Sunday, July 20, 2008


"Originality consists in returning to the origin."
Antonio Gaudi

HANK: The front of our house fell off.Well, not totally off. But pretty much.Our house, a three story not-quite Victorian was built in 1894. And when I moved in, in 1995 (which is kind of cool, coming in a hundred years later...and I'm still hoping there are many ghosts, but there seem to be mostly moths) it was white siding, that (kind of) looked like wood.

Well, last week there was a huge hailstorm here. Yes, hail, and I was home to see it. I took photos, it was literally white-out conditions. Here's the view from the front porch, through the roses. Then the hail on the porch, taken though a second floor window.
Here's a close up of the hail on the porch, with a little maple thing so you can see the size.

The next day, the front of our house was battered. The siding was pooching out, like it had a little belly. And the next day, the belly was bigger, and then bigger. Kevin our contractor guy came over, and shook his head. The siding is coming off, he said. No way to stop it.

Oh, man.

So. They started taking off the siding. And underneath? Are beautiful grey wood shingles. Beautiful, weathered, New England-y grey shingles. Fantastic.

See? Under the whiteTyvek, and just below, are shingles. The rest is gray clapboard.
It's hard to tell. But this house used to be all white siding. Now it's gray.
However. Not all of the shingles are in good shape. A lot of them are. A lot of them aren't. Around the windows is raw wood.How much would it cost, I asked, to just rip down all the siding and fix the shingles?
Jungle redders, you DO NOT even want to know.
So. Do we put up all new siding? Put back up the old siding? (Which would look terrible and patchy.) Have the shingles just in the front?

Now right about here, this blog could turn the corner into editing. How it's all about finding what lies beneath our over-written first drafts, and revealing the beautiful origins?

Or it could be about the money pit. You guys choose.

JAN: I'll go the editing route. Right now, I'm working on a screenplay and I've decided to just let myself get the scenes out. Every other one is too long, or too full of cliches, but I'm getting the conflicts in place. For me, writing is not so much about renovation - unveiling what lies beneath -- but reconstruction. Writing it wrong helps me see what would be right. Either way, the fun part is refinement.

BTW, to really understand Hank's post, you have to understand Hank's house, which is just a wonderful place with nooks and crannies and the details that obviously inspire all sorts of creativity.

RO: Bummer! Hank, I LOVE your house..every time I visit I discover another room that becomes my new favorite.

I'm going the money pit route. First, my first drafts are lean to the point of anorexic. I need to layer, not strip down. Second, I'm currently living in a house with no countertops, no kitchen sink and no floor in the kitchen. And the contractor just sent me an estimate that's double what I thought it would be. (This is why you should never have a handshake deal with anyone holding a sledgehammer..)

If you just replace the shingles in the front what would you have on the sides and back of the house?

HANK: Well, yeah, ain't that the question. I'm considering the "facade" approach. You know in vintage buildings, they leave the old front, and make the back new? So in our case, the back and sides would be from the 1960's, thewhite siding, and the front would be shingles. If you stand in the front yard, looking at the front of the house, you can't see the sides. And thanks for the kind words, guys, about the house. We love it, too. It just needs a little, um, facelift.

HALLIE: Old front, new back. Reminds of me of the wonderful Erma Bombeck essay about her version of home improvement: painting the the house down to the bushes. Our house must have been inhabited by her relatives--only the edges of the floor visible around rugs were finished.
In home improvement, I'm definitely a minimalist. Cheap and easy. But in writing, I tear it back to the studs if I have to...but save the pieces in case I decide to dial it back.
ROBERTA: Ay-yi-yi-yi, more construction metaphors. Recall that I am still a woman with a giant-sized dumpster in her driveway and dusty men tromping through all day! Pardon me while I wander and maybe I'll come up with something useful to say...Isn't it so odd the way the construction workers begin to feel like part of the family? The guys we have yanking off the front of our house love animals. If I take the dog out, they all yell out "Tonka!" from their scaffolding perches. The other day, one commented that they really needed a fourth person to wrestle the windows up the ladders. I demurred. "How about TONKA!" they yelled. "We want Tonka!"

Let's see, what was the question? Money pit, definitely! And Hank, just do the whole house. It'll be cheaper now than in a few years when you decide you made a mistake and call the contractor back to finish the job.:)

HANK: It just makes me think about writing. Yes, it really does. I'll be sitting at the computer--staring at a blank page. And I'll say to myself: what does this scene mean? And when pared down to my original meaning, my orginal goal, suddenly it begins to work.
Still. I'm not sure that means rip the siding from the whole house.
Come back Wednesday for a chat with a brand new mystery author whose book just hit the shelves...and Friday, we'll talk about names.


  1. When we were looking at a period-relevant remodel, this forum was very helpful.

    Though I live in Texas and the group was helpful here, they are particularly versed in New England period homes (or they were when we were using the forum as a resource), and may be able to give you some been-there-restored-that advice.

