It makes sense that you (almost) never see bathrooms on television shows, or in films, unless they are integral to the story. If you do see one, it’s usually because we need to see someone sneaking up behind the heroine as she looks in a mirror. Or she’s getting ready for work alongside her partner as they discuss some important family issue. Bathrooms aren’t sexy or even all that interesting. But in real life, nearly every North American house built in the last hundred-plus years is a bathroom. And so in every fictional house, there should be at least one bathroom, too.
As a writer, I worry a lot about things like bathrooms—and kitchens and basements and types of heating systems and laminate versus hardwood, stone versus tile, gas or electric. If I hadn’t become a writer, I probably would have studied architecture and become either an architect or an architectural historian. I love thinking about those details. (As I travel, I always have HGTV on in hotel rooms because I don’t have satellite at home.) When I’m writing a story, my mind always clearly pictures the house in which it’s set—sometimes to a distracting degree. Think about when you read a story: even if the writer doesn’t give you many details, your mind’s eye will fill them in. You can see the characters moving through rooms, see the surface of the table on which someone slams down a coffee mug, notice the house across the street when the character goes to the window to look out. Even if you’re not told, you know these things must exist for the characters to exist.
As I build a story, I want to know whether the curtain the character is touching is silk or wool or shiny polyester. I want to know if the window is old and leaky or tight and new. But I might not tell you. I want you to see the surroundings just enough to suggest to you what I think it’s like, but I don’t want you to have to work too hard to see my vision. I want you to have your own vision of the story.
Bliss House is the house in which my last three novels are set. It was built in 1878, in rural central Virginia, but it makes its first appearance in 2014, in the book, Bliss House. My main character, Rainey Bliss Adams, has to renovate Bliss House thoroughly because it had fallen out of family hands, and previous owners made some unfortunate decorating choices. She updates the bathrooms and kitchen, and restores the house’s beautiful wood paneling and floors. She takes it from being a decaying house that had languished for years after it ceased functioning as an inn, to being a showplace for her interior design skills. It was fun for me to envision her changes, but I had even more fun building and decorating Bliss House as it was built in 1878, for my latest novel, The Abandoned Heart.
There’s a lot to know about building a house in the 1870s. I had described Bliss House as being constructed of yellow brick. Was it even possible in 1878 Virginia? I wasn’t certain, but found out that it was. So I was able to imagine the bricks being made on-site. This happened a lot with big houses back then because it wasn’t easy to transport construction materials to rural areas. The kitchen is fairly rudimentary in The Abandoned Heart, but the locals are impressed by the zinc-lined ice-box and the enormous stove. In the first part of the book, the massive chandelier is lighted with candles, but, later on, when gas is introduced into the house, it is taken down and converted to gas (rare, but available in rural Virginia during the period).
Heat? Randolph Bliss prided himself on his forward-thinking technology, and had the house fitted with both enormous working wood fireplaces and rudimentary steam heat technology that was becoming common in the great cities of the northeast. Water? Well water for drinking is piped and pumped directly to the kitchen.
What about those bathrooms? Spring water is pumped to holding tanks in the upper reaches of the house, and sent by gravity into the house’s many bathrooms. By the late nineteenth century, indoor plumbing had changed life in the cities. A small town, like Old Gate in central Virginia, the nearest town close to where Bliss House is situated, would have probably had its own waterworks, but would not yet be equipped with sewers. Bliss House has a cesspool/septic field, far from the house. But the cottages on the property still have outhouses and well spigots with hand-pumps.
I suppose it would be easy enough to write a historical novel without obsessing about housing details. It’s even possible just to check through a final manuscript to make sure there are no anachronisms—like portable phones or televisions in the 1920s. But I don’t just want to write stories that are unobjectionable from a historical point of view. I want to immerse you in a place and time. And, I confess, that’s part of the fun of it for me: disappearing down rabbit holes and coming up with…facts about early indoor plumbing. The story is the point, though, and my true pleasure comes from telling you just enough so that your imagination can glide through, amazed at the pictures you create in your own head, and satisfied by a story well-told.