Saturday, December 29, 2012

Having crushes on Victorians

Have you ever had a crush on someone of the past? A daguerreotype that you couldn’t stop staring at?

A number of years ago there was an exhibit at the Oakland Museum of California called Silver and Gold: Cased Images of the California Gold Rush.

As I wandered around the exhibit, I found myself suddenly arrested by a group shot of men. There were maybe five men in the image, and one of them: well, he stared right out at me and I felt a jolt of recognition.

I don’t think I believe in reincarnation and yet I’m obsessed by the idea. I love the concept that you might encounter the same souls again and again in different incarnations. And if there is any truth to the idea, then for sure I was looking at someone I once knew.

The image isn’t online, but I just now realized there was an exhibition book that went along with the exhibit. I know what to put on my birthday wish list! I’d love to see him again…again.

* * * * *

I was reminded of this exhibit recently for a few reasons. One is that I wrote a gothic novel in which someone looks at a black and white photograph with a loupe and has a moment somewhat reminiscent of my experience.

The other--and the reason that I actually googled around and located the website for the 1998 exhibit at the Oakland Museum--is that I found this guy pictured above. And he gave me a similar sort of jolt--not necessarily the “I know you” jolt, but the “I would like to know you” jolt.

This is Charles Keeler circa 1895, an early Berkeley poet and a founding member of the Berkeley Hillside Club. I’ll blog more on this historic club later.

This photograph seems so contemporary to me, almost like it was staged to look Victorian. Charles isn’t necessarily my type, but something about his probing gaze is saying, “Let me set down my cheroot so I may better address my attentions to you.” I picture him saying all sorts of banal things but with an undercurrent of “I’m a gonna take your clothes off, layer by lacy layer, stripping off that shirtwaist and throwing your whalebone corset across the room.”

Charles: I’ve checked with my husband and timetravel hooking up isn’t really cheating. I’ll meet you in 1896, okay? New Year’s Day? Right by the oak tree in the Oakland City Hall plaza?

. . . . .

Friday, December 28, 2012


Novelists earn their keep by imagining themselves into other people’s circumstances. We professionally emote. We empathize by trade.

Several weeks ago, I was in the middle of drafting a blog post, when I clicked over to another screen and learned the news about Newton, Connecticut.

I grieved for those parents and those children and those teachers with my entire body. Not just tears, not just sobs: entire back-breaking heaves that I only hoped could somehow ease something there, just a bit, somehow. If I took on one woman’s pain, just one tiny atom of its immense and universe-sized volume, I hope I helped her.

Their world was altered in mere minutes and they will spend lifetimes trying to return to the moments before that man entered the schoolyard with his assault guns. They will never succeed.

My love and my grief to you, town of unspeakable misery.

Poem for Newtown, Connecticut

A dimple
that is what they can remember
maybe it will be her cowlick
or her arm really at the wrong angle

to write correctly, coming down
to the paper, not up to it. That report card.
She was supposed to improve
her sloppy handwriting but they didn’t
get around to it yet.

She was wearing spirit wear.
Her room is still messy.
She had that light husky cough.
They talked of keeping her home.

They can’t really remember those
who passed, elderly parents and neighbors,
without photographs. And so it will be
with her.

It will someday be impossible
to conjure up exactly how she was.

They will study
the worksheets and the papers
with their dotted lines inside solid lines
like a road, really, an escape route
that showed her how to correctly form
her letters. They will scrutinize
the drawings: mermaids with wings,
fairies with crowns, beetles crawling
the margins. They are going to try
very, very hard to retain her.

They are going to fail.

She was brevity itself.

She is already unsnatchable
from the air, a vapour,
a hint of something dear,
something so wrenched
from their very blood,
their breath,
the threads of their meat,
the throb of their pulse,
the water that still

rocks inside them,
like they are oceans set
askew, tilted.

They will comb the air
for her, they will claw
the air, they will scry
the air for her,

they will look
and look and look
and look and look

and look

. . . . 

Sunday, December 09, 2012

Nanowrimo 2012


Now that I’m (slowly) coming out of my sleep deficit for Nanowrimo, I wanted to post about my inaugural experience with it.

