Above painting: Louis Jean Francois - Mars and Venus an Allegory of Peace


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Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Guest Author Laura Kaye on Historical Architecture as a Character

Please join me in welcoming today's guest author Laura Kaye to History Undressed. Laura is a local writing chapter-mate of mine, and has had an extremely busy year with releases and new contracts! Today she is going to tantalize us with historical architecture.

Historical Architecture as a Character
by Laura Kaye

The city of Detroit’s roots extend back at least as far as 1701, when Antoine de la Monthe Cadillac founded Fort Ponchartrain, the French fort that the conquering British would later rename Fort Detroit following Pontiac’s Rebellion in 1763. This said, Detroit is not one of the foremost cities that come to mind when you speak about notable historical sites and architecture. Though Detroit has over 200 sites on the National Register of Historic Places, plus dozens more than are eligible to be listed, the city has experienced such neglect and decline that other reputations have far overshadowed Detroit’s historical longevity or significance. Detroit’s historical assets are so endangered, the city’s preservation community nominated the entire downtown of Detroit to the annual list of the 11 Most Endangered Historical Sites nationally in 2005.

This neglect and decline was precisely what made Detroit such an ideal location for my new paranormal romance, Forever Freed. In Forever Freed’s world, the vampires establish the city (Antoine Laumet, who claimed for himself the Sieur de Cadillac title, above, is the antagonist), and surround themselves with the very best specimens of Detroit architecture. This is easy for them to do in the twentieth century, when the story is set, because following the decline of the automobile industry, destructive race riots and white flight, the city experienced massive population loss (from a 1955 high of nearly two million to a current population of about 800,000) and abandonment of buildings (about 1/3 of all Detroit buildings are abandoned).

In this way, the historical fabric of the city, as settings, truly took on the importance and quality of a character. It set the mood, the atmosphere, placed limits and dictates on plot, and shaped scenes. A major resource in helping me bring the historical settings to life was the fascinating Forgotten Detroit website http://www.forgottendetroit.com/index.html which offered the history, preservation status, and interior and exterior photographs of many endangered sites.

The first site I identified for Forever Freed was the vampire hero’s home. Lucien Demarco arrives in Detroit at his lowest point, after a failed search for his maker, who also slaughtered his human family. He takes up with a bad crowd, and surrounds himself with squalor. So his house had to reflect those feelings. The hulking Romanesque Revival First Unitarian Church on Edmund Place seemed the perfect fit. Dedicated in 1890 and abandoned in 1937, the church is a good example of the deterioration the city experienced after its early twentieth-century heyday.

The hero says about it, “The crumbling dark red sandstone, rusted ironwork, and numerous boarded windows were more than good enough for me. The house’s poor condition brought me no special attention given the surroundings. Once posh, the Brush Park neighborhood had decayed with the rest of the city during the twentieth century. Abandoned mansions stood guard over debris-filled vacant lots. Just across the street a Gothic-style church sat empty—even God had forsaken this place.”

Also of importance was Lucien’s secondary residence—the house from which he would initially stalk, and later fall in love with, the heroine and her young daughter. When I found an abandoned Victorian-era townhouse standing sentry over a newer 1980s-era townhouse development near Wayne State University and the Detroit Medical Center—both important landmarks for the heroine, I knew I’d found the right site.

The bad guys also made themselves at home in historical buildings. When Lucien first arrives in Detroit, the vampires had set up headquarters at Lee Plaza, an Art Deco high rise constructed in 1929. I simply fell in love with the interior details of this abandoned building, and imagined it as a place, before its deterioration, an egotistical, entitled vampire lord might ensconce himself.

Lucien’s reunion meeting with Antoine Laumet’s evil world, after a long and hard-earned separation, happens at the Belle Isle Boatclub, another endangered site. The 1902 building on the city’s island hosts this clandestine rendezvous, and the warm, carved wood paneling, as with these sea horses, once again shows how Laumet believes he is entitled to all of the city’s best addresses.

The final showdown to save Samantha and Ollie’s life happens at the Michigan Central Depot, a behemoth of a building constructed in the Beaux-Arts Classical style that was abandoned in 1988. When it was built in 1913, it was the world’s tallest railroad station. Its isolated, cavernous, eerily echoing spaces formed the perfect backdrop for kidnapping, a fight scene, and a final decree for all the protagonists’ fates.

To me, none of these scenes would be complete without the historical architecture framing them. The more I got into the story, the more important and organic these details became.

I’m a historian by training, and I’ve worked in and with the historic preservation community. What I’ve learned is, unfortunately, the fate of Detroit’s historical architecture – while extreme among former industrial cities – is not unique. The 2010 list of the 11 Most Endangered Historical Sites includes properties in eight states, plus D.C. and Guam. In Beyond the Ruins: The Meanings of Deindustrialization, historian Thomas Lassman details how the changing economy of the 1960s and 1970s crippled cities like Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Cleveland, and Baltimore, stripping them of their population, tax base, and ability to maintain their physical infrastructure. In many places, Detroit included, it became easier and cheaper to tear the past down than preserve it. All this has left me feeling a special affinity for Detroit, a city I’ve visited only once, and hoping showcasing the former grandeur of these sites will, if even the smallest bit, contribute to the ongoing preservation effort.

