Building a story: Using architecture in fiction

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14 July 2023
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Kate Mascarenhas describes researching Birmingham buildings for her new gothic novel Hokey Pokey

Birmingham is my hometown. I’m deeply familiar with the layered patchwork of buildings at its centre, which shows a clash of historical styles. The skyline reflects several cycles of demolition and replacement. This poses difficulties for an author trying to view the city through the eyes of a historical character. Despite that challenge, when I originally conceived of my third book – a roaring twenties horror story that unfolds in a grand hotel – I always imagined Birmingham as the backdrop.

The opening chapters of Hokey Pokey introduce Nora: a psychoanalyst who arrives at a hotel under a pseudonym. She’s obsessively stalking a famous opera singer. Heavy snow isolates the hotel, and while the building is cut off, several guests go missing in supernatural circumstances. Nora is drawn into the mystery of their disappearance, which forces her to confront horrific events in her own childhood. For a character whose psyche is in flux, Birmingham’s tendency to raze architectural legacies felt like an interesting symbolic match.

Birmingham has several real-life historic hotels to offer food for thought. Most were built in the Victorian period, and not all of them are still standing – for instance the impressive Queens Hotel, which once adjoined New Street Station, was knocked down some sixty years ago. Of the hotels still open today, the Grand and the Burlington (formerly the Midland) took my interest. The remains of their original facades can be seen in person. Atmosphere is in ready supply. The Grand overlooks the graveyard of St Philip’s Cathedral, and the Burlington boasts an artesian well.

Although both hotels have corporate archives, neither were available to the public when I enquired. This constraint felt like a setback. But I was happy to find that the hotels’ planning applications could be accessed by anyone; these included some of the original Victorian architectural plans, as well as later renovations. The Grand’s listing for heritage status provided a timeline for when specific building alterations occurred.

Ephemera from private sales were hugely useful to my understanding of how hotels functioned between the wars. For demolished and surviving hotels alike, I immersed myself in helpfully dated items such as receipts, newspaper advertisements, and postcards depicting frontages. Memoirs and diaries often contained incidental detail about guests’ experience of hotels. I also relied heavily on 1920s hospitality literature, obtained through my local library and the Bodleian. British hoteliers’ trade magazines, management guides, and training manuals showed the range of layouts, amenities and decor typical for the period. Although these publications looked beyond Birmingham and to the rest of the country, they allowed me to gather details of hotel life appropriate to the time. I gathered more details than I could use. Gradually, I moved towards an amalgamation of the different businesses I’d studied, creating a fictional – but still representative – Birmingham hotel. Here began the careful work of melding history with genre expectations.

Hokey Pokey belongs to the gothic genre, where buildings play a central role in frightening the reader. Whether the protagonist finds herself in a castle, a remote house, or an imposing hotel, the reader expects her to encounter hidden passageways and locked doors. The building’s scale should overwhelm one’s senses, but also induce claustrophobia. Architecture is never incidental in a gothic novel: the building reflects the protagonist’s psyche. Selecting the best research findings, as I drew plans and drafted descriptions, finally depended on knowing Nora’s psyche inside out.

She wanted to blend into the crowd, which required hundreds of guest rooms. The graveyard in view of her window would unsettle a woman with buried secrets. A local spring running through the cellar holds out promise of a redemptive baptism. Interweaving Nora’s mind and the building this way heightens the psychological stakes when things go wrong (doors onto winding corridors are camouflaged by the wallpaper, causing disorientation; the snow storm brings down the telephone lines; the water supply is contaminated). As I drafted, I kept one eye all the time on how the reader would be affected. There are pleasures in the painstaking recreation of a building from an earlier time. But in a horror story, you have to prioritise the most uncanny details.

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Tips for researching buildings:
•    Should you have the means, visit the area your story is set. If you see buildings that might be from your period, you have a helpful starting point for enquiries. The current owner, if they’re commercial, may have corporate archives.
•    Check what the local libraries, museums and universities hold on heritage, conservation, architecture, specific architects, and trade ephemera. UK residents can also apply for a free library pass at the British Library.
•    If your story is set in England or Wales, you can search the register of planning decisions at https://www.gov.uk/search-register-planning-decisions. Application documents sometimes contain the original plans for older buildings.
•    Detailed information about English listed buildings is available at https://historicengland.org.uk  

Hokey Pokey by Kate Mascarenhas is published by Apollo (£16.99)

 

Read more on using location in your fiction from novelist Una Mannion