Point Sur Light Station

One of the best things about writing fiction is that research is often required. This does not always mean burrowing through the library stacks or sequestering yourself in a basement filled with musty tomes. Counterintuitive, I know. But sometimes it requires getting out into the world and experiencing some of the most beautiful places to be found. Case in point: a few weeks back I hopped in the car and headed down the coast to the Point Sur Lighthouse, part of a state historic park in California’s Central Coast.


A little backstory. I discovered this place while driving near Monterey and wondered WTF was up with that volcanic rock just off the shore with a little settlement on top of it. Turns out it houses one of the key lighthouse stations that keeps ships from wrecking in the fog and darkness of the Central Coast. Oh yeah, and it’s a beautiful spot. But you wouldn’t know it from the foreboding sign along the highway, as shown.

Of course a Keep Out sign for a crazy place like that means a protagonist somewhere must inevitably flaunt those rules. Voila, a major location for PCH Roadkill.

Day tours last for three hours, and are well worth the trek. They include a thorough exploration of the lighthouse itself and the grounds where operators and their families lived in previous decades. Here some snaps from the top of the lighthouse:

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The diamond-shaped glass pieces are prism lights, similar to those used to light basements below sidewalks in large cities during earlier times.

I heartily recommend the tour to anyone driving the Pacific Coast Highway between Monterey and San Luis Obispo. If further incentive is needed, how about a view of the lovely Central Coast from the widow’s walk, looking Northeast toward Carmel:



Hill’s Manual of Social and Business Forms


I was recently introduced to the wonders of a series of books published in the late 19th century: Hill’s Manual of Social and Business Forms, a self-proclaimed “guide to correct writing with approved methods in speaking and acting in the various relations of life.” Aside from their role as the Holy Grail of research for Victorian-era America, these books offer up a wealth of invaluable advice on the craft of writing: how to hold a pen, how to sit at a desk, how to punctuate, how and when to use profanity. These volumes are also chock full of amazing illustrations like the ones included here.

I’m afraid the advice on penmanship is lost on me. (When was the last time I wrote in longhand?) Likewise, the “proper” writing positions are of dubious ergonomic value. Mechanics aside, the advice on the craft of writing itself is as prescient as ever:

It is not sufficient, however, that the student merely study the theory of writing. To be proficient there must be actual practice. To conduct this exercise to advantage it is necessary to have the facilities for writing well.


Preach it. Likewise, the arguments for learning to write well are quite charming:

The consciousness to the lady or gentleman of being able to write a letter that shall win the admiration and praise of the friend to whom it is written is a source of unspeakable pleasure to the writer, and to possess this ability throughout our lifetime is to be proficient in an accomplishment which adds to our happiness, as does excellence in oratory, painting or music. Good writing is a fine art, and is to the eye what good language is to the ear.

The books themselves are gorgeous, and well worth picking up for one’s own library. I’m thinking of reproducing a series of the amazing illustrations for use as wall art.


In not entirely related news, I’m off to a writing retreat in Colorado! There are worse ways to spend a week than at a hot springs resort with a talented bunch of neo-pros. Updates as I can manage them. Until then, work on that writing posture!

Humanity is doomed

One chilling effect of research into the more-or-less near past is a reminder that the Bad Old Days aren’t far behind us. We like to think of our society as progressive (well, I do anyway) and, while not perfect, well removed from the vagaries of yesteryear.

Then you read stuff like this.

Little more than a hundred years ago, SF’s Chinatown harbored thousands of Chinese prostitutes, imported from the East on large ships and solid into sexual servitude. Fourteen was considered the optimal age for a prostitute, but they ranged from eight to seventeen.  And they were considered nothing more than merchandise at the local market.  Here’s a typical bill of sale received by the Salvation Army in 1898, as recounted in Herbert Asbury’s The Barbary Coast: An Informal History of the San Francisco Underworld (1933):

Loo Wong to Loo Chee
April 16 - Rice, six mats, at $2 ........ $12
April 18 - Shrimps, 50 lbs.,at 10c ...... $5
April 20 - Girl ......................... $250
April 21 - Salt fish, 60 lbs.,10 10c .....$6

Due to the high volume of sexual partners, all of the women were diseased by their twenties. When they became too wretched to charge for services, they were shipped off to a “hospital” — essentially left in a dark room until they died. Here’s an account of a visit to one such “hospital” from the San Francisco Chronicle on December 5, 1869:

“The place is loathsome in the extreme… There is not the first suggestion of furniture in the room, no table, no chairs or stools, nor any window…. When any of the unfortunate harlots is no longer useful and a Chinese physician passes his opinion that her disease is incurable, she is notified that she must die…. Led by night to this hole of a ‘hospital,’ she is forced within the door and made to lie down upon the shelf…. When the limit is reached they return to the hospital, unbar the door and enter…. Generally the woman is dead, either by starvation or her own hand; but sometimes life is not extinct… yet this makes little difference to [the ‘doctors’]. They come for a corpse, and they never go away without it.”

Grim stuff. And not that long ago in the grand scheme of things, in the heart of one of America’s greatest cities. Sometimes we need a reminder that nothing in fiction is as horrifying as reality.


