Image logo courtesy of National Novel Writing Month

Death by Design

The logo for NaNoWriMo

Here’s the start:

Over 15 years ago, I read the book, The Girl With the Botticelli Eyes and was furious. I wasn’t mad about the novel’s plot; I was angry because I felt the author completely misunderstood art restoration.

The Girl With the Botticelli Eyes takes place around an exhibition on early Renaissance painter, Sandro Botticelli (the man who painted The Birth of Venus, a.k.a., “Venus on the half-shell”). Among other things, a violent Italian fascist mutilates two Botticelli paintings… and puts the “Girl” of the book’s title into a dangerous position. I don’t remember the rest of the novel: I just remember how pissed off I was.

Why so mad, Keiran?

That’s because—after the crazed Fascist slashed through the eyes on a painting (or two), and left the piece barely intact—the curator gives the painting to some genius restorer who does magnificent work in, like, 2 days. In time for the exhibition opening.

While there are world experts in art restoration in NYC, there’s no way in hell that someone could restore a painting—executed in Italy in the late 1400s—in two f***ing days. I knew that and I didn’t even know the particulars about restoration experts of Renaissance painting.

So

As you can see by my continued annoyance

I wrote a couple of pages on a novel with a Taliesin house steward as the main character to show people what someone who knows the damned details about an artwork could do. But then got lost and did nothing more.

Until 2005

That’s the year that I wrote my first novel during NaNoWriMo, which is the subject of my post today.

What’s NaNoWriMo?

It takes place every November and stands for:

NAtional

NOvel

WRIting

MOnth

Some friends started it in 1999 after giving each other a challenge: write a 50,000 word novel in November from scratch.

In the lead up to November 1, you can do character development, plotting, planning etc., but you CANNOT write anything on the novel until 12:00 a.m., November 1.* And you must SUBMIT your 50,000-word novel by 11:59 p.m., November 30.

* I wrote earlier that you couldn’t start writing until 12:01 a.m. I’ve got no idea where I got that mistake came from. Well, yes, aside from coming from my own brain.

Do you win anything?

You win a link to a certificate that you can print. The certificate says you WROTE A 50,000 WORD NOVEL IN A MONTH.

What’s all?

Yup: that’s all.

No, really: don’t you get anything? Doesn’t anyone look at your novel?

The majority of people who look at the novel will be those who wrote it, and/or those who know the NaNoWriMo novelist.

Why the hell would you do this?

The folks who came up with Nanowrimo have dealt with these questions longer than me, so read their FAQ page from the Wayback Machine.

But,

Aside from knowing that you WROTE A NOVEL, there are people who participated in NaNoWriMo and took their 50k-words-(or more)-novel, and edited it, expanded it, found an agent and had it published. Novels written initially during Nanowrimo include:

Check out this web page mentioning some novels started at NaNoWriMo:

8 Bestselling Books Written During NaNoWriMo

 

Here’s my experience (experiences):

In October 2005, a friend online mentioned signing up for Nanowrimo. I’d heard about it, and among all of my “no I can’t do that,” this popped into my head:

Hey – why the hell couldn’t I do that? After all, I’d spent a week PO-‘d about The Girl With the Botticelli Eyes because “The writer wasn’t qualified to write what he did!!!”

Even in 2005 I knew I was an expert on Taliesin. And I knew my typing wasn’t bad.

so I could type like the wind!

And, oh yeah: there was my college degree. In writing.1

So: I wrote my first Nanowrimo novel.

Or, as I called it:

“The Book About a Murder at Taliesin… But Not That Murder

Lisa is the novel’s narrator. She’s a tour guide who works at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin, and lives in Spring Green Wisconsin. She isn’t me… exactly. She’s shorter and has blond hair. I think she was a little younger than me when I first started this in 2005. And she went to Graduate School in Art History, but never got her degree.

She does smoke and drink too much. I probably did when I first wrote it, but not as much as Lisa did.

