A HOUSE IS A NOT A HOUSE

The Captain Edward Penniman House

A house is not a house to this writer. To me, a house is a story, maybe many stories. I am fascinated by houses, not just in the sense, “Oh wouldn’t I love to own that contemporary overlooking the ocean.” I rarely take a ride without passing by a house and wondering who lives there. Is it a family with young sloppy children who hate vegetables or an older couple with two cats and a smart TV they don’t know how to work? If I’m alone and can prolong my fantasy, I might wonder if the kids are fresh and spend too much time on their devices, or if one of the spouses has dementia and the other is barely hanging on.

            People who ask where writers get their stories must not know people like me with overactive imaginations. I have a few favorite houses I pass by in my daily travels where I have indulged my fantasies. I think of the windows as the eyes of the house that let me peek in like a voyeur. I not only imagine who lives in the house now, but also who inhabited it in years, decades, or even centuries earlier.

            Take the house in the photo. I can show you it without violating anyone’s privacy because it is now owned by the U.S. National Park Service and part of Cape Cod National Seashore. The French-style second empire home is located on twelve acres in Eastham, Massachusetts and overlooks the Atlantic Ocean. Only one family owned the home, which was built by Captain Edward Penniman, a deep-water whaling captain. Captain Penniman and his wife had four children, whom he took with him on his expeditions at sea, except for the fourth child who suffered from seasickness. Imagine what it must have been like to be a child at sea with your family for extended voyages. Imagine what it must have been like to be the sick child left behind. Did she climb the stairs to the second and third floors and pirouette in the cupola searching for his family’s ship to return? The Penniman home is filled with stories, stories that are real and that have been shared.

            But who says you can’t make up stories about what might have happened in houses? I indulged my fascination for another second empire home in my hometown and moved my protagonist, Elinor, right in. Elinor’s life had been absorbed by her second husband and his two sons. The house became her nonverbal declaration of independence and provided the setting for some eerie crimes.

            In another novel, my divorce lawyer protagonist had made a series of misjudgments and assumptions about a police detective, whose wife she had represented in their divorce. I was searching for a way that would demonstrate how Michaela had misjudged him when I drove by a beautiful understated Greek revival home I had passed and admired many times. I had wondered who lived in it during the past 150 years and now I knew at least one of its inhabitants. It was the police detective. Michaela had pictured him living in modern condo with a monochromatic color scheme and lots of stainless steel. Fooled her.

            How many of you have looked at a house and wondered about the stories it holds within? The peeling paint, the manicured lawn, the four-car garage. What stories do they tell you?

C. Michele Dorsey is the author of the Sabrina Salter series, including No Virgin Island, Permanent Sunset, and Tropical Depression. Michele is a lawyer, mediator, former adjunct law professor and nurse, who didn’t know she could be a writer when she grew up. Now that she does, Michele writes constantly, whether on St John, outer Cape Cod, or anywhere within a mile of the ocean.  

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7 thoughts on “A HOUSE IS A NOT A HOUSE

  1. I too love imaging what goes on in the houses I pass. One of the best parts about being a writer is you can stare at houses and it’s not being nosy. It’s research. 😉

  2. I always wonder about houses. In fact, I’ve just launched a new mystery series about an architect who specializes in restoring old homes and gets caught up in their history. My wife and I live in a house that goes back to 1850, and our neighbor told us he heard that his house and our house were built at the same time by brothers.

  3. I love everything about this post. I’d probably be the sick kid at home. But what if she just pretended to be sick so she could live an easy and free life with her decrepit grandmother who didn’t care what she ate or how long she stayed out playing?

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