Researching a Novel–Honestly!

May 16, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

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envelope IMG_6338In less than a month I’ll be heading off on what, to an outsider, probably looks like a lark.

Researching a work of fiction might sound like an oxymoron, but as a reporter with more than twenty-five years of experience in the world of “fact checking,” I’ve discovered after seven novels that getting the details right about the real world aspects of a story is just as important in a piece of “make-believe”  as it is with “breaking news.”  If a novelist screws up the data, believe me, you hear from your readers.

And that’s just as it should be.IMG_4903

In That Summer in Cornwall, the first in the 4 Seasons Quartet series, I’d been to Cornwall several times previously as my English cousin, Gay North, has hosted me in the West Country several times over the years, and especially during the research for an earlier novel, A Cottage by the Sea.  

Image 7However, as I embarked on That Summer in Cornwall, I knew virtually nothing about the world of search and rescue, nor about the amazing canines trained to find visitors who fall off the cliffs skirting the English Channel or down abandoned shafts that dot the beautiful countryside. So my trip to Cornwall last October was fun and exciting, to be sure, but it was also spent interviewing the Dog Unit Manager of the Devon and Cornwall Police, to say nothing of tramping up moors, along fast-running rivers, and peering down dark, forbidding mine shafts clinging to remote parts of the local landscape.Ciji in Chinatown

Whatever the setting of a novel—even one that took place in my own backyard of San Francisco–as with A Race to Splendor about the rebuilding of the legendary Fairmont Hotel atop Nob hill after the 1906 earthquake and firestorm–the reportorial skills of “who, what, when, where, and why” are essential to getting the facts right so the world that a novelist creates for the reader rings true.

Jamie, Helen Mirren-Taylor-Tony-Ciji-Scotland wedding

 

 

 

 

That Autumn in Edinburgh will be the third book I’ve set in Scotland—Wicked Company being the second and Island of the Swans (the prequel to my next project there) the first. And each research trip to the land of my mother’s ancestors has been a joy–but also involved some rather arduous work as well.

Edinburgh_Castle_Scotland-Wallpaper

However, this time, the action is set not only in the spectacular city of Edinburgh, which I know well, but also in the Scottish Border country between the capital and the often-contested area of land where England officially begins.

glen_affric

 

 

On my upcoming research adventures, I’ll be learning about present-day factories producing ancient tartans; about cashmere manufacture and the struggle to stay afloat in a global economy where operations in the Far East have been allowed to pay their workers $37 a month—and where conditions are so unsafe, entire buildings collapse, killing a thousand women in their wake.

Ciji Jamie McCullough Castle

Oh yes…given my experience on trips past, I expect to have a wonderful time visiting a part of Scotland I’ve never seen, but, to me, this story I have percolating in my brain night and day right now is also serious business—and I’ll do my best to get the facts straight.

 

“YOU’RE A FINALIST!”

August 14, 2012 by · Leave a Comment 

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Every once in a while during my twenty-five years slogging away as a novelist, there are surprises that land on my doorstep–or in this case, via my InBox.

Today, the president of Women Writing the West, Suzanne Lyon (a novelist herself, of course) sent me word that my historical A RACE TO SPLENDOR was one of three finalists in the coveted (at least in my world) category of Historical Fiction for the 2012 WILLA Literary Awards, presented in October of this year for works published in 2011.

As I said today to several friends, “Being a finalist in the book world is a little like living in Hollywood until they hand out the Academy Awards. One finds oneself often saying:  ‘It’s an honor just to be nominated’ “–and in this case, that is absolutely a true statement!

Willa Cather, as anyone knows who had eighth grade English with Mr. Pritchard at Sunset School, was the Pulitzer Prize winning author of novels chronicling frontier life on the Great Plains in works such as O Pioneers!, My Ántonia, and The Song of the Lark.

I was one of the first wave of writers to join the then fledgling WWW.  A majority of New York editors in the early 1990s (and some currently) found any stories set west of the Hudson River and before WW II as “unlikely to succeed in the marketplace.”  SPLENDOR certainly was a novel that fell under that rubric.

In 2000, shortly after my husband and I moved from Los Angeles to the Bay Area, I had begun to research a novel about the real life figure, Julia Morgan, the first licensed woman architect in California, restoring the devastated Fairmont Hotel in the wake of the catastrophic 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire.  My (then) agent clucked and nodded discouragingly when I submitted the book proposal.  My (then) editor was totally unenthusiastic about such a project. And when I went ahead and wrote the book anyway, my (then) publisher turned it down, flat.

