Why I’m like a crazy 19th-century rifle heiress…

Two weeks ago, while in California, I visited the Winchester Mystery House. If you don’t know anything about it, it is a rambling, disorganized mansion built by the widow of the second president of the Winchester Rifle Corporation. And that’s about the only part of the story that isn’t weird.

Main entrance of the Winchester Mystery House

Sarah Winchester lost her young daughter and then her husband, which left her a bit rattled. A psychic in her hometown of Boston said it was because of the angry spirits killed by Winchester rifles. To appease them, she said, Sarah must move out west and begin building a house, which would always be under construction—never finished.

(By the way, here’s how I’m NOT like a crazy 19th-century heiress: I wouldn’t haul my ass 3,000 miles in a time of slow trains and stagecoaches so I could build a house in the middle of nowhere far from anyone I’d ever known because a psychic told me to…even if I knew that one day tourists would pay $30 a pop for a tour of the house).

There’s a lot of history and lure surrounding Sarah and her house, and I encourage you to Google it and read up on some of the fascinating facts and rumors. For our purposes, here’s what you need to know: In 1884, Sarah, who was worth $20 million with an income of $1,000 per day (in a time before income taxes), purchased an unfinished eight-room farmhouse just outside of San Jose, Calif., and spent the next 38 years building on to it. And when I say “the next 38 years,” I mean 24 hours a day, seven days a week. By the turn of the century the house had become a seven-story mansion.

Sarah never slept in the same bedroom two nights in a row, in an attempt to confuse the spirits, and every night she went to the Blue Room, or Séance Room, at the very center of the house to commune with the spirits and allow them to give her guidance on what to build next. When she died in 1922, the house construction covered six acres and contained 160 rooms, 2,000 doors, 10,000 windows, 47 stairways, 47 fireplaces, 13 bathrooms, and six kitchens. These include hundreds of architectural oddities—staircases that lead up to the ceiling; secret passageways; cabinet doors that open on flat walls; a door that leads to nowhere (it just swings open on the outside of the house); a staircase that goes down seven steps just to start going back up for the next eleven steps; and the Switchback Staircase which has seven flights with forty four steps but rises only about nine feet, since each step is just two inches high. So Sarah’s life ended before the construction of the house did, leaving behind a massively creative but quite confusing jumble of rooms that tour guides warn you might get lost in if you stray from the group.

Aerial view of entire mansion

So here’s how I AM like a crazy 19th-century heiress (and I urge you to LAY OFF the “crazy” part in any comments you may post…): the problem with living more creatively, which I try to do and discuss in this blog, is that you often find yourself with a whole lot of projects started and then ongoing, but often without a clear ending point or even eventual goal.

I’m not too worried about my drawing lessons and my sketchbook or the three sweaters, one floor pillow and one pair of socks I’m currently in the midst of knitting. Those are creative projects I do for fun and there really is no ending point planned for them (although I really hope I get the socks knit before NEXT winter).

I am a little concerned, however, with my writing projects: the blogs, the novels, and the articles that I’ve mentioned here over and over and which I still struggle with trying to make progress on. Let’s face it—this is only the second new blog post I’ve written in four months, which is pretty sad when this is supposed to be a weekly blog! I can’t understand how I can knock out a 60,000-word novel in 30 days each November and then not get motivated to edit it. And should it be that hard to write a 500-word blog post once a week?

But I think I’ve found the answer, and this, too, I owe to the Winchester Mystery House. On that trip, I finally met Stephanie Kayne, a talented writer who went to college with one of my high school friends, and who I have been Facebook friends with for a couple of years. Although we write very different genres—Steph writes paranormal romance and I write mostly non-fiction features or historical fiction—we spent most of the our lunch at Yankee Pier talking shop: what we write, how we write, obstacles to getting things done and overcoming them. So we were primed by the time we got to Sarah’s house. Put two overactive imaginations in a house full of mystery and chances are alternative histories will be conceived. We brainstormed the entire tour and while I won’t give away anything here, I will tell you that we started off by saying “I bet there are bodies buried in these walls” about 10 minutes into the tour, and by the time it was over, we had convinced ourselves that poor little 4-foot, 11-inch reclusive Sarah was a serial killer. Natch.

We decided we’d each write our versions of the story—Stephanie is saving hers up for her National Novel Writing Month novel and I’m planning on writing a 2,000-word story just for fun.

Last week Stephanie asked me how my story was going. Er, great. I mean it will be, when I start it. Because right now it’s marinating…


But I have a good excuse—I’m trying to write an article to submit to a food journal’s open call for fiction and non-fiction pieces, and that’s due March 15 so I really need to work on that right now. Of course, the open call started on November 15, so I guess it might appear that I’ve been slacking. Then I made a deal with Stephanie; I would write my food article by March 1, and I’d have the draft of the Winchester story done by April 15. And I know Stephanie will ride me on it until it’s done. That means I’ll actually do it, because Stephanie will provide a mental alarm clock. She’s my editor on this piece, and editors have strict deadlines.

Sometimes it’s not enough to have good intentions for your creative projects. You won’t face any retribution from yourself if you miss a deadline. And while I don’t expect Stephanie to beat me bloody with a stick if I miss the April 15 deadline, her expectations are enough to keep me on track, writing until that story is done.

So a warning to all my friends: I have weekly blogs to write, two novels to edit and one to plan, and I’m going to be looking for a few more mental alarm clocks. I think each project needs a different keeper; first, I don’t want one person to have to keep track of my entire schedule when I can’t even do that myself; and second, the more projects one person sees me juggling, the more likely they are to let me slide. But if my editor emeritus has only one thing to hassle me about, he or she can stay on track and take great joy in making me miserable until it’s done. Now, my mom does a pretty good job of being a mental alarm clock. She is CONSTANTLY reminding me about things on a daily basis, most of which I really don’t care about but are pretty important to her. So I’d ask her to help me out here, but she’s got her hands full reminding me to take an umbrella on rainy days, defrost something to eat for dinner, make some room in my freezer and change my air filters.

The rest of you—don’t be surprised if you get the call…because I’m really tired of building doors to nowhere!

This entry was posted in Body Art, Collaboration, Deadlines, Editing, Editors, Excuses, Knitting, NaNoWriMo, Writing, Writing schedule and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Why I’m like a crazy 19th-century rifle heiress…

  1. MA says:

    The door isn’t to nowhere… it’s to a pointy sculpture two stories below. Not to threaten too much, but taking a walk through that door is the punishment when don’t meet your deadline. 😀

    And I’m so glad I can be your slave driver… uh motivation, for this story!

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