The Streets of San Francisco: Detoured, diverted, and derailed by historical research

Several weeks ago I had carved out a few days for uninterrupted writing, and I was firmly committed to making significant progress on my new book. I already had the first five chapters written (about 10,000 words) of Uneasy Spirits, the sequel to my historical mystery, Maids of Misfortune, and my goal was to get another 4-5 chapters done. I started out well, briefly reviewing my outline, and then I began writing the chapter where my protagonist, Annie Fuller, was to travel from the O’Farrell Street boarding house she owned to the residence of Simon and Arabella Frampton, spiritualists she is investigating. This would require her to take a horse car from her neighborhood north of Market Street to the Rincon Hill neighborhood, south of Market, where the Framptons were renting a house. I started on the first paragraph, and two days later, I only had about 600 words written.

You see, I got lost in the streets of San Francisco, doing research.

The first detour away from writing started innocently enough. I wanted to find the name of the horse car company Annie would have been riding in 1879. First I did a google search, looking for sites on early San Francisco transportation. I eventually found out that there were two routes that went near her house and would take her within a few blocks of her destination, the Central Railroad Company (horse cars ran on rails), and the South Park and North Beach Company. Of course I also read about the history of horse cars in general, learned about when horse cars began to replace omnibuses in San Francisco, located a lovely picture of a horse car from the South Park Company, and read about the history of Rincon Hill/South Park district. One morning of writing gone.

After lunch I pulled out my book of historical San Francisco maps, and, with a magnifying glass, began to go through the maps for the 1860s and 1870s. Uneasy Spirits opens in October of 1879, just a few months after the events of Maids of Misfortune, therefore I needed to know what routes existed in that year. Of course there wasn’t an 1879 map, that would be too easy, but two maps did have streetcar routes marked on them. One was from 1864, which actually had the title “The Railroad Map of the City of San Francisco,” the other was dated 1873. What I discovered was that the Central Railroad went right past Annie Fullers’ boarding house and would pass just two blocks from the Frampton house, so the Central Rail it was. Now that I was sure of the route, I pulled out pictures I had taken the month before when I last visited San Francisco to attend the Bouchercon mystery conference. I had walked between Annie’s house and the Frampton’s place, providentially taking the same route that the horse car would take, and I had snapped a number of pictures on my husband’s iPhone so I would have a sense of the terrain.

Unfortunately, I am not a native San Franciscan. While I visit the city as frequently as I can and have read numerous books on the city, I don’t know the streets the way a native would. I don’t have childhood memories of which section of California Street is the steepest, I haven’t had to calculate whether it is closer to go straight down O’Farrell to Market or turn at Taylor, I don’t have a sense of how long it would take me to get from Kearney to the Embarcadero. I have to look up this kind of detail on a map, or research them in person. In addition, reconciling the streets in 2010 with the streets of 1879 (particularly when most of places where people lived and worked in 1879 were destroyed in the 1906 Earthquake and Fire) is not easy. Flipping back and forth between my pictures, the printed historical maps, and google street map, I pictured riding a horse car down Taylor, across Market, down Sixth, and getting off at Folsom.

But then I had to hit the pause button on my imagination. I had taken the photos in the morning, but Annie and Kathleen would be traveling in the late afternoon, so I had to look up to see approximately when the sun would be setting in San Francisco mid October and what the weather was probably like (again thanks to google). I then rewound my imagination and took the trip again with the sun low in the sky. Suddenly my first day of writing was over and I had written only 135 words.

The next day. after actually writing a few paragraphs of dialog between Annie and her maid as they traveled to the Framptons, what diverted me was not the horse car route or the terrain, but the look and feel of Folsom Street in 1879. I did more research on the neighborhoods of Rincon Hill and South Park, whose character as the wealthy part of town had been undermined by a bad municipal decision to cut through Second Street. I had noticed when I walked between Annie’s place and the Framptons that the 700 and 800 blocks of Folsom had seemed so much longer than the block on O’Farrell where Annie lived. I needed to know why, and if this was a modern configuration or one that would have existed in 1879. It took me hours, but I finally found out that difference in length was due to the original city land surveys, which made the blocks south of Market Street 4 times the size of those north of this main thorough fare. However, I also discovered that the city then divided those blocks into 6 lots each, which were then subdivided in a variety of patterns by subsequent real estate speculators. Phifft, there went the second morning.

