My latest book, Spirit Catcher, has just come out and is available on line. I’ve been asked to say a few words about it, but first I’m going to mention Singapore.
As I write this Singapore is in the news due to the recent death of its modern founder, or inventor, Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew. Mr. Lee took what had been a backwater of the British Empire and turned it into a modern industrial trading nation, an actual city-state with its own military and one of the most important economies on Earth. With practically no natural resources of its own, Singapore developed into a major port city and manufacturing center. This despite the fact there are three official languages and apparently dozens of different ethnic groups. Who would have thought such a tangle could succeed?
San Francisco has many parallels with that city. Spirit Catcher takes place in San Francisco of the 1850’s. Only a few years earlier this town was a backwater Mexican village built on sand dunes with few prospects for the future. With the Gold Rush she suddenly turned into a major trading center and metropolis. Her population went from about three hundred to more than ten thousand in less than a year. Singapore is an island, while San Francisco sits at the end of a peninsula. Unlike Singapore, San Francisco is not an independent nation, but she does have her own county, unlike anywhere else. And she’s always had a confusing mess of ethnic groups. In the nineteenth century Chinatown was usually called Little China. There was also a Little France, Little Italy, Little Chile, and Little Sydney. And probably others, as well.
The story in my book was inspired by looking at a collection of Victorian “spirit photographs.” It seems they were quite popular at one time. The first ones were produced by a photographer in the 1860’s, who discovered the possibilities of double exposure. Soon he was photographing séances and ghosts, complete with ectoplasm and floating spirits. The photographer in my story is a little ahead of his time, as are so many things in California. Looking at those Victorian pictures, I was bemused by wondering what sort of mentality would decide to cook up something like that. Well, a con artist of course. The same type who might decide to enter the banking profession, or Congress.
Another element in my fascination with the subject was my own experience in photography. I used to have a darkroom, long before digitization. When I was nine years of age I was developing my own film. I soon discovered a book on trick photography, with instructions on how to picture a ghost. Great stuff. For research on my book, I read among other things a couple of nineteenth century photography manuals. One of them is titled “Photography Made Easy.” It describes how to prepare your own glass plate, with such chemicals as silver iodide, nitric acid, mercury and cyanide. A really fun hobby. The book suggests an estimated exposure time for portraits as twelve minutes!
Once my con artist-photographer began to emerge from my subconscious, I decided early San Francisco would probably welcome him, as they have so many other con artists in history. Reading about my town is always an adventure. I highly recommend The Annals of San Francisco, published in 1854 and available on Internet Archive. My fictional character lived in a real context of an actual city with real people. Some of the other characters in my book, with bit parts, are William Tecumseh Sherman (who ran a bank before becoming a Civil War general), Lola Montez (who scandalized Europe and Australia and nearly married the king of Bavaria), Big Bertha, Oofty Goofty, and Henry Meiggs. You can read my book to find out more about them, or in desperation resort to Google. I did refrain from using some other fantastic heroes of the time, such as Emperor Norton and John Geary. Well, actually Norton is the subject of another book of mine …
Those bit players and others all inhabited the same city in the same time period. If they didn’t actually know one another, they would at least have heard of each other. I was afraid some of them might seem too fantastic and unbelievable for a book of fiction, but you could look them up!
In my opinion, no novel is worth its salt without at least one murder and one romance. You’ll find those in most of my stories including this one. Love and war are parts of life. At least in fiction we can try to keep them in balance, unlike the daily news. It may be that reading the history of any other town would reveal as many strange, romantic and warlike people, but I have my doubts of that. My fascination with the history of San Francisco arises from the fact it has always been a frontier society, balanced on the edge of European and Oriental cultures. So it continues even today. Just like Singapore.
Steve Bartholomew, April 6, 2015