Recently my husband and I embarked on a research trip that would take us to the locations of at least four different novels that were either under contract or anticipated to be. Our travels took us to among other places, Memphis, New Orleans, Mobile, and to–quite unexpectedly–West Point, Mississippi and Waverly Plantation.
Waverly was not on our list of potential sites to visit, nor was it even on our radar–or rather GPS–as we circled through the South taking notes and photographs. Yet when we stopped at a red light and saw a sign saying Waverly Plantation, 10 miles, there was no question we had to go and see this place for ourselves. In fact, I don’t even recall my husband asking. I think he just smiled and turned right.
Ten miles seemed like much more as the two-lane highway twisted through the Mississippi backwoods. And then there was Waverly Plantation. An octagonal wedding cake of a home with a cupola that looked as if it ought to include a Civil War era gentleman with his spyglass pointed north watching for Yankees, the place was quiet. Serene. Gently shabby. So of course we had to go in.
Our guide tackled the stories of the home with enthusiasm, something that made up for the surprising cost of entry. We later learned that while the plantation is on the list of historic sites, it is privately owned and depends on entry fees for its upkeep. The home is lovely, with that lived-in feeling that gives a visitor the impression they’ve all just left and are expected back at any time. In fact, I’ve read in subsequent research about the property that people have felt the presence of ghosts. Of the feeling of being watched or the sound of a little child calling for her mother. I can say I felt none of these things. Perhaps it was because my writer’s mind was elsewhere.
Likely I missed the ghosts–if they were that at all–because I was looking for the hidden. Looking for the nuances that made a home of the time what it was. Looking for the carved details on the staircase, the unique design of the New Orleans-made beds with posts that telescoped up to hold mosquito netting, for the unique device that the lady of the home used to call her maid to her chamber. Those hidden things make a story, and that was my purpose for walking the halls of Waverly that day.
However, as I was looking for the hidden, I found the obvious. The people of the nineteenth century, though not blessed (or burdened) with electronics and modern devices, still managed to live a good life. A simpler life, yes, but a good life all the same. They cultivated gardens, gathered for meals, and joined in with their neighbors for the celebrations that marked their years. One of the celebrations held at Waverly back in the late 1860s gave rise to a legend that I’ve borrowed from for my next historical novel, FLORA’S WISH. I won’t give away the story, but I will say it involves a candle, a lady’s hoop skirt, and a few dozen former Confederate soldiers who were afraid the Yankees had returned.
Had we not taken that turn down a two-lane Mississippi blacktop, we would never have found the hidden Waverly, a home that obviously had much to offer for a writer. The lesson: when looking for the hidden, be prepared to find the obvious. And always turn if you see an interesting sign.