But that wasn’t really my fault:

NaNoWriMo means you have to write 1,667 words a day. Writing about lighting up cigarettes gives you a chance to change the character’s location. And drinking gives you a place to hang out with other characters. And just having a character look at their cigarette pack and realize they’re getting low, adds to your total word count.

I mean, look:

I checked my cigarette supply. I was down to half a pack. I thought, “Oh, man,… I’ll have to stop soon.” But I figured I would deal with it later.

That’s 30 words right there!

Regardless, I did finish the novel. My word count was over 70,000.

I named the novel Death by Design

An online friend suggested it after I asked for input.

Why was Death by Design a murder novel?

It was the easiest thing for me to think up. Murder mysteries (as I learned) are easy… in ways. Particularly when you are attempting to write 1,667 words per day for 30 days straight.

Because 50,000 divided by 30=1,666.6666666667

I found that murder mysteries are easy because you (the author) figure out the clues and you can dab them in throughout the text, only to have them solved in the exciting denouement. Plus, I’d already spent years listening to murder mysteries on Old Time Radio Drama.

Death by Design‘s plot:

Main character, Lisa, is opening up the Hillside buildings one morning2 in May 2000.3 She walks into the Hillside Theater and finds the body of a man who’s been murdered.

Hilarity ensues since she has to call the programs director (at that time, a former guide who ran all the programs), while keeping the Taliesin Estate Tour guide with her group from accessing the Theater.

Over the following days, Lisa tries to deal with everything. Along with drinking too much (just beer, I swear). Additionally, she befriends a member of Taliesin’s Preservation Crew who she’s known for years. They end up dating by the end of the novel.

ALONG THE WAY:

Aside from every theory and every thought about Taliesin that came to mind, the book gave me a chance to write details about every fricking thing in the local area. I wrote in the novel information about the local bar, The Shed (sadly, closed this year) and the Spring Green General Store cafe. I took the opportunity to mention a yearly tradition at the General Store: BobFest.

And I invented a few obnoxious apprentices at the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture.4 That gave me a chance to write about the Taliesin Fellowship and its history. I then poisoned all of them with arsenic at dinner one night.

I pulled out “arsenic” after reading advice from another “Nanowrimer”: death and violence is a good way to switch up the story. Plus, by this time my book already had one murder. Maybe two.

UNTIL, finally, Lisa (and the love interest/Pres Crew guy, Jake5) get invited to a Taliesin formal dinner, in which the murderer tries to set fire to Taliesin.

Yes, I know: that old chestnut.

The murderer is caught of course. Lisa and Jake are together at the end. Lisa has started on a nicotine patch to quit smoking, and a new tour has been created based on the murderer trying to set fire to Taliesin.

Apparently, like the book Loving Frank, publicity about the murder in the Hillside Theater Foyer increases sales for tours that go to Hillside!


I participated in NaNoWriMo several more times:

2006:

The plot of the novel starts with Jake and Lisa as newlyweds. They’re on their honeymoon, which consists of going to other Frank Lloyd Wright sites.

as one does

I was also inspired in this novel by the destruction of two historic buildings in 2006. One was a destructive fire at a church by architects Dankmar Adler & Louis Sullivan in Chicago. Later that same month (January), a newly rediscovered house by Wright, the Wynant House, in Gary, Indiana was pretty much destroyed. Also by fire. So, the bad fortunes of these two pieces of architecture were put into the novel. 

In addition,

Lisa later defends herself (I think) with a heavy reproduction of a Frank-Lloyd-Wright-designed “Weedholder” vase. This particular moment of brutality comes at the Wright-designed Darwin D. Martin House in Buffalo, New York. I remember something else with furniture by Steelcase being used as a weapon at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Meyer May house, Grand Rapids, Michigan. And, lastly, Lisa finds the drowned body of a professor in Architectural History in the guest pool at Fallingwater.6 And she finds the Executive Director of Fallingwater after the E.D.’s been suffocated. She’d had Johnson’s paste Wax stuck into her nose and mouth.

Don’t worry if this makes no sense. I don’t expect anyone to know this unless they, like me, are Frankophiles.

