The Haunted House: Creating Stories about Places
My little-girl self was terrified of the deserted farmhouse up a dirt road from the suburb where I grew up in the 1960s. The family who had lived there still owned the land and rented the pasture and barn to local horse owners. The abandoned house seemed to be crumbling into the ground. When my friends and I ventured into it, the steps creaked, spiderwebs reached for our hair, broken glass littered the floors. All the parents told the neighbor kids to stay away from it. We called it the “Haunted House.” (Similar to the house in this picture, but it was a one-story, three-room house.)
From the time I was six to ten, the Haunted House fascinated and frightened me. I always wondered about who had lived there and what their lives were like. The wood cookstove and ice box evoked an earlier era. And the table and chairs made me think about a family gathering. But the broken dishware and disarray sparked my curiosity about why they evacuated the house and left so many belongings.
The fall that I turned 11, my friends and I decided to clean up the Haunted House. We swept up the broken glass. Took down cobwebs. Dusted off the surfaces. Cleaned windows. The Haunted House was no longer scary. It had the potential to become an awesome hangout fort or clubhouse. Sheltered at the end of a valley looking northwest, the sitting area with dusty vintage furniture soaked in the late-afternoon rays of sun. We had a lot of fun making the space our own and put our childish fears to bed. While we cleaned the space, we made up stories about the family who had lived there.
I’ll never forget coming home for dinner in late October with daylight shrinking daily, feeling like we had accomplished our work and would continue to have fun hanging out at the Haunted House. But at dinner that night, my parents shared news that the owners of the farm had sold it to developers who planned to build a subdivision. The barn and house would be demolished. Horse owners would have to find new quarters.
I was devastated to learn that our special place would no longer exist. But my friends quickly moved on to tween-age interests: make-up, malls, and boys. A bit younger than them, I would have been happy to eke out a few more fun times at the Haunted House. But I followed my peers. The weather got cold, spring came, demolition followed. I never returned to the Haunted House.
That was the last time I got lost in childhood fantasy play. Do you remember a final childhood moment?
Stories about Places
This story has been tugging at me to write for a while. Perhaps because it’s about growth and change and how my feelings about a place evolved as I grew. But I struggled to find a meaningful angle and bring it to life. While incubating the story gem, I used a few tools to help me explore and develop it. To create stories about a place, look for human angles and emotional connections to the places. Let’s use the Haunted House example to explore some story angles.
As kids, we didn’t know the owners, which made them mysterious. The former residents were parents of the owners, and we knew nothing about them. These make-believe characters came to life in our imagination as we played life-size “house.” Also, I chose to leave many of the characters in the background, like the parents and teachers in Charlie Brown.
To help me recall sensory details about the Haunted House and my memories of the fall afternoons that we played there, I closed my eyes and took deep yoga breaths to let my mind wander and the memory to come into focus. Then I created a Mind Map to recall and capture all the details. I layered the details on top of my plot outline. Those techniques together allowed me to capture vivid details about the house and how we transformed it.
The Haunted House story touches on a universal experience of growing up and things around us changing. In a way, the transformation of the Haunted House parallels my friends and my transition from childhood to adolescence.
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