I love old buildings, particularly old houses. The older the better. My husband and I often drive around on the weekend, takeaway coffee in hand and baby in tow, visiting open houses in Brisbane. Last weekend it was a beautiful 1880’s home with stained glass windows and a tiny staircase winding up to an attic with city views.
Writers often feel inspired by old homes. Charlotte Bronte is said to have been inspired by a North Yorkshire home she visited, Norton Conyers, which became the basis for Thornfield Hall in Jane Eyre. And Kate Morton often posts photos of quaint cottages and stately homes to Instagram, indicating they may feature in her next work of historical fiction.
Many people voiced their devastation in April this year at the news Notre Dame Cathedral was on fire. There were serious concerns that the building would sustain significant damage, destroying centuries of history. Someone created a meme making fun of everyone who, at hearing the news of the fire, quickly posted their holiday photos of Notre Dame to social media. Fair enough, that’s exactly what I did. I loved it there and was sad to hear it might be lost. Other people were commenting that it was only a building and no one had died. That’s perfectly true. It is a building and human lives are more precious. But I started to think about the reasons why people were so affected by the loss of a building. A building as iconic as Notre Dame Cathedral may have a different meaning to you depending on who you are. It’s an important building to the Catholic Church. It’s a symbol of France. For me, I like to imagine all of the people who’ve walked through the space. Who were they and how did they live? The world has changed and keeps changing but Notre Dame has survived and is still standing, marking time. An article at The Conversation explores this topic in more detail.
If a building is suddenly gone, will it then become harder for us to remember what happened in that space? Memories can fade and change with time. We might have photos but we can’t capture the way a room made us feel when we were standing in it. We probably didn’t record the sound of our footsteps on the floorboards, and we can’t bottle the musty smell that’s distinctive to old buildings. Many novelists have said their writing is richer if they can visit the actual place they’ve set their novel. As a writer, it’s much more difficult to imagine people moving around in a space if the space is no longer there.
I like to write stories set in Brisbane, where I live. There are interesting tales embedded into the city’s history – little seeds with the potential to grow and blossom into a novel. Being able to visit the homes, buildings and locations where things actually happened can also inspire a writer to notice details that add authenticity – a grand old jacaranda tree shedding purple flowers in the front yard, or an original door handle that would have been touched by every person who lived in the house over hundreds of years. Each building holds secrets within its walls about the lives of its previous occupants, and as a writer, we can imagine what those secrets might be. The building doesn’t have to be old, but the older the building, the more likely it will have secrets. To lose any of these beautiful old homes and buildings would mean the loss of those possibilities. And while it wouldn’t be the end of the world, it would be a great shame.
What inspires you as a writer? Have any real-life buildings served as the inspiration for your work of fiction?