Thank God for air
conditioning and deodorant

I enjoy writing historical fiction, primarly because I like learning about the past.  I get a bit nostalgic, until I realize how good we now have it in the 21st century. (Then I go back to the nostalgia.)

I chose to set my first novel, The Outer Banks House, in Reconstruction-era Nags Head, N.C., because I’d read about well-off planter families of that time period going to the beach for entire summers (in the wonderful nonfiction book Nags Headers by Susan Byrum Rountree) and doing nothing but lounging on their porches, bathing in the sea (only men, of course), bowling at the hotel, and taking cart-rides up and down the shore. I pictured women in hoop skirts stepping through a hot, sandy beach, and I was permanently hooked on the setting. It might have been relaxing to do absolutely nothing (they brought their servants from their plantations), butI know it must have been  uncomfortable, with all of those crinolines and long-sleeved dresses in the heat of summer with no air conditioning. Did they all smell of underarms or what? Maybe they didn’t care, being so close to the sea, for everything smelled of fish anyway.

As I read more of Rountree’s book, I learned that building a cottage on the ocean side of the Outer Banks was considered the height of stupidity by all of the Banker natives. The locals chose to build their homes on the more forested soundside, where they’d be protected from the wind and waves. Some even built their homes on stilts in the sounds. (But it seems that those mainlanders had the better idea…just look at the ocean front developments now! It may be dangerous, but ocean front is prime real estate these days.) But I figured it would make for intriguing fiction to have a family build one of the first houses on the ocean side of the Banks, which happened to be right around the time of Reconstruction, immediately after the Civil War. Some of these old houses still exist, and I think they are truly beautiful. When I was writing the novel, I would love to just drive down the beach road and stare at those houses, to imagine what life must have been like back then. Open windows to let the ocean breezes blow through; detached kitchens to keep the heat and threat of fire away from the main house; sandy floorboards; no sounds except the ocean’s waves, the calls of sea birds.

I contrast that way of beach living with what I now know. The sound of cars, trucks, construction, fireworks, corn hole games and cook-outs interfere with the ocean noise. Packed beaches during the summers, roads clogged with cars, tourist shops and restaurants and motels everywhere you look. Cottages on the beach as far as the eye can see. Yes, we do have air conditioning, a welcome invention when it’s hot and humid. We have ice-cold beverages, gas grills, frisbees, Kindles. It’s perfectly acceptable to parade around in a bathing suit; imagine what the ladies back then would think if they saw women of all ages strolling the beaches in nothing but skimpy underclothes and swimming in the ocean alongside men. We have loosened up our restrictions, widened our expectations. In many ways, things have gotten better at the beach.

Even so, I do wish for the days of simplicity. That’s why I’m looking forward to a girls weekend in November. November is a great time to go to the beach; you can actually drive and walk on the beach without having a heart attack. And I can more easily imagine what it must have been like 130 years ago. I get my best ideas in the off-season. Yes, it’s colder, but that’s what the gas fireplace is for!

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