The ideas for my novels come to me in different ways.
I picked up a booklet in a Gloucester bookstore and discovered the history of the oldest settlement on Cape Ann and The Last Days of Dogtown followed. On my first visit to Israel, a tour took me to a living history museum called Atlit, where Jewish settlers were interned by the British authorities after the end of World War 2, and that was the source of Day After Night.
The working title for The Boston Girl was Rockport Lodge.
Here’s the story:
I must have driven past the place hundreds of times. Ihad been visiting and vacationing in Rockport, Massachusetts for years, and the three-story white clapboard farmhouse with a sign out front looked like a lot of the bed-and-breakfasts in town.
But one morning, I spotted a friend walking out the front door and pulled over. Pattie was working as Rockport Lodge’s cook that summer and she told me it was nothing like the other inns. It had been founded in the early 1900s (1906 in fact) to provide inexpensive chaperoned holidays to city girls of modest means. The policy remained “women only” and the prices ridiculously low. In 1990 it was $35 a day including three meals for women earning less than $12,400. It so happens that friends had stayed there. “Rustic” is how they described it.
During the 1990s, I watched the Lodge fall apart. The paint peeled, the shutters broke and the lawn got shaggy. In 2002, the windows stayed dark and weeds sprouted in the gutters. The wooden annex – a long, shotgun arrangement of guest rooms behind the big house – sagged and sank and looked like it might blow down in the next Nor’easter.
The main building, built as a farmhouse in the 1750s, was much sturdier, but it was in bad shape, too. I peered through windows and shredded curtains into dusty common rooms. A set of Blue Willow china was displayed in the dining room. There were puzzles and books stacked on shelves and magazines open the occasional tables in the front parlor, where an old upright piano enjoyed pride of place. Hand-lettered signs were tacked up beside an old black wall telephone near the front door. The place was like one of those old steamer trunks full of secrets.
The perfect setting for a novel, right?
I tracked down the Rockport Lodge archives, which are housed at the Schlesinger Library on the History of American Women at Harvard University: forty- seven boxes filled with fundraising letters, brochures, housekeeping minutia, newspaper clippings, board meeting agendas and scrapbooks. The scrapbooks are yellowed and brittle, scrawled with spidery signatures, inside jokes and pledges of undying friendship. There are also pictures of girls lined up in ankle-length skirts, girls lounging on Good Harbor Beach in daring 1920s swimsuits, girls wearing boxy shorts and bobby socks. The clothes are a fashion timeline and tell a story about profound changes in American women’s lives.
In 2006, Rockport Lodge was sold and the land subdivided. The original farmhouse is back in private hands; the new owners renovated with an open floor plan and granite countertops in the kitchen. The only clue to its history are a fading sign over the front door, and now, The Boston Girl.