Nanowrimo is short for National Novel Writing Month, and it’s an initiative invented by Chris Baty, a wacky Berkeley guy. When I interviewed him for Oakland Magazine, he said, among many witty things, “In every group of friends, there’s someone who says, ‘Let’s dress up like donkeys and go down Market Street.’ I’m that guy.” After that, I knew I had to participate in Nanowrimo myself.

In essence, each November 1, thousands of people around the world drop everything and try to write a novel—well, at least 50,000 words—by Nov. 30.

There’s a supportive, cheerful website that fuels the whole endeavour, You sign up for free, and once the month begins, you are able to update your word count (obsessively, in my case) in a display next to your name/photo. Your page includes a bar graph showing your progress and the expected progress, and your statistics show you the date you can expect to finish if you continue at the same rate. You can add buddies and track their progress too. You can attend local write-ins, where you meet up with other nanos and write together; I went to one with a group that wanted to talk rather than write, but I really liked the concept anyway. At the end of the month, you cut and paste your novel into a little text box, and within seconds your word count is verified and you’re announced a “winner.”

If you hit 50K words, that is.

And it’s….really….just not that….easy.

To hit 50K words in 30 days, you must write 1,667 words per day. That’s about six double-spaced pages. For me, six pages represents not just a good writing day, but a great writing day. And therefore, during November, you must have a great writing day every day. That’s hard.

Right away, I felt overwhelmed. By Day One, I was already behind. By Day Two, I was thousands of words behind. By Day Three, I thought, “I might not be able to do this.”

On either Day Four or Five, I invested in myself. I parked the children at a drop-in daycare center and hied myself to a café. There I worked for 1.5 hours, writing steadily, then walked down the length of the little strip mall to a taqueria, where I spent the next 1.5 hours, again writing steadily. In three hours, I wrote 5,000 words. That was enough to almost catch me up. Not quite, but enough to feel like I was in the running again.

My month continued like that. Days where my word count was abysmal, and then days when I would write hell for leather and almost catch up. “Almost” being the key word. I kept watching that darn diagonal line in my bar graph and trying to reach it.

I came up with a few strategies to up my word count:
1. If your sentences are excessively wordy, great! Don’t fix them. Plenty of time to do that on Draft 2. Just let them stand. Every word counts in Nanowrimo.

2. Find some kind of gimmick to up the word count. My novel is set in Ireland so I hit on the idea of including characters from some of the fantastic Irish ballads. Nancy Spain? Why yes, there she is on page 125, trying to hawk her ring. The Star of the County Down? That pretty lady appears too.

3. Try writing from another character’s point of view. All along, my novel was written first person. When I decided to write a few scenes from another character in third person, suddenly pages came pouring out of me, and I had a couple of 2K word days. I think those scenes enrich the book and they’ll stay.

By the last week of Nano, I was exuberant. I knew I could make it. I had to stay up to midnight to do it (my target bedtime is 9:30, wild life, right?) and I’m still reeling from that. But it was worth it. It was just one month out of the year, and I threw myself into a project with a zeal that has previously only come from doing writing retreats where I was by myself and someone else fed, sheltered and studio’d me.

Nanowrimo will certainly humble you if you can’t make space in your life to achieve that “ridiculous” (Chris Baty’s word) word count. A good friend’s father went into the hospital this November and she had to suspend her nano writing or I know she would have made it (yes, he’s fine!). It’s fun, zany, serious, debilitating, exhilarating, all-consuming. Thanks, Chris Baty, for a fantastic month.

What about you? Are you on board for next year?

. . . . . .

Saturday, December 08, 2012

Literary Joke

The other day I was looking at a list of donors for a local school’s funding drive, and on one line by itself was this donor:


I laughed with delight. I love finding literary jokes hidden in the real world. Magwitch of course is the character in Great Expectations who is a secret donor funding Pip’s education, although Pip believes it is Miss Havisham (sorry for the plot spoiler, but the book is 200 years old!)

I wish I’d thought of it.

