her to travel between then and now. She takes refuge in what she calls the Future House on occasions when her life becomes too much to bear.
When someone Claire cares about is murdered in the house, Roxane is the only witness. But if Claire tells the police that an invisible woman from the 19th century was present at the crime, they'll think she's crazy. To bring the killer to justice, she must risk a journey into the past from which she might never return.
The book moves back and forth between Claire's story and Roxane's, the mansion being the common thread that spans the centuries and brings them together. Of course my House of Desire doesn't really exist, and its history is wholly invented. But I once had the privilege of working for a historic preservation group whose offices were in a grand Victorian house, and I borrowed a few architectural details. My desk was situated in the spot where the fictional murder occurs.
I hope the mansion in House of Desire will seem vivid and real to you, and will become one of your favorite fictional places, at least during the time you spend reading the book. And the next time you enter a historic house, you might wonder about the real-life stories that took place there.
Photos © Charles Lucke