The Fires That Devastated San Francisco

In April 1906, following the great earthquake (for more on the earthquake, see my previous post), numerous fires broke out all over the city of San Francisco. The city had recently installed gas and water mains, and these ruptured during the quake, so the combination of explosive gas and no water made for a volatile and horrific situation.fires downtown

One of the first and largest fires was started by a woman trying to cook breakfast for her family after the quake, and as a result it earned the nickname “Ham and Eggs Fire.” Other fires were started by firefighters using dynamite to create fire breaks. The downtown area was engulfed in a blazing inferno.

The weather was warm, windy, and dry, and the fires raged for four days until rains came. More than half the population of the city was displaced, and refugee camps remained in place for up to two years.fires

Most of the destruction resulting from the April 1906 catastrophe could be attributed to the fires rather than the earthquake itself. The price tag in today’s dollars would run into the trillions.

Here’s how Kula, in FORGIVEN, describes the fires that followed the earthquake:

The fires crawled up Nob Hill and consumed the home of Phillipa Everts. They consumed the home and all the artwork and papers and sketches of Sebastian…The fires consumed mansions and tenements, brothels and castles. They consumed the palatial homes on Russian Hill and the side-by-sides of Telegraph Hill. We watched them all burn.

aftermath of firesAll day and into the night Thursday, the east side of San Francisco burned. It burned hot through the vile, mean streets of the Barbary Coast, sending hundreds of miserable alleys to the heavens as a pillar of smoke.

The fires burned through Market and destroyed the Grand Opera House, where I had seen Caruso sing just two nights ago, and the Palace Hotel, where he slept…all his costumes were lost. Not even the rich and famous were immune to the flames.

Perhaps the only positive note was the response of people on the street following the disaster. The community rose up together and vowed to rebuild. Even those rendered homeless displayed great kindness, and the gap between rich and poor disappeared for a time as all suffered together.fires reported

It’s only a matter of time before another great quake occurs on the San Andreas Fault.

The San Francisco Earthquake of 1906

As you saw in my previous post, Enrico Caruso experienced a devastating earthquake.

At 5:12 on the morning of April 18, 1906, San Francisco was rocked by an earthquake estimated now to have been of magnitude 7.8 (the Richter scale was yet to be instituted; this magnitude is the same as the recent initial Tibetan earthquake.) While the main epicenter of the quake was offshore, it is assumed to have been associated with the San Andreas Fault, a strike-slip boundary. There were two jolts, a foreshock of about 25 seconds and the main shock, which lasted a devastating 42 seconds.earthquake damage

It must have felt like it went on forever.

The initial death toll was reported in the hundreds, but that was partly due to under-reported fatalities in crowded Chinatown; it’s now assumed that thousands died in the initial quake.

Areas north of San Francisco, like Santa Rosa, were hit even harder, and the Salinas River was permanently shifted to a new channel, emptying six miles south of its previous course.earthquake damage

Here is one eyewitness account of the initial devastation:

“Of a sudden we had found ourselves staggering and reeling. It was as if the earth was slipping gently from under our feet. Then came the sickening swaying of the earth that threw us flat upon our faces. We struggled in the street. We could not get on our feet. Then it seemed as though my head were split with the roar that crashed into my ears. Big buildings were crumbling as one might crush a biscuit in one’s hand. Ahead of me a great cornice crushed a man as if he were a maggot – a laborer in overalls on his way to the Union Iron Works with a dinner pail on his arm.” (P. Barrett).train after earthquake

As terrible as the quake itself was, what happened in the days following the quake left hundreds of thousands of residents homeless, and changed the face of San Francisco forever.

That’s the subject of my next post.


The Voice of the Early 1900s: Enrico Caruso

In the climactic chapters of FORGIVEN, Kula, along with other wealthy patrons, spends an evening at the opera and hears Enrico Caruso perform. It was to be his last performance in San Francisco, and her last night of stability.

Enrico Caruso (1873-1921) was an Italian tenor who captivated the world with his voice. He lived during the advent of the phonograph, and in part because his celebrity was spread through the new media of his time – newspapers, books, and magazines – his popularity expanded worldwide and his notoriety continues to this day.

