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.

Revision Techniques

I love revision. My first drafts tend to be real ugly ducklings. If there’s a swan inside, it only emerges after multiple revisions.

In this post, I’m giving you two things: first, my ten-point global revision technique; and second, my detail checklist. The detail checklist is especially helpful for getting rid of those pesky errors introduced through laziness. I hope these help!

Ten-point revision checklist:

  1. Reread entire manuscript in one sitting, making margin notes and keeping track of details (i.e., character eye color, dates, place names) for consistency.
  2. Confirm that tone, POV, and voice are working.
  3. Identify large-scale plot weaknesses. Use Martha Alderson, aka, The Plot Whisperer or James Scott Bell’s Write Your Novel From the Middle to locate plot turning points and confirm that tension is increasing appropriately.
  4. Make a scene or chapter chart, as per Martha Alderson or Darcy Pattison (Novel Metamorphosis).
  5. Try Pattison’s “shrunken manuscript” technique.
  6. Identify your characters’ arcs. Make sure you have a “story-worthy problem” (the true underlying problem your character must resolve – see HOOKED by Les Edgerton) and a resonant theme. Make sure that the story-worthy problem is discovered by both reader and protagonist late in the story, ideally around the climax.
  7. Use Cheryl Klein’s plot checklist worksheet to further clarify theme and emotional arcs.
  8. Rewrite/type entire manuscript from a hard copy. Read entire manuscript out loud.
  9. Use a checklist for minor issues or run through Darcy Pattison’s exercises.
  10. Do exercises in Donald Maass’s Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook.


    My compilation plot paradigm, which includes elements from Martha Alderson and James Scott Bell.

Detail revision checklist:

In addition to smoothing all those plot inconsistencies, adding twists and turns, and working on character-deepening, there are a few things I “checklist” as I revise.

  • Find all the “ly” words (i.e., adverbs) by using the Word search feature and eliminating most.
  • Search for “it is/was” and “there is/was”. It’s almost always stronger to use different phrasing. (Or…Phrases are almost always stronger without “it’s”.)
  • Search for places where my character “felt,” “thought,” “saw,” “looked,” “noticed,” “remembered,” etc. When I’m really inside my character, those phrases aren’t necessary.
  • Search for sentence “flow.” In particular, I look sentence by sentence for stronger first and last words.
  • Search for passive voice and other indicators of “telling.”
  • Try to make sure there’s tension on every page.
  • Remove dialogue tags wherever possible. Even “said” can get in the way when only two people are talking.
  • Make sure gesture substitutes for internal thoughts wherever possible.
  • Look for those things that popped up in my subconscious and may be amplified – recurring metaphors or images.
  • Watch for repetition.
  • “Voice” – either jargon, dialect, or manner of speaking as appropriate
  • Remove “just” “so” or other personal hiccups
  • Remove linking verbs
  • Remove “then,” “when”
  • Add physical gestures/personal tics
  • Check five senses

If you have any revision checklist ideas to add, please do!

The “Magic of Verse” in BLUE BIRDS

As a lover of historical fiction, I’m always on the hunt for excellent reads, and I’m thrilled that BLUE BIRDS, Caroline Starr Rose’s second novel (following her highly acclaimed debut MAY B.), is available now!

Here’s a synopsis of BLUE BIRDS: “It’s 1587 and twelve-year-old Alis has made the long journey with her parents from England to help settle the New World, the land christened Virginia in honor of the Queen. And Alis couldn’t be happier. While the streets of London were crowded and dirty, this new land, with its trees and birds and sky, calls to Alis. Here she feels free. But the land, the island Roanoke, is also inhabited by the Roanoke tribe and tensions between them and the English are running high, soon turning deadly.

“Amid the strife, Alis meets and befriends Kimi, a Roanoke girl about her age. Though the two don’t even speak the same language, these girls form a special bond as close as sisters, willing to risk everything for the other. Finally, Alis must make an impossible choice when her family resolves to leave the island and bloodshed behind.”Blue Birds cover high res

Caroline has written a guest post on the crafting of BLUE BIRDS, and in particular, the alternating voices of the novel:

There are always a few things that lead me to a book, but I’m not fully aware of them at the beginning. I was drawn to the Lost Colony story while teaching fifth-grade social studies in 2008. I hadn’t thought about those 117 missing people and their mysterious last message, CROATOAN, since my own school days. Coincidentally, our Scholastic book order had several books about the Lost Colony available at the same time. I ordered them and shared what I was learning with my students. This is where the seeds of BLUE BIRDS story began.

