Last week I finished a draft of my second novel (insert victory dance here). I’m feeling pretty good about it, but if you follow along, you know that the next step in my process is to do nothing. Yep. I print it out and stick it in a drawer for about a month. I need this time away to forget all the edits and all the good intentions so that I can read it with fresh eyes. I’ve heard some writers say they leave it for even longer, but I’m way too impatient for that. I can hardly stand to give it a month and I can only manage that by distracting myself with a shiny new story idea.
The New Idea
This week I opened a new Scrivener file and started working on an outline. It’s an historical novel, set in San Francisco around the gold rush. I’m a huge nerd for California history and I did a ton of research for novel two, but then the story kind of went its own way and I only got to include some of the things I found so interesting. Well this new idea is set square in the heart of San Francisco, starting (I think) with the day Brannon ran through town yelling “gold!”
I wrote my first book without an outline and it took eight years. Then, I outlined the hell out of the second novel and I wrote it in two years, so I’m going the outline route again with this one and I’m doing something I’ve never done before. I’m starting with characters.
Starting With Characters
In my Scrivener binder’s character section I added the young woman I suspect is my main character. Then, I figured, she had a family, so I named each of them and decided out how old they were in 1848. Then I started thinking about the people they probably interacted with a daily basis. I did a little research and found this awesome list of reported occupations for the white men living in San Francisco at the time:
1 minister; 3 doctors; 3 lawyers; 2 surveyors; 1 school-teacher; 11 agriculturalists; 7 bakers; 6 blacksmiths; 1 brewer; 6 brick-makers; 7 butchers; 2 cabinet-makers; 26 carpenters; 1 cigar-maker; 13 clerks; 3 coopers; 1 gardener; 5 grocers; 2 gunsmiths; 3 hotel-keepers; 20 laborers; 4 masons; 11 merchants; 1 miner; 1 morocco-case maker; 6 inland navigators; 1 ocean navigator; 1 painter; 6 printers; 1 saddler; 4 shoemakers; 1 silversmith; 4 tailors; 2 tanners; 1 watchmaker; 1 weaver
Granted, this is just the white men (because they were the ones doing the counting), but I can hardly look at it without seeing a story evolve. I mean, in a town of 500 people there are 26 carpenters. That’s one in 20. There was a lot of building happening. And only 1 school teacher. What’s his story? Because it was almost certainly a he. And 3 lawyers. A town of 500 people needed 3 lawyers? And 6 printers working (I discovered) on the town’s 2 newspapers.
Then I found this list (again, counting just the white men):
Born in the United States 228 (note: California wasn’t a state yet in 1848) ; in California, 38; other Mexican departments, 2; Canada, 5; Chile, 2; England, 22; France 3; Germany, 27; Ireland, 14; Scotland, 14; Switzerland, 6; at sea, 4; Denmark, Malta, New Holland, New Zealand Peru, Poland, Russia, Sandwich Islands, Sweden and West Indies, one each.
Four of the men reported their place of birth as “at sea” (sideways glance… run from the law much?)
Anyway, I’ve used these two lists to start building my cast of characters. I named the guy from Denmark, gave him 27 years of age and made him the school teacher. I think the Canadians travel in a kind of gang of carpenters. You know how those Canadians can be. Maybe there’s a rivalry with the Germans? Still working on it.
To Find The Story
I have no idea what the overall arc of my story will be yet. I’m just having fun envisioning this place and all the people in it. Of course, all this is just a starting point. Gotta dig a little deeper than the old white guys, miright? Like this guy William Ledsesdorff, owner of the first steamship to sail on San Francisco Bay. I’ll have to fictionalize him, because fiction, but I’ll definitely be writing him into the story. And native people made up about 15% of the population (again, by the tally of the white guys).
And within six months of the start of my story, people from all over the world will start flooding in by the thousands. Things are gunna get crazy.
Ultimately, who knows if anything will come of all this. I’ve definitely spent time researching novels that I eventually lost interest in, but at this point it’s doing what I need it to do: get my mind off novel two for a month so I can come back to it in March for a fresh read.
I love my work. I feel like a kid when I play with ideas all day. It’s the best.