2007:

That was a sci-fi novel where my character lived on a satellite of a gas giant. I never made it past 15,000 words. I had fun with it, but didn’t “Win”. The main character got stranded somewhere and I couldn’t figure out how to move the story on.

2009:

That October, I asked others what I should write for the upcoming NaNoWriMo. A friend suggested I write, “Frank Lloyd Wright in space!

Predictably,

I just relied on the trope of the Time Travel Police. That is, some police-like force exists to keep the “timelines” clear. In my book, the MC gets picked up by the Time Travel Police whose job it is to find clones that cultural geeks have made of their idols so they can remove the clones from timelines that they could mess up. The MC is brought to a clone of Frank Lloyd Wright living on a spaceship filled with other anachronistic clones.

Like Jane Austin. And Leonardo Da Vinci.

So you can see, that there was a reason why I felt I have done what I could with NaNoWriMo.

Now, remember:

If you’re interested in the idea, November starts in a few days. Go to the site. You can read about the rules (or not), and the organization, in “Help Desk” on the NaNoWriMo page. And you can just sign up, and you can check on your word count as you go.

If you get through it, if nothing else at least you can say that for once in your life, you wrote a novel. You’ve got a month to write it, and all the time you need afterwards to edit it.

October 28, 2022
The image at the top of this is the logo for NaNoWriMo.


Notes:

1 I didn’t figure out the Art History interest until I was a junior in college.

2 Regardless of whether of not apprentices/students were at Hillside, tour guides used to open the Hillside structures in the morning, and shut the building down at the end of the day.

3 I chose to set the novel in the year 2000 because this eliminates any discussion of 9/11/2001.

4 One of the apprentices, who is a big, lying jerk, isn’t based on anybody I know or knew.

5 For those who know me IRL, Jake started out based on a real person. But I got grossed out when I realized the main character and Jake would have a romantic relationship. So, I changed most things about him.

6 The murdered Architectural Historian was real. But, that’s ok: he passed away years ago.

 

Looking east at Taliesin's agricultural wing.

“This stuff is FUN for me”: Taliesin photographs from Frank Lloyd Wright’s lifetime.

The photograph above was published in a “Flashback” article from December 4 by Ron Grossman at The Chicago Tribune: “Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin was a refuge for illicit romance. But tragedy tore apart the love he built”. It’s one of two photographs taken at Taliesin on December 25, 1911. That was is published in my entry, “I looked at stone.”

That’s what I said to journalist Ron McCrea in 2010 after I’d spent my weekend looking at photos of Taliesin (he was writing about them, Wright, and Mamah Borthwick in his book, Building Taliesin, published in 2012). 

What prompted this statement here has to do with the photos on this link (archived from The Wayback Machine).

The photos didn’t just capture my attention. No: I yelled in a way that they show you in movies or cartoons. It’s yelling with lots of special characters: “Holy C*$#!”

What made me yell:

The article’s two photographs—exteriors of Taliesin I (Taliesin 1911-14)—I’d only seen as dark/dusty photos, or drawings made from them.

And it appears the photographer took these the on Christmas day, 1911. On that day, Wright (and his partner, Borthwick) gave an (unintentionally disastrous) press briefing at Taliesin. They did this because they hoped to stave off public damnation. Wright thought he could do that by addressing the press.

(or the “war correspondents” as he called them, in the Day Book newspaper, on Jan. 4).

The “newspaper men” put them back on the front pages because, while they’d left their families in Oak Park, Illinois in 1909, Wright returned alone in late 1910. Everyone reading the newspapers thought Wright and Borthwick had ended their relationship.

That was not true:

Wright was in the US, but acquired land in Wisconsin to build his home. Meanwhile, Cheney was in Europe. She had to wait until she could divorce her husband based on “abandonment”.

Thus, she was Mamah Cheney until August 5, 1911, then reverted to her maiden name, Borthwick.

The “war correspondents” found the two, realized that Wright had not reconciled with wife Catherine, and descended on Taliesin.