In April 1906, Caruso visited San Francisco as part of a series of performances by artists of the Metropolitan Opera. He sang Don Jose in Carmen to an enthusiastic audience. But on the following morning, April 18th, he like all San Franciscans was awakened by the first jolt of the great earthquake of 1906. He escaped unharmed, and even went on to eat breakfast. But the fires that broke out following the earthquake destroyed most of the city, including his hotel, his entire personal wardrobe, and the sets of the opera company.

Caruso left the city and vowed never to return, and he never did.

Here is a recording that speaks to his tremendous ability:


The opera Carmen tells the thwarted romantic story of the naive soldier Don Jose and the seductive but doomed Carmen. For Kula, this story would have been a scandalous revelation, and hearing the great Caruso would have been a high point in her sheltered life. The earthquake might have seemed like a fitting coda, if not for the terrible tragedy in the making.

More on that in the next post.

The Wealthy of Old Nob Hill

In FORGIVEN, after Kula’s rude introduction to San Francisco’s meaner streets (as described in my last post), she finds her way Nob Hill mansionto the home of her future benefactor. Here’s how she describes it: “Turrets and towers, porches and balconies…these only began to describe what looked like a confection of furbelows and curlicues and fancies.”

Before the earthquake and fire of 1906 San Francisco was a city of opposites. We’ve had a glimpse at the lower rung of society’s ladder; now let’s take a look at how the upper one percent lived.

The wealthy entrepreneurs of California made their money in mining and the railroad. After the gold strike at Sutter’s Mill, as San Francisco was a bustling and somewhat primitive seaport, the wealthy escaped the noise and smells by settling the hills above the nascent city. The most spectacular mansions of the period were built on the hill nicknamed “Nob”, after the nobs or “nabobs” who built those mansions. Most famous of these nobs were the “big four” railroad magnates: ChHopkins mansion, Nob Hillarles Crocker, Leland Stanford, Mark Hopkins and Collis Huntington. Other wealthy families followed in their wake.

Stanford Mansion, Nob Hill

Stanford Mansion

The mansions were so lavish that Robert Louis Stevenson dubbed Nob Hill the “hill of palaces”. Stanford’s residence was described as having twenty-five sleeping compartments on the second floor, and the main entrance was a rotunda surrounded by sixteen Corinthian columns. Ornamental artwork decorated the walls and ceilings, and the artist, Mr. G. G. Gariboldi, “was given carte blanche,” to quote an article from the Daily Alta California of April 7, 1876. The article continues with a description of four of the ceiling panels: “finished with emblematic figures personifying “Fine Arts,” “Mechanics,” “Agriculture” and “Literature.” The motive of this decoration of the rotunda was doubtless to present the documentary and historic character of Italian art.”

Then there was the Crocker mansion. Crocker’s neighbor, a poor undertaker, Nicholas Yung, refused to sell his house and lot to Crocker when the magnate bought the rest of the block around. Out of anger, Crocker built at great expense a three-story tall fence that surrounded Yung’s house and completely blocked out the sun for the Yungs. The “Spite Fence” remained in place for thirty years, until 1904.

The "Spite Fence"

The “Spite Fence” surrounded by the white Crocker mansion.

All this extravagance, with the exception of silver baron James Flood’s mansion, was completely destroyed by the 1906 earthquake, which leveled not only these “palaces”, but also the decadence of the Barbary Coast. More on that to come.

These wealthy patrons of the arts would have been familiar with the subject of my next post, Enrico Caruso.

San Francisco: The Barbary Coast and Chinatown

My previous post sets the stage for my novel, FORGIVEN.

In FORGIVEN, Kula’s first experience of San Francisco is most unfortunate, as she is abandoned by a thief in the heart of the Barbary Coast. She’s lucky to have landed there in the light of day, for this was not a place safe for proper young ladies. She makes her way out of that neighborhood only to wander into Chinatown.

The poor, the saloon in the Barbary Coast, SFlost, those with addictions to tobacco, alcohol, or gambling, and those down and out – when they landed in San Francisco at the turn of the last century, they usually ended up in what was called the Barbary Coast. Dancehalls and “deadfalls” – saloons – lined the streets, and everything, including humans, was for sale.