Gods save the Queen

Queen CalafiaNo figure is more prominent in the origin of California than that of Queen Calafia, who was conceived within the pages of Spanish writer Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo‘s 1510 novel, Las sergas de Esplandián (The Adventures of Esplandián). Calafia is originally depicted as the queen of an island ruled by Amazon warriors: California, or “The Domain of Calafia.” She is said to have led her women warriors, along with an army of trained griffins, into battle in an effort to destroy all men. She is eventually coerced into joining forces with Muslims in retaking Constantinople from the Christians during the Crusades. Her griffins, however, are simply happy to be let loose on a throng of males, and begin shredding both Christians and Muslims alike.  Oops. Following a duel with the King, Calafia and her allies are taken prisoner, and she eventually converts to Christianity. Boo.

Decades later, explorer Hernán Cortés and his party discovered what they assumed to be a massive island off the Pacific coast of North America. Rumors spread that it was populated by Amazons (how do these stories get started?) and it seemed only natural to name this new discovery California. Of course, California is not actually an island — or at least won’t be until the Big One — but Calafia lingered in the imagination as a symbol of a land unspoiled by European intervention.

Today Calafia is often referenced by artists in murals and paintings. She even has her own mural at Disneyland!  No big-budget musical with singing animals yet, but who knows what the future holds? She is often described as the Spirit of California.

One imagines she would not be pleased by the transformation of her homeland at the hands of Europeans and Americans. And that’s in addition to the local Ohlone tribe’s male-only secret society in service of the supernatural spirit, Kuksu. But that’s for another post.

Research is fun!

One star on Trip Advisor

In researching late-1800s Barbary Coast, I frequently run across amusing descriptions of the evils of said place and time.  It would seem observers  indulged in a game of hyperbolic one-upmanship when describing the vagaries of early San Francisco.  Here are a few top contenders.

First, let’s hear from infamous Madam Sally Stanford (no relation to University founder Leland Stanford, one assumes):

They were a wonderful set of burglars, the people who were running San Francisco when I first came to town in 1923, wonderful because, if they were stealing, they were doing it with class and style.

Even Sherlock Holmes author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had plenty to say when he came to town:

It is hardly fair to blame America for the state of San Francisco, for its population is cosmopolitan and its seaport attracts the floating vice of the Pacific; but be the cause what it may, there is much room for spiritual betterment.

These are but amateur sentiments, however,  when compared to the musings of Col. Albert S. Evans, from A la California. Sketch of Life in the Golden State (1871):

Speak of the deeper depth, the lower hell, the maelstrom of vice and iniquity-from whence those who once fairly enter escape no more forever-and they will point triumphantly to the Barbary Coast, strewn from end to end with the wrecks of humanity, and challenge you to match it anywhere outside of the lake of fire and brimstone.

Strong stuff!  Not to be outdone, however, is Gangs of New York author Mr. Herbert Asbury, quoted in Lights and Shades of San Francisco (1876):

The Barbary Coast is the haunt of the low and the vile of every kind. The petty thief, the house burglar, the tramp, the whoremonger, lewd women, cutthroats, murderers, all are found here. Dance-halls and concert-saloons, where blear-eyed men and faded women drink vile liquor, smoke offensive tobacco, engage in vulgar conduct, sing obscene songs and say and do everything to heap upon themselves more degradation, are numerous. Low gambling houses, thronged with riot-loving rowdies, in all stages of intoxication, are there. Opium dens, where heathen Chinese and God-forsaken men and women are sprawled in miscellaneous confusion, disgustingly drowsy or completely overcome, are there. Licentiousness, debauchery, pollution, loathsome disease, insanity from dissipation, misery, poverty, wealth, profanity, blasphemy, and death, are there. And Hell, yawning to receive the putrid mass, is there also.

All bow down to the master of the purple passage. Well done, sir.

Hardly the stuff of travel pamphlets. But it paints a helluva setting for a tale of conflict, does it not?

Digging into the past

Research is perhaps one of the most fun parts of writing, and can lead to fresh inspiration from unexpected sources.  As part of the side research for a current project, I experienced the perils of mining information on a subject who lived a life of subterfuge.

Case in point: Frank Gardiner, the notorious 19th century bushranger.  Given his history, it’s perhaps not unexpected to encounter contradictions in his life story.  But it’s amusing nonetheless.

Frank Gardiner

Most sources, both primary and secondary, agree on the most significant points.   Gardiner and his gang were responsible for one of the biggest gold robberies in Australian history.   After a couple of years on the lam, he was captured and sentenced to thirty two years hard labor, but was ultimately released when he agreed to leave the country.  (Too criminal for Australia!  How great is that?)

His illustrious career as a bushranger is well documented.  What happened before and after remains in contention.  Some sources identify him as an emigrant from Scotland under the surname Christie.  Others claim he was born in New South Wales and used Christie as an occasional moniker.  His death appears to have occurred between ten and thirty five years (!) after leaving Australia.  Documentation supports his arrival in San Francisco, but details are sketchy.  According to various news sources on multiple continents, he may or may not have married a rich widower, sired two sons, retired to a ranch in Colorado, and had his skeleton sold at auction.

One interesting note is that the Wikipedia article appears to include some of the most accurate, if sparse, information.  At least the uncorroborated rumors are spelled out as such.  It’s hardly comprehensive, but doesn’t support the derision the site often receives from academia.  Let’s hear it for peer review!