Monthly Archives: July 2016

Putting the History in the Historical Novel: The Carmel Mission

This is the eighth in a series of articles in which I share my methodology for crafting a story, which I hope is both interesting and informative. Last week, I wrote about the California Gold Rush. This week, I turn to the Mission San Carlos Borromeo del Rio Carmel, better known as the Carmel Mission.

In the Writer’s Note for Trouble at Mono Pass, I inform the reader that the novel highly fictionalizes the mission, in that it was largely inactive from 1836 to 1884. Early in the story, however, the mission is dilapidated after years of having been abandoned. The mission comes into play as Union Army veteran Jack Grier returns to California after the Civil War. Jack hopes to build a relationship with the daughter he left with friends fifteen years earlier. Helen has been raised with the understanding that she is the child of Eli and Sofie Monroe. In this scene (pp. 27-29), Jack visits the grave of his wife Ileana, Helen’s mother.

Jack hitched Bishop to one of the posts outside the cemetery walls of the long-abandoned church. It was just as he recalled. Mid-morning, the fog had drifted into Carmel Bay. Jack took in the salt air and the warmth of the early morning sun as he walked into the small cemetery.

***

Meanwhile, Helen hitched Saladin next to Bishop, black like her horse, but a hand higher. She wondered who had come to this largely abandoned spot. She stealthily approached the entry and watched as the middle-aged man spoke to the grave that had attracted her curiosity over the years. She had made it her mission to learn the past of all those buried here, but had learned little about Ileana Cortes.

The mission’s dilapidated condition is described by William Brewer in the journal compiled while he served as a member of the Josiah Whitney survey, the first geological survey of the state of California. Up and Down California in 1860-1864: the Journal of William H. Brewer (New Haven, CT, Yale University Press, 1930). I relied on Brewer’s description of the mission in a scene where Jack’s brother Richard visits the Monroe family. Richard asks Sofie Monroe if the family attends services at the mission (p. 74):

“No. The mission is practically falling down. Squirrels have overrun the grounds and the birds have turned the sanctuary into an aviary. *** We hope to rebuild the mission someday. Helen is leading the campaign.”

From this point forward I exercise the fiction writer’s prerogative to take liberties with the facts. It is consistent with the fictional characters I have introduced into the history of the period following the Civil War. Helen successfully leads a campaign to bring the mission up to snuff. In the story I restore the mission to its current condition, absent the modern amenities of electricity and plumbing (p. 181):

Repairs had been made to the crumbling brick and stone exterior, which was resurfaced with fresh stucco. Terra cotta barrel tiles were laid on the arched roof. New bells had been installed in both towers. Miguel had repaired the eight statues on the altar wall, the two most prominent being Jesus on the cross and San Carlos, the Spanish saint for whom the church was named. Lois had carefully painted all of the statues with their original colors. Unlike American Protestants, whose marble statues were left unadorned, the Spanish had carved these statues from wood and painted them in vivid life-like colors.

Helen had ordered six two-tier wrought-iron chandeliers to light the center aisle of the church. Hector and Jorge Montoya had laid the red-tile floors. Other local craftsmen had built the black oak pews.

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Thus, any visitor to the Carmel Mission will recognize the church as described in the novel. Had there been a Helen Monroe, I am convinced she would have brought the mission back to life well before it actually occurred.

Please consider a longer read. Trouble at Mono Pass is available on line from Amazon, Apple, and Barnes & Noble. Each website includes a “look-in” feature with the first few chapters of the novel. In Greensboro, NC, the novel is available at Scuppernong Books and the Greensboro Historical Museum Bookshop. In California, it is available at the Mono Lake Tufa State Reserve (Lee Vining) gift shop, the Mono Lake Committee Bookstore (Lee Vining), and the Donner Memorial State Park Bookstore (Truckee, California).

The prequel, New Garden, is available on line and at the referenced Greensboro locations.

 

 

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Putting the History in the Historical Novel: The California Gold Rush

This is the seventh in a series of articles in which I share my methodology for crafting a story, which I hope is both interesting and informative. Last week, I wrote about kutsavi, an important trade good among the tribes east and west of the Sierra Nevada. This week, I turn to the California Gold Rush.

In my research of the Gold Rush, I consulted many historical texts: The Age of Gold, by H.W. Brands; The World Rushed In, by J.S. Holiday; Roaring Camp – The Social World of the California Gold Rush, by Samuel Lee Johnson; They Saw the Elephant – Women in the California Gold Rush, by Jo Ann Levy.

I immersed myself in the material to put myself in a position to give the reader a flavor of the period in the context of a story. New Garden’s main character, Jack Grier, marries the daughter of a wealthy Mexican after the Mexican War. Jack’s father-in-law funds a miners’ supply company, Sierra Dry Goods, which Jack operates in California. Very few miners prospered during the Gold Rush; a number of suppliers became very wealthy. Thus, the story sets up Jack for success. When he arrives in Monterey, California, he finds most of the locals have left to search for gold (New Garden, p. 93):

“All of the men have left for the gold fields.”

Father Jesus only slightly overstated the truth. The old men and young boys had remained in Monterey. Any able-bodied man with a horse or a mule headed northeast toward the Sierra Nevada. Others walked or rode with friends. The Presidio’s enlisted men, with no legal authority and under no legal obligation to serve in California, abandoned their posts. Their officers soon joined the gold rush.

Ship captains were warned to avoid the port of San Francisco for fear of losing their crews. It happened so often that many abandoned ships were converted to lodging or warehouses. Jack and his partner Eli worry about how gold fever will affect their prospects (New Garden, p. 99):

Jack and Eli could not manage the supply venture by themselves. Before leaving Mexico, Jack had recruited thirty-two American army veterans to work for Sierra Dry Goods in California. **** Cortes warned Jack that he might lose his men to gold fever. It was this fear, not the usual seasickness, that rocked Jack’s stomach as the ship docked in San Francisco.