Originally named for a coastal area of Africa renowned for piracy, San Francisco’s Barbary Coast was not a place in which to lose your wits. In the mid-1800s, gshaghaiedangs operated throughout the area, waiting for any helpless man (read, drunk and passed-out) who could be sold into virtual slavery. The unfortunate sailor would be headed for a “Shanghai voyage”, and later this practice of impressment, for wherever the ship was bound, was called “being shanghaied.” Men were shanghaied for more than fifty years before it was outlawed.

chinatownChinatown was born when Chinese immigrants gathered in a San Francisco settlement some seven blocks long and three blocks wide. In the late 1800s estimates put the Chinese population of San Francisco at 45,000, almost all living within the confines of Chinatown. Despite persecution at various times, Chinese immigrants living in Chinatown were allowed to own property. Chinese workers found jobs with the growing railroad industry and in all manner of support services throughout San Francisco, including the famous Chinese laundry.slavegirls

One terrible side effect of the seaport nature of San Francisco and thus its transient population was the trade in slaves. Girls as young as eight were shipped from China – often under false pretenses – and then sold into slavery upon arrival in San Francisco. Known as “sing-song girls”, these prostitutes were housed in wooden cages or “cribs” with little food, almost no clothing, and no medical attention. Their lives were short and brutal.

As a result of my research and discovery of the human trafficking that was rampant in San Francisco in 1906, and that still exists in parts of the world, a portion of my proceeds from the sale of FORGIVEN is donated to The National Center For Missing and Exploited Children.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, San Francisco was home to some of the wealthiest Americans. More about that next.

San Francisco: Gold and Growth Before 1906

Over the next few weeks I’m running  a series on San Francisco at the turn of the last century, culminating with the Great Earthquake of 1906.

My novel FORGIVEN is set in San Francisco in 1906. Here’s how I describe the city as Kula finds it: “The Spanish named San Francisco for a saint. The Celestials met their Demons on its streets. Called Golden Mountain by those in the Middle Kingdom, it perched precarious on a cracking plate. Children’s sad eyes pleaded in the stench and filth of its tight alleys, where hawk-nosed men slithered and the unwary were shanghaied. San Francisco’s gilded halls and palatial homes held wealth beyond dreams. For some, it was a prison. For some, it was release.”


The port of San Francisco

In early 1848, Captain John Sutter, who had established a colonial holding in the Sacramento Valley, built a mill on the American River. The flow of water from the mill exposed a vein of gold, and by the following spring the first of tens of thousands of prospectors passed through San Francisco’s Golden Gate en route to the California gold rush. Development of the city followed out of dire necessity. And the very nature of the grizzled prospectors and the constant exchange of vast fortunes gave the city a bipolar air of wealth and desperation.

Women were so few in number – it was reported that no more than 300 women lived among the thousands of men in San Francisco in 1849 – that they were followed through the streets by adoring crowds (which must have bSan Franciscoeen more than a little creepy).

San Francisco was first a seaport, with all that a constant turnover of sailors brings. The neighborhood of the Barbary Coast – so nicknamed after an infamous stretch of coastline in Africa – was home to corruption of every kind.

The wealthy of San Francisco naturally settled the hilltops, in particulaChinatown San Franciscor Nob Hill, so named after the rich “nabobs” or “nobs” who built large mansions there. Cable cars, an 1873 invention of Scots immigrant and mechanical engineer Andrew Smith Hallidie, connected the growing neighborhoods and steep hills in this “Paris of the west”.

Chinatown grew in response to the influx of Chinese immigrants, who were encouraged to work on the railroads and were given property rights in Chinatown.

Golden Gate Park was established in the 1860s, and the famous Sutro Baths and Cliff House built on the coast attracted tourists on day outings eager to watch the seals that lounged on the rocks.Cliff House San Francisco

The gold rush created the city and led to profound social and economic disparities, but the 1906 earthquake changed the face of San Francisco and altered her history. In upcoming posts I’ll visit in more detail the Barbary Coast, Chinatown, and the earthquake of 1906.

First up: the Barbary Coast.


