Describe a house that you have either lived in or fear living in.
This is a writing prompt that I often use when leading memoir-writing workshops. It works because space and time is usually defined. There’s ample opportunity to use most of the five senses – sight, hearing, smell, touch and taste – and concrete details, the hallmark of good writing. There is also plenty of room for feelings that extend beyond the physical walls of that described house.
In my fifth Mas Arai mystery, Strawberry Yellow, I have chosen the town of Watsonville as my setting. In the novel, a decaying two-story Victorian, called the Stem House, looms over my protagonist’s extended family. It’s actually modeled after a real house (seen above) where my father spent his young-adult years and where we visited every summer when I was growing up.
I’m definitely a city girl; there’s no doubt about it. I get excited by storefronts and restaurants, pedestrian walkways, and art museums. But I have to admit that every time I went to Watsonville, I felt like I could breathe deeply, really deep, and soak up the sky and soil. Dirt wasn’t hidden underneath asphalt or flowers, but large stretches of it, chocolate brown and tilled, were everywhere.
That house, owned by my great-aunt and uncle, was magical. I had been an only child for eight years before my younger brother came along, and to be surrounded by people in all those strangely shaped rooms made me feel part of something much larger than myself. My great-aunt loved children and literally had a hill of comic books underneath the back stairwell, and we could literally pluck one out whenever we wanted to. Since we usually visited in the summertime, fresh strawberries weren’t available, so I had to run out with my second cousins to the freezer in the packing shed to get plastic containers of frozen ones, which, by the way, tasted better than any scoop of ice cream.
Since I write mysteries, that house takes on a more haunting role in Strawberry Yellow. The Stem House, just like Mas, is fictional but born out of real experiences. The Redman House, which has changed hands multiple times over the years, is a ghost of its previous self, but I remember what it was like when it was full of life.
I challenge you to try this writing exercise. Close your eyes and think of that house in your past. From there, let your imagination transport you to place that’s either familiar or perhaps mysterious.
Strawberry Yellow was published on March 1st and is available at booksellers nationwide, as well as Amazon.com. Naomi Hirahara will be speaking and signing books on Thursday, March 7 at 7 p.m. at Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena. She has many more events throughout the west in the coming months; you can find her schedule right here.