July 10, 2014

Step Away From Your Writing and Explore Writing Settings

By Annette Cole Mastron, Communications Director for Southern Writers Magazine

Sunday, I was enjoying a cup of coffee, while reading the Real Estate section and saw an auction notice for a southern plantation with an open house. My current work in progress is a period piece set in the South just after the Civil War. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to see a plantation as it is being dissected for sale. 

Seizing this opportunity, a Sunday drive to Holly Springs, MS took me to historical Walter Place Estate, Cottages and Gardens. I captured details with my smart phone camera. Broken herringbone brick pathway with unevenness created from tree roots under the pathway led from the street to the plantation. The exterior was in need of resurfacing, and green broken shutters graced the 20 foot windows. The 1859 grand dame is a beauty with 10,000 square feet. Looking from the front porch, you could imagine the history of the property. It's easy to understand why General Ulysses Grant housed his family in the home while planning the battle of Vicksburg, but I also wonder where the plantation owners were housed while their home was occupied.

Entering the front door, a brochure of the property and the auction company representative provided information on the auction. The exploration of the plantation ensued. Each room provided a glimpse of how a family would live in this home. The antiques were authentic to the Civil War era, blended with 20th century contents. Most everything on display was up for auction. As a perspective buyer you could actually touch the items up for sale. There were 6 different china, 12-place settings and silver services. Countless items were arranged to be sold in lots. 

Using this as research trip, I photographed, touched, and imagined a plantation family trying to hang onto their home by selling off their prized possessions. Essentially, that's what happened to many families following the Civil War. Today, the strain of maintaining a plantation on 15 acres of gardens with a pool and two other historic cottages has forced this auction by the aging owner. I found the breaking up of the plantation's contents to be sold as a very sad event. It left me with no desire to bid on any of the beautiful items. These items seemed to belong to this plantation. 

The emotional response from my Sunday road trip surprised me. It gave me a better understanding of how a family would feel having to sell off everything within the walls of their home. Not only did I get a real sense of the setting outside of normal writing research methods, like period reference books or Internet search, but I was able to touch contents in the plantation setting. Perhaps the silver scarred tray I picked and held up to the chandelier light had actually be used to serve food to General Grant. 

I highly recommend any writer to get out of your writing space and to experience your setting when an opportunity arises. It will give you the ability to truly imagine and dream your story with emotion that will give your reader a truer story.

If you live within driving distance of Holly Springs, you can visit this plantation and its grounds again prior to the auction. Another open house will be held today, Thursday, July 10, 2014.

Even if you're not writing a period piece, you can experience this via real estate open houses that are the period of your book setting. A contemporary, luxurious mansion named. The Grand Manor of Nashville,  is up for foreclosure and offers a glimpse into the lives of the truly rich. It has it's own casino, movie theatre and wine cellar within the home.

Get out of your office and walk into your book's setting. Like me, you may surprise yourself. What you thought you knew before your research trip isn't authentic to your story. After the field trip, you may have a better sense of the emotions of your characters in these settings. 

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