Writing the Past: The Devil’s in the Details

I write historical fiction to reveal old worlds through a new lens.

On a trip to the Loire Valley in 2000, I was struck by the beauty of the vineyards and impressed by how generations of French families had battled blight, mildew, rot, and pests to produce superior wines. This centuries-old blend of passion and persistence, art and science, sparked the idea for my series about the ambitions of two French-born vintners to establish an American winemaking dynasty at the turn of the twentieth century. After my initial impression of the vineyards’ beauty and complexity, I had to know more to write the story I wanted to tell. I soon discovered that a historical novelist’s love of story must be wed with an endless enthusiasm for and dedication to research.

Biking between the vine rows in the Carneros region

Biking between the vine rows in the Carneros region

Researching vineyard life in the late 1800s was a pleasure. I visited a Loire Valley vineyard, and toured historic Napa vineyards by bike and on foot. I snapped photos of ripening grape clusters, scribbled down notes about historic gravity-flow wineries, sifted the rough, porous clay loam through my fingers, and, of course, sampled the wines! I also delved into French and California history books, read years of nineteenth-century trade papers, consulted a master winemaker, and reviewed old maps and photographs at The Napa County Historical Society. Although I had a vague outline for the novels when I started, my research fueled the stories for The Vintner’s Daughter and The California Wife.

The turn of the twentieth century was rife with innovation and conflict. The glittering Paris World’s Fair, the advances in travel, medicine and economic opportunity, the destruction of saloons by hatchet-wielding temperance advocates, and tragic natural disasters riveted the citizens of our world. North American women led one of the most promising revolutions of that time: they left their kitchens in droves to fight for their rights. These historical elements also provide a treasure-trove of historical drama for the backdrop of the series.

Regusci Winery, Napa, built circa 1878

Regusci Winery, Napa, built circa 1878

When I finally put pen to paper, the demands of writing historical fiction surprised me. I had to learn how vineyards operated at the turn of the twentieth century, and study photos and accounts of period clothing, manners, literature, education, food, rents, and architecture. I read French civil and criminal codes, researched the smell of creosote and how it feels to hold a beating heart in one’s hand (I didn’t actually do this one—I consulted a surgeon!).

How does one aptly convey the thrill of assisting in your first heart surgery, or the horror of trying to escape San Francisco’s Great Earthquake and Fire of 1906? To lead readers deep into the scene with the characters—so they experience everything just as the characters do—an author must include historical details that will enrich the story and raise the stakes for the characters.

Wine caves dug by Chinese circa 1877, Napa

Wine caves dug by Chinese circa 1877, Napa

During the first editorial phase of The California Wife, one of my beta-readers said something I’ll always remember. He read a scene I’d crafted about a historic celebration at the Italian-Swiss Colony in Asti, California in 1898. He said, “This is a beautifully written scene. I can smell the grass, feel the breeze and taste the food. But what’s the point?” My historical details—gleaned mostly from newspaper and eyewitness accounts—were all accurate, but I had failed to advance the story. To solve this problem, I swiftly inserted an explosive argument between the two main characters. Now, every time I write a scene, I ask, “How do this scene and its details advance the conflict/drama/story?”

Choosing whether or not to use dialect or historical slang in your story can also make it or break it. Dialect or slang should be used to deepen the reader’s understanding of a character or community, but both can become tiresome distractions. When in doubt, I always read the scene aloud or rely on my beta-readers and editors to steer me in a direction that best serves my readers and their experience.

The best historical fiction entertains and educates readers seamlessly. It challenges readers’ perceptions of the past, present and future and often stimulates debate. Perhaps some of the best advice comes from one of my favorite historical fiction authors, Isabel Allende: “Write what should not be forgotten.”

The Pulpwood Queens’ Texas Book Club Extravaganza!

PQ Stamp of Approval (1)I’m honored to announce that The Vintner’s Daughter has been selected by Kathy Murphy as a Pulpwood Queens bonus book selection for February! As many of you know, from my recent social media posts, I had the pleasure of spending the Jan 15-18 weekend with tiara-wearing Pulpwood Queen Book Club members and over thirty accomplished authors at the 15th Annual Pulpwood Queens Girlfriend Weekend in Nacogdoches, TX. Kathy Murphy started the Pulpwood Queens Book Club out of her beauty salon in East Texas fifteen years ago, and it has blossomed into the largest meeting and discussing book club ever, with over 650 chapters worldwide!

Girlfriend Weekend is a celebration of good books and friendship–with flashes of cheetah-print and pink feather boas–and a wonderful silent auction to support the Dolly Parton Imagination Library. Our hosts, Pulpwood Queen Kathy Murphy and NYT Bestselling Author Jamie Ford, guided us through an exciting weekend of Texas barbecque, author talks and signings, The Great Big Ball of Hair Ball (amazing costumes), and the announcement that Dreamworks is making Kathy’s autobiography, The Pulpwood Queen’s Tiara-Wearing, Book-Sharing Guide to Life, into a big-screen movie!

Thank you, Pulpwood Queens and my fellow authors, for a fabulous time! To join a Pulpwood Queens Book Club near you, to start your own, or to sign up for Girlfriend Weekend 2016, click here!

15th Annual Pulpwood Queens Girlfriend Weekend

15th Annual Pulpwood Queens Girlfriend Weekend
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This Week’s #Sunday Sentence

My selection for this week’s #SundaySentence opens John Baxter’s Paris at the End of the World, an exquisite book about the City of Light during the Great War. It’s a quote from Winston Churchill:

“We sit in calm, airy, silent rooms, opening upon sunlit and embowered lawns, not a sound except of summer and of husbandry disturbs the peace; but seven million men…are in ceaseless battle from the Alps to the Ocean.”