Anyone have any literary jokes they’ve come across over the years?

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Historical Novel Society conference

The Historical Novel Society conference takes place June 21-23 at St. Petersburgh, Florida. I'm excited to report I'll be participating in a panel titled "The Witchcraft Window: Scrying the Past." This panel will talk about witchcraft in fiction, and features Kathleen Kent (The Heretic's Daughter), Mary Sharratt (Daughters of the Witching Hill), Suzy Witten (The Afflicted Girls) and me (The Witch's Trinity).

Each of us has a slightly different take on witchcraft and already via emails we've had some thought-provoking conversations, so I think this will be an interesting panel. Some of us believe in witchcraft; some of us don't. Some of us see it as a feminist issue; some of us don't. Some of us descend from women accused of witchcraft; some of us don't. Come to find out which is, which!

Kathleen and Suzy's books look at the Salem hysteria, Mary's book is about the Pendle Witch trials in England in 1612, and my book is a fictional account of a woman accused in Germany in the early 1500s.

The link to the conference is here. It's for both readers and writers--and agents and editors will be there too. I attended in 2011 and met fantastic people, one of which is now a very close friend. It's a fun time to get together with people who love history and love reading: a powerful combination.

. . . .

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Artwork based on Timberline photo

It' s been amazing how many little bits and drabs of information file in sporadically on the woman known as "Timberline," the Dodge City prostitute whose image adorns the book jacket of my novel Woman of Ill Fame.

When I asked Heyday Books to use her photograph for the book jacket, all I knew about her was what I just typed in the previous paragraph.

Over time, readers have contacted me with different little tidbits to add and/or directed me to other references that source her. That was how I learned her real name was Rose Vastine, and that she had tried to kill herself: both facts that I found shocking. She does not look like a Rose to me! And I was very upset to learn that such a strong-looking woman had succumbed to such despair. I learned that Timberline was her nickname because she was over six feet tall.

Recently someone named David Huerbin contacted me to let me know her full name was Rosanna (again: surprise!) and that her nickname arose because she would ferry whiskey and girls to men living in the mountains above the timberline. That seems more plausible to me. She somehow just doesn't look six foot in her image, and given that people were even less tall in the 1800s than today, I just found the other explanation hard to swallow.

Just like me, this person was intrigued by her image and in fact has created a piece of art based on her. With his permission, I am attaching it here. The letter next to her image is a "suicide letter" he created for her. This piece was showcased in The Basement Gallery in Flagstaff, Arizona in 2002. More later.

. . . . .

Saturday, September 15, 2012

The A/C Ratio and being thin as a playing card

I think I first heard this phrase from a buddy in my old writers group, author Kemble Scott.

The A/C Ratio is terribly important for writers. It is a part of everything they do. It's integral to productive work days.

A = Ass. And C=Chair.

It's monumental. It's cataclysmic. One has to actually SIT DOWN to write.

Sure, you can dictate while you breeze through your workout. You can certainly come up with devastatingly clever dialogue while standing talking to someone who is boring you. But at the end of the day, at some point: yes, you must sit.

I love this bit from Stephen Koch's The Modern Library's Writer's Workshop.

And you must sit down and write. It doesn't even really matter if you feel like writing. As Tom Wolfe says, "Sometimes, if things are going badly, I will force myself to write a page in half an hour. I find that can be done. I find that what I write when I force myself is generally just as good as what I write when I'm feeling inspired."....Joyce Carole Oates agrees: "One must be pitiless about this matter of 'mood.' In a sense, the writing will create the mood....I have forced myself to begin writing when I've been utterly exhausted, when I've felt my soul as thin as a playing card, when nothing has seemed worth enduring for another five minutes...and somehow the activity of writing changes everything."

Let's see if we can all improve our A/C Ratios in the upcoming weeks. I know I'm working on it.

. . .