Whether a reader or a writer, what do you think about the use of real historical sites in fiction? And can authors and books really make any difference in a situation like Detroit’s?

Thanks for reading,

Laura Kaye

Hot, Hearatfelt Romance – Because everyone longs to belong…

Laura Kaye is a multi-published author of paranormal, contemporary, and erotic romance. Her first books released this spring from The Wild Rose Press. Hearts in Darkness is a contemporary romance about two strangers who find acceptance and dare to find love while trapped in a pitch-black elevator. Forever Freed is a paranormal romance about a reclusive, empathic vampire who falls in love with a woman he planned to kill and her young daughter, then must fight his ancient guilt, bloodlust, lie by omission, and an old vampire rival who threatens everything he holds dear. Next up is Just Gotta Say, a contemporary erotic romance to be published late this summer by Decadent Publishing, and North of Need, the first in a four-book fantasy romance series featuring Greek gods to be published in November by Entangled Publishing.


A heart can break, even one that no longer beats.

I stalk my new neighbors, a single mother and her child, drawn by the irresistible scent of their joy and love. I crave their blood, starved for some healing respite from my ancient grief. Now to lure them into my grasp.
But they surprise me. Little Olivia accepts me without fear or reservation--talking, smiling, offering innocent affection that tugs at my long-lost humanity. Her mother, Samantha, seeks me out when she should stay away, offering sweet friendship, and calling to the forgotten man within me. They lure me instead.

Ah, Dio, Lucien, run and spare them while you can...

Find Laura on the interwebz:

Website: http://www.LauraKayeAuthor.com

Blog: http://laurakayeauthor.blogspot.com

Twitter: @laurakayeauthor

Buy Laura’s books:

--From the Publisher: http://www.wildrosepress.us/maincatalog/index.php?main_page=index&manufacturers_id=800

--On Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Laura-Kaye/e/B004XMNF6W/ref=ntt_athr_dp_pel_1


Laura Kaye said...

Thanks for having me here at History Undressed!

Laura said...

Hi, Laura,

Fascinating post. Your posts are always enlightening. And lots of fun!

Take care,
Laura Davies Tilley

Laura Kaye said...

Thanks, Laura! I'm glad you stopped by!

Lea Nolan said...

I love seeing the photos of these buildings! Knowing they're real places adds so much authenticity to the story. Thanks for sharing them.

Julie Robinson said...

Hi Laura and Eliza,

Just saw this post on my CHRW Daily Digest loop. What a fascinating topic! Of course, history is fascinating. But to use the architecture as a character adds to the depth and structure, so to speak. i LOVE that Unitarian Church--yes, it looks Gothic, like the perfect retreat for a vampire. Great eye for his secondary home too. I can see how stories form as you look at the buildings. Interesting concept. When I go to New Orleans next week, I'll be looking at the buildings with a fresh eye.

And yes, the pen is mightier than the sword. Look at Charles Dickens. Or in America at the turn of the 20th century, writers like Frank Norris, Upton Sinclair and Theodore Dreiser. So, a book using architecture as character can show the validity of maintaining historic buildings. After all, our past is what has made our present.

Congratulations on the release of Forever Freed.

Michelle Muse said...

I love old buildings, even the old purely wooden ones that look about ready to fall down. They each have so much to tell us. Great post! I loved the pictures. Makes me want to go to Detroit now!! Always enjoyable Eliza! Thanks Laura!

Anita Clenney said...

What a great post. I don't put enough setting and description into my stories, which are fast paced, but good description is so important so I usually have to go back and add it in. I'm learning to add more as I go. It really can add a whole other dimension to a story. This was very inspiring, and I love the photos.

Sharon Buchbinder, Romance Author said...

Wonderful post! Eerie or atmospheric or sunny & cheerful, buildings do have their own persona!


Laura Kaye said...

@Lea--thanks for your comment!

@Julie--You'll have to come back and tell us what you saw in New Orleans! I'm glad you enjoyed. And I liked what you said in the second part of your comment--I agree!

@Michelle--Detroit really does have a wealth of historical architecture

@Anita--Thanks so much for your comment!

@Sharon--Yes, I agree--thanks!

Julie Robinson said...

Thanks Laura :-)
I am back and my DH thought I was nuts, photographing everything and muttering, 'architecture as character.' I tried to explain, but he brushed me off, though we did go on the ghost tour. Oddly, it wasn't those stories that inspired me so much as some of the vacant buildings. All sorts of possible scenarios . . .