The hope by Wright (and Borthwick) that a public statement would calm the press didn’t work out. Even though Wright said in Baraboo News (Baraboo, WI, January 4), “may not the matter be left in privacy to those whose concern it chiefly is?”, it was too late. That newspaper, on December 28, said that Taliesin was “known as Crazy House.”

I encourage you at this point, if you haven’t done so already, to click the link to Grossman’s story so you can look at the “Crazy House” photos.

A drawing in 1914 made from a 1911 photograph

Drawing showing Taliesin's north facade

If you read the article, the first photograph, underneath the article’s title, shows the building’s northern face, with a parapet ending in a stone pier to the immediate left. I had never seen the photo before. But someone took the photo and made it into a drawing. That appeared in the Des Moines Daily News (published August 18, 1914). I put that drawing above. I think I should be ok to publish it. Given its age, it’s now in the public domain.

I wanted to show how you’d see that same part of the building today, but I couldn’t. Almost nothing in the photograph from Taliesin I (or the drawing) is the same. That’s because Wright kept adding on and changing the building. However, I say that, “Taliesin keeps its history within its walls.” So I’ll show where that history marker is, but I’ll orient you first.

A view toward Taliesin’s entry steps

You walk up the steps at Taliesin to Wright’s studio at Taliesin (the north wall of the studio is to the right). The parapet from the Taliesin I photo ended at the stone that is to the left of the tree trunk (the tree trunk is to the left of the window that’s on the extreme right in the photograph) .

The next photo is the other side of that stone wall. That tree trunk I just mentioned is just to the right of the end of wall. 

That little black rectangle you see is where the cap on the parapet terminated into the stone.

The second image in the Grossman article, near the bottom, shows that same wing (the agricultural wing) from its broad western façade. That photograph is at the top of this entry, because it first appeared in print before 1924. The images, while not being unknown to me, are probably pretty rare for fans of Frank Lloyd Wright or even Taliesin. That’s how many changes Wright made to the structure over time.

This second image (showing Taliesin’s far western facade), shows the building’s hayloft ending on the right side with a garage that has the cantilevered roof. I don’t know if the garage ever held cars since there are no photographs of cars in there and no photographs with wheel tracks leading up to the garage either. There are no close up photos of it, but you see the garage across the hill in this photo at the Wisconsin Historical Society.

Another photograph used in a newspaper article

Grossman’s article used a second image taken in late December 1911, the day of Wright and Borthwick’s press conference.

I found this image because of a habit I had (and have). I search online for old Taliesin photographs. When I worked, I did this on my Friday afternoons after I had finished any other projects. I would type “Taliesin” and other qualifiers into a search bar to see what came up.

Note to the neophyte: make sure to narrow the search so that you aren’t seeing results regarding Taliesin West in Scottsdale, Arizona; things about the 1914 murders/fire at Taliesin; some movie out there about vampires with a character who is, I guess, named Taliesin*; and information on actor/voice actor, Taliesin Jaffe (I’m sorry Mr. Jaffe, but I’ve never seen anything you’ve been in).

One day that brought me to a newspaper article in the Chicago Evening American, published on December 29, 1911:

I don’t remember my first thought in seeing the agricultural wing photo, but I’m sure I was really excited. And, ultimately a little disappointed, because the photograph was muddy and a little dark and, well, just newspaper print. It’s very likely I looked at it, tried to get what information I could by scanning it, then expanded, lightened, and darkened, and gave up.

I thought that these photographs, if they existed, were in a drawer or a folder, stuck away or mislabeled. After all, I had no idea of the photo of Taliesin’s north facade existed at all out there. But, obviously, I was wrong and the original photos were NOT lost.


* Here’s part of the problem in not exploring what comes up in my website searches: “Taliesin Meets the Vampires” is not a movie. “Taliesin Meets the Vampires”—if I had taken a moment to click on the link—is a “Vampire blog” where you “will find views and reviews of vampire genre media, from literature, the web, TV and the movies.” Well, I’m glad I did that because I prefer looking at a page on a website to finding, then watching, a vampire movie.