Suppliers’ costs were high and their profits even higher. Once Jack’s venture gets underway, the story illustrates the miners’ desperation and begrudging acceptance of the suppliers’ high prices (New Garden, p. 103):

“That’s highway robbery, mister. I ain’t buyin’ what I don’t need.”

Delmar Reed, the same age as Jack, looked ten years older after a summer in the diggings. He wore the pale blue wool britches and matching shirt Jack recognized as a United States infantry uniform, with the private’s stripe removed. He had replaced his blue forage cap with a wide-brim straw hat after baking his neck half the summer under the California sun. Summer temperatures frequently hit one hundred degrees in the diggings. His hair and beard, coal black and gritty, reeked from dirt, grit, and sweat. The loose soles of his army-issue boots flapped whenever he walked.

“Suit yourself,” said Jack. “You don’t have to buy and I don’t have to sell. The prices will only go up the closer I get to Sonora.” ****

“I reckon I don’t have much choice, do I?”

Many miners gave up after losing everything, often relying on a loan or passage paid from a relative back home. In the story Jack recruits a skilled carpenter to come to work for him at his hacienda in Carmel Valley, but only after the man has exhausted all hope of gaining his fortune (New Garden, p. 107):

He had tired of living in squalor, chasing the whisper of the Gold Siren’s song: Just a little longer, Miguel. Just down the river, Miguel. Just up the creek, Miguel. Just over the hill. Others have found me and become rich. Why not you?

Please consider a longer read. New Garden is available on line from Amazon, Apple, and Barnes & Noble. Each website includes a “look-in” feature with the first few chapters of the novel. In Greensboro, NC, the novel is available at Scuppernong Books and the Greensboro Historical Museum Bookshop.

The stand-alone sequel, Trouble at Mono Pass, is available at the same locations. It is also available at the Mono Lake Tufa State Reserve (Lee Vining) gift shop, the Mono Lake Committee Bookstore (Lee Vining), and the Donner Memorial State Park Bookstore (Truckee, California).

 

 

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Putting the History in the Historical Novel: Kutsavi

This is the sixth in a series of articles in which I share my methodology for crafting a story, which I hope is both interesting and informative. Last week, I wrote about how one’s legal status – slave or free – was determined in antebellum North Carolina. This week, I turn to a very different subject, kutsavi, an important trade good among the tribes east and west of the Sierra Nevada.

I learned about kutsavi on a family vacation to California many years ago. On the way to Yosemite National Park, we stopped at the Mono Lake Tufa State Reserve visitors center in Lee Vining. While there, a California Park Ranger led us on a tour of the lake’s western shore. We learned about the Monachi. In my research for New Garden, I further researched the history of the Mono Basin and incorporated it in the story.

His brother Richard is at the pinnacle of his career, now serving as a United States Senator from North Carolina. Kutsavi has become critical to Jack surviving a Sierra Nevada winter. So, the reader is introduced to the Monachi and kutsavi.

The Yokuts of the western Sierra had given the Paiutes east of the mountains the name “Monachi,” meaning “the fly people.” The whites understood the name as “Mono,” and used that name for the people and the lake where they lived, an ancient terminal saltwater lake on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada. The lake is populated by algae, brine shrimp, and alkali flies. A small migratory tribe with no more than two hundred members, the Mono women harvest the alkali fly each summer. They dry the pupae in the sun and then rub off their shells, leaving a yellow kernel the size of a grain of rice. Each pupa, which the Monos call kutsavi, is rich in fat and protein, providing fifteen calories of nourishment. The kutsavi store easily, critical to surviving a long winter. For hundreds of years, the Monos had used the kutsavi as a major product for trade with the tribes of the western Sierra Nevada.

New Garden, Prologue, p. vi.

Before the onset of the previous winter, Jack traded his horse to a miner for food.

Among the provisions were a bushel of pinon pine nuts and three four-pound bags of kutsavi. Jack would never be able to bring himself to touch the kutsavi unless he was starving to death.

* * * *

Starvation took hold in early March. At first, Jack ate the kutsavi by the handful, but the sudden consumption of the high-calorie food bloated his stomach and he soon learned to eat the kutsavi in smaller portions. The food he had avoided for five months sustained him until early April when he could trap and shoot game.

Several of my readers have told me that the passage about Jack’s winter in the Sierra Nevada, particularly the discussion of kutsavi’s importance to his survival, is among the passages forever etched in their memory.

New Garden is available on line from Amazon, Apple, and Barnes & Noble. Each website includes a “look-in” feature with the first few chapters of the novel. In Greensboro, NC, the novel is available at Scuppernong Books and the Greensboro Historical Museum Bookshop.

The stand-alone sequel, Trouble at Mono Pass, is available at the same locations. It is also available at the Mono Lake Tufa State Reserve (Lee Vining), the Mono Lake Committee Bookstore (Lee Vining), and the Donner Memorial State Park Bookstore (Truckee, California).

SOURCES:

Indian Life of the Yosemite Region, Miwok Material Culture, by Samuel A. Barrett and Edward W. Gifford, Bulletin of Milwaukee Public Museum, Vol. 2, No. 4, March, 1933 (republished by Yosemite National Park, California, Yosemite Association).

Taxonomic Inventory, Insects as Food, by Gene DeFoliart, http://www.foods-insects.com/book7.

Kutzakika’s People, by Thomas C. Fletcher, http://www.monolake.org.

Flies of Fancy: Alkali Flies, by David Carle, Park Ranger, Mono Lake Tufa State Reserve, http://www.thesierraweb.com/monolake.

 

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