It’s book launch day for my sweet friend Joy Preble‘s latest book FINDING PARIS. This promises to be one heck of a fabulous read. School Library Journal said, “An intricate guessing game of sisterly devotion, romance, and quiet desperation.” I invited Joy to write a guest post, and she has written something wonderful: 

I was twenty years old before my mother told me that her father—my grandfather—had committed suicide. I honestly don’t remember what else we’d been talking about. Certainly it was nothing important or serious. But then she leaned closer, lowered her voice and told me that her father had taken his own life.

joy Preble author picI had known some things about him, this man I never met. I knew he’d run off at some point after losing his job when my mom was twelve, going to live with his sister in Atlanta. I did not know what he looked like, have still never seen a picture. I did not know what he did for a living before he was unemployed. I did not know that he had hung himself in his sister’s closet.

I had no idea there was a secret of this magnitude hiding underneath the surface of my mother’s side of our family. In retrospect, I think it probably explains many things, including the intense closeness of my mother and her two sisters, this ‘us against the world’ sort of thing that seemed more layered than just sisterly affection. Still. My family was, well, my family. That’s how it was. I didn’t know any different.

People are like this, I think. We don’t always show the truth of what’s going on with us. And we’re often pretty clueless when it comes to noting it in others, even—or maybe especially, with the people we love most. “He seemed so happy,” we’ll say when someone goes horribly off the rails. “I never saw it coming.” Or “She never told me.”

In my FINDING PARIS (Balzer and Bray/Harper Collins), sisters Leo and Paris Hollings have always had just each other to rely on. Their mother has hopped from place to place, job to job, guy to guy, leaving them mostly to their own devices. “Take care of your sister,” she’s always told Leo. Leo’s the youngest, but she’s the smart onBook launch: FindingParis covere. The logical one. The one with plans. And so when Paris goes missing one night in Vegas where they live, leaving behind a string of increasingly upsetting clues, Leo finds herself on a scavenger hunt/road trip she never asked for. She finds herself taking help from a boy named Max even though Leo is not one to ask for help and certainly not one to ask for help from boys she doesn’t know. Is Paris in trouble, really? Is she just screwing with Leo for reasons unknown? Or is the situation more subtle than that? I wanted to explore those moments when we’re pushed to the wall and still aren’t quite sure what to do, where our blind spots for those we love, keep us from seeing –or facing—the truth.

Sometimes, I think, we can’t find our way until we’re forced to figure it out.

How far will Leo and Paris go to protect each other? And who is it, exactly, that needs saving? The answers come in FINDING PARIS, a family drama wrapped in a mystery, with a road trip center and a bit of romance.

Order FINDING PARIS here, and you can find more about Joy and her many wonderful books here.

To Market, To Market To Buy a Fat Book

A few weeks ago I was asked to give a lecture on how I built my author platform to create a market for my books.

Well…okay. I didn’t set out to build a platform; actually, I didn’t know I was standing on one. So I talked about how I have a website and this blog, how I use Facebook and Twitter, how Instagram and tumblr are the best social media sites for interacting with teens but I don’t go there very often because I’m not that cool, how much I love Pinterest because I’m visual, how I make videos because it’s fun, and how lucky I was to marry a guy with the last name of a crafty animal thereby giving me access to a logo and a memorable market image

I told the audience: your platform is all about you – who you are, your honest self, what you like to do. I also told them to write a good, if not great, book. And I told them the importance of being nice. To illustrate, I referenced John Green, James Patterson, and Diana Gabaldon.

Now, anyone who knows those authors also knows that they are not only talented but also prolific. They write book after book. Green writes literary award-winners, Patterson plot-driven fun reads, Gabaldon clever historicals. Sure, they are in the media, but not because they are standing on a strategic platform. They didn’t try to create a market. They are standing on a carefully built stack of books.

This week I read a blog post about marketing that stopped me in my tracks. It was so honest, so blunt, so well said that rather than repeat her words, I encourage you to go read it.

It’s here. Go read it. I’ll wait.


Now, Ms. Dawson doesn’t mince words, and her advice is spot on. If you want to be published, if you want to write a book that will be read, if you want to find your market, there is only one path: write the best dang book you can write. And then write another.

And another.

Build the platform first and they will not come. Scream and shout and they will not buy your book.

