From ‘The Attack of the Three-Fingered Doll’ to ‘The Haunted Mansions of Albion’

18 Oct

Ask a writer how they started such a resoundingly lonely and vulnerable journey. Chances are they’ll tell you of their first story and the moment they succumbed to the addiction of a rapt audience enthralled with a vision formed from imagination and well-chosen words. My recent trip to Albion, Idaho (population 200-ish) reminded me of the first time I was sucked into the thrill of entertaining other people with a tall tale.

the city of Albion, all photos courtesy of Meredith Conner

Two friends joined me on this weekend retreat. We sought a change of scenery, a ‘few’ bottles of wine, and a quiet place to putter with our respective works-in-progress. I anticipated making a heck of a lot more progress with said WIP, but a looming divorce and worry over its fallout for loved ones dried up every molecule of creativity in my body.

We’d selected Albion as the site of our reunion; it met the criteria of a halfway point between the extremes of southern Idaho’s west and east. A healthy six hours of interstate, country roads, and municipal side streets separate us physically though we swap drafts and emails daily and, at times, hourly. Albion also had the happy and intriguing circumstance of being a community with a significant western history including gunslingers, wars between cattle barons and sheepherders, and the haunted campus of an abandoned college.

This architectural graveyard reminded me of the first story I told, at the experienced age of seven, to my sister and her friends. On a chilly Saturday in late October, decades ago, we clustered, on bikes and tricycles, in front of an uninhabited, ramshackle house across an empty lot and a back alley from our tiny elementary school.

My first attempt at fiction was a morality tale about a three-fingered doll that patrolled an empty house and attacked unsuspecting children. On that afternoon, already anticipating Halloween, I discovered the heady power of holding the undivided attention of five-, six-, and seven-year-olds. The burden of such a vivid imagination became equally clear the next day when angry parents called to complain about the nightmares sparked by my thrilling account of a near death experience at the hands of a battered dime store doll with three fingers and ten-inch claws.

Now, years later, I curled up on the 1970s circa couch of a semi-renovated bed and breakfast (and yes, we were sadly misled on the luxury of our ‘suite’ – another lesson learned on the limitations of internet advertising). We tapped on our laptops awaiting a tour of the haunted buildings comprising an abandoned teachers’ college located less than one hundred feet away.

In 1893, the Idaho legislature established two ‘Normal Schools’, sited in north Idaho and in central south Idaho, to prepare teachers for the growing state. Only one, Lewis-Clark State College in Lewiston, Idaho, remains in operation, through an expanded mission and the passionate support of the community. Albion hosted the other until 1951.

The grounds stood empty for years. Oh, attempts were made to use the space – over time, a short-lived Christian college, then a site for family reunions, and even the occasional developer inquired, but the beautiful, ivy-covered brick and sand stone buildings deteriorated despite the best efforts of committed local historians and preservationists.

A few stories about late night laughter drifting from abandoned grounds, slamming doors in empty, breezeless corridors, and the click click steps of invisible co-eds hurrying along wooden floors, cued a savvy town.

Why not use the eerie scene and local legends to create a few jobs? And so, ‘the Haunted Mansions of Albion’ tour has become an October tradition in southern Idaho.

How could we resist? And, how could I not hope to spark an idea or two? Maybe that’s what I need . . . to go back to my horror story roots . . . whatever new story I create might not be as riveting as a bloodthirsty zombie doll chasing screaming kids through an abandoned house, but at least I’ll start writing again.

How about you? What was your first story?  And what advice might you have for a writer who needs to rediscover her prose?


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18 responses to “From ‘The Attack of the Three-Fingered Doll’ to ‘The Haunted Mansions of Albion’

  1. johannaharness

    October 18, 2011 at 5:38 AM

    That sounds like great fun, Liz. I had no idea they were doing this in Albion. Here’s the link for anyone who wants to check it out:

  2. Liz Fredericks

    October 18, 2011 at 6:03 AM

    I’m smacking my head at the oversight in not including the link. Thanks, Johanna!! We laughed a lot and my retreat buddies produced a great many pages. Fair warning – we ran into some ‘stuff’ we couldn’t explain away, so whether or not one believes in ghosts . . . . just sayin’.

  3. Janis McCurry

    October 18, 2011 at 7:08 AM

    Sometimes getting away fuels unexpected rewards. You learned some history, some Internet advertising lessons, and reminisced about your first story.

    • Liz Fredericks

      October 18, 2011 at 9:21 AM

      True, Janis, very true. Lessons learned are always a bonus.

  4. Peggy Staggs

    October 18, 2011 at 7:17 AM

    I love a good scare. And when you’re with good friends who are sensitive (because I’m not) it’s even more fun. Here’s to Albion, girly bags, haunted mansions and other spirits.