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Three week class...and fun link

Oftentimes, we want to take a class but just can't commit to the weeks of work involved. about a three-week class?
There are still a few spots in two of my online (wear PJs!) mediabistro classes: "How to Research and Write Historical Fiction" and "Nailing the First Pages of your Novel" July 16-Aug. 1. It is a mini-class as part of the online Literary Festival. Susan Orlean is our keynote speaker! We'll have two hour-long live chats on July 16 and 23 (historical class) and July 24 and 31 (first pages class). Info is here:
 And just so this post isn't completely self-serving, here's a link I recently discovered that I just LOVE. Make sure not to visit until you've got a good mug of coffee with you because you will probably be glued to your seat for hours cruising through the archives. It's a wonderful look at the past (my favorite place!), and with a tagline I find irresistible: "the past is a foreign country. This is your passport." I give you: Retronaut

Friday, June 29, 2012

Governor's mansion in Sacramento

David Nicolai, former director of the Pardee Home Museum in Oakland, California, now living as an ex-pat teaching English in China, recently came to visit. We took full opportunity of historical sites in the area and "geeked out historically." We visited three sites in two days: the first was the governor's mansion in Sacramento, now a museum and no longer a residence.

Governor George Pardee (1903-07) was the first to use this as a gubernatorial residence; it was initially built for another family. Of course, we were interested in this house given our interest in George! He brought his wife and four girls in from Oakland and installed them in the three-story mansion.

Over the years, time has taken a toll on the building despite its still-stellar exterior. You can only visit the first two floors, although the third is due to open soon from water-damage reconstruction. We toured the building with the belief it was to close on July 1; our tour guide reassured us that the museum had been given a temporary stay of execution, operating with reduced hours. Yay!

The coach house, too, is fantastic viewed from the outside. Note the horse head over the entrance, still original. Inside is a nice gift shop. This coach house is larger than many homes. Must've been nice for the horses.

. . . . .

Friday, May 25, 2012

ONLINE summer literary festival

I love literary festivals...but it never occurred to me one could happen online. Luckily, the idea did strike someone at Mediabistro, and I'm excited to be teaching several classes for this cool concept.

I'm teaching "Nailing the First Pages of Your Novel" and "How to Research and Write Historical Fiction"--and there's a host of other classes. The festival takes place July 16 through August 1. Forget reading summer beach reads: WRITE one!

 Learn more here.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Sneak peek at Pixar campus

All my life, I've loved being around creative people. Last week, thanks to a freelance assignment, I gained access to the closed campus of Pixar Studios in Emeryville, California.

This was incredibly exciting to me. I love the playfulness and true drama of Pixar films, so yes, it was worth it to me to travel four hours round trip (and squeeze in a visit with a few old wonderful friends too) to be on campus for a few hours and watch a thirty-minute teaser clip of the new movie Brave.

Driving through the monumental front gates (and seeing each car ahead of me really get grilled; there is no such thing as being waved through here), I felt the thrill of being in a place where everybody is thinking story.

I parked (even that was exciting) and waited in line to enter the main building. In this photo, you can see that it contains an atrium with lots of light. That room was filled with hanging banners for Brave (set in old-world Scotland) and almost has a Hogwarts kind of feel. Backing up a bit, in the photo you can see the tiered seating of an outdoor amphitheater. For this visit it held a Stonehenge-like circle of stones, and across the meadow, a bunch of archery targets. Having not yet seen the film, I thought these were, respectively, permanent art and a recreation opportunity for staffers.

Waiting in line to enter the main building, the woman ahead of me chanted to her friends, "We're at Pixar! We're at Pixar!" I felt the same way but curbed myself, since I was alone and you never look healthy when chanting to yourself. Immediately inside, you're greeted by giant replicas of Scully, Woody, Buzz and other buddies from the oeuvre. There's also a glass case of trophies including six Oscars and a million other glinty pieces.

Security to enter the theater itself was much stricter than the airport. All cell phones had to be turned in to a sort of coat check for electronics, and when they look through your purse, it's not a cursory glance. They are moving things around and really looking. I had not thought of my Garmin nuvi ("Jack") as a person of interest, but I had to go back and add him to coat check too!

