I didn’t start out to write a book set during the California Gold Rush. In fact, I didn’t start out to write historical fiction at all. Although that’s one of my favorite genres, I have other loves as well. I like well-written prose, regardless of the category.
My inchoate objective for Embracing the Elephant was to explore a contentious father-daughter relationship damaged by choice and circumstance. The story was to begin after the harm had been done, thereafter following my main character through to resolution, if not reconciliation. I also wanted a lot of the narrative to take place in my native California, partly so that “write what you know” would be true (especially since this was my first book).
Even as I began exploring ways to separate (then reunite) the father and child (such separation and the circumstances surrounding it being the main source of the damage), my story stalled (at very least, boredom threatened). Using contemporary travel choices of plane or train dictated that the reunion would be quick. Oh, I could stretch it out using flashbacks, like the movie The High and the Mighty. However, I had little enthusiasm for that. What life-altering flashback is a child of eleven likely to have? How probable is to for a memorable experience to unfold while hurtling through the atmosphere for a few hours at 35,000 feet or dashing for days past miles of countryside where infrequent stops can be anonymous and homogenous? A bus had the same issues as a train but was even more plodding. In addition, for an under-aged traveler, such a trip in current times is likely to be governed by a lot of rules: must be accompanied by a responsible adult or must be met at the destination by a responsible adult or something equally as restrictive. Trains and buses and planes accorded me little time or opportunity to test the mettle of my heroine or offer much enrichment for her.
What about a voyage? But who, in modern times, chooses a ship (and the resulting weeks of travel) to unite a parent with a child? Nowadays, cruises may be popular for vacations, but are not usually the first choice for general travel.
Then, I toyed with the idea of turning back the clock of my narrative. In that way, I had fewer choices of transportation, but also fewer restrictions and rules.
I had several eras from which to choose, but the one that occurred some 160 years prior was the most enticing. And my narrative began to fall into place.
In 1848, there were only three ways to get from Boston, Massachusetts to San Francisco, California: (1) journeying through uncharted, largely unpopulated, and often bleak and unforgiving terrain from Missouri to the Sierra Nevada; (2) some kind of voyage to Panama followed by a physically treacherous and disease-plagued mule crossing of the isthmus, followed by another sailing; or (3) all by sea around Cape Horn. All of those options spanned approximately six months – as long as one didn’t get lost or killed along the way. Six months offered a lot of opportunities to tell a compelling story.
I chose option three. By sending my main character via sea travel, I could play with stops in South America that were both exotic and dangerous; I could introduce peril both in ports and on the waves, especially around Cape Horn; and I had time to develop interaction among passengers and crew that would have been impossible or, at very least, short-lived using modern transportation. When I threw into the mix the most massive global migration in human history – the gold seekers flooding into California to “See the Elephant” – a rich, varied, and exhilarating world opened up for me and my young heroine.
Moving through time, I had my setting.