I clearly remember how I felt as I entered the gates of the ancient estate in the Hunt Country of Virginia. I knew the house and out-buildings had been built and rebuilt on land deeded to Lord Fairfax by the British monarchy. When it comes to American history—this place is old. Really old. And that’s what impressed me. Any historic spot transforms me, sends me right back into the time period to interact with the setting. But it was the ghost rumored to haunt the house that had motivated my visit, and, though I approached the manor with open mind and ready senses, I experienced nothing unusual. I left with a sense of history, nothing more.
However, I learned that every time a child toured the old house an interesting observation resulted: “I’m afraid.” “Did someone die here?” “I want out!” My writer’s antennae went up, and I began plotting my story. When I retired to Smith Mountain Lake, I simply moved the setting south, creating fictional Moore Mountain Lake.
To authenticate the setting I had to find an historic estate that was on high ground so as to escape the flooding of the river valleys for the construction of Smith Mountain Dam. Hours of research at the Bedford Museum, a treasure trove of local history, led me to Five Oaks, also known as “The Big House,” which still stands in Bedford County, though it is uninhabitable. It became the prototype for Overhome, the ancestral estate my 20-year-old protagonist Ashby Overton, from New Jersey, visits for the summer as she searches for her roots and tries to solve a family mystery.
Through diary entries that Ashby reads in “A Red, Red Rose,” I was able to use actual historical vignettes from Five Oaks’ legacy. For example, during the Civil War, Yankee invaders crashed into the house and forced the owners to prepare dinner for and serve their slaves in the family dining room. A plat showing the location of family and slave graves also became a part of the mystery. A UVA professor supplied information on African-American graves, cemeteries and burial rituals.
Scouring local newspapers and publications for historical background, I found an article chronicling four Christmas celebrations in Southwestern Virginia during the Civil War. I asked permission to use the information and the author graciously agreed. I wove the four holiday celebrations into the diaries that Ashby discovers in the attic at Overhome. Another article about a doctor who lived in Roanoke in the 1700’s inspired the character of Rosabelle, the Scottish nanny, kidnapped and enslaved in Africa for five years before coming to Virginia prior to the Revolution. Rosabelle is the ghost in “A Red, Red Rose.”
For purposes of plot, I sought information on how cemeteries were located, removed and relocated before the land was flooded for the lake. An article in the Roanoke Times supplying details about the two-year task performed by APCO employees was just what I needed.
Which brings me to the paranormal. On her first night at Overhome, Ashby encounters a strange presence in her room in the oldest wing of the house. Since I’d had no experience with ghosts, I turned to my writing group colleagues who had. I inadvertently went to my writer’s group one Friday when we were not meeting, only to discover two other writers had made the same mistake. Serendipity! They were both “ghost-busters.” We spent two hours on my manuscript—I was in a sweat trying to keep up my notes as they threw out ideas. Near the end of our session one of them looked at me seriously and said, “I knew there was a reason I came here today!” Goose bumps! And what it did for my story! Rosabelle, the ghost, is quite a character. I’d like to meet her. Let me clarify: I’d like to meet Rosabelle on a good day.
What propels my writing—character, plot, love of words? All of the above. But I always begin with a theme. For “A Red, Red Rose,” I relied on my interest in the culture and society of the South where hard-felt, long-held feelings battle with modern ideas. “A Red, Red Rose” reveals clashes between Northern and Southern values, city and country living, wealth and attitudes about the Civil War, family ties and bloodlines. Though I did not set out to write historical fiction, I enjoyed entwining history with the made-up story. ”A Red, Red Rose” is a cozy mystery/Southern Gothic and it’s a fun read. Bonus: The reader can learn quite a bit about Southwest Virginia history while enjoying a page-turning plot. I call it mystery, history, culture and a ghost.
–Guest post by local author, Susan Coryell.