Please welcome Bonnie Sue Brandvik to my blog today!!! Be sure to read all the way through. She’s having an awesome contest. 🙂
First of all, I’d like to thank Denise for allowing me to participate in her annual Halloween Spooktacular event. For those of you don’t know me, I’m currently writing a series of novels set in the haunted Belleview Biltmore Hotel. Writing the “Spirits of the Belleview Biltmore” novels has allowed me to combine my passion for local history with my belief that there are countless lessons to be learned from those who came before us; and that women are always stronger when they band together to help one another achieve their goals. Also, I hope to convince readers that the spirit realm really does exist.
ENCOUNTERS WITH THE SPIRIT REALM: I’ve always found it interesting that people use eerily similar terms to describe encounters with the spirit realm.
- Initially, a spine-tingling sensation is felt. Goosebumps might rise up.
- There is an instant awareness that something is present which doesn’t fit into normal frames of reference.
- There is a rush of adrenaline as the fight or flight instinct is awakened.
- The surrounding air changes abruptly, often becoming cold or wet or breezy.
- The ghost sighting or paranormal encounter occurs in an instant and often ends just as quickly.
- The memory of the encounter remains crystal clear, even long afterward.
- Logic and rational thought cannot make the lingering, uneasy feelings go away
THE BELLEVIEW BILTMORE HOTEL: Before I tell you more about the spirit realm, let me introduce you to the setting for my novel series – the Belleview Biltmore Hotel, located in Belleair, FL, near Clearwater Beach. It was built in 1895 as a winter paradise for wealthy travelers, by Henry B. Plant and his second wife, Margaret Loughman Plant. Over time, additions to the hotel increased its size to a mammoth 820,000 sq. ft. – arguably the largest occupied wooden structure in the entire United States. Unfortunately, preservationists recently lost the battle to save this magnificent hotel, and so a developer is demolishing the majority of the structure to replace it with condo towers. A tiny portion of the hotel will be incorporated into a small inn on the property, but the vast majority of the majestic hotel, along with its history, will only live on in my “Spirits of the Belleview Biltmore” novels.
INSPIRATION: I was first inspired to write about the hotel several years ago, when a different developer wanted to demolish the historic structure. Up until then, I’d only been there for special events, like weddings, or to enjoy the incredible Sunday brunch. I decided to explore the hotel, to see if I could figure out what all the fuss was about.
As always, I was impressed by the hotel’s architectural details, including its 30-inch wide crown molding and intricately carved corbels. High, carved arches and chandeliers lined the Promenade corridor, which was built wide enough that two ladies wearing hoopskirts could pass one another comfortably. The walls were covered with enormous historic photographs, depicting the evolution of hotel, its amenities and pastime diversions, along with a few of its most famous guests. There were three incredible ballrooms, each elaborately furnished with unique decor. At both ends of the Promenade, amazing, boxed-spiral staircases wound their way out of sight, leading to guestrooms far above. Another wide staircase led to the downstairs pub. In contrast to these elegant staircases, several extremely narrow employee-access doors revealed worn, wooden steps and hidden passages, leading down to the dimly-lit basement work areas and access tunnels.
But this was the first time I ever noticed a sense of history seemed to permeate the walls. Not only did past generations make physical changes to this elegant hotel, but many left echoes of themselves here as well. I could actually feel some of them there with me. I thought, “If only these walls could talk, what stories they would tell!” And that’s when it hit me. I could tell their stories by combining the actual history of the Belleview Biltmore Hotel with fictional spirits from past, notable generations.
I also wanted to demonstrate that a lot of the lessons learned by past generations are still relevant today. To do this, I decided that each book in the “Spirits of the Belleview Biltmore” series would contain two, separate stories that are able to tie the generations together. What I wound up with are stories that encompass multiple genres, including paranormal, historic, romance, woman’s literary fiction – and even some aspects of time-travel.
COMBINING HISTORY AND FANTASY: It’s a challenge to combine historic facts with fantasy and build a world full of characters that spans 120 years, while also describing the hotel in a way that readers will be able to visualize it and its guests and workers, regardless of the time frame. Before I started writing, I did an enormous amount of research. I took several guided tours of the Belleview Biltmore and asked dozens of questions. I also studied local historic archives, and read everything I could find about the Plant family and about the Hotel.
I learned that:
- Before the advent of the passenger elevator, the higher the floor in a hotel, the less desirable it was, so the fifth floor was deemed suitable only for servants and nannies who were traveling with hotel guests.