But I can look further back and see that Alis and Kimi’s friendship came from my own girlhood relationships. I relied a lot on those feelings of belonging, the intensity and sincerity of those early bonds to tell the girls’ story.

When I first started drafting BLUE BIRDS, the story came from only Alis’s perspective. But the more I wrote, the more I realized the story hinged on Alis and Kimi’s forbidden friendship, and to most truthfully tell it, I needed both girls’ voices. This was kind of terrifying. I worried how others might feel about a non-Native author speaking for a Native girl. I wondered if I even had permission to try. But I kept returning to the things I had in common with both girls — feeling understood by another person, the way identity is often formed out of young friendship. This gave me enough courage to keep moving forward with the writing.Carolyn Starr Rose, author of Blue Birds

As strange as it sounds, verse has become my default. I find it a really in-the-moment way to write historical fiction. It’s immediate, spare, and lets us into a character’s inner life very quickly.

For this book in particular, verse also became a wonderful way to tell a story in two voices. Readers move quickly from Kimi to Alis and back again. And when the girls share a poem, I was able through line and stanza placement to “speak” their story visually, adding one more layer of communication. Verse is magical that way!

Caroline Starr Rose was named a Publishers Weekly Flying Start Author for her debut novel, MAY B., which was an ALA-ALSC Notable Children’s Book and received two starred reviews. She spent her childhood in the deserts of Saudi Arabia and New Mexico, camping by the Red Sea in one and eating red chile in the other. She has taught social studies and English, and worked to instill in her students a passion for books, an enthusiasm for experimenting with words, and a curiosity about the past. Visit her at

Tension On Every Page

A year plus ago I had the good fortune to attend a conference featuring three greats: Christopher Vogler, James Scott Bell, and Donald Maass. I already had books by each one of them, and I carried my copies along for their signatures. One of these is my well-used copy of Maass’s WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL WORKBOOK. He signed it, “Tension on every page!”

In my previous posts I’ve talked about tension and conflict at the most general levels of plot. Maass takes this position: there can’t be too much tension in a novel. As a result, he’s a firm believer in adding tension in every chapter, to every scene, on every page.


Donald says: tension!

To do this he suggests that you randomly turn to any page of your manuscript, select any line at random, and heighten the tension in that line.

Do this on every page of your manuscript until you’ve got the kind of tension that results in a can’t-put-down read. Hard work? You bet.

But let’s look at, first, how little one needs to do, and, second, how hugely it pays off.

I opened THE HUNGER GAMES to a random page, and here’s what I read: “My eyes squint as they try to penetrate the tree next to me, but I can’t make out Rue. Since she tipped me off, it seems only fair to warn her. Besides, if I’m going to die today, it’s Rue I want to win.”

What does Collins do, in this tiny snippet, that is immediately riveting? Let’s look at the verbs: squint, penetrate, tipped, warn, die, win. Each one calculated to be extreme, and to suggest that Katniss is on the edge, unable to fully view the outcome. In addition, Collins doesn’t let up on the physical death stakes: “…I’m going to die today…”

Just to round things out, this paragraph concludes: “Even if it means a little extra food for my family, the idea of Peeta being crowned victor is unbearable.”

Unbearable! Even if her family would get something out of it Katniss is utterly unwilling to tolerate the success of her friend turned ally turned enemy. With extreme internal thoughts and pointed external behaviors in every sentence, Collins does not let her readers off the hook for a second.

If you still doubt the importance of this, take any page of your manuscript right now, and change nothing but the vocabulary. If you have called someone “charming”, change him to “irresistible.” If your character “asks” for something, have them “demand” it. Heighten just the vocabulary and after one paragraph I guarantee you’ll finish the page and then the scene.

Do the same with internal emotional responses, and you’ll be on your way. Yes, it will take time, but you’ll be delighted – no, thrilled – with the results.