27 July 2011

Working title: Gold Mountain

Soooooo you guys, I'm writing a book.

A while back Chris floated the following idea for a romance novel: "She's a 19th century schoolmarm whose schoolhouse turns out to be built on top of the mother lode. But which man can she trust with her fortune (and her heart?)? Westley, the local railroad construction foreman, or Chan, the handsome but sensitive railroad worker?" I was really interested in the idea of a historical with an Chinese hero--there don't even seem to be many contemporaries with Asian/Asian-American characters. But the Transcontinental Railroad starting building during the Civil War, and I didn't want to deal with that, so I decided to work with the California Gold Rush, and have settled on 1852. Research ahoy!

The heroine has morphed into Charlotte Gray (née Martin, which didja know is the most common French surname? isn't that weird?), a young widow from St. Louis who lost her husband to cholera along the California Trail; instead of reaching San Francisco to open the dress shop she's always wanted, she is marooned in the mining settlement of Hapless Bar, mending jeans and contemplating the suit of the handsome but vaguely sinister Paul St. Clair. As it turns out, she looks like my sister, down to the sectoral heterochromia in her eyes (look it up, it's pretty).The hero is Lo Jin, scion of a once-wealthy Cantonese merchant who lost his fortune in the Taiping Rebellion, trying to strike it rich in Gum Shan. But when he and the other "celestials" are chased away from the diggings by white miners, Jin takes refuge in the root cellar of the boarding house where Charlotte lives, where she finds him and begins to smuggle him food, books...and companionship. (NUDGE NUDGE WINK WINK)

I can't think of the last time I was so excited about a project. The advantage of historical fiction for plot-challenged me is obvious: the more research I do, the more events are written for me, and I can concentrate on character, dialogue, and prose. I hadn't previously realized how little I knew about the Gold Rush; it's an amazing few years that changed so much, e.g. the population of San Francisco, which went from 1,000 in 1848 to 25,000 in December 1849. The settlements were crazy diverse, as well--for minor characters, I'll be able to choose from German, Irish, French, Mexican, various local Native Americans, Mormons, even Australians. I'm gathering names (Charlotte Gray was the maiden name of my senior seminar tutor, whose married name was Charlotte Martin; my mother's provided ancestors of the appropriate generation: Melchior Sebastian, Cundegunda Quade, Lucinda Weethe), local fruits & vegetables, contemporaneous fashion, and the thousand tiny details that make up a world.

And of course I've checked a quadzillion books out from the library. Three I already know I'll have to buy to keep around: The Writer's Guide to Everyday Life in the Wild West, The Writer's Guide to Everyday Life in the 1800s , and the incredibly valuable They Saw the Elephant: Women in the California Gold Rush, which I read straight through like a novel, fascinated by the copious journal entries and letters giving the words of some of the bravest women I can imagine. I'm gonna steal so many little things from these lives (like Lodisa Frizzell's badass name, and Mary Ballou's amazing turn of phrase "making coffee for the French people strong enough for any man to walk on that has Faith as Peter did"). And by "steal" I mean "use with modifications and include in an adulatory Further Reading Note," because I am not a jerk.

I'll admit: my word count so far is 773. But that's totes OK, because I'm aiming to have a good shopping-about draft by July 16, 2012 (a year from when I started), and the mad research-y rush I'm in right now is necessary, and fun, and won't last forever. I am grateful to have Theresa Romain to provide been-there encouragement (and I've read her upcoming debut, and it's delightful Austen-y goodness! more closer to the October pub date), and the supportivest boyfriend ever, full stop. I'll share any excerpts I'm particularly proud of, shall I?


  1. Yes, you definitely shall share excerpts! The setup is really unique and intriguing. I'm already half in love with the characters. Sounds like so much fun!

    Not that you need MORE things to research, but a few romances you might like are Kaki Warner's (she writes 1870s-set Westerns--a little later than you but the sense of place is absolutely stunning) and Jeannie Lin's (set in medieval-era China, which might be way too early for a helpful sense of cultural dynamics, but one never knows).

  2. I am very excited to write a bookish, lean hero. With glasses! Mmmmmm.

  3. excited for you! 2 questions: will your heroine be confused with this charlotte gray? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charlotte_Gray_%28novel%29

    when will you be headed to san francisco for research!?

  4. I'm guessing there won't be readership overlap? I mean, *I* haven't read the Faulks. And if it just means people picture Cate Blanchett when they read about my heroine...I can live with that!!!

    As for SF...hmmmmmmmmmmmmmm. Will see what I can do!


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