Thursday, March 19, 2009

Background Check

by Mary Margret Daughtridge


Don’t you love that word? I do. It means the appearance of being true. It perfectly encapsulates the goal of my research. I'm not a reporter. I write fiction. I don’t do research to make my stories accurate. I do it to make my stories seem true. Wherever facts and the needs of my story march together I choose facts—but anytime they don’t, I freely blend them with my imagination.
Still, I often wonder, when I read another writer’s work, which are parts are real and which not. So here's a little background on the background of SEALed With a Promise.

Sessoms’ Corner, NC where Aunt Lilly Hale Sessoms’ stately old home sits, is a product of my imagination that mingles many places I’ve been to in my life.
Not populous or organized enough to be called a village, it is a cluster of farmhouses and perhaps a country store miles outside of “town.” The technical term (not that you probably care, but I need to show off my research) for such locations is census designated place name.
The “corner” in Sessoms’ Corner refers to a nearby crossroads. Spivey’s CornerNC is one such place name which has achieved national fame for its hog-calling contest. I confess I’ve always loved the name and cheerfully adapted it to my use, however, I’ve never been there and don’t know anyone from there.

The Sessom’s Corner of my imagination lies between Goldsboro and Wilmington. The traditions of Southern hospitality are still strong in such places. When there's a wedding, almost all of the guests are from out of town. Close and distant kin rally to provide housing and entertainment for the guests, so that that duty doesn’t fall on the bride’s family. Since she lives at the homeplace, to uphold the family’s honor, Aunt Lilly Hale feels she must host a wedding breakfast for the bride, despite the wedding’s rushed nature.

The hero, Chief Petty Officer Caleb "Do-Lord" Dulaude is the wedding’s best man. Raised in poverty by a single mom, his adult life has been spent in the Navy. In Aunt Lilly Hale’s house he encounters a culture and a set of family values he’s never before experienced. Ironically, his nickname, acquired during SEAL training, actually makes him seem like less of a stranger to the Sessomses. In eastern North Carolina men go to their graves with nicknames like "Choo-choo" and "Potlikker" with no loss of dignity. Only Emmie, the heroine, objects to the name and insists on calling him Caleb.

The Victorian house pictured above is now a B&B located near Edenton NC. It has the solid, prosperous, rooted look I imagined for Aunt Lilly Hale’s house.

Wilmington, NC is absolutely real, and its beautifully restored historic district with houses dating from the early 1700’s to the late 1800’s and early 1900’s is one of my favorite places to visit. A story whispers to me from every house. Here it is dressed up in spring finery. [below]

I wanted Emmie to live in the historic section of Wilmingotn, but on a UNC-W instructor’s salary, there was no way she could afford it.

But I had another idea. In Eastern NC although occasionally houses in town were built with servants' quarters on a ground or basement floor, as a rule servants lived in a detached house in back of the main house. The houses were tiny—little more than two or three-room huts, really. Often they were crudely constructed, but sometimes they were built to be in keeping with the main house, although much scaled down and simplified.

The servants are gone now and the quarters with them, but in places like Wilmington a little architectural gem can still be found, and, if you have connections (and Emmie does) can be rented. I don't have a picture, but the tiny houses do exist.

My biggest setting challenge for SEALed With A Promise was coming up with a house for Senator Calhoun, Do-Lord's Nemesis, to live in. Located in Wilmington, it’s style, location, and layout were hugely significant to the plot. It needed to be elegant and massively scaled, not so much gracious as grand, and to have no architectural references to plantation or ocean port roots. I had the scene outlined but although I knew what the house should feel like, I needed detail, real details, to give it verisimilitude. That meant I had to make another research trip to Wilmington. Oh well. Writers must accept these hardships.

One glance at the Graystone Inn [left]and I knew I had found it.
The house, originally the Bridger’s Mansion, was built in 1905. The Bridgers’ fortune came from railroads. It’s constructed of sandstone quarried in Indiana, and, built to impress, it’s so massive it’s hard to find a photograph that does it justice. Here’s another picture.

Today, it’s a B&B. The owner, Richard Moore, showed me through it, and even discussed with me which upstairs bathroom window would be best to rappel out of in order to reach the roof of a side porch. And where one would land, if one missed the porch, and fell.

Here’s the dining room [left] where Do-Lord and Emmie have dinner with the senator and his family.

The entry and reception room with Palladian windows set an important scene.
Some architectural detail Emmie remarks on. [above]

An article on the settings I choose for SEALed With a Promise wouldn’t be complete without discussion of the background behind the buff bod on the cover.

A cover isn't really intended to be a story illustration but readers sometimes assume it is. As anyone who's ever been there knows, there are no mountains in the vicinity of Wilmington—and not even I could imagine any. The landscape around Wilmington is flat. I mean F.L.A.T.

