While plotting out my YA supernatural mystery Box in The Cuts, I immediately ran into a challenge. How to tell the backstory of the creepy old mansion at the center of the novel. And then I remembered the convention Bram Stoker used in Dracula. A combination of short diary entries and letters would work nicely!
The mansion is loosely based on the Ralston Hall Mansion in Belmont, California. It’s halfway between San Francisco and San Jose. I eventually settled on the 1860s as a good time period for my subplot. The setting? The rough and tumble Barbary Coast of San Francisco. While reading about the history and demographics of the place, the character practically introduced herself. Hello Marguerite. A seventeen-year-old girl desperate to escape a life of prostitution at a gambling salon where she lived with her mother.
Through this device, I was able to tell Marguerite’s story and explain what happened to her when she took a job at the mansion to escape her fate in the city. A few letters from her distraught fiancé capped the subplot.
I have to say I was happy with the way it all turned out. The way the contemporary story intersected with the historical chapters, revealing dark and deadly secrets.
Now, I couldn’t have done it without the help of a key book. The Writer’s Guide to Everyday Life in the 1800s by Marc McCutcheon. It answered most of the questions I had about the period: style of dress, manner of speech, birth control methods and marriage customs. Even what to call that funny little cabinet in the corner of the parlor.
As for the writing style of the diary and letter entries, the internet is an amazing thing. I was able to find enough letters from the 1860s to give me a good sense of how people expressed themselves back then.
I love historical fiction, but I was nervous about giving it a go myself. But now, I’m excited about returning to that world. On my writing list is now an historical fantasy set in the era of the Gold Rush.