May we never forget the price paid for those calm, airy, silent rooms.

One Writer’s Paradise: Visiting San Francisco & Napa

Veraison of Pinot Noir grapes, Bouchaine Winery

Researching historical fiction can be tricky and time-consuming, but if you enjoy your subject, it can be a delightful indulgence.  This July, I had the unique opportunity to spend seven glorious days exploring San Francisco and Napa Valley, California, two locations where my debut novel, The Vintner’s Daughter, and its sequel, are set.

The Vintner’s Daughter, set in 1896, chronicles the struggle of a wine maker’s daughter to reclaim her family’s Loire Valley vineyard, and the life that was stolen from her.  The second half of the novel takes place in San Francisco and Napa.  The best way for me to climb inside my characters’ minds, and write about their daily lives, is to see, hear, feel, smell, and taste what they experienced—at the turn of the century.

As a write-at-home mom of three young children, I couldn’t just go gallivanting off for a weeklong holiday in the vineyards (although I considered it!).  Instead, we made it a family affair, with my husband, mother and three kids tagging along for what we now call “our best family vacation ever!”

To sate the kids’ need for Mickey, Shamu and Minions, we spent our first week with cousins Gin & Craig in southern California, touring theme parks and reconnecting with family.  Then we headed north, through the rolling hills and farmland of the Central Coast, finally arriving in San Francisco.

Like every writer, I had my research agenda: visit historical buildings, archives, and vineyards to unearth what life was like living in San Francisco and Napa from 1890 to 1906.  However, it was the unexpected discoveries that made our trip unforgettable.

I had lived on Lombard Street in 1995, but it was wonderful to see the city again through the eyes of a tourist.  We rode the San Francisco cable cars, toured the city on a Big Bus, devoured banana splits at the (historic) Ghirardelli Chocolate Company Shop, and snapped photos of the Queen Anne and Italianate architecture of Haight-Ashbury.  Because a pivotal scene in my book takes place on what is now China Beach, I wanted to make sure I described every detail correctly.  At sunset, we stood on the half-moon, rocky shore of China Beach in Sea Cliff, enjoying the breathtaking sunset and view of the Marin headlands and Golden Gate Bridge.

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When we arrived in Napa, the town was in the grip of a 98-degree heat wave.  Naturally, I had arranged to surprise my husband with a fifteen-mile Napa Valley Bike Tour (literally between-the-vines) for our sixteenth anniversary.  Despite the heat, it was phenomenal!  We toured three vineyards, enjoying tastings at BouchaineMcKenzie-Mueller, and Etude, all within the Carneros wine region (where one of the vineyards in my novel is located).  The San Pablo Bay breeze, along with ample water and a gourmet picnic lunch supplied by our seasoned guides, Steve Stone and Paul Torre, kept us happy and hydrated.

We started our bike tour beneath towering eucalyptus trees, noted for their durability, peeling bark and soothing menthol vapor.   American grape farmers took care to plant their vines far from these trees, to prevent the vine roots from soaking up the eucalyptus oil, which infuses grapes and wine with a menthol taste.

Veraison, or the ripening of the grapes, had begun.  The small, green pinot noir grapes were taking on a purplish hue.  Near the end of August, the harvest would begin.  Sparkling wine grapes would be picked first, then the dry wine grapes, and lastly, in late September, the dessert wine grapes, which require high sugar levels.   Our guide, Steve Stone, explained the bulges on the vines (where the vines were grafted), the netting (to deter birds and rodents from eating the ripening grapes), and the circling red hawks (to frighten away large birds and rodents).

Most memorable was our bike ride to the southernmost edge of Carneros, atop the crest of a vineyard hill, which overlooked the reservoir, marshlands and the San Pablo Bay.  To our right, rose Mount Tamalpais, the sleeping princess, and in the distance, we could see the San Francisco skyline.  It was the very spot I’d imagined my novel’s heroine standing, and it existed!  It was a goose-bump moment that I will never forget.

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The next day I strolled through the renovated downtown to the Napa County Historical Society, housed in the Goodman Library, bursting at the seams with maps, books, documents and photos of Napa through the years.  The research librarian, Alexandria “Alex” Brown, is a young, peppy native who effortlessly fielded my barrage of questions, and happily supplied me with stacks of 1895 maps, books, turn-of-the-century photos of Napa businesses, train stations and schools, and even photos of an old wine press she snapped at a recent visit to the Nichelini winery.  Her enthusiasm and knowledge gave me confidence in my research, and left me eager to continue writing.

On our next excursion, my mother and I enjoyed a private vineyard tour with Certified Wine Professional and Sommelier, Max Roher.  Max shuttled us in an air-conditioned SUV, with another family, to four Napa vineyards, which he’d carefully chosen to match our requests to tour small, historical family-owned vineyards.  We walked through rows of 113-year-old, untrellised Zinfandel vines, toured a turn-of-the-century farmhouse, and visited a 19th century French-style chateau winery built by Hamden W. McIntyre, the expert who designed many of California’s first gravity-flow wineries.  On each occasion, the vineyard owners or managers greeted us personally, taking time to explain how they craft their wines, and answer our questions while we swirled and sipped from our glasses.

Did you know that every bottle of wine we drink contains nearly three pounds of grapes?  The vulnerability of these grapes is striking: over the last century and a half, they’ve fallen victim to pests, rodents, frost, mildew, and Prohibition.  Still, the grape growers and wine makers persist in finding new methods to protect and improve the fruit.  It is a precise blend of hard labor, science and art, to perfect the wines that fill our glasses.  I am inspired and humbled by their efforts.  Cheers!

Kristen’s debut novel, The Vintner’s Daughter, is scheduled for publication in the fall of 2014.