Friday, April 8, 2016

I Sleep in Ghost Towns and Other True Confessions of a Historical Fiction Novelist

Writers are famous for a certain quirkiness, often while blithely unaware we are doing anything unusual. Doesn't everyone trail off in the middle of a sentence to stare into space then, when prompted to continue, startle and ask 'what?'? Others might talk to themselves but usually not to the characters in their heads. While on the top floor of a historic home, other visitors edge away when we exclaim how easy it would be to throw someone to a horrible death from the window.

Our antics while on a research trip belong in a class by themselves. Not unlike ace reporters ferreting a scoop, we do the unexpected. Seemingly strange behaviors such as crawling into hidden places, hanging out of windows, or taking extreme close-ups of hinges and nails in the wall don't phase us.

When it comes to ghost towns, exploring them in the daylight is not enough. To fully experience the atmosphere, I need to spend the night in a ghost town.There's just something about going to bed in a room where the footsteps of past occupants echo through your imagination, waking in the small hours with the wind whistling outside your door, and the first rays of morning bathing ancient buildings in new light.
Sleeping in a ghost town isn't always convenient or possible. Not to be deterred by such minor concerns, I have managed it twice.
The Shaniko Hotel, originally called the Columbia Southern Hotel (ca. 1900) is listed on the US National Register of Historic Places and is part of the Shaniko Historic District. (Image by Ian Poellet (User:Werewombat) (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons.)
The Shaniko Hotel in the partially-inhabited ghost town of Shaniko, Oregon made an impression on me when I first saw it during a ghost-town-hunting expedition with my family. We stopped for dinner in the hotel's restaurant, and I determined someday to return for an overnight stay.

Shaniko is located on a plateau in Oregon's high desert, and the heat was sweltering when we returned. We checked in through the restaurant and then went to our room. The pictures I took are now lost, but I recall that it was small but adequate and had a closet of a bathroom. Some attempt had been made to modernize it, which I always consider unfortunate in a historic building. The view of the sun setting across town from our second-floor window was worth sleeping in the heat afterwards. I believe our room was the seventh one from the corner, above the cafe sign.

Shaniko's historic Billiard Hall (blue on left, built before 1910) and its neighboring house (unpainted right of center, built ca. 1920, relocated to present site in 1965), are listed as contributing resources in the Shaniko Historic District, which is listed on the US National Register of Historic Places. Image by Ian Poellet (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

I didn't sleep very well that night, but now I'm thankful we booked a room before the Shaniko Hotel closed its doors to guests.The town is still interesting to visit, and in the summer months offers tourist activities meant to help visitors understand the town's sheep-capital past. By 1903, Shaniko had become the world's largest inland shipping center for wool.

Virginia City, Montana, USA. The view from the road agent cemetery on the hill.Image by SchmuckyTheCat at the English language Wikipedia [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0h], from Wikimedia Commons
The temperature was dipping the other direction when we drove into Virginia City, Montana with autumn winds blowing. (This is the other Virginia City that served as the capital of Montana Territory at its formation, not the ghost town by the same name in Nevada.) In fact, the few bed and breakfasts in this partially-inhabited ghost town were closed for the season. My husband and I were on a research trip to one of the settings of Hills of Nevermore the first installment in the Montana Gold series, which releases next year. Being from California's Big Valley, originally, I had not taken into consideration that a mountain town would close for the winter.

Without a bed for the night, we would be forced to either move on or backtrack. After a long drive and with the sun about to set, neither seemed welcome. We traveled up and down the town's streets looking for a place to stay and finally pulled off the road to discuss our options. While we were talking, I commented on the beauty of the house we were parked in front of and the care that had gone into the yard.The pride in ownership contrasted interestingly with the abandoned structures all around.

I will sleep happily in a dilapidated old building and consider its run-down state a feature, but my husband (poor man) likes his amenities. For his sake, I knocked on the door.
The Gingerbread House in Virginia City, Montana was built in 1898 by one of Virginia City's most prominent citizens, C. W. Rank, pharmacist and owner of Rank's Merchantile.The original brick structure looked very different than it does today. Image courtesy of Karen Fisher.

A lovely woman named Karen Fisher, the owner of the Gingerbread House Bed and Breakfast, answered. Finding me huddled like a refugee from the storm on her doorstep, she didn't blink an eye but explained gently that she was closed for the season. I asked if she knew of another place to stay, but chances didn't look too good for us. I couldn't help but admire her home. My interest was genuine, springing from my love of history, not an attempt to flatter her into having us stay (really), but then she wanted to share her home with me. I received the grand tour, with my husband invited in to see it, too.

Karen had moved back in from the cabin where she stays when hosting guests and understandably didn't want to shift again for our one-night stay. However, if we would give her a little time, she'd let us spend the night in one of the cabins. We backtracked to a restaurant in another town and lingered over dinner to give her time to prepare.

The Bickford Cabin, where my husband and I spent the night, was the home of former slave, Sarah Bickman, who arrived in Virginia City in 1870 and owned the water utility and the building where five road agents were hanged. Image courtesy of Karen Fisher.
Sarah Gammon Bickford

Karen explained that the cabin was named in honor of a former slave who rose to local prominence above many hardships. Both Sarah's parents were sold during the Civil War, and she never saw them again. She suffered at the hands of her abusive husband, John Brown, whom she divorced following the deaths of their three children,William, Leonard, and Eva. She went on to marry Stephen Bickford, a farmer and miner, and the two had four children together, Elmer, Harriet, Helena, and Mabel.

Staying in that renovated cabin remains a cherished memory from the trip. Despite frosty temperatures, we spent a snug night and awoke ready to visit boot hill, sample the last of the season's ice cream in a vintage shop and, of course, photograph all the door knobs in town...

About Janalyn Voigt

Janalyn Voigt's unique blend of adventure, romance, suspense, and whimsy creates breathtaking fictional worlds for readers. Look for her upcoming western historical fiction. The Montana Gold series begins in 2017 with Hills of Nevermore. Janalyn also writes epic fantasy. Beginning with DawnSinger, the epic fantasy series, Tales of Faeraven, carries readers into a land only imagined in dreams.

Janalyn is represented by Wordserve Literary Agency. Her memberships include ACFW and NCWA. When she's not writing, she loves to discover worlds of adventure in the great outdoors with her family.
Visit Janalyn Voigt's website.


  1. Great post. Thanks for sharing. I don't think I'd want to stay the night in a ghost town, but you do make it sound interesting. It was nice of Karen to put you up for the night.

    1. One of the ways I experience history is by connecting with places in this way. For me, that's worth any inconvenience. Karen was a gracious host.

  2. Lovely post! As a fellow author, I completely relate to the quirkiness of our profession.😊

  3. Such fun! I don't think I would have the courage to stay in a ghost town, but I love to explore and learn about new areas.

    1. Exploring a ghost town is one of my favorite things to do. There's always something that surprises you.

  4. Janalyn, this was so much fun. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Thanks, Anita. I'm glad you had fun reading the post. I did while writing it.