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February 15, 2010

Kathleen Grissom: The Kitchen House

Posted by webmaster
Guest blogger author Kathleen Grissom joins us today to talk about researching her historical novel THE KITCHEN HOUSE, and how all the little bits and pieces came together and took on a life of their own.

Before I could begin to write my story, I knew that I would have to do intense research. The Kitchen House is set in Virginia in the late eighteenth century. However, as I was raised and educated in Saskatchewan, Canada, I knew very little about that time period in American history.

I began my research by visiting every restored plantation and historical site that was within driving distance of our home in central Virginia. I soon discovered that they were treasure troves of history. One became a favorite and drew me back again and again. Known as Prestwould Plantation, it is located two miles north of Clarksville, Virginia. Their brochure states that “Prestwould is one of the most extensively documented remnants of late eighteenth century rural life to have survived in Virginia and that the survival of many of the original outbuildings makes Prestwould an unusually complete example of life on a great plantation.”

At this restored site, the main house is built of stone quarried on the plantation in 1794-1795, and back from it, as was common to that time, the small kitchen house stands alone. At the other historical sites I most usually focused on the kitchen house, but here I felt drawn to the main house.

A friendly outgoing gentleman gave my husband and me our first tour. When I spied a long, blue, purse-type object on a dresser in one of the bedrooms I asked its purpose. The tour guide was happy to explain that Lady Jean Skipworth, the original mistress of the place, was a botanist. He explained that the painted metal container was a vasculum, a tool that Lady Jean Skipworth used on her excursions into the woods.

It was used for carrying newly collected plant specimens. While he spoke, a chill ran through me and though I didn’t understand why, I sensed that this information was pertinent to my story.

I had a similar experience in the dining room. There, suspended from the ceiling and hanging low over the table, was a huge butterfly-type wing. Cords draped from it and were secured to a hook on the wall. We were told it was a fan; while people from the big house dined, slave children pulled the cords to move the air about. On seeing it, I had another chill and felt a deep sense of familiarity, yet knew that I had never before seen something like this.

At the time I did not give thought as to how I would use these bits of information, but when I began to write and to follow along behind the characters, to my astonishment, they, of their own accord, availed themselves of these objects. A final surprise came after I finished the manuscript. On rereading it, I discovered that, without intention, the layout of the big house I described in my book was eerily close to that of Prestwould.

When I set out to do research, I had no idea how I would apply the information that I gathered. It turned out that I had no reason to worry. The characters simply took what they needed to tell their story.

--Kathleen Grissom, author of The Kitchen House