How I'm Researching the Haunted Chillingham Castle for My WIP

For my October 2017 quarterly update, I'd like to not only tell you about what I'm working on, but also give you some insight into how I go about doing said work.

If you are following my newsletter (hint, hint), then you know my current WIP (Work in Progress) is loosely based on the history of Chillingham Castle in Northumberland, England, so I'm going to tell you all about the tools and resources I'm using to build this novel so far. 

If you are like, hey what about The Binding of Saint Barbara? Don't worry, my new agent Cate Hart of Corvisiero Literary is preparing to submit it to publishers, but it's a long process so for now all we can do is wait and prepare the next book. Don't worry, I'll keep you updated. ;)

 Tools & Resources

Google Maps
If you are an author, this is one of the most amazing and least utilized tools out there. Google maps used to require you to download software, but now adays, you use this tech on your phone when you are getting directions! 

I use it to get an idea of my historical setting when it's not possible for me to visit in-person because, sorry to burst anyone's bubble, but authors are totally starving artists - especially those at the beginning of their careers, i.e., me. 

Anywho, Google maps does a couple of things that is incredibly useful:

1. Bird's Eye View
This can help you get an idea of the setting's surroundings, orientation and other little things. For example, if you know a room is on a certain part of the castle and let's say you want your character to stand in there and look at the sunset, well how do you know that part of the castle faces in the right direction for the sunset? Awwwww, now you're gettin' it.

For me, it helped me figure out that the wall fortifying Chillingham doesn't go all the way around the castle. Clearly, they were only expecting raids from one direction - Scotland.

2. In-Person or Street Views
There is a little yellow guy in Google Maps that you can grab (with your mouse) and place at a location in map where you want to see the In-Person or Street View, which basically lets you look at the location as if you were standing there yourself. It makes a big difference. 
This helped me get a feel for what it's like right outside the castle's front door. And it helped me figure out that the front door doesn't lead into the castle but into the castle courtyard. The awesome stairwell inside the courtyard leads into the castle. That's a really important fact for when I describe my heroine walking inside and I could have really easily missed it.

3. Inside Views
Okay, it's not a walking tour, but you can click on different areas of some locations to see pictures people took there. This is new tech, so right now, I can tell the locations showing up on the map with these pictures are not accurate to where the rooms are located within the castle, but someday they will perfect this, and it will be freaking glorious!

Check out Chillingham Castle via Satellite for yourself.

Classic Literature 

The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux
Cover or 1921 Le Fantome de l’Opera
 by Gaston Leroux, 
Did you even know this started as a book? Actually, before that it was published as a serial in France from 1909-1910. I'm using this because my story has a phantom stalker probably something that comes from this story, which I explain further under "plays."

This is a classic haunted house and suspense novel written by Shirley Jackson in the 1960's, and people have compared my novel A White Room to it, so I figured it would be a good one to read in preparation for this book.

Plays and Movies Too

For me, discovering The Phantom of the Opera was a journey, and it has always stuck with me like my own little theme music. The first time I heard the music from Frank Loyd Wright's adaptation of The Phantom of the Opera for the stage was a magical moment for me as a child and as an artist. The first time was when a teacher played it in my first-grade class for reason's I do not recall, but I remember thinking it was the most beautiful music I had ever heard. However, as a child I didn't have the wherewithal to remember a title or anything to find it later. It disappeared like like smoke in the breeze. 

But then later when I was maybe between 10-12 years old, my best friend and soul-sister played it for me, explaining that her mother had played it to her. I was so excited to have rediscovered the music, I remember jumping for joy.

Shortly thereafter, her mother played the entire soundtrack for us in the car and explained the amazing story while she drove us to the mall 45 minutes away in Santa Clarita.

To finish this all off with a nice nummy cherry, a few years later, our mothers took us both to see the actual play in Los Angeles. We got to wear fancy dresses and go to a nice restaurant before heading to the theater. I remember watching that play sitting forward with wide eyes. And the seeds for a future novel were planted.

And the journey of discovering The Phantom of the Opera continues as I mentioned that I only recently learned it started as a novel.