Here's a shot of Wilmington’s waterfront. The water in the foreground is the Cape Fear River. In the distance you can see the church spire which dominates the downtown Wilmington skyscape and which plays a role in the story.
So how do you mix the real and the imaginary to achieve verisimilitude? You paranormal writers aren't off the hook. That's just a different kind of verisimilitude.
For those who aren't writers, is there a place you've always thought would be a great setting for a book?


  1. I like the way you think, Mary Margret! That's what I do, when it comes to setting... take some facets of the area, (lots of research) blend it with imagination, and voila, fresh setting!

    Beautiful photos, by the way!!

  2. I took all the pieces of Brooklyn that I love and stuck them in the Park Slope section and made it mine.

    The only thing I didn't move was my grandmother's house. It became Rosalie, Annabelle and Rich's parents' house and I kept it in Kensington. I even had Rosalie go for a walk in Green-Wood Cemetery where I used to play when I was a little kid. I know, that explains so much. After the first snow, My uncle Joey and uncle Ronny would always take me to the Cemetery to walk backwards to the graves... It's a wonder I don't write paranormal.

  3. Interesting post, Mary Margaret. Sounds like you managed to find everything you needed to make your story work.

    I've only ever created a fictional town once and it was made up of parts and pieces of real towns in the area. I did it that way so I could lay out the town the way I needed it to be. But otherwise, I tend to stick to real places and neighborhoods. In L@FF, for instance, Michael's home is an actual rowhouse in Baltimore where a friend of mine once lived. I even used the real address. :-)

  4. Beautiful pictures, MM. I'm itching to go visit now!

  5. Great post with beautiful pictures, MM!
    I've been to Wilmington, but it was just a run up from Myrtle Beach to see the USS North Carolina Battleship Memorial. Obviously, I should go there again sometime. The waterfront looks a lot like Charleston, SC, though, and I have been there, too. It's like stepping back in time.
    Writing about outer space may seem like something you wouldn't need to research, but in creating new worlds, they must have climate, terrain, and culture. I take Earth-type settings (desert, jungle, savanna,etc) and put them on different planets, add some weird alien life-forms, and go from there!

  6. Fabulous post MM. The research is some of the best part for me and photos help enormously.

    For me, having never been to England, scouring over pictures was the best way to capture the essence in my imagination and then translate that to the page. I literally have a couple hundred pictures saved and dozens of bookmarked websites. Many of them are in an album online that I placed to help my readers see what I am describing.

    The most fun part is then taking those photos of places and landscape and meshing it to fit my vision. That is where the creativity comes in!

    The photos you shared are gorgeous. I love the South, although I have never been to the Carolinas. My dad lives in the Deep South and the areas of MS and Louisiana are stunningly gorgeous.

    Can't wait for Promise!

  7. MM--

    Seeing these photos are so cool, because I can imagine them completely in your story now!

    This isn't a revelation of any sorts--but almost any small town in the US is so intriguing to me. Living in the 'burbs of Chicago all of my life, I've seen my fair share of them, and lived in a couple... I love the downtown main streets, the sense of community, the rally behind the high school football team... even when your brother and his friends have graduated :)

    Small towns also offer enough drama and gossip for a great storyline where EVERYONE gets involved, whether the hero and heroine like it or not. Then there's bringing an outsider in, all the hidden secrets, etc. etc. etc. But I know this is something so many authors have already explored, but I love it!!

  8. Donna,

    Sometimes I have the imagination and need to find something that matches it, sometimes I have a setting in mind--but no story. In fact, I have a bunch of those tucked away just waiting for their story to come along.

    Glad you liked the pics.

  9. Robin,

    Cemetaries are some of my favorite places! Maybe that explains a lot about me, too.

    One of these days, I want to set a scene at the "Brittish" cemetary on Ocracoke Island. In fact I'd like to use all of Ocracoke.

  10. What courage to use an actual address, Marie! But what a great resource to have known a row house "personally."

    Baltimore fascinates me.

  11. Beth,

    When you go to Wilmington, be sure to walk through the old section. The antebellum Bellamy Mansion is Wilmington's icon, but there really are more interesting historic sites.

  12. Glad you spoke up, Cheryl. I'm always so impressed with writers who can create a world! To imagine creatures and then imagine the evolutionary line that produced

  13. Sharon,

    One of the absolute high points of my last trip to England was going to the Pump Room at Bath. It is still there, and I got to see the baths and taste the waters. (Ugh!)

    I've read so many Regencies it was like living inside a book.

  14. Thanks for the comments, Danielle. I always wonder if people raised entirely in an urban or suburban environment will think it interesting.
    I live in the city now, and have for many years, but there is a special quality to small places, I think.

  15. GREAT piccies, MM!

    In TWS, I "invented" the little village where the hero grew up, but it was in fact a composite of several small villages I visited in Northern Ireland. The cottage where Donovan lived as a little boy is actually the cottage where the DH's grandmother was born and raised.

    In Treasures of Venice, I tried to use as many real locales as I could, but took "artistic license" for a couple of places. :-P


  16. How true, MM!

    The setting is just another part of the book. And I've used pretty much every location I think is great for a book.