Sunday, January 24, 2010

Idea Garage Sale: The Secret Staircase

One of my first drawer manuscripts was titledThe Secret Staircase. I was ten, I think. I wrote "The Secret Staircase" on the top line of the paper, skipped a line, wrote "Chapter One," and started introducing my characters. They were Claire (12,) Maud (10 and the protagonist), and Mavis (8). They lived in the mid-nineteenth century in a classic Queen Anne house and I spent several chapters describing how they lived without ever figuring out where the secret staircase was, why it was in that house, or what the plot would be.

I thought about using the title again, about 20 years later, and made a serious attempt to think about how to make it work with my limitations and talents as a writer. As an adult I prefer to set stories in places I know well, so I needed a reason for a secret staircase in one of San Antonio's historic houses, and a reason for it to be key to the plot. Our historic houses aren't generally as big as all that (the one I live in now is about typical, at 2,000 square feet) unless originally built as hotels, boarding houses, or apartments. I decided that when the house was converted to apartments in the mid-twentieth century the narrow back staircase used by the servants was sealed off. The girls in the apartments at its foot and head would discover it and find a way to go backward and forward in time using it. That was when I first became interested in Reconstruction as a time period; but I never got the spark that turned the mechanical operation of putting a plot together into a book. The only characters with faces and voices were two people in the past: the ex-slave cook-housekeeper, and her son, a State Policeman under Congressional Reconstruction. Even they were distant, on the far side of a sea of research.

So I let it be. I may tell their story someday. I'm finding that, though not nearly the open untapped field the Pleistocene is, Reconstruction cries out for a different sort of treatment than it's generally had in fiction. And The Secret Staircase is a good title. But I may not ever be able to use it and anyway, titles can't be copyrighted. So take it if you need it.

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