I have been doing research for my WIP—a novel set in the 1870’s on San Francisco’s Barbary Coast. Which is basically where I live. So I am writing about a fictional character, a fifteen year old girl, who walks the same paths that I walk everyday, only Lucy is walking them a hundred and thirty-seven years earlier.
My wanderings have gone from observing the sights, sounds and smells around me, to imagining the residual echoes and ghostly impressions lingering along these paths from years ago, when many of the streets were mud and the acceptable standards of sanitation were a good deal lower. It’s like I have this time machine inside my head, recreating a previous era layered over intimately familiar territory.
In 1875, San Francisco was new and rough and wild, bawdy and extreme. People who had poured into California for the gold rush now filtered on down to the city where anything and everything went on. In many ways, the city has maintained this reputation despite the many civilizing factors.
Much of the original architecture from that time was destroyed in the 1906 earthquake. The Palace Hotel opened in 1875 (with 600 guest rooms!) and fell in 1906, only to be rebuilt first as a temporary building and then as the grand hotel that stands today. Earthquakes still threaten contemporary architecture, but we have learned how to and how not to build for earthquakes. Brick is not a good choice for building material.
Although, I recently went to visit and do some research at the Chinese Historical Society of America’s Museum in Chinatown—a beautiful brick building designed and built by Julia Morgan in 1932. We have had a number of earthquakes since then and it is still standing.
Part of what I am researching is about the immigrant experience—a topic that has always fascinated me. Up until recently, my main source of information has been through Amy Tam’s many novels—I always prefer to get my facts from fiction. But I think my favorite book about the immigrant experience is Shaun Tan’s The Arrival, a wordless book whose whimsical images act as visual poetry to convey an existential experience directly to the soul. The images make it a universal adventure accessible to everyone.
I mean, who can’t relate at some point in their life to being a stranger in a strange land?