Well I mean of course I saw the movie! Didn't you read the above, I'm practically stalking this story through space and time.

The Secret Garden
Specifically the 1993 movie version of Frances Hogdsen Burnett's The Secret Garden has been an inspiring factor in my work for a long time. This was another piece of art I first experienced as a child and it left it's mark on my creative soul. 

A lot of people don't realize it, but this is a Gothic story, even though it's not scary. The scene when Mary is sneaking through the house through secret doors and discovering parts of the house that have been closed off and consumed by nature - yeah, you might notice some similarities in my WIP.

Interestingly enough this is not a part of the story taken from Burnett's original work. This part is original to the 1993 movie directed by Agnieszka Holland. I remember this moment of the movie conjuring up such fanciful imagery in my mind of exploring an abandoned great house like that. Yeah, it's stuck with me. I just hope I have enough writing chops to recreate that sense of mystery and wonder.

Crimson Peak 
I really enjoyed this movie, and it was great to watch in preparation for this WIP. Actually, what I realized from watching it wasn't what I should do but what I shouldn't. Nothing against Guillermo del Toro's work because it's great, but it helped me realize that Gothic's have so many tropes you got to find a way to embody the genre without giving people the same exact thing again and again.

del Toro of course did a great job reinventing these cliches. The reason I came to this realization is that I saw a lot of the ideas I had for my book already happening in his movie (similar ideas at least). My point is that if you want to stand out the Gothic genre you have to dance on a very thin line between working with the genre and also being new and intriguing. Again, I hope I've got the chops. 

That's why I read a little Kelly Link too because she does dark stuff in unique and crazy ways you would never expect. Another big inspiration for me.

Gothic Novelist Leanna Renee Hieber's book Twisted Tragedy
I spoke on a panel with Leanna a couple months ago at the Historical Novel Society Conference and she writes the perfect kind of books for getting yourself into the Gothic mood!

Previous Failed Manuscripts - LOL!
You may remember last year or the year before, I tried to write a Gothic novella in one month, and I succeeded, but it was the kind of garbage that is so bad you don't even want to try to fix it. You might say this WIP is me taking another crack at it. I'm taking some of my favorite scenes from the failed MS and building off of those for certain scenes in my WIP. It's mostly the beginning stuff. The end is when everything went to the crows!

Google Books
What would I do without Google Books? Google Books is great for out-of-print, old and reference type stuff that is hard to find elsewhere. Also, sometimes new stuff too. Here are a few of the books that I found useful for research:

In-Person Research

Check out my recent visits to some creepy awesome Gothic locations like a real-world Necropolis and The Winchester Mystery House.

Official Websites
This might seem like the easiest thing, but what can I say, these were great resources for information, official history (which is important when dealing with a famous hunted house), and detailed images of my historical setting.

A unique thing, I hope to work into the story, is that Chillingham has been home to an ancient breed of white cattle for some centuries now. These wild cattle managed to escape human interference and eventually came under the protection of past castle inhabitants and today a preservation society.

Google Images
Goodness, Google should be paying for all this endorsement ;) I wish. Seriously though, another fantastic resource for description purposes.

Chillingham Courtyard

Youtube is another incredible resource for research that I don't think a lot of people consider. I used it for listening to related music, just to get that vibe, but more importantly for getting a feel for the setting inside and out. Plus, I also used it for getting a feel for the accent and dialect of Northumberland.

Phantom of the Opera Music

Chillingham Youtube Videos

Most Haunted: Chillingham Castle

Chillingham Part 1 and Chillingham Part II

Around Chillingham Castle

Northumberland Accent Youtube Videos
Accents and dialects are one of the hardest things to research for me, but Youtube is a huge help. I first did some internet research that determined the name of the accent in Alnwick, Northumberland is called Geordie. Once I had that, I could search for all kinds of things to help me get ideas for expressing this accent through my characters.

Geordie Dictionary
This video is helpful and adorable.

What resources do you use to research your work?

The Darkest Victorian History for Halloween!

