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.


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.




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.


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….

Why a Race To Splendor?

August 1, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

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Meet Julia Morgan, the first licensed woman architect in California

My husband and I “met’ this extraordinary person when we moved to San Francisco eleven years ago and ended up living in a building designed by her shortly after the cataclysmic 1906 San Francisco earthquake and firestorm.  She, of course, was the very woman who (finally) won the commission to restore the Fairmont Hotel (as I mentioned in my previous blog post), a few blocks from where we first lived on Nob Hill.

Our building on the corner of Taylor and Jackson streets had been commissioned by a woman physician.  San Francisco was still considered the Wild, Wild West at the turn of the twentieth century, so perhaps a woman doctor was admitted into the local medical fraternity because there weren’t many doctors at all in California in those days. Read more

A new novel – A Race to Splendor

July 26, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

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San Fransisco after the QuakeFor those of you who have traveled to San Francisco (and those of us lucky enough to live in the Bay Area), the building on the left is actually a familiar landmark:  the fabled Fairmont Hotel atop Nob Hill.

However, look closely…this is a vintage photograph from shortly after the catastrophic 1906 San Francico earthquake and firestorm that left some 250,000 San Franciscans homeless and living in the Presidio for up to two-and-a-half years, first in tents, and later in what came to be know as “earthquake shacks” — one room wooden structures that were marginally larger than outhouses!

My son bought me this image several years ago when I had been in the middle of writing my new historical novel A Race to Splendor. As you can see, the hotel itself–three days away from its official opening in April, 1906–survived the quake very well, on the outside, at least.  The brutal fire ripped through the interior, virtually melting everything in its wake, including the spectacular Tiffany atrium in the lobby.  Some of the floors fell  seven feet, and the structure was basically an empty shell, and an extremely challenging engineering project to put to rights.

The story of how the hotel was restored “reads like a novel” and so I wrote one!  The famous New York architect, Stanford White, initially won the commission, but then a very bad thing happened to him (if you don’t know your early 20th c. history, you’ll just have to read the book when it debuts in April, 2011, from Sourcebooks-Landmark on the 105th anniversary of the quake!), and Julia Morgan, the first licensed woman architect in California, inherited the restoration job.

A Race to Splendor focuses on the whirlwind competition between hotels to get up-and-running by the first anniversary of the quake in April, 1907 to prove to the world that the City by the Bay would rise from the ashes, putting-to-lie those who said  she was like “Pompeii, never to rise again….”
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