    What a lovely home you have, even photographed in transition.

    I'm just back from a conference and so saturated that I can't even think about the question as a metaphor for writing, but the responses are provocative!

  2. Oh, did I mention I'm a shingling expert? I even own a spokeshave for trimming (look it up).

    I cringe every time I see a lovely Victorian wrapped in plastic. I'm appalled at the sheets of stamped plastic that mimic fishscale shingles. Like anybody is fooled.

    If you want to stick with the editing analogy, I'd say: go with your first impulse. Buildings as originally built had an internal integrity, and later "improvements" seldom make things better.

    BTW, there's a great old New England tradition of putting the "good" stuff on the front where it shows, and putting the plainer stuff on the other sides. So if you go for a fancy front, you're in good company.

  3. Thanks Susannah, I'll look up that forum! And you get some rest..

    And Sheila--that's lovely. And very comforting. Thank you. Perfect. Now I'm going to look up spokeshave.

  4. Let's be creative. I'd go for a completely different, yet somehow coordinated, look on each side. You could have the Victorian front, the Japanese back, a French Provincial side, and the Italianate other. With complementary gardens. It could happen, right? Better yet, each project only involves 1/4 of the whole, so less time and money for each phase. And think of the theme party possibilities. Oh, yeah... writing. Um. The Traveling Salesman Mysteries? Descriptive flavors in your own home setting? You could probably write remodeling expenses off on your tax return using this ploy. ;) Or not.


  5. Dani--that's genius!Will you come back and guest blog for us--about blogging? (Let me know..and we'll plan!)

    (How meta can you get!)

    Wednesday: how a debut author balances the buzz of her just-published mystery--with the mystery of taking care of her kids!

  6. "Who did this work?" My husband says what what everyone from your contractor to your dentist says when they see "what lies beneath."

  7. "My momma said, 'Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're gonna find!"

    I have always found this opening line of "Forest Gump" fascinating!

    And, so it is. Hank, when you do the movie for "Prime Time" you can say with an uncanny level of authenticity - "Like is like a New England House..."

    Of course, as you all know, there are no accidents in life. So, everything is there for a reason. I think you captured it well by referencing both editing and the money pit. Both in excess can be pits - money or time. The trick is in knowing what the balance is. As you know a great idea can be diminished by over editing as well as under or poor editing.

    I liked Jan's comment about getting it all on paper. Sometimes that's the only way. Especially, a work that is 'story' driven because the scenes can follow once the depth of the story is fleshed out. I would keep track of what flashes in terms of scenes as I write. Sometimes the scene itself can be a motivator.

    As far as the house goes - What a lovely house. I'm assuming the front of the house faces the car in the drive. So that would make the one side visible from the street. Hmm... that does create some blend issues. I can understand why JRW readers would not want to hear the 'restore price'. Finding grey weathered New Englandy singles itself is a task. Since I am the master of optimized procrastination - do not rush into something before weighing the pros and cons. I usually have quite amazing solutions arise in that period that looks like delay or procrastination.

    BTW - That also includes editing for me. Especially major edits.

    For me the question would be - 'What does the house represent to me?" I'd look for the solution that makes it my house in the complete sense - including real estate value. Could you force yourself to paint the grey weathered shingles - wow, that caused a shudder in me. Still, there needs to be an overall solution that works for you and the house - and in editing you and the manuscript, as well.


  8. "Who did this work?" My husband says that's what everyone from your contractor to your dentist says when they see "what lies beneath."

    Yeah. Airplane mechanics, too, peering into the engine after a pilot has seen a gauge redline or heard a guddling sputter in flight.

    Good times.

    I was just thinking about a Victorian B&B I know here in Texas that was covered in Truly Awful mod-blue siding in 1967. They are restoring it the way Sheila cites. Front first, then back, then sides. They had the siding painted (there's siding paint now, where apparently there didn't useta be) and restored the house in $-viable sections, concentrating first on curb appeal and then guest enjoyment in the back garden. Maybe that would work for the shingle conundrum? Though I have no idea how the transition areas between shingles and siding would work at the joining corners.

    There's a reason I'm not in construction/renovation: zero talent.

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  10. So here's a totally unrelated fact that my honey told me today:

    Hail starts out as a little piece of dirt or debris in the atmosphere. It gathers moisture and freezes as it falls, but it's not very heavy so it bounces back up--then up and down and up and down until it gets heavy enough that it finally falls to the ground. That's how hail gets to be the size of golf balls or baseballs.

    But isn't that how writing works, with a grain of an idea, and it bounces around and we build and build....Okay--sort of related!

    I would go into major debt for fabulous new shingles that might have been hand-weathered by Tibetan monks or something. I'm a sucker for an old house!