This was, as all writers of fiction will recall, just about the time the publishing industry was seriously starting to implode in response to the Digital Revolution.  No New York publisher was likely to take a chance on anything other than another Harry Potter book, or perhaps allowing John Grisham to write a nice children’s story.

As is so often the case with books that ultimately find an audience, I had become one of those authors completely beguiled by her characters, the setting, and the drama of creating for a modern audience stirring events from the past. Writing with my hair on fire, I was literally unable to let go of an idea I believed deserved to see the light of day.  I would, by turns, hang out in the opulent lobby of the Fairmont atop Nob Hill, or dig into the archives to find pictures of the devastation that Julia Morgan faced, only 34 years old and fresh out of architecture school.

Looking back at this painful period, I suspect I did six or seven complete rewrites as different “publishing professionals” gave me their worldly-wise input. Finally, after a few more rejections, I put the book in a drawer and returned to my Day Job, writing nonfiction (as in Rightsizing Your Life: Simplifying Your Surroundings While Keeping What Matters Most, Hachette/Springboard Press, 2007).

Rightsizing Your LifeThis was, of course, a career move that helped me pay the light bill, and I am forever grateful to the wonderful editors Jill Cohen and Karen Murgulo who published that tome, and to the Wall Street Journal that dubbed it “One of the Top 5 Books on Retirement” the year it came out.

But meanwhile, my heart was yearning to return to writing historical fiction and my new agent, the fearless Celeste Fine, now of Sterling Lord Literistic, gathered all my rights from  the sadly-out-of-print Ware Oeuvre and pitched five historicals to the redoubtable Deb Werksman who, along with the amazing CEO at Sourcebooks, Dominique Riccah, were founding the historical imprint, Landmark. Deb knew my work, made a package deal to bring out reprints with some well-planned revisions and totally wonderful covers, and then asked the fateful question:  “Has she written anything new?”

“New?” Not exactly, but I searched my electronic files for the version of the newly-titled A RACE TO SPLENDOR I felt was truest to my original vision, and we emailed it directly to her, saying “It’s a draft, mind you, and needs some work.”

They bought the book!  And yes, thanks to some sage and insightful suggestions from the very experienced and tactful Ms. Werksman, I  did a 20% rewrite/tweak and the book was published with its fabulous cover in April, 2011 (the 105th anniversary of the 1906 cataclysm), given a spectacular publication party in the penthouse of the Fairmont — and received wonderful reviews, I’m happy to note.

And now it’s one of three finalists for the prestigious WILLA Literary Awards in the Historical Fiction category.

If that doesn’t give poor, benighted writers a sense of hope, I don’t know what will…    It took more than a decade from the conception of the idea to craft the fictional telling of the amazing early California women architects –until today’s announcement.

So on this particular novel, for sure, it is an honor “merely” to be nominated…and to have one’s name mentioned in the same sentence as Willa Cather.

 

 

Now, THIS is a Book Launch Party!

July 12, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

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On the eve of April 18, 2011’s  105th anniversary of the cataclysmic 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Firestorm, my publisher, Sourcebook, and its Landmark division of historical novels–in partnership with Nob Hill’s fabled Fairmont Hotel–hosted an incredible book launch party for my new novel A Race To Splendor!

My job, as author, was to invite 125 guests representing local San Francisco Bay Area media, and anyone with links to historic preservation, local history, and the world of admirers of Julia Morgan, a “real life” character whose saga of restoring the post-quake Fairmont after the disaster when she was only 34-years-old and the first licensed woman architect in California, is the centerpiece of my novel.

The event was held from 4 to 7pm in the Fairmont’s legendary penthouse “Owners’ Suite” (also known as the “Presidential Suite” since numerous Commanders-in-Chief have stayed there), and featured wine and elegant nibbles within the huge apartment and terraces with views of the entire city and bay.

On the bottom of the invitation, in tiny print, were the words “1906 Attire – Optional.”

Well, just have a look at the response!  Of the more than a hundred attendees, perhaps eighty percent had come in full regalia.  The Edwardian costumes included top hats, feather boas, “fascinator” chapeaux, and even, for the gents, spats and gold-headed canes!

This is San Francsico, after all, where citizens are passionately proud of their city and its amazing and rambunctious history.

