Today, I’m excited to welcome A B Michaels to the blog with a fascinating post about the series, The Golden City.
Bringing America’s Gilded Age to Life One Detail at a Time
My series, “The Golden City,” is set during America’s Gilded Age, which ran from the end of the Civil War to approximately the start of World War I. To fit the story I had in mind for The Art of Love (Book One), my main characters had to be living in San Francisco around the turn of the twentieth century. The city was booming by then, flush with the wealth of not one but two major gold rushes (California and the Klondike).
I picked San Francisco because I knew the city well from having grown up near it, as well as attending graduate school there. In addition, as a teenager, my grandfather had worked in Canada’s Yukon Territory (where the Klondike River gave up its riches) and I’d recorded his recollections a few years before he died. What better place to start my research than with an eyewitness account!
Happily, that time and place has turned out to be a treasure-trove of fascinating history. The late 1800’s to early 1900’s was filled with breakthroughs in science, industry, medicine and social customs. America was on its way to becoming the global leader that it is today, and women were beginning to realize they had power of their own.
Primary source material abounds in print and online (e.g., Jack London’s reporting on the San Francisco earthquake of 1906) and there is ample scholarship about such (often arcane) subjects as the prostitutes of the Barbary Coast (the city’s Red Light district); the fight against the bubonic plague (which flared up in the city around 1900); and the notorious corruption scandal that saw the indictment of the mayor and the resignation of virtually all members of the city’s board of supervisors. As a result, I have, and continue to accumulate quite a library that covers my historical niche.
For The Art of Love, I began with my grandfather’s recollections and expanded further to learn the details of placer gold mining.
I knew my female lead was going to be an artist, so I immersed myself in the art trends of the time (luckily, San Francisco had a thriving art scene then). And, because a story must have conflict, I looked into the roadblocks, such as restrictive divorce laws, that men and especially women faced during that time. Eventually I focused on a fictional young woman who is caught in a social bind and must pay a terrible price in order to help her sister and gain her freedom to become the artist she was born to be.
Now that I am more familiar with the time period in which I write, I’ll skim my resources on hand to find a kernel for my next story. Or, I’ll peruse the digital newspaper archives from way back then. The San Francisco Call, for example, was one of the main periodicals of that era (it evolved into the San Francisco Examiner).
About a year and a half ago, in a brief article from 1903, I found just the type of story I was looking for because it involved both Spiritualism and “insane” asylums, two movements I knew were important during the Gilded Age. That short newspaper article formed the basis of my latest book, The Madness of Mrs. Whittaker.
What resources can I not live without? Undoubtedly, the Internet! I use it to corroborate facts I’ve learned elsewhere, but even more so, I use it as a quick source to fill in all the details that I can’t otherwise find: prices of hotel rooms, for example, or the types of restaurant food popular back then. How about hair or clothing styles for both men and women (Did every man wear those horrid mutton chop whiskers?!).
Other important aspects: communication and transportation. How common were telephones back then? (Answer: not very.) What did train tickets cost and what train routes would my characters have taken?
One of the most important details, in my opinion, is the use of slang and when it made its way into the American lexicon. I can’t have my characters exclaiming “Awesome!” back in 1900!
One fan recently asked when the term “car” was first used as slang for “automobile.” My novel (in this case, The Depth of Beauty) took place in 1903, a time when cars weren’t all that common except among the upper classes, so the use of the word sounded strange to him. I knew the etymology of the word “car” dated back centuries (It comes from the Latin word carrus which means “wheeled vehicle.”). I had to dig a little to find that the phrase “motor car” dates from 1895 (in Britain) so I feel confident that the word was shortened to “car” by 1903, at least in America. Had I found that the word entered our vernacular later than 1903, I would have quickly made the correction.
Readers care about such minutiae, and so do I. Perhaps it seems trivial but making sure I get such facts right is my pledge to readers. I want them to know that the period details they read about in my stories are as accurate as I can make them. Sure, the stories and the characters are fiction (with a few historical figures thrown in to make things interesting), but by and large, readers are learning what life was like “back in the day,” whether it was living through a massive earthquake, suffering from bubonic plague, or getting stuck in a mental asylum with no easy way out.
One more note about historical research as it pertains to fiction: I try to follow the old adage “less is more.” Recently a friend who loves historical fiction said to me, “I’d love doing the research—not the writing, just the research!” And I knew what she meant. It’s completely engrossing to learn about a different place and time—what challenges men and women faced, what disadvantages they experienced, what everyday life was like. And it’s so tempting to share much of what I’ve learned. But I try very hard to make the historical detail serve the story. I want readers to care about what’s happening within my fictional world; I can’t afford to bog them down with too much description or explanation (what writers sometimes call an “info dump.”) My goal is to have readers effortlessly merge into the Gilded Age as they follow characters they care about, picking up interesting details here and there, and knowing that when it comes to historical verisimilitude, I won’t lead them astray.
Thank you so much for sharing such a fascinating post. Good luck with all the books in the series.
Here’s the blurb
Your Journey to The Golden City begins here…
A tale of mystery, social morality and second chances during America’s Gilded Age, The Art of Love will take you on an unforgettable journey from the last frontier of the Yukon Territory to the new Sodom and Gomorrah of its time – the boomtown of San Francisco.
After digging a fortune from the frozen fields of the Klondike, August Wolff heads south to the “Golden City,” hoping to put the unsolved disappearance of his wife and daughter behind him. The turn of the twentieth century brings him even more success, but the distractions of a hedonistic mecca can’t fill the gaping hole in his life.
Amelia Starling is a wildly talented artist caught in the straightjacket of Old New York society. Making a heart-breaking decision, she moves to San Francisco to further her career, all the while living with the pain of a sacrifice no woman should ever have to make.
Brought together by the city’s flourishing art scene, Gus and Lia forge a rare connection. But the past, shrouded in mystery, prevents the two of them from moving forward as one. Unwilling to face society’s scorn, Lia leaves the city and vows to begin again in Europe.
The Golden City offers everything a man could wish for except the answers Gus is desperate to find. But find them he must, or he and Lia have no chance at all.
The Madness of Mrs Whittaker:
Meet the author
A native of California, A.B. Michaels holds masters’ degrees in history (UCLA) and broadcasting (San Francisco State University). After working for many years as a promotional writer and editor, she turned to writing fiction, which is the hardest thing she’s ever done besides raise two boys. She lives with her husband and two spoiled dogs in Boise, Idaho, where she is often distracted by playing darts and bocce and trying to hit a golf ball more than fifty yards. Reading, quilt-making and travel figure into the mix as well, leading her to hope that sometime soon, someone invents a 25+ hour day.
Connect with A B Michaels
Don’t forget to check out the other blogs on The Art of Love blog tour with The Coffee Pot Book Club.