The director and producer made wonderful introductory remarks, the movie clip was delicious, and we were all escorted to another building for a lavish refreshments spread. This was held in an open-air patio reminiscent of the Standard Hotel's rooftop in L.A. A great view of the campus could be had from here: I saw one guy swimming lonely laps in the pool, and there is a volleyball court, basketball court, gym, and cafeteria: basically, Pixar is a village and no one need go home until their creativity lapses.

Thanks, Pixar, for the opportunity to visit this incredible facility. (Now, would you like to hire me?)

Monday, March 19, 2012

National Keep Your Chin Up Day for Writers

I originally wrote this post as an email to a Facebook acquaintance, who was clearly getting depressed about his inability to find a traditional publisher for his novel, but as it lengthened I thought it'd be worth posting here. I remember those dark days myself very clearly, and my heart goes out to anyone in this situation--because getting a novel published isn’t just something that would be cool for us; it’s something that validates how we see ourselves.

I remember that if I met someone new and identified myself as a writer, they’d invariably ask, “So have you published anything?” and then you have to embark on the Road to Apologia, why this is, and how hard you’ve tried, and you came close with that one agent, and you attended that conference and had a nice talk with that publisher, and how you keep trying and you…

Yes, it sucks.

So I’m appointing today National Keep Your Chin Up Day for Writers. I have a few thoughts to share that hopefully will serve as a bit of a pep talk.

1. Nearly every published writer I know (myself included) had about six novels under the bed when they finally got that offer. Count up your own manuscripts: two? Three? You may need to keep churning them out, because with each novel your craft improves. Writing is mysterious, and I do believe in innate talent, but as with everything single thing in this life, we get better with practice. So keep practicing.

It occurs to me that this bit of cheer may backfire, that a writer may say, “I can’t keep doing this to myself! I just finished my third book, and that’s IT. You’re telling me I have to write three more?!” Someone who really cares about their career will nod philosophically and take the long view that it’s worth it to keep working, keep improving, and finally get a publication contract for a book that’s your best effort.

And after all, you can’t force a book to sell. You can revise based on editorial feedback, you can try again; you can try multiple times! But at some point, you have to cut your losses and start the next project. Soon, the joy of creating a new world within your novel will ease your feelings of feeling frantic about the previous book. And with what you learned from the new novel, you may wish to launch another revision on the old. But at least you’ll have another fresher, better book to try to publish.

2. Joining a writers group really helps with the emotions of being unpublished. Kvetching together, sharing the anticipations as queries go out, consoling each other when rejections happen, cheering each other on to try again: that’s something that non-writers can’t really offer. They don’t “get” what’s so important about being published.

I heartily recommend finding a real-person writers group, but online works too. For those in the San Francisco Bay Area, I have just the group for you. It’s led by Tamim Ansary, it meets for free every Tuesday night, and there’s incredible camaraderie and support. Tamim’s an incredible mentor and generous critiquer (generous in terms of the thoughtfulness involved in his responses, not that he necessarily praises) and your writing will improve if you listen to him.

The other thing about joining a writers group is that suddenly the idea of being a writer becomes more real. It’s one thing to type away in your home, but when you’re sharing your work with other writers, equally serious about their craft as you, your idea of yourself as an author gains more weight, validity. It will seem more possible that you can do this successfully.

3. Keep reading books you love. It’s not escapism, it’s not a reason not to write. It’s research--because every single sentence you imbibe resides in you. The more you read, the more those different ways of constructing a sentence moil around in your head. You give your brain more options. You are tutoring yourself subconsciously.

4. “It only takes one person to say yes.” I’m sure you’ve heard that dozens of times, but it’s so true in the publishing industry. It doesn’t matter that 50 agents sent you form rejections, if one says, “I love it!” Your onus is to find the person most likely to say yes. Like I said in #3, keep reading…and when you find a book that’s similar to yours in tone or aesthetic, look at the Acknowledgments section to see if the author thanked their agent. That’s a good person to target.

Another good tactic is to subscribe to Publishers Marketplace (you can do it for $20 for one month, jam through the archives, and cancel, if money is an issue): you can see what’s selling right now to editors, and which agents are doing that selling. See an agent’s name several times, linked with books that are similar to yours? That’s another good person to target.