Friends arrived in the foyer full of a sense of being part of that special day when we celebrated, yes, the publication of an historical novel about the tumultuous rebuilding of a town that saw 400 city blocks demolished and 350,000 of its 410,000 population left homeless for up to two-and-a-half years…but it was also about celebrating a wonderful hotel that is still standing in all its regal splendor, and a hometown that not only survived this horrible disaster, but, like Humpty-Dumpty, put itself back together again through sheer grit and moxie.

April 18th was a time to raise a glass and celebrate ourselves, which we did in fine fashion!  My family and I felt privileged to be part of this recent moment in history, and, as you can see, dressed to fit the occasion. My son and daughter-in-law flew out from their home in New York City; my sister, cousins, and god-children arrived from all parts of California, and local friends and media colleagues, alike, got into the spirit of one of the most incredible parties an author could have been given to launch her book.   Perhaps in view of recent events like Katrina, the quake in Haiti and Japan, and the BP Oil Spill, these San Franciscans, above all people, know how fragil and precious life is and just being in our beautiful city to mark such an important anniversary was cause, enough, for celebration…

The Enduring Fairmont Hotel

October 31, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

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photo by Michael Forester

Last week, my great pal from my KABC/LA radio days, cookbook writer Diane Worthington, author of the classics The Cuisine of California, The California Cook, and her recent Seriously Simple series, was in San Francisco to meet with her editors at Chronicle Books, and to catch up with her good friends at the gorgeous Fairmont Hotel, atop Nob Hill.

She kindly asked me to tag along, knowing my long-standing love affair with the Fairmont, the setting for much of my forthcoming historical novel A Race to Splendor, due out from Sourcebooks Landmark in April, 2011, on the 105th anniversary of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and firestorm.

Inspired by the early professional life of Julia Morgan, California’s first licensed female architect,  this is the tale of a race against time to rebuild two luxury hotels (the Fairmont and a fictional hostelry) after the 1906 disaster destroyed 400 city blocks and left 250,000 homeless.

Morgan’s fictional protegee, Amelia Hunter Bradshaw and client J.D. Thayer will sacrifice anything to see the city they love rise from the ashes.  In the process, they find themselves transformed from fierce rivals to unwilling partners who fight political corruption, endure back-breaking hardship, and ultimately can’t help but lose their hearts.

As many times as I’ve visited this awe-inspiring hotel during my childhood and in the years when I was researching the historical novel, chills go down my spine whenever I walk into the magnificent lobby, seen here from the Mason Street entrance, and hear the clang of the California Street cable car that was running when Julia Morgan returned to San Francisco in 1904 from her architecture studies in Paris, just two years before the cataclysmic temblor.

Morgan was only thirty-four-years-old when she received the commission to rebuild the Fairmont’s burnt-out hulk after  the 3000 degree fire raced through its beaux arts facade.

Flash forward to the year 2000.  I witnessed the most recent transformation by the historic preservation architects Page & Turnbull of the gaudy (but lovable) red upholstered Fairmont of my youth to the golden confection you see in these pictures I took last week.

Like dogged detectives, these historic preservationists uncovered evidence of what the hotel looked like before fifties interior designer, Dorothy Draper, gave it her “Hollywood” treatment,as you see below–a style that endured half a century.

To celebrate the Millennium, the hotel was restored to a near-perfect replica of the work wrought by Miss Morgan between 1906-07 under impossible conditions.

It is that incredible story that forms the spine of A Race to Splendor and what a treat to be hosted in a place I know and love so well by Diane’s friend, Michelle Heston, the Fairmont’s Regional Director of Public Relations for the Western US & Hawaii.

Thanks to her and the hospitable staff, a stunning array of delectable offerings as part of their Afternoon Tea service was set before us in the Laurel Court Restaurant–one of whose domes had been unexpectedly discovered by a sleuth for Page & Turnbull when he crawled between the floors in the early days of the most recent renovation. Ms. Draper had lowered the ceiling, and over the decades, the beautiful dome had been forgotten.

Last week during our delightful afternoon, Halloween was upon us, and the staff had produced a variety of carved pumpkins for a contest that asked guests to vote for their favorite creation.

The hotel was jammed with fans in town to root for the Texas Rangers who are playing our beloved San Francisco Giants in the current World Series.

In fact,  as you see here, I whipped out my iPhone as one guest was headed to the game and then booked on a private jet that would take her back for Game 3,4, and 5 in Texas

Needless to say, our group raised our porcelain teacups and saluted the Giants, as well as my heroine, Julia Morgan, the creator of such beauty that has endured….