word craft


Story Behind the Story #70,
Part 3: Gold Rush Girl

Gold Rush GirlMy good friend, the late Bet­ty Miles—who wrote many fine children’s books—once told me: “I have to work on a book for about six months before I feel like a real writer.”

I also recall Thomas Mann, the ear­ly twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry Ger­man writer, say­ing some­thing to the effect that “The ama­teur writer finds writ­ing easy. It is the pro­fes­sion­al writer who finds writ­ing difficult.”

For me, it is always the first draft of a book which proves hard. Thus it was for Gold Rush Girl. I came to the sto­ry in back­ward fash­ion. That is, when I learned about the aban­doned ships—Rotten Row—in San Francisco’s ear­ly Gold Rush days, I knew I want­ed to write about such an odd thing. But know­ing about Rot­ten Row was not enough. I didn’t have a sto­ry, much less char­ac­ters to bring that sto­ry alive. I had the stage set, so to speak, but not a play to put in the stage.

The World Rushed InWhen I began to do my research, I wasn’t look­ing for infor­ma­tion to give depth to my sto­ry as much as I was look­ing for the sto­ry. As it turned out there were sto­ries every­where. The thou­sands of peo­ple who flocked to Cal­i­for­nia all seemed to have sto­ries to tell. Over­whelm­ing­ly male, hard times sure­ly drove some of them to go west. The promise of quick rich­es drew plen­ty oth­ers. But many came because they want­ed adven­ture, change, and a new life. They were not just work­ing-class peo­ple either, but pro­fes­sion­als: lawyers, bankers, doc­tors, and the like. Over­all, there were plen­ty of ref­er­ences to “Gold Fever,” and fever seems to be the right word for many who come. The World Rushed In is the title of just one of the many books about what hap­pened. It’s an accu­rate phrase. Some, like the Chi­nese, were going east. Folks from Chili went north. Mex­i­cans, a con­quered peo­ple, were already there.

My task, as a writer, was ulti­mate­ly to reveal why an east coast girl should ever want to go to Cal­i­for­nia, what cir­cum­stances would com­pel her to go to such a wild, untamed place, where fem­i­nine com­pa­ny was rare, and then explore what hap­pens to her once she gets there.

In short, I had to become part of Tory’s adventure.

As often hap­pens when I work (if I get lucky), at some point the char­ac­ters become real, sep­a­rate from me. Then it seems I just tag along and see what choic­es they make, and how the adven­ture unfolds. That’s when—to harken back to Betty’s words—I, iron­i­cal­ly, feel like a real writer. “No sur­pris­es for the writer, no sur­pris­es for the read­er,” said Robert Frost. Gold Rush Girl kept sur­pris­ing me. My expec­ta­tion is that read­ers will expe­ri­ence the same surprises.

back to Part 2 of this arti­cle

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