Every Halloween I like to write some especially dark and creepy posts on Victorian history so here are my best posts on the topic!

Photo by Stephanie Carroll

10 Creepy Facts About a Real World Necropolis

All photos in this post were taken by Stephanie Carroll unless otherwise specified.

Colma, California is a city of more people dead than alive. It is where most of San Francisco buries their dead, and it’s the setting of my short story “Forget Me Not” (read an excerpt) originally published in Legacy:An Anthology. So how did the city come to be? Just in time for Halloween, here’s 10 Creepy Facts About this Real World City of the Dead plus a ton of pictures from my visit:

1. The History:

According to the Colma Historical Association, on March 26, 1900, the city and county of San Francisco passed an ordinance prohibiting any further burials in the city. By the 1880's San Francisco already had 26 cemeteries all of which were filling up fast. There was a fear that they would run out of room because the 1849 gold rush brought thousands out west along with disease and a high death rate.

Then on January 14, 1914, San Francisco sent out eviction notices to everyone with deceased relatives buried in city limits. Many of the these graves were relocated to Colma, which is just south of San Francisco. Colma was a popular choice because it had easy access by rail, road and street car. For those who could not afford the $10 reburial fee, their relatives were reburied in mass unmarked graves.


2. Colma was founded as a Necropolis in 1924 for fear of future evictions of the deceased.

3. Colma has at least 17 cemeteries.

4. According to a New York Times article, as of 2016, Colma had about 1,600 living residents and about 1.5 million dead ones.

5. Funereal Processions cause the worst traffic jams in Colma, so town residents receive phone blast messages to warn them when to expect delays due to the number of expected mourners.

6. Famous inhabitants include but are not limited to:
  • William Randolph Hearst - his family's Greek-inspired mausoleum is surrounded by 16 ionic columns but is oddly unmarked.
  • Wyatt Earp - often has American flags surrounding his tombstone.
  • Levi Strauss - you know like Levi Jeans.
Possibly William Randolph Hurst's???
  • Joe DiMaggio - visitors often leave bats leaned up against the headstone.
  • Abigail Folger - you know like the coffee, oh, and the Manson victim.
  • Phineas Gage - a man who in 1848 had a tamping iron blow through his skull and brain after an explosion and lived to tell the tale. His body is in Colma, but his head, along with the tamping iron, are at Harvard Medical School, according to the Smithsonian website. 
  • Tina Turner's DOG - wrapped in her fur coat. This brings me too ... 
7. Yes. There is a pet cemetery. According to another New York Times article "Colma, California, a Town of 2.2 Square Miles, Most of it 6 Feet Deep," plots at the Pets Rest Cemetery and Crematory are in high demand, ranging from $550 to $850. Those on a budget opt for cremation, starting at $130.

Not the pet cemetery.

8. The city is often called "The City of the Silent" or "The City of Souls."

9. Residents, although few, have embraced their "death heritage" and have a lighthearted approach to death. Most businesses in the town are funeral related. Wedding pictures and even ceremonies sometimes take place at some of the cemetery lawns or within their chapels. 

10. This lightheartedness is ever present in their town motto: "It's Great to Be Alive in Colma!"

11. Colma has multiple cemeteries that are for specific religions and nationalities including Chinese, Jewish and Italian.


12. The Angel of Grief:

The Angel of Grief is a common funerary statue replicated from the original carved by the American sculptor William Wetmore Story, which serves as his and his wife's headstone in a Protestant Church in Rome. The statue in Colma's Cypress Lawn Memorial Park is for Jennie Roosevelt Pool, Theodore Roosevelt's cousin.

I absolutely adore this statue and really wanted to see it, but the cemetery was so big (with a major street running through it) that it took my husband and I over an hour to find it. Really, it just took us over an hour to realize that the cemetery continued on other side of the like 6 or 8-laned street.

The statue is gorgeous but sadly missing several of its fingers and surprisingly quaint in comparison to the giant statues, pyramids, mausoleums, columned sculptures and headstones throughout.

You can see her fingers are broken off the dangling hand.

