Happy spring! There is nothing like writing in nature with the fragrance of magnolia blossoms, roses, earth, leaves, and grass. I visited many beautiful gardens and historical sites that inspired scenes for my novel Essie’s Roses. I thought it would be fun to share a few of my favorite writing locations.
Missouri Botanical Garden, St. Louis, Missouri
One of my favorite places to write is the Missouri Botanical Garden. I spent months sitting among the roses and trees writing Essie’s Roses. The sun warms my notebook, me, and I close my eyes and let the surroundings take my characters where they want to go. The gardens are an inspiration, my solace, and second office!
Writing in Richmond, Virginia was magical and essential for the story development of Essie’s Roses. Richmond holds such a rich and tragic history. It is also a beautiful city. One of my favorite places to write (and Evie’s!) was in Capital Square in a nook where the old Bell Tower still stands.
History came alive for me in Richmond. I had moments while visiting and writing in Richmond that changed me forever. The contrast was astounding. One day, I stood where soldiers marched and fought battles, men lost their lives, and where slaves were auctioned off. The next day I wrote in a magnificent nineteenth-century ballroom, viewed luxurious ball gowns, and walked through opulent mansions.
In Essie’s Roses, Essie Mae, a slave girl and the plantation owner’s daughter Evie Winthrop, walk together on their journey into womanhood. At nineteen, for the first time, they leave their home at Westland, a plantation in Alabama and travel to Richmond, Virginia.
Sheltered in their naive world at Westland, and at the height of the coming war, I knew I had to visit Richmond and experience it for the first time with them. I needed to see the city, smell the air, and take in the history all around me.
Victoria Mansion, Portland, Maine
There was no way I wanted to write about the opulence of an authentic Antebellum mansion without actually standing in one. I scoured the country and found the perfect spot that offered inspiration for Evie’s wealthy aunt’s mansion in Richmond.
Monument Avenue in Richmond provided the place, but Victoria Mansion added the magic. I will never forget flying to Maine for the day (and back home that night!) to write in this spectacular mansion. I spent seven hours writing in this magnificent home.
I had so many beautiful moments in Richmond, but the one that touched my heart the most was when I visited the Valentine History Museum.
One of my favorite, most memorable, and humbling experiences came about while doing research in Richmond, Virginia for Essie’s Roses. I went to the Richmond Valentine History Center to see authentic antebellum ball gowns in person. I wanted to take some photos and study the details of the fabric and styles. There was a mix-up with my appointment, and the curator wasn’t there to show me the gowns. I was devastated. I had flown in from St. Louis, and though I had plenty to do, I really wanted to see those gowns.
The curator at the time said if I wanted to I could look at some nineteenth-century documents in the document room. I was curious. I remembered seeing a slave receipt in one of the museums, and on a whim asked him if they had any. A few minutes later, he came out wearing a pair of white gloves. He handed me a pair and said, “Please put them on . . . just a moment.”
Meanwhile, sitting across from me, an older African-American gentleman was looking through a box of antique photos. I didn’t really pay attention because I was wondering what the curator was going to bring me that I needed to wear these museum style white gloves for.
The curator came back into the room and handed me a few small thin pieces of papers. I held one gently in my hand. As I read it, I cried. I was reading a slave receipt that read:
“Received of Thomas E. Brown Eleven Hundred Dollars for a Negro boy named Lewis aged about twenty four years for which I warrant to be sound in body and mind and slave for life March the 6th, 1858. C.A. Heilig.”
At the same moment the African-American gentleman, the curator was now helping, found a photo and said, “Well, I’ll be. There he is right there. That’s my great (great) granddaddy.” I believe he was looking at a photo of former slaves. It was a moment I’ll never forget. Here he was searching for his family history, and here I sat looking at this history in my hand.
As I held this historical document, a receipt for the purchase of a human being, I couldn’t help feeling the weight of that period on my shoulders. I can’t think about it without being touched deeply. It changed me.
This is why I love writing. You hope to have fun, entertain your readers, but to me, it’s always about learning . . . learning about history, myself, and others. And it’s special when something as this unexpectedly touches your life and changes you forever.
Michelle Muriel is the award-winning, bestselling author of ESSIE'S ROSES. She holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts, magna cum laude, and after graduating, she worked as a professional actress, a member of Actors’ Equity and The American Federation of Television and Radio Artists for almost twenty years, doing theater, voice-over, and commercial work. She is also a songwriter and musician. Michelle lives in St. Louis, Missouri with her husband and two quirky Border collies. She first developed ESSIE'S ROSES as a screenplay. This is her debut novel. She is currently at work on her second.