02 October 2020

Widow's Walk


I learned a new-to-me term recently ~ Widow's walk.

It's actually been around for centuries, but not hailing from a coastal area, I'd never noticed it before. Truth be told, I've heard of the word cupola, which is often used interchangeably with widow's walk. Both technically refer to lookout platforms situated above a building's roof. 

The term widow's walk originated in the eighteenth century referring to the exterior architectural feature of a rooftop patio. Though the original function of the elevated platform was practical--to facilitate a homeowner's ability to fight rooftop fires, which were common given the proximity to the chimneys.  

However, more romantic, nautical connotations suggest that the name widow's walk may have evolved through lore. 

The term, widow's walk, has two subtext elements. First, it implies that the structure has a view of the sea, or at least a large body of water. Secondly, it implies the risk of death, or at least the dreaded possibility of it. It conjures images of women wearing hoop skirts and hugging woolen shawls, bracing themselves against the salty gusts from a dark and stormy ocean, keeping watch for their husbands from their ventures on the sea.

Perhaps you've run across a widow's walk referenced in literature. 

In his book Chesapeake, James A. Michener described a widow's walk as "derived from romantic tales of those loyal women who continued to keep watch for a ship that had long gone to the bottom of the coral reef."  

In the crime fiction genre, the earliest version of the title Widow's Walk I could find was the 1846 classic mystery by French author, Charles Rabou. In 2002, it also graced the title of the 29th novel in Robert B. Parker's Spenser series. 

Even more recently, it was the title of the seaside ghost story in the 2019 feature film of that name.

Last month while visiting a quiet beach community in Virginia, I stumbled across a widow's walk (not literally).  A recently renovated beach house boasted one of these lookout towers.  In my defense, who wouldn't be drawn to it?

Since the owner happened to be onsite, he offered to give me a tour. Hoping not to appear too stalkerish, I hopped at the chance to ascend his spiral staircase to the widow's walk several stories above ground and bask in the sweeping ocean views.

What the owner didn't realize was that even before I took my first step inside his beach house as my private tour began, my crime-fiction wheels got a-churning. This signature piece of architecture begged to be the scene of a (fictional) murder. So--ever the slave to my muse--I revised my current work-in-progress by changing the location. 

This widow's walk is now showcased as the climactic setting of my latest short story of suspense, "Vendetta By the Sea," slated to be published in the upcoming anthology, VIRGINIA IS FOR MYSERIES: VOLUME 3 sometime in 2021.

Want to know more about the history of this architectural feature? You can read more in the blog post, "The Myth and Reality of Widow's Walks" <here>

Has a real setting ever inspired one of your crime fiction stories?

PS ~ Let's be social:


  1. What a great notion for a story.

    I lived in Massachusetts, so I was familiar with widows' walks. More recently, a friend lives 2 blocks from the beach on Amelia Island but is blocked from a view of the ocean by one house. She was debating architectural changes and I suggested a widow's walk, but one with seating.

    While a widow's walk refers to the exterior walkway detail, a cupola is independent and exists mainly for air and light. I find all that architecture intriguing.

    I look forward to the story! Nicely done.

  2. I loved the widow's walks on the old Victorian houses along the northeast coast. Beautiful places.

  3. We have widow walks in Maine, especially the whaling towns. Sadly, the name was often meant literally.

  4. This widow's walk is now showcased as the climactic setting of my latest short story of suspense, "Vendetta By the Sea," slated to be published in the upcoming anthology, VIRGINIA IS FOR MYSERIES: VOLUME 3 sometime in 2021.
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  5. I've lived in landlocked Kansas all my life, but I read about widow's walks in books and stories when I was a kid! We've been watching the old tv series "Dark Shadows," where one of the locales (on coastal Maine) is a cliff called "Widows Hill." it's haunted by the ghosts of the widows who waited in vain...

  6. Ah, yes. The Widow's Walk. I learned of these while young and visiting New England. As a child, I thought these were romantic and sad. In my cemetery explorations, I've come upon another romantic and sad find--"lost at sea" inscribed on gravestones.

    I look forward to reading the stories in the upcoming Virginia is for Mysteries, Volume III!


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