Me checking out the monument while holding the
Legacy: An Anthology book which has my story set in Colma, California.

I expected to be able to see her from afar but truth be told, she is one of the smaller monuments in this particular necropolis.
Any interesting facts about Colma you can add to the list?

What You Don't Know About t the Winchester Mystery House

Taken from the Winchester Gardens. By Stephanie Carroll
If you like this post, you may also like The Most Useful Historical Details for Novelists from the Winchester Mystery House.  Or 10 Creepy Facts About a Real World Necropolis.

I recently visited a famous Victorian oddity, the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, California, but unlike most tour-goers my interests weren’t just in the historical quirks of a rich woman with an architectural addiction. I was interested in the ideas and inspiration, along with the historical details I could glean from a place like the Winchester.

The door to nowhere.
The History 

For those who don’t know, the Winchester Mystery House is a bizarre mansion built by the wife of the heir to the Winchester fortune (the gun that won the west). 

After a series of devastating tragedies that ended with her losing all of her dearest loved ones, including her daughter and husband, Mrs. Sarah Winchester turned to the popular Victorian world of Spiritualism.

Spiritualists were believed to have the ability to contact the dead and the one who Mrs. Winchester visited confirmed what she had already begun to believe, that she was being haunted by the spirits of people killed from the Winchester guns. The only way to appease the dead, according to the medium, was for Mrs. Winchester to build a house and to never stop building it, not for one minute.

According to The Smithsonian Magazine online, Mrs. Winchester had 16 shifts of workers (paid three times the normal wage) working 24-hours a day nonstop from 1886 to the time of her death in 1922. The product of that is the San Jose mansion, which has curiosities like doors that lead to nowhere, rooms within rooms, twisting corridors, and stairwells that lead to the ceiling. That's just to name a few.
By Stephanie Carroll
Some say Mrs. Winchester, who visited a medium table every day to determine the work of the next day, was crazy.

Others say she built the house in such a way to confuse the spirits haunting her.

Still more say built a house that only made sense to the spirits who were directing her (one of my favorite theories).

A woman shows how the Winchester stairs lead to the ceiling.
Then some say the quirks of the house are due to the fact that Mrs. Winchester, having lost her loved ones to the spirits, didn't care if their demanded penance work made sense. So if she didn’t want stairs, she just walled off the stairs without worrying about the fact that it looked bizarre to just have stairs going nowhere.

Finally, many of the people who have visited and who work at the house argue that it was her life's work, her form of expression, a way to make meaning out of the chaos. And in some way, isn't that a poetic query? Was she truly haunted by ghosts or by the memories and regrets that haunt many of us in this world?

How Does this Help Writers?
I think it goes without saying that the Winchester Mystery House is awesome for writers of the Gothic, Victorian, haunted house, ghost and magical realism genres. In fact I'm pretty sure the Winchester was inspiration for a similar house in the fabulous magical realism novel The House of Spirits by Isabel Allende. This house is featured in the novel, not the movie. I want to say I heard that in a note at the end of the Audible audio book, but I can't say for sure. If anyone knows, feel free to confirm or deny in the comments.

Writers take ideas from real life all the time and historical novelists thrive on using facts to inspire fiction. If you'd like to find out some of the architectural details that you can use in your work, check out my accompanying post on The Most Useful Historical Details for Novelists from the Winchester Mystery House. 

One of the many strange fountains and statues in the Winchester gardens.
By Stephanie Carroll
When Isabel Allende wrote The House of Spirits, the internet wasn't as big of a thing, and it wasn't as easy for people to know so much about everything, so if you just have a lady hearing spirits building a crazy house, it's going to be obvious that you are using the Winchester as inspiration (which is fine as long as you are up front about it with readers). However, what I think people really get a kick out of is when authors use details that are lesser known but are still based in fact.

So below you will find some of the lesser known things about the Winchester Mystery House that might be useful to you as inspiration or if you're just curious. Also, my accompanying post on historical details might also be of use: The Most Useful Historical Details for Novelists from the Winchester Mystery House. 

The Winchester Mystery House: 
What You Don't Usually Hear About.

