Growing up, our family Sundays were a hundred percent predictable. As soon as eleven o’clock Mass let out, my parents and I hit the road for a long, aimless drive in the Chrysler Imperial—to pretty much nowhere. I’d stare out the window from the backseat, resigned to my fate, as my mom pointed out houses that we were never going to buy. Most of them either weren’t for sale or were well out of our price range—but Mom just liked to “look.” And by the time I was seven or so, I could rattle off the differences between a Tudor and a Gambrel.
But that was just the beginning. I’m not sure what it was about other people’s abodes that fascinated Mom so much, but I spent a lot of time tagging along at open houses and garden tours and the furniture department at Bloomingdale’s. I half-listened as she chatted with homeowners, real estate agents, and designers, but mostly I sat in the corner making notes in my swirly-black composition notebook, pretending I was Harriet the Spy.
Then, after one snowy winter, construction began on a new home—Colonial, 4 bedrooms, 3 baths—just beyond our empty field. In my mind it took forever—but I couldn’t resist heading over as soon as the construction guys had quit for the day, to check on the progress. Rain or shine, I toured each room, tested the floorboards, and even the doorbell (just in case). I tried to imagine who our new neighbors would be, and whether there’d be a kid my age, and if they’d have a dog. As the home took shape, I planned where the Smith-Joneses would have their breakfast, where the TV would go, and who would take which bedroom. I also tested the stairs a little too soon, which was not one of my better ideas. As it turned out, no kids materialized, but the nice older couple did have a friendly Springer Spaniel and a Jaguar.
I thought I’d left my house-peeping days behind when I entered college, but Mom was not easily deterred. One of my classmates was a Crown Prince, and lived in a remote mansion well down the road from my dorm. On a drive to some convenient Parents’ Weekend festivity, she took a determined turn down an impossibly long driveway toward what looked like a real-live castle. I panicked in the passenger seat—partly due to the mortification in store when I saw my royal classmate in our next Poli Sci class, and also because snarling dogs had emerged from somewhere, along with two bulky guys in trench coats. They listened very politely as my Mom explained that she’d gotten lost, and sent us on our way. I don’t think I spoke to my mom much at the freshman parents’ dinner—but in truth, I wished we’d been able to look in the windows of that house.
By the time I was a mom myself—a very cautious, responsible one, I might add—my parents had moved to Florida. Mom was in house heaven, because the investigative opps there were endless. But on one visit, I simply refused to accompany her. My older sister went instead—and the two of them ended up letting themselves into a home that actually wasn’t empty. Fortunately, my sister spotted the wallet and keys on the counter in time, as the couple was apparently busy upstairs.
So there you have it: Nearly every member of my family has a secret history of trespassing and breaking and entering. And I ended up getting my real estate license last summer. But I still wonder about other people’s houses, and imagine their glamorous lives and shady secrets. And I can tell you the absolutely best places to store a body in your garden-variety Victorian.
Because that’s what we mystery writers love to do.
So, readers and fellow writers, have you ever done a tiny bit of snooping in the name of research?