After lunch, I wrote a few more paragraphs getting Annie and Kathleen down Folsom to the Frampton’s house, but then I was completely derailed as I threw caution to the wind and dove into the research necessary to determine what style this house would look like, given that it would have been built in the mid1850s (which is when this neighborhood flourished). Between a number of books written on the history of San Francisco architecture, a historical picture of a mansion on Folsom, and several sites on the internet, I finally decided on the Italianate style and determined the architectural details and the proper color scheme for the period. Day two of writing was gone, my nice window of writing opportunity had ended, and I had managed to write only 620 words.

So, was all this research necessary, and was it necessary that I do the research right then?

Yes and No.

I certainly could have done the research later, concentrating on the dialog in the scene and filling in any details later about the name of the horse car, the route they took, and so forth. One downside of having learned so much detail about San Francisco transportation is that I might have been tempted to do an information dump, the bête noir of historical fiction. Even more likely, I might never even use this chapter, deciding later that it will speed up the pace of the book to start right out at the Framptons, skipping how Annie got there.

Yet, I would argue that I needed to do that research, and I needed to do it then, even if the whole chapter disappears and much of the detail I learned never makes it on the page. Even if the reader doesn’t need to know that someone who got off at Folsom would be able to see the Twin Peaks if they looked west up that street, or that Italianate houses had sturdy decorative brackets along their roof lines, I needed to know. Because it is details like this that fuel my creative imagination.

When I can picture the horse car Annie would ride or what Folsom Street would look like, then what I write will ring true, even if every detail I end up writing is a complete fabrication. Because ultimately what I write is just that—fiction. I don’t really know what the 800 block of Folsom looked like in 1879, and even if I did (say for example I found a picture), I might describe it differently to make it fit into my plot. And I don’t really know how it feels like to ride on a horse car, and even if I got to ride in one today, I wouldn’t experience it the same way someone of that time period would.

With a pinch of an old picture, a dollop of a nineteenth century newspaper story, mixed in with four years researching and writing a dissertation on women who worked in San Francisco in 1880, added to a very large portion of having lived for sixty years and the important ingredient of an active imagination, I can make the reader believe they are truly experiencing the past. That is the alchemy of creative writing, and doing research as I write, not in some fill-in-the-blank manner later on, is one of the ways I do my job well.

What about you? How do you use research when you write, whether you are writing historical, contemporary, or science fiction? And, how much detail do you as a reader want when reading about a time and place that is not your own?

One thought on “The Streets of San Francisco: Detoured, diverted, and derailed by historical research

  1. Hello Louisa,

    I’m writing my second book, a contemporary comic detective novel. Though I don’t share your need for historical accuracy, I do have to research stuff. And I grapple with the same issues you do.

    Sometimes when I’m typing I hit a wall, because I don’t know the mileage between two towns, or what a fire truck’s gauges look like, etc.

    When it does occur, I cry. Then I type, in brackets: ***** RESEARCH TOWN MILEAGE, INSERT PLOT POINT (or something like that). Then I press on.

    That way, I don’t interrupt my flow and I accomplish my all-important word count goal.

    I used to think that I had to do my research right then, for creative purposes. But then I figured I was kidding myself. And, even if doing research immediately helped me creatively, I told myself to prioritize: I could have a sublime novel in ten years, or a good novel in eleven months. And I thought, what’s “sublime,” anyway? What if readers prefer the eleven-month novel?

    I think of it like skiing. If I’m hell-bent on getting to the next ski station, I’ll go over moguls, cliffs, whatever need be–and I grit my teeth and curse every time, knowing that what I’m writing (mixing my metaphors, sorry) is awful. But invariably, I read it a week later and it’s not that bad. 🙂

    Best wishes,

    John

    PS Exploring San Fran on Street View in Google Maps may help supplement the pictures on your husband’s iPhone. Street View’s a wonderful tool. Hope this doesn’t provide another distraction…

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