You can also look through those thick tomes of agent directories (or better yet,, but that doesn’t give you a feel for what the agent likes. Just knowing they represent historical fiction, for instance, doesn’t necessarily mean that they like books set in Colonial America. Look at the agent’s website and rifle through their client list. Can you get a sense of the agent’s personality through the books he/she has chosen to represent?

Keep your chin up. There’s a part of this process you can control, and you should: the rest of it is out of your hands. The best thing you can do is move to the next project, and let the current novel marinate. Mark your calendar for six months from now, and re-read it.

Is that chin in the air yet? Higher! Like Cora in Downton Abbey, let me see that plastic surgery scar! I offer you an e-hug and a rueful e-smile, because I’ve been there. Believe me, I’ve really, really been there… and I hope the Gods of Publishing will soon smile on you and your novel.

. . . . .

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Getting down at Downton

This is a post on Downton Abbey, because I’m in love with the screenwriting…and frankly I can’t stop thinking about the show.

Last year, someone told me I would love Downton Abbey, and that she’d watched each episode of Season 1 four times. Four times! I thought that was quite a ringing endorsement, but I still dragged my feet because I don’t watch much TV.

Then another friend recommended it again this year. I was inspired one evening to look for it on Netflix, but spelling it Dounton or whatever I was doing (Dontown?) yielded no results so I gave up.

A while passed before I tried again…and honestly, I’m so happy. Being a “late adopter” meant that I could watch all of Season 1, and then dive instantly in Season 2. I’m going to start watching Season 1 again--I don’t know if I’ll manage four viewings like my friend, but most definitely I want to go back “knowing what I know” and watch how things unfold.

Julian Fellowes is an incredible storyteller. I loved Gosford Park (and was influenced by it in my current novel-in-progress), and Downton Abbey is more of the same delectable upstairs/downstairs drama. So many of the things I find fascinating about the past are included in the show: the sinking of the Titanic, the 1918 flu.

And more recently I learned that the Crawley family is in part based on the Carnarvon family. SWOON. EXCITEMENT. The very name Carnarvon elicits a Pavlovian response in me: that sense of awe as I imagine that solitary candleflame flickering for the first time in centuries on pharaonic gold.

Lord Carnarvon was financier to Howard Carter, discoverer of King Tutankhamen’s tomb in 1922. I’ve been obsessed with this discovery since I was a child. I remember on my wall I had taped up a kids funny pages article about it. My very first signed book was David Macauley’s Pyramid, and he signed it to me, “Greetings from the tomb.” I love ancient Egypt.

Howard Carter’s story is so compelling. He was told the Valley of the Kings was “exhausted,” and everyone considered him a fool for continuing to dig. He kept spending Lord Canarvon’s money, and this was to be his very last season as Carnarvon was withdrawing support. And then a staircase appeared in sand…and they dug…and they dug…and Howard Carter looked through a chink in the wall to the Treasury.

He was asked if he could see anything, and famously answered, “Yes, wonderful things.”

Ah, so pithy! How I love you, Howard Carter.

So, now knowing that Downton Abbey may show us a beautifully-filmed version of this moment…oh it’s making my heart race. There’s so much good stuff here: commoner Howard Carter’s gossiped-of romance with Carnarvon’s daughter Evelyn (a close match with the name Edith?) which had to be quashed, Carter’s illicit smuggling out of the country many antiquities, and… well, no plot spoilers but two words: mummy’s curse. I do hope we get to see this!

But even if we don’t, I know whatever Fellowes cooks up for us will be devoured with great gusto. (And don’t even get me started with the news that his next series will be about the Titanic. I was such a Titanicophile--that doesn’t look right--that watching James Cameron’s movie, I instantly noted that he had hired actors who looked like photographs of the actual crew members. The Titanic story is deep in my blood for some reason, and I was disappointed Downton Abbey only glossed over it. How extraordinary will it be when Fellowes actually focuses on it!)

I was marveling the other day that somehow with this gigantic cast of characters (looking at the most