On Location: in St. Louis for a Ghost Story

Forest Park

Forest Park

While working on a ghost story set in St. Louis for an anthology of Missouri stories, I had to face three realities:  (1) I hadn’t been in St. Louis for a long time, (2) I didn’t have a budget that would allow me to rent a plane and fly up there to do research, (3) My setting had to be believable to people who lived in St. Louis.

The story features a modern-day student and a a real historical figure, Patience Worth, channeled years ago by Peal Curran. I was vaguely aware of Patience Worth and the sensation she created a century ago as she turned out books and poems that were quite well received.

I knew what I wanted the story to do. But I needed to familiarize myself with the writings of Patience Worth so that my ghost in the story sounded like the “real” spirit. Fortunately, her writings are accessible on the Internet, and a kind expert in the subject gave me many wonderful pointers.

Settings

The Skinker-DeBaliviere neighborhood.

The Skinker-DeBaliviere neighborhood.

While it was crucial to “get Patience right,” the settings were also important. It took a while for me to nail down whether the house where Pearl Curran channeled Patience was still standing. Once I found it, it didn’t take long to discover a picture of it using Google’s Street View. I also looked at the adjacent streets in the historic neighborhood where the house still stands.

While I don’t reveal the address of the house in the story, I needed to see it online so that when my young, modern-say protagonist drives down the street, she’ll see something that not only is real, but that sounds real to anyone who knows the area.

Kennedy Forest

spiritsanthologyNear the historic house is Kennedy Forest, a part of the city’s Forest Park, the seventh largest munipal park in the nation. While there are a lot of pictures and descriptions online and while Google Street View showed me what it looked like, a forester helped me make sure I had the tree types correct. Why? I wanted my character to go to that forest and see what is really there.

I also found major streets so that my character could drive from the Patience Worth house to the park on real streets with accurate descriptions. The descriptions add ambiance to the story and bring the real setting into believable focus.

A lot has been written about Patience Worth, the historic district where the channeling too place, and the nearby landmarks. All of this greatly helps a writer while s/he is working on a story set in a town s/he hasn’t seen for a while. The age of the house and the park fit my needs perfectly: I wanted something very old to appear in a modern world, and the locale itself helped me tell my story “Patience, I Presume.”

My approach is always to research settings and subject matter extensively and then let the story tell iself once I’ve immersed myself into the time and place where it unfolds. If you’re a writer, you probably approach your stories quite differently. We never know when we think of a story what we’ll need to do to get it down on the page the way we imagine it. I start with my atunement to place and work outward from there.

You May Also Like: How I Researched a Ghost Story – Filed under “writing tips,” this provides a step-by-step approach to the online research that worked for me.

Malcolm

Briefly Noted: ‘ The Patience of Pearl: Spiritualism and Authorship in the Writings of Pearl Curran’

“The Patience of Pearl: Spiritualism and Authorship in the Writings of Pearl Curran,” by Daniel B. Shea, (University of Missouri Press, November 2012), 296pp, 15 illus.

patienceofpearlPearl Lenore Curran, a St. Louis music teacher, wrote (or possibly channeled) multiple novels and hundreds of poems between 1913 and and 1937 under the name Patience Worth.  Curran was not a spiritualist. She tried out a friend’s Ouija board and, depending on one’s viewpoint, she began communicating with either her subconscious mind or a discarnate entity who lived in England in the 1600s.

The lure of spiritualism brought many people to Curran’s door, some of who listen to the readings, reported the phenomena in books and newspapers, and even spoke with Patience through Mrs. Curran. Some suggested Patience was a real spirit. Others said Curran was being coached, for she had no educational background for speaking and writing about 17th century England using many words and phrases that were not common in the 20th century United States.

Regardless of the source of the material, it was not only voluminous, but attracted rave reviews. To learn more about Curran and Patience Worth, see the September 2010 “Smithsonian Magazine” article “Patience Worth: Author From the Great Beyond.”

Like books such as Irving Litvag’s Singer in the Shadows: The Strange Story of Patience Worth and Casper Yost’s Patience Worth: A Psychic Mystery, the “Smithsonian” article focuses chiefly on historical facts and the opinions of spiritualists. Professor Shea’s The Patience of Pearl focuses on the works themselves within the scope of Curran’s life and Patience Worth’s literary voice.

In his introduction, Shea writes that “it does seem odd that a woman who wrote with brief but notorious success less than one hundred years ago could still be, as Lucky Jim once put it, so strangely neglected.” He suggests that the way they were written discredited them from the beginning as part of spiritualism’s table tapping and purported revelations from entities from another time or place.

From the Publisher: “The Patience of Pearl uncovers more of Curran’s (and thus Patience Worth’s) biography than has been known before; Daniel B. Shea provides close readings of the Patience-dictated writings and explores the historical and local context, applying current cognitive and neuro-psychology research…Novelistic in its own way, Curran’s life included three husbands and a child adopted on command from Patience Worth. Pearl Curran enjoyed a brief period of celebrity in Los Angeles before her death in 1937. The Patience of Pearl once again brings her the attention she deserves—for her life, her writing, and her place in women’s literary history.”


In one of her poems, Patience/Pearl wrote:

Lo, are my songs like birds
Within a wicker hung, and thou,
Beloved, hast loosed the latch
And let them free!

Shea’s thorough overview is an open door.

–Malcolm