…into the subject. Come on! What did you think I meant?
My current novel series is historical in scope – meaning (unless I wanted misconceptions, myths and anachronisms in my work (which I didn’t)), I was in for some research. Not my favorite pastime, but what could I do?
I chose to set the first novel during the California Gold Rush. Given the coming-of-age tale I wanted to tell, everything fell into place when I chose this particular event as the platform for Embracing the Elephant.
Of course I knew something about the California Gold Rush — who hasn’t heard of that, right? Popular culture abounds with images and myths. However, I did not want to write a myth. I wanted to write something from the heart, something that would give my reader a taste of the beauty and hardships of early California while experiencing the difficulty of a father-daughter relationship strained through circumstance. To do that, I needed to know a lot more about the real people that lived through this event.
I rejected the movie-as-research-material route quickly, after having rented a horrid John Wayne film called In Old California (to ensure that my story had not already been “done”). In the movie, John Wayne plays a Bostonian pharmacist* who comes to California to set up shop, unaware that the Gold Rush is on. Since my story starts in Boston and my characters are drawn to California prior to the discovery of gold, I was afraid I might be rehashing old tales. No worries. In Old California is a Western in disguise (and an abysmal one at that). Most of the stories about the California Gold Rush seem to be Westerns in disguise. I have nothing against Westerns, but that was not the story I wanted to write (and, frankly, the Westernization of the Gold Rush is mostly Hollywood’s fault).
I scoured the Internet. It was no surprise that there was a ton of information about the California Gold Rush there, but most of it was high-level and did not address what I needed – what was life really like during that time?
History books (like The Age of Gold) were fantastic sources, meticulously researched and presented in a way I found easy to follow. Again, however, these were broad in their sweep. I learned that so-and-so was in California during the years of gold and human flux, but I still did not know why that person was there nor what they felt about their experiences.
Which brings me to the journals and the diaries and the letters and the stories written by the people who lived it – the men and women who came to California to “See the Elephant.”** Beautifully preserved and redacted, these personal writings were just what I was looking for to make my story real. I could not have asked for more.
* This movie was worth a few minutes of watching just to see The Duke portray something other than a cowboy or a war hero – and try to speak in precise, unaccented English!
** This expression originated in response to traveling menageries of the time, where unique collections of creatures drew the common man to gawk. During the California Gold Rush, “See the Elephant” became a metaphor for living the great adventure, finding one’s fortune, facing some of the meanest realities, and discovering ultimate truths.