There are two old houses I pass on my morning walk that fascinate me. Both are big, hulking structures with peeling paint and overgrown trees on corner lots. One has porches jutting out on two sides and tall, skinny windows with sagging frames. The other has crumbling brick walkways and windows so scarce that I imagine it’s dark as a tomb inside. I’ve never been in either one of them but if I ever have that chance, I’ll take it.

These are the kind of places that make me want to write stories. I know what you’re thinking – big scary house, short scary story. Yeah, that’s what you’d expect. But sometimes good stories happen in the least likely of places. Not all ghosts haunt centuries-old castles. The fire of romance doesn’t burn exclusively on Southern plantations. And twenty-something singles don’t have ironic conversations only within the walls of hip, urban apartments.

Last year I wrote a screenplay called “The Courtyard” that’s a tidy mix of horror, science fiction and just a dab of romance. It runs about 110 pages which I’m told equates to roughly the same number of minutes onscreen, making it the perfect length for a SyFy Original Movie except that it isn’t about vampires, dragons, monster fish or a supermodel/rocket scientist trying to save the world.

The idea for the story came from another house I walk by frequently. It’s a neat adobe bungalow nestled in a neighborhood of ranch-style houses, and there’s not another house like it for miles around. It’s a typical hacienda, swirled stucco walls, exposed beams over the arched doorways, and a courtyard in the back. For years, I wondered, “What the hell was a house like that DOING there?”

As a story formed in my head, I knew I had to get into that house, specifically the courtyard. I’m a visual person and to get a sense of “place” when I’m writing a story, it helps for me to actually “see” where I’m writing about. That’s not always possible, as in the time I told my husband I needed to go to France to research apartments for a chef-turned-assassin novel I was writing but getting inside the hacienda six blocks away was certainly feasible.

I knew just knocking on the front door and telling the owner that my muse insisted I see the backyard would most likely land me in the back of a police car or a padded van. So I had to find another way in. And I did.

One Saturday morning, my friend Colette and I were driving from one rummage sale to the next when I spied a neon orange “Garage Sale” sign taped to an adobe wall. I wheeled into the nearest parking space and screeched to a stop. She looked at me over the classified section of the newspaper and said, “Hey, this one’s not on the list.”

“Yes it is,” I said, scrambling out of the car.

I walked rapidly to the open garage door, past the folding tables of outgrown clothes and cracked dishes, tattered paperbacks and outdated home furnishings. I shot through the open door in the back of the garage, Colette close behind, hissing at me, “You can’t go back there – the sale’s in the garage!”

It was too late. I was in the courtyard and it was everything I thought it would be and more. I pulled the little notebook from my pocket and scrawled as fast as I could. Fountain in center. Adobe sidewalls – 5 feet high? Cracked tiles by flower bed. French doors to back of house. Ceramic pots of flowers – dahlias?

“Hurry up,” Colette urged, resigned to her role as reluctant look-out. “God, why do I hang out with you?”

“Because I’m fun,” I replied, snapping the notebook closed. “I’m done. Let’s go.”

We went back into the garage, trying not to look like guilty trespassers, and I was headed towards the sidewalk when Colette smacked me on the shoulder.

“What?”

She crossed her arms and looked at me. “Well, don’t you think maybe you should BUY something, given the circumstances?”

I rolled my eyes but she did have a point. I grabbed a ratty pair of Keds from the table next to me, paid my quarter and we left. Money well spent because even though they weren’t my size, I got what I went there to get. A good story.

I don’t know if either one of the monster houses will pan out for a story setting but I noticed this morning that the windowless one with the overgrown fruit trees had a “For Sale” sign in the front yard. Maybe the realtor will have an open house. Hmmm, where’s that notebook? And what’s the e-mail address for the SyFy Channel?

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Comments
  1. LMAO! I can picture the homeowner of the little hacienda catching you with a notebook in your hand writing things down. Enjoyed reading this – I love your sense of humor!

  2. Kay Vallery Young says:

    Loved it, Kelly! I dream of old (and sometimes new) houses, too. In fact, my favorite picture ever was of a big white house with empty windows, no landscaping–but it was a BIG white house with a couple of interesting angles. It was in my neurologist’s office, and I could imagine that every patient who ever went into that office had populated that house with characters of their own imaginings and Christmas celebrations, birthday parties, weddings–and even wakes. The mind is a wonderful place–and yours is filled with wonderful stories. Thank you for sharing!

    • Good to hear from you, Kay. Liked your comment about the house picture. I used to have a picture of a beach house over my desk in my old office. When I was having a bad day, I’d “escape” into it. Some days I swear I could feel the breeze rolling in off the water and see the party lanterns swaying on the eaves of the porch. Lynnette clearly gets her gift of imagination from you!

  3. From the perspective of someone else who has been your lookout, you are both incorrigible and fun. I don’t doubt for a minute this happened exactly as told. Too bad the Keds didn’t fit.

  4. I would be nothing without my look-outs…and I would have a lot less milk crates, too. Ah, well, the Keds served their purpose, didn’t they?!?

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