  5. Liz Fredericks

    October 18, 2011 at 9:22 AM

    I’m raising my cup of tea in toast – to good scares, good friends and girly bags!

  6. Meredith Conner

    October 18, 2011 at 9:29 AM

    Well aside from scaring myself spit-less and mowing down girlfriends in my race to exit a haunted mansion, I’ve found that whenever I lose my pace – my writer’s mojo – I simply have to sit back down and write. Sometimes I may have to take a few days before it starts to come back, but I make myself do it because this is what I love. Plus I have a lovely “survival kit” for writing that I came back with from Nationals in New York – it contains kleenex, a band aid, pencil and chocolate among other things and says “Never, Never Give Up” at the bottom. It’s a good reminder that we all go through bad spots at one time or another.

  7. Liz Fredericks

    October 18, 2011 at 10:49 AM

    ‘Never give up’ works for me. Of course, I think the chocolate is genius.

  8. ramblingsfromtheleft

    October 18, 2011 at 11:01 AM

    My first stories were all verbal, from the tall tales I told my mother to the funny stories I told to entertain my teenage friends and later my work-mates. My best was a soap opera created to pass the time as a “strap-hanger” on the NYC subway. Later they found their way to college journals, private files and at long last they became the work I am doing now.

    From the haunting sounds of this post, you need no prompting to rediscover your prose, Liz. Your creative passion lives on in your memory. I am certain you will find a “Gem” … excuse the pun and write on 🙂

  9. Liz Fredericks

    October 18, 2011 at 1:10 PM

    I ADORE the puns! I admit to being very curious about the soap opera you developed on the subway. I spent a year in Boston making up stories about all of the passengers on the route I took morning and night. Luckily, I didn’t share them aloud – y’know, being partial to my existence and all. On the other hand, I did share a few ‘Idaho’ stories and entertained many friends from Brooklyn with bale tipping and cow riding ‘tales’. Ok, I’ll stop now. 😉

  10. Mary Vine

    October 18, 2011 at 4:11 PM

    Love the post! Love haunted buildings. Funny thing is that I visited the college when I was in high school when it was Magic Valley Christian (as a potential college), but then it closed. I’ve been wanting to drive by again and now that I know it’s haunted I’ll have to check it out.
    You are writing, Liz. You’re getting out blogs for gem state. I went through a divorce, too, and I don’t think I wrote much back then either-it’s hard. Yet, I remember years ago that an author I admired said a book she wrote – that people liked the best – was one she wrote during a hard time in her life. You could think smaller like 100 words a day or I’ve heard about writing pieces of a story when you can and put them together after a time. Just thoughts. I think the thing is that writers feel their best if they can get something written, you know? Hang in there.

  11. Liz Fredericks

    October 18, 2011 at 4:25 PM

    You’re absolutely right, Mary. The worst feeling is constantly thinking about why you haven’t written anything on a given day. I’ll keep plugging away and really appreciate the support. You’d be stunned at the difference on the MVC campus from when you visited. It’s really sad how much the buildings have deteriorated. The gang and I gave some thought to how cool a spa on the site would be, but then the ghosts kind of put the damper on things – no pun intended.

  12. Lynn Mapp

    October 18, 2011 at 7:25 PM

    Gobblins and ghost, oh, my. I’m sure you had a weekend that will stay in you memory for years to come. An added benifit, think of how you can use your experience in your writing.

  13. Patsy

    October 19, 2011 at 6:57 AM

    Great post! Might have to visit Albion just to see!

    • Liz Fredericks

      October 19, 2011 at 7:23 AM

      Albion is definitely a must-see-it kind of place, if only once. Thanks, Patsy!

  14. Clarissa Southwick

    October 19, 2011 at 10:02 AM

    This sounds like a fabulous retreat. I wish I’d been able to go. I can’t remeImber my first stories, but my first memories of writing involved hours of picking out the characters’ names 🙂 Maybe that’s why I always go with the simplest, most obvious names now.

  15. Kortni Wells

    October 18, 2016 at 10:22 AM

    I am also a fellow writer, actually doing research for a paper due soon, and I decided to research the Haunted Mansions of Albion. I haven’t had a whole ton of luck, but I am a fellow writer as well. I love writing, even though sometimes it is one of the most challenging things I have ever had to do in my life. It gives me a reason to keep going, to try harder, and to keep improving. I loved this piece you wrote, and my advice is just like some of the other people’s advice. Just keep writing. Sit down, brainstorm topics, or find out what’s trending. I love rereading my journals. sounds weird, but when I sit down and read something I’ve written, either for print newspaper, my own blog of thoughts I have had, or my journal entries that weren’t written fantastically well, something always comes out of it, and it ends up giving me more ideas than I thought were possible. Of course I’m a pretty young writer, but that is my idea of how to regain mojo 🙂


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