First published, 12/11/2020.

The photograph at the heading for this post comes from the Chicago Tribune Historical Images.

East facade, Taliesin I

What was on the menu the day they were murdered?

Looking (plan) northwest at Taliesin’s living quarters (the part of the building where the architect lived). On August 15, 1914, fire destroyed every part of the building you see in the photograph that’s not stone. 

On August 15, 1914, while Frank Lloyd Wright was working in Chicago, a servant named Julian Carlton – for reasons that will probably never be known – murdered seven of nine people at Wright’s Wisconsin home, Taliesin, while they were eating lunch. Six out of the seven were murdered with an axe. Before/ after/ or while he was doing that (we don’t know), Carlton set fire to Taliesin’s living quarters, pretty much destroying that part of the building down to the stone (that’s why one of the victims, David Lindblom, died from his burns). Among those murdered was Wright’s partner, Martha “Mamah” Borthwick (formerly Mrs. Edwin H. Cheney).

The 1914 fire was a historic detail until the book, Loving Frank

Aside from Frankophiles (fans of Wright’s), this horrible act was mostly unknown to people for decades. In part because it happened before the existence of radio and television. In addition, it’s unbelievable (“Wait – you’re telling me that there was a MASS MURDER at the house of the guy who designed Fallingwater?”). 

The murders were a strange, sad, fact until the August 2007 publication of Loving Frank, a novel of historical fiction by Nancy Horan. The book’s main character is Mamah Borthwick.

It was a huge hit: Loving Frank stayed on the New York Times bestseller list for 54 weeks.1

Curiosity about that day’s lunch came unexpectedly

One thing I didn’t anticipate with the book’s release was people calling us2 wanting to know what the victims were eating for lunch that day. Sometimes people called just wanting to know that day’s “menu”. And some wanted to know what soup was being served.

Soup? Could you explain that?

That question is because of the book, Death in a Prairie House: Frank Lloyd Wright and the Taliesin Murders, by William Drennan. It so happens that  Drennan’s book was published 5 months before Loving Frank. I think it would have faded into obscurity otherwise.

Drennan chose to write that Carlton served the victims soup before attacking them.

So – how to you know they didn’t eat soup?

I’ve read lots of newspaper accounts about the murders (over 75), but I’ve not found any proof that they were eating soup for lunch. And, aside from the fact that the victims were attacked at lunchtime, no one wrote what they were eating. And I doubt the reporters would have asked the two survivors (Herbert Fritz or William Weston).

Furthermore, let me tell you: southern Wisconsin can get very warm in the summer. Soup is kind of improbable. Drennan’s choice therefore led some of us at Taliesin Preservation to wonder if Carlton, or his wife, Gertrude (the cook), had perhaps served vichyssoise or gazpacho that afternoon.

Additionally, Taliesin wasn’t an upscale abode with a chef and butler. It was a house in the country:  Gertrude would not have had planned, printed menus.

Regardless:

Fritz (who escaped by jumping out a window), and Weston (who survived, but lost his son, Ernest) probably didn’t think or care about what was on the table since that day. It ended with horrific murders that were mostly done with an axe. If I sound intense, it happens when you think about seven people murdered, only one of whom died as the result of his burns, and three of whom were under the age of 14.

First published 8/9/2020.
Photograph at the top of this page was taken by Taylor Woolley, 1911-12. It shows the east facade of Taliesin. ID 695917. A larger version of this photograph is located through here at the Utah Historical Society.
The entire Taylor Woolley photograph collection is here. See this and other Woolley photographs in Ron McCrea’s book, Building Taliesin: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Home of Love and Loss.


1 By the way: people have asked me how “true” Loving Frank is. It’s remarkably accurate. The author definitely did her research. Obviously, the conversations that took place between Mamah and Frank are fiction, but many more things are backed up by research.

2 “us” being employees of Taliesin Preservation, in Wisconsin. Where I worked for half of my life before Covid.