Llanada Villa
Mrs. Winchester didn't call it The Winchester Mystery House. She called it Llanada Villa.

A Simple Farmhouse
At the core of the Winchester Mystery House is a simple 8-room farmhouse that Mrs. Winchester purchased several years before she began construction. She didn't tear down the house but just built up and all around it. You can still see remnants of the outside of the farmhouse inside the walls of the current house. Awesome!
By Stephanie Carroll

A Place Where the World Turns Upside Down.
I love the way Pamela Haag, Ph.D., author of The Gunning of America, puts it in The Smithsonian Magazine online article:

Details are designed to confuse. In one room, Winchester laid the parquetry in an unusual pattern: When the light hit the floor a particular way, the dark boards appeared light, and the light boards, dark. Bull’s-eye windows give an upside-down view of the world. Even these basic truths, of up and down, and light and dark, could be subverted.

Occult symbols and numbers.
Mrs. Winchester took the occult pretty seriously, so serious in fact that she incorporated symbols like spider webs and numbers like 7, 11, 13, and 52 in a variety of the architecture. Windows are the primary place where you will find the spider webs although they are also in gates, but the numbers are all over the place.

Spider web windows courtesy of the Winchester Mystery House.
There's a staircase in the shape of a Y that has one set of 7 stairs and two sets of 11, each one taking you to a different area of the house. There are 13 bathrooms, and 13 windows in the 13th bathroom. Many of the ceilings have 13 panels. She even signed her will 13 times and divided it into 13 parts.

The number 52 has to do with a deck of cards, each symbol having spiritual meaning. Also 13 x 4 is 52, which is the number of the plot she is buried in. I imagine 13 wasn't available.

Unique Architectural Elements and Design.
  • Mrs. Winchester knew a thing or two about architecture, but she liked to do things her way. For example, a lot of the pillars and columns throughout the house are upside down because she felt they were more structurally sound and load bearing that way. It turns out Frank Loyd Wright thought so too, so not everything she did was all batty.
  • The Crystal Bedroom is a room kept private from tours for preservation purposes. The wallpaper was made with crushed mica, so that it reflects light and sparkles when light hits it. 
    Crystal encrusted wallpaper from the
    Crystal Bedroom courtesy of the Winchester Mystery House.
  • The Seance Room, where Mrs. Winchester went to commune with the spirits, had three exists but only one possible entrance. If I remember correctly this was achieved through doors with knobs only on one side. This room is described as being hidden by tour guides, but to me it felt like it was the center of the house. It was super simple and small, but had 13 hooks for hats.
  • She also used light wells, which were like interior skylights, to bring light into lower parts of the house and to see who was at the front door, but the way she had them installed (like in the middle of the room) was just a little weird.
  • She had this one window installed that had special crystals in it, so when the light hit it, it glitters and shows beautiful coloration, but then she had a building put up to block the sun from ever shinning through, a seemingly symbolic decision. I tried but could not find a picture of this online, and when I toured the mansion, photos were prohibited. If anyone knows of one, comment it up!
  • The Witch's Cap is the part of the house that looks like a witch's hat. Whether it was intentional or not, the shape of the roof makes it so that when you stand in the center and speak it sounds like your voice is surrounding you. 
    The inside of the Witch's Cap
    courtesy of the Winchester Mystery House.
  • The upstairs conservatory has elevators and removable floors, so all the plants in the entire house could be brought to one room and watered all at once. The conservatory is gorgeous by the way.
    There are 161 Rooms Discovered ... So Far.
    Yep, historical excavation and preservation is ongoing at the Winchester. Mrs. Winchester did so much of walling stuff up that rooms are still occasionally uncovered. The most recent was around 2016 with the discovery of the Daisy Room, which I discuss more in the next point.

    Mrs. Winchester Trapped ... Literally  
    From the Daisy Room.
    Mrs. Winchester lived a rather isolated life in her house, but during the 1906 San Francisco quake, she was actually trapped in what has been termed the Daisy Room because there are daisies on the glass windows.

