Story Setting Inspiration: Unfinished Nursery

I had a tough time deciding whether or not to write this post. And in 12 years of blogging, this is the only post that’s ever brought me to tears and forced me to stop working on it multiple times.

It’s a simple photo inspiration post, so no big deal, right? Not quite. Today the photo is of an unfinished room in my house — a nursery started when I first became pregnant a few years back, and left unfinished after I lost that pregnancy.

If you’ve ever suffered a loss like this, you might want to skip the rest of this post. 

The reason I’m choosing to share this now is that it inspired a setting in my current work-in-progress that I shared with you a couple of days ago. I’ve always tried to be a fairly open blogger, giving readers a glimpse into my life rather than just spewing opinions and thoughts at them with no context. While this is a fairly new blog as far as mine go, I’d like to honor that same policy here.

Before I get into how the room plays a role in my current WIP, let’s start with the photo:

Unfinished Nursery - Horror Story Setting Inspiration

About The Nursery

A nursery is so much more than just another room in your home. Every decision is made with love. And there’s an emotional attachment to the room (or at least there was in my case). After all, this is where you imagine spending time with your little one, watching them grow up.

To put this in perspective, let me tell you a little bit about this nursery:

A cousin came to help paint the room a lovely pale mint green (I’m not into traditional pink and blue, and while you can’t make it out well in the photo, this shade is the most peaceful, calming color I’ve ever seen). She also helped build most of the furniture. So the nursery was a family affair from the start.

Most of the furniture is white — the bench beneath the window, the armoire, cradle, night stand, and the long low dresser. The dresser is the one that kills me the most when I walk in that room. I planned to hang several long shelves above it to start a massive library for my future little bookworm (instead I’ve become the auntie who pushes books on the other little ones in the family). I chose white to keep the room bright and airy, especially when the afternoon sun trickles in through the two huge windows.

The only exception was the crib. I wanted it to stand out. So I chose a metal frame crib that was hand-built by a small family business here in the U.S. It was the only piece of furniture I was really fussy about besides color. I’m rather sentimental when it comes to certain family things, and I wanted the crib to be something that would hold up for years and that could be passed on to my child someday.

Tucked in the closet is a bag full of supplies I needed to build a custom butterfly mobile I designed to hang above the crib. There you’ll also find several blankets. Textures are important for babies early on, so I’d put together a nice assortment of blankets and pillows with a variety of textures (you can see the pillows in the photo).

I even picked out and bought the small crystal chandelier I planned to hang to add a bit of light to the room and reflect the natural light during the day, almost like another mobile on its own (I never did have our handyman come to wire the ceiling before losing the pregnancy, so that’s sitting in the closet).

The room used to have a rocking recliner as well — a chair I picked for the ability to rock the baby to sleep, its high arms for feedings, and the ability to sleep comfortably if I ever wanted to stay in the room while the baby napped. That chair is now my reading chair in my office; I think a part of me just needed something from that nursery to actually be used. My favorite cat, who passed away last fall after a 13-month battle with cancer, used to sleep on it all day to be near me while I worked. So for that extra time with her alone, it was totally worth moving it.

Why am I telling you all this?

When I’m looking at (or taking) photos for story setting inspiration, it’s not just about appearance. Setting is like another character. It has to inject its own personality or emotion into things (or at least that’s my philosophy). I would be hard-pressed to come up with a better example than this — a room with so much emotion invested in it through every little decision made that it can almost feel alive.

Now let’s move on to the specifics of how the nursery (and my past situation) will play into the story.

The Nursery as Story Inspiration

When I previously told you about the story I’m working on about two killer sisters, I glossed over the inciting incident that gives the younger sister motivation to kill (which also drives the older sister in her need to protect the younger one). I mentioned it had to do with a pregnancy loss and that the idea stemmed loosely from my own experience.

When I had to come up with some reason why this young woman would not only kill, but psychologically break down throughout the story, it was easy. She’d lose a baby, and she’d lose that pregnancy at the hand of someone else.

In the character’s situation, that’s going to happen swiftly, senselessly, and violently late in her pregnancy. My situation, thankfully, was very different. Not that “lucky” feels like an appropriate word here, but compared to women I know who have suffered losses much later in pregnancy and had more time to bond with their babies and had to physically deliver them… I consider myself very “lucky.” Even though things could have been much worse, I still lost a pregnancy due to the actions of a third party which were out of my control. Actually, the underlying issues they caused (combined with a terrible doctor who didn’t listen or run the right tests early enough) led to several losses over a couple of years.

I’ve always believed that everyone is capable of committing horrific acts. We all have a line. When I lost my first pregnancy thanks to someone else’s actions, I learned where my line was. While I can talk about it calmly now that years have passed, had that person come face-to-face with me at my darkest moment after that loss, I don’t know if I could have stopped myself from crossing that line.

I can’t begin to explain to you what it feels like — to feel like a completely different person, hellbent on making someone pay. There were days all I could think about was hurting them. Those fantasies are probably, as strange as it sounds, what kept me going. And there were days I’d spend hours rocking in my chair in that nursery, holding the teddy bear you see in the photo above, humming lullabies. I was a shell.

The thing is, I wrote a scene very similar to that in the story I’m working on. I didn’t intend to pull something quite so directly from my own experience, other than the underlying rage and desire for payback. I may pull that scene out. I may opt to leave it because of the raw emotion involved. Given that it’s the main scene taking place in that room, I might not have a choice.

I feel like I should pause here to note that it’s not as if I was stuck in some severe depression for an extended period. I reacted strongly, which I think is understandable given the nature of what happened — the details of which are far too complicated to get into here. And then I did what I always do. I found a way to turn pain into something productive. I dealt with the underlying issue involved. And, unlike my characters, I didn’t need to commit murder to do it.

The nursery might not play a huge roll in the story, but the role it does play is important. The younger sister is a young military wife whose husband recently died overseas (why her older sister came to take care of her). And the two of them worked on finishing that nursery before he was deployed, knowing he wouldn’t return before the baby was born. So that nursery is the only thing she has connecting her to not only her baby but also her husband, both of whom are gone.

The idea was to take that existing natural emotional connection I talked about earlier and kick it up a few levels. On one hand, it’s the saddest place I could imagine that character being. And on the other hand, it’s a sort of safe space for her. It’s a place that can make her both question and justify what she becomes.

That’s my plan anyway. But it’s still early in the process. The interesting thing (to me) is the fact that I didn’t realize when I was drafting this story that I was pulling so heavily from my own nursery and experience with it. I just went up to the room a little over a week ago and snapped a few photos.

I wasn’t sure why at the time, but I’d just finished writing that scene a couple of days earlier, so I assume it was just a subconscious thing. I hadn’t been in the room in months — not since hanging the Christmas lights in the windows in November (and you’ll notice in the photo they’re still there; I haven’t gone back in there long enough to take them down).

Moving on for Sanity’s (and the Story’s) Sake

I mentioned in my previous post that the main thing I love about this story is how uncomfortable it makes me to write it. This is a great example. It made me think about my own loss and it made it feel fresh in my mind. It won’t stay that way. While I don’t know if you can ever fully “get over” something like that, I’ve long since healed and moved on.

For example, I haven’t been trying to get pregnant since last fall when all the underlying issues finally came to an end and I started feeling like myself again. And I recently put a more permanent stop to things. I know that doesn’t make sense — stop trying to start a family as soon as my body’s ready to finally do it. But what can I say? Shit’s complicated.

I hope I eventually have children (or at least one — for years I’ve literally dreamt about having a daughter; and in stereotypical gal fashion, I even have a name picked out). But for now, I finally have the energy to focus more on my writing and other work again, and I’m trying to figure out exactly what I want to do and where I want to be in the next couple of years.

Despite that change of plans on the family front, I can honestly say I’m happier right now than I’ve been in quite some time. That’s been reflected in the sheer volume of writing I’ve turned around in recent months. I only realized exactly how much better things have gotten when I attended my niece’s first birthday party last month.

It was the first time in years I was surrounded by babies and toddlers where I could feel happy to spend time with them, without the accompanying crushing feeling in my gut. It was absolute torture for years every time a friend or family member announced another pregnancy or I visited another new baby. And that seemed to happen constantly.

To end this sad bit of backstory on a more amusing note, I was even put to the ultimate test almost the moment I walked into the house for that party. My adorable three-year-old nephew came to say “hello.” When I leaned down to hug him, he put his hand on my belly and started rubbing it in a slow circular motion. Then he looked up at me and asked me point-blank, “Is there a baby in your belly?”

I must have shot him a look that could kill, but he was oblivious. I explained to him that, no, there was no baby in there. It seems he didn’t believe me. Later during the party he randomly walked up to me again, trying to touch my belly. It was a little creepy at that point even if cute, so I just kind of laughed it off and walked away. By the time I was ready to leave and he came over to say “goodbye,” it was downright hilarious. He again started rubbing my belly as if I was pregnant.

I joked about it to my sister-in-law, and found out that, no, this wasn’t his adorable way of reminding me to schedule my next workout. Rather, this was his new obsession — women’s bellies. Apparently now that his little sister is a year old, he has baby fever. He wants another one around the house to play with and mommy and daddy aren’t biting.

He only recently discovered that babies “come from women’s bellies,” so he’s on a bit of a mission to scout out the next fertile womb that’s going to provide him with a new playmate. That day it seems he decided it was my turn to pop out a new baby cousin for him.

A few months prior, I don’t think I could have been such a good sport about it. But like I said, that day was enlightening. I got to see how far I’ve come emotionally and just enjoy the quirky innocence of the little tyke (and be reminded why I want kids in the first place). If I wasn’t in a better place, I wouldn’t have been able to do that, and I wouldn’t be able to take on a story like this.

That brings me to my biggest worry in writing this story though. I worry that, because of my history, I might empathize too much with these sisters. They’re more anti-hero than villain right now, and that wasn’t my initial intention. I want there to come a time in the story when that line genuinely blurs. It’ll be a challenge. But I don’t shy away from those.

I hope you didn’t mind the deviation too much today. But rather than always share photos and simply explain how they might inspire a horror story, I wanted to show how one actually is, and how even a minor setting can play an important role in how characters and stories develop. Do you have other examples from your own work? I’d love to hear about them in the comments.

4 thoughts on “Story Setting Inspiration: Unfinished Nursery”

  1. Thanks for sharing this, AJ. While I haven’t experienced this directly, someone very close to me did and I saw the pain it caused. Drawing on painful experiences can make for powerful stories. I’ve used one such from my own life in a short story about a driving lesson where the driving instructor was under the influence – a very scary experience for the unwilling pupil (me).

    • Thanks for stopping by Sharon. And you’re welcome to refer to me as Jenn here since that’s how you know me. I don’t keep my real name a secret here. 😉

      I’m so sorry that someone you know had to go through something similar. I wouldn’t wish the experience on my worst enemy. I hope time helps her heal.

      I’m also sorry to hear about your crazy driving lesson experience. I can’t even imagine how terrifying something like that must have been! I’m glad it worked out, that no one got hurt, and that you found inspiration in the experience. 🙂

      • You know, I started to write Jenn and then deleted it, so it’s good to know for the future. 🙂

        It took a while for my friend to “recover” though it’s more a case of learning to live with it.

        • That’s very true. It just gets a little easier every day until life finally gets back to feeling “normal” (if there is such a thing). I’m sure it helps to have considerate friends like you around. You’d be amazed at the shit people say to a woman after she goes through something like that. (I can’t even tell you how many times I wanted to knock someone out for pushing me to hurry up and just try again because it was “no big deal” and “happens all the time.”) The supportive folks are always needed and appreciated, so I know she’s lucky to have you.

          And it’s fine one way or the other with the name. It’s just weird seeing people I know call me different things. But these days I write under so many pen names I pretty much answer to anything. Even “hey you” would suffice. 🙂


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