I once fell hopelessly in love with a house. A fabulous Victorian (not precisely like this one, but close) with six bedrooms, three baths, and zero closets. A house whose pristine interior walls were covered with the original leather wallpaper, whose fireplaces were bordered with hand-painted tile. Opulent stained glass glinted in downstairs windows, and a bronze statuette of a beautiful woman, mounted in the newel post at the foot of a winding stairway, seduced with her siren’s song, distracting me from an exterior that hadn’t been painted for so long that the shingles looked sandblasted. From the disintegrating balustrade that surrounded the base of the house. From the seven leaning chimneys.
Who knew what it would cost to heat the house because the elderly man who owned the place had been living in the kitchen for years and making do with a single light bulb and a wood burning stove. Another sign of his presence: four black wool great coats flapped like enormous bat wings from a clothesline out back. With our home repair skills even more meager than our income, my husband and I would have been seriously overmatched. Plus, I was eight-months pregnant with our first child and had not a clue what I had gotten myself into on that front, either. So it was fortunate that we were overbid. We learned later that the people who did buy the house discovered a hidden room that could only be reached through a trap door in the living room ceiling.
I’ve wanted to write about that house ever since, but it wasn’t until a few years ago that a story idea came to me. I was at a yard sale at another Victorian house, one where my daughter used to play with the children of a former owner. The new owners had painted the outside shades of pink and mauve, and a dumpster stood in front filled with plaster and lath, testifying to ongoing renovations. I was dying to find out how the interior had been transformed. I drilled the poor homeowner with questions until finally she said,
“Why don’t you go inside and have a look around?”
“May I?” I asked, surprised and delighted.
“Go ahead,” she said and gestured toward the kitchen door. “It’s open.”
I didn’t wait for her to change her mind. I let myself in. The once-tiny living room and a sunny side porch had been merged and furnished straight out of House Beautiful. As I wandered on, through the upstairs, I thought: What if a woman goes to a yard sale. Somehow she manages to talk her way into the house. She goes inside and…she never comes out.
The idea made the hair on my neck stand up. I knew right away that the woman running the yard sale would be eight months pregnant, just as I had been so many years earlier when my husband and I were outbid on that fabulous Victorian.
I started writing the novel, working away in my office in the cozy Dutch colonial (3 BR, 1 BA) my husband and I bought when our baby, a girl, was a year old. I was in the middle of writing the opening scene when I realized that the homeowners in the novel, Ivy and David Rose, know the woman who shows up at their yard sale and disappears into their house. She’s someone they haven’t seen since high school, and she’s eight months pregnant, too. Of course there would also be a character based on the man who owned those great coats; and like his house, the house in my book would harbor secrets.
As I continued working, I felt the occasional twinge of regret for the house that got away. But by writing the book, I got to own that dream house vicariously and on my own terms.