    In the "Daisy Room" the windows were made of Belgian optical glass, which makes everything outside look larger and distorted. According to servant stories, she looked out these windows while trapped took this as a sign that the house could never be finished and blocked off that section of the house after her rescue.

    This room was only recently discovered and opened to the public according to ABC News.

    Early Handicap Accessibility 
    Another Fountain in the Gardens
    By Stephanie Carroll
    Easy rider stairs were installed in various areas of the house because as Mrs. Winchester aged, she could barely lift her feet in order to climb the stairs. Easy riders have only a tiny bit of lift, which makes them easier to traverse for seniors. However, the small amount of rise per step requires far more distance for the stairs to rise up to a certain level. This forced workers to have these stairs zig-zag back and forth up and up to get to the destined floor. The effect is weird!

    The House was Self Sustaining
    The Winchester Mystery House isn't just a house, it was a self-sustaining world of it's own. Many of the servants lived on the land, and it had many other buildings, including at least one servant's house around it. It even had it's own orchards and fruit drying house. A gravity system took throughout from the top down while a special boiler pushed heat from the basement up. Many other innovations put into place has led tour guides to call Mrs. Winchester ahead of her time in conservation and sustainability. Who would have thunk it!

    Open to the Public
    Historically, the grounds of Winchester were open to the public who could come and enjoy the beautiful statues and gardens. For a long time it was like a park for San Jose. From the outside, the Winchester is actually a gorgeous place. It's only once you go inside that you see the potential for the freaky.

    The Ballroom Has Already Inspired Some
    The room they call the ballroom (which probably wasn't actually a ballroom as it's far too small - it was more likely a place for entertainment because Victorians often hired musicians and theater troops to perform in their houses) inspired the look of Disney's Haunted Mansion ballroom!

    The ballroom courtesy of the Winchester Mystery House.
    Mysterious Shakespearean Clues
    One of the things I found the most interesting were these Tiffany glass windows in the "ballroom" Mrs. Winchester had installed with lines from two separate Shakespearean plays incorporated into the glass. My tour guide, as well as others who have visited the house, suggest that these two quotes hold some sort of hidden clues or answer to the mysteries of the house. These are the tall windows you can see at the back of the photo above.

    The first from the window on the left reads:

    These same thoughts people this little world.

    According to The Smithsonian Magazine online, this is from the prison soliloquy in Shakespeare's Richard II. At this point in the play, the character King Richard was deposed as king and trying to create a world within his cell using only his imagination.

    Courtesy of the Winchester Mystery House.
    This almost makes sense within the context of the mystery house, but the second quote, not so much. It reads:

    Wide unclasp the tables of their thoughts.

    This quote is from Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida. According to Shmoop this line comes from the middle of a paragraph where Ulysses is basically calling a woman a slut after she flirts with a few characters. I'm no literary critic, but I don't see the connection. Perhaps, it had a personal meaning for Mrs. Winchester ... I feel like these quotes would make more sense if swapped to read: "Wide unclasp the tables of their thoughts." Then: "These same thoughts people this little world." But that's now the order she chose.

    Honestly, when you read the quotes without understanding the Shakespearean context, but taking the Winchester context, it kind of makes sense, but would Mrs. Winchester have that much forethought? Who knows? That's why it's a mystery.

    The Ballroom Safe
    A final mystery was discovered in the ballroom - a hidden safe. Those who discovered it expected riches beyond their wildest dreams, but all they found inside were two locks of hair, that of Mrs. Winchester's deceased daughter and her husband.

    Regardless of the various mysteries, theories and legends surrounding the Winchester Mystery House, one cannot deny that Mrs. Winchester was a fascinating example of a character and artist of her time. Her form of finding solace or meaning will inspire and creep people out for who knows how long, and we as fellow artists can take a few notes from her and use them to inspire our own work. So authors and artists, maybe even some architectural students, have at it!

    By Stephanie Carroll
    Don't forget to check out my corresponding post The Most Useful Historical Details for Novelists from the Winchester Mystery House. 

    And tell me what do you know about the Winchester that can be included in this list?