Write a good book, write another good book, work hard, work harder, be nice, be nicer – these are the only ways I know to sell books. Try to make each book better than the one before. Be part of the community of writers by sharing, not by hogging.

Write a good book and share that infinitely large platform. That’s the way to marketing stardom.

AWP Conference Minneapolis

For a number of years now, I’ve been attending and speaking at the annual AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) conference, and this year is no different. I’ll be participating in two panels – one on magical realism in YA and children’s literature with Laura Ruby, Samantha Mabry, Nikki Loftin, and Nova Ren Suma on Friday at 4:30PM, and one on the “geography of nowhere”, examining suburban and rural settings in kidlit, with Kirstin Cronn-Mills, Geoff Herbach, and Nikki Loftin on Saturday at 9AM.

Please come find me if you are attending the conference! Here’s where I’ll be:

Guest Post: Anne Bustard & The Helpful Delete Key

One of my closest friends from my time at Vermont College of Fine Arts is author Anne Bustard, so I’m especially thrilled that her debut novel ANYWHERE BUT PARADISE is out today. Even more especially since Anne’s novel was bought by Egmont, and she was one of the orphaned authors of their “Last List”. (Luckily, Lerner Group has acquired Egmont’s titles, including Anne’s.) I’m even more especially thrilled because I saw early drafts of this novel – and I can tell you it’s wonderful.

Anne agreed to come over and write a very wise guest post for me, so here she is.

Pressing DELETE may be the answer, by Anne Bustard

I love to watch outtakes of movies. I’m fascinated by what didn’t survive. Usually I agree with the cuts, but sometimes I like one so much, I wish the filmmaker had kept it anyway. Just because.Anne Bustard's debut

So, it may not surprise you that superfluous favorites have remained in draft after draft of stories of mine because of love. In my critique group, we call it “ice skating.” (More about why in a moment.) What I have come to realize is, the Delete key can be a writers’ best friend. Pressing it may, in fact, save your story.

Candidates for cuts are limitless—a single word, sentence, scene, chapter, character, story thread . . .

Twice, I hit Delete on an entire manuscript. And survived. It is now my debut novel.

Based on my experience, I have a few tips.

Delete if:

  • it’s a repeat. For instance, if your character responds the exact same way to a threat time after time, it’s predictable, potentially boring and will mark your character as stagnant. Cut and change the response to show growth.
  • something isn’t working. Rather than trying to fix it—cut it. That might solve the problem.
  • it no longer fits or makes sense. Even if you love it. Perhaps now you have figured out what your character really wants, and it sends the story in a new direction. Clinging to the past can be deadly. Be brave.
  • a scene, thread, etc. is not organic to the story. If it feels manipulated, it will read that way.
  • you need to add tension. Collapse a week into one chapter, or a year long novel into a month. Tension builds and transforms characters.
  • it doesn’t raise the stakes and make events worse.
  • it doesn’t add anything (but words) to the story. In fact, extra words unnecessarily complicate it.

Anne’s photo by Sam Bond

During a major revision to short chapters and fewer threads for Anywhere but Paradise, I came up with a sparkly new thread—I loved it so. It was all about Peggy Sue’s desire to be an Olympic ice skater. I showed how the move to Hawaii crushed her dream because there were no ice rinks in the islands. I concocted, through much research, a traveling ice show.

My critique group ever so tactfully suggested that I might think about thinking of ditching that thread because it didn’t add anything to the story.

After much angst, I nixed those chapters and scenes. But only the day before I queried agents. I did not want to cut them. I loved them. But cut I did, because, I thought—I can always add them back in.

I never did. And now I can’t imagine what I’d been thinking.

Okay, so there might be one teeny, tiny line related to that thread that remains. I promised myself if my wonderful editor questioned it—it was a goner. She didn’t.

The line occurs early in the story. Peggy Sue is at her first hula lesson. She realizes that dancing is harder than it looks.

Practice. All I need to do is practice.

All day every day.

Like an Olympian.

Like me, you may not need ice skating in your manuscript. Embrace the delete option. Many possibilities glitter and shine, but only choose those that best serve the novel.

You can find out more about Anne and her work here.