- Henry Plant built railroad tracks to the hotel to provide transportation in comfort and tunnels throughout the basement to accommodate the needs of workers without inconveniencing the hotel guests.
- There were three electric lights and a fireplace in every room, most rooms had a semi-private bath, electricity was generated by a steam plant next to the hotel, an underground freshwater spring provided water, and a150-room dormitory housed workers.
- The hotel served as the fire department, post office, telegraph office, and telephone switchboard, for the town of Belleair and for nearby Clearwater.
I also took myself on some, shall we say, ‘unsanctioned’ tours of the fifth floor, which was off-limits to the public, imagining what it would have been like to stay there as a worker. Then I spent time exploring every inch of the underground tunnels, which were also off-limits.
- I examined the railroad tracks and pictured how many thousands of loads of luggage, supplies and even illegal liquor, workers had wheeled in and out on those tracks.
- I examined the old stone ovens and thought about how dozens of baked goods were made every single day down there. How wonderful it must have smelled!
- I sat by the giant ice keep in the basement, which was the size of an indoor swimming pool, and pictured men unloading huge blocks of ice from rail cars and then cutting it into manageable sizes that would fit into the ice boxes in the kitchens upstairs.
- I stared at the old wooden stairs inside the hidden servant’s staircases and wondered how many feet had to climb them, before they began to actually wear grooves in the steps. How many sheets had been washed in the massive laundry and carried up and down these very stairs?
- In the St Andrews Pub downstairs, I wished I could have been a fly on the wall, listening to the men discuss the issues of the day as they played cards, drank Caribbean rum, and smoked fine Cuban Cigars.
- I climbed up into the attic and wondered how long it had been since someone had been up there, oiling the wheels of the freight lift, moving things in and out of storage, stuffing newspaper in between the heart pine beams to serve as insulation.
I took thousands of photos and became familiar with every inch of the place. Many, many times, I got caught and kicked-out of the hotel’s ‘off-limits to the public’ areas, but I also became recognized as an expert on the history of the hotel.
FINALLY, I WAS READY TO BUILD MY SPIRIT REALM. Other than Henry, Margaret, and Morton Plant, all of the characters in my books are a product of my imagination. But before I could create my characters, I had to first build a fantasy world for them to inhabit. Personally, I find world-building fun and empowering. I mean, I get to make all the rules in the whole world! How cool is that?
But it can also be tricky. I can’t write that spirits do something one way in one book and then write that they do it completely differently in another book. I had to create a framework of believable and consistent rules that the spirit characters must follow in all four books. Otherwise readers would get ticked-off at me and I couldn’t blame them! Here are a few rules in the world I created for my “Spirits of the Belleview Biltmore” series:
- The spirit realm exists in between the land of the living and the lighted path, which leads to the next step on the eternal journey of the soul.
- Sometimes when people die, they don’t travel the lighted path right away, but instead choose to remain behind, where they sometimes interact with the living and affect outcomes.
- In my world, ghosts and spirits are not the same thing. A spirit’s memories and personality are intact, while a ghost is just a fragment of a spirit that broke away and stayed behind when the rest of the spirit traveled into the light.
- Spirits can travel anywhere they went while they were alive, as well as wherever their bodies are buried or ashes were scattered. They can also choose to remain with a personal belonging… but they can go nowhere else.
- When a spirit forms a connection with a hotel guest, the spirit can enter the guest’s dreams to share memories and wisdom from past generations.
- No one – human or spirit – knows what lies at the end of the lighted path because no one has ever returned.
There are many other rules, of course, a few of which are revealed in each subsequent novel. Also, because each book in the series introduces a new present-day hotel guest (who is dealing a unique set of personal issues) it stands to reason that each guest’s problems resonate with different spirits. This is how I’m able to introduce spirit characters from different decades in each novel.
THE REAL GHOSTS: When I first decided to write the “Spirits of the Belleview Biltmore” novels, I didn’t do so because I thought the hotel was haunted. I just loved the place and wanted to tell some stories that would encompass its fascinating history while pointing out that we can still benefit from lessons learned by generations that have passed before.
My theory about historic, haunted hotels is that guests and workers leave echoes of themselves behind that become a part of the hotel. When these echoes can be heard (or seen, or felt, or photographed) by people who visit the hotel several decades, or even centuries, later, the hotel is said to be haunted. And whenever someone experiences this phenomenon, it’s called a paranormal encounter or a ghost sighting.
But once my website was up and running, I started hearing from people from around the world, who wanted to know if I was going to write about the ghost they had seen when they visited the Belleview Biltmore Hotel. After a while, I realized a few of these ghost sighting claims were quite similar to other reports I had received. When I started comparing them, I was amazed to discover that several people had unknowingly reported almost identical paranormal encounters. In other words, these strangers had experienced the same echoes of the past – or “paranormal encounters.” To date, my collection contains stories about twenty ghosts that have been reported to me multiple times by individuals who stayed at the Belleview Biltmore over the years. I decided to incorporate some of these stories into each of my novels, starting with Book 2.
THE SPIRITS OF THE BELLEVIEW BILTMORE SERIES: Each book begins when a troubled woman checks into the Belleview Biltmore and her problems resonate with spirits at the Hotel, forming a connection that links the two generations together. The half of the story which takes place in the present is told from the perspective of the troubled woman, while the historic part of the story is told via glimpses into the spirit’s memories.
The first two novels in this four-book series are currently available in print, e-book and audio download formats and can be purchased from most online retailers. Just search your favorite site for: BonSue Brandvik.
- Book 1: “Pearls, Spirits of the Belleview Biltmore,” features spirits from the Victorian Era, when the Belleview Hotel opened for its first winter season in 1897.
- Book 2: “Ripples, Spirits of the Belleview Biltmore,” introduces spirits from the Prohibition Era, when bootlegging was big business in Florida and the Belleview Biltmore was in the thick of it.
- Book 3: “Redemption” – available in 2017, is about spirits from WWII, when more than 3,000 Army Air Corps soldiers used the hotel’s two golf courses for marching practice and watched the coastal waters not for pleasure, but for signs of lurking enemy submarines.
- Book 4: “Nails,” will introduce some of the spirits who built the original Belleview Hotel and, in the present-day story, those overseeing its demolition.
ONE SPECIAL GHOST STORY: One of the twenty ghost stories that has been reported to me several times, takes place in the section of the hotel that originally served as the hotel lobby, and was later transformed into a cocktail lounge. Guests report that when they entered the Lobby Lounge through the doors that used to be the hotel’s main entrance, they felt a sudden chill and sensed that someone was standing on the right side of the entry, as if waiting to speak with them. They said they all stopped talking and turned in unison, expecting someone to be standing there, but found no one. Yet they all insist that someone had been there, attempting to get their attention.
When Henry and Margaret Plant first opened the hotel, Margaret would often stand to the right of the doors to greet people as they disembarked from the train and entered the grand hotel. Because Margaret is the only spirit that appears in all four of my novels, I like to think she still enjoys greeting people there. But what’s really crazy is that this tiny section – the old lobby – is also the only part of the hotel that the developer plans to save and incorporate into a small inn on the property. How about that? The exact part of the hotel that Margaret Plant is said to haunt will be saved. Although I don’t know what will become of the other ghosts, I’m quite happy Margaret can stay at the Belleview Biltmore for as long as she wants to!
THE TWENTY REAL GHOSTS OF THE BELLEVIEW BILTMORE:
Here’s a list of spirits/ghost encounters people have reported to me. 1) Henry Plant opens a window on the 4th fl to look out at the water. 2)Margaret Plant wanders the old lobby, welcoming people 3) Morton Plant wanders around in the St Andrews Pub 4) Maisie Plant wanders everywhere, searching for her pearls 5) A young boy who drown haunts primarily the 1st fl 6) A soldier who fell down the elevator shaft haunts the nearby corridors on all floors 7) A Nanny who likes her privacy shoos people from the 5th fl 8) Children run laughing in the 1st fl hallway 9) A young girl watches people on the 4th fl 10) A Victorian couple dances in the Starlight Room 11) A kitchen supervisor still looks over the shoulder of kitchen workers & often lets them feel her disapproval 12) A prankster opens drawers and removes doorknobs on the 4th fl 13) A young starlet hangs around back stage in the Starlight Room 14) A suicidal bride haunts the 4th fl 15) An angry man haunts the basement 16) A large wolf/dog/Indian spirit haunts the basement 17) An evil man haunts the 5th fl 18) Children play hide & seek in the basement 19) woman in white stares out 4th fl window 20) white banshee scares sleeping couples and shrieks, flying out window or through wall.
CONTEST/RAFFLE: Two winners will each receive an autographed copy of the first book in the “Spirits of the Belleview Biltmore” series. To enter:
- Leave a comment below on this guest blog post
- “Like” my Facebook page.
- Valid entries must be submitted by the last day of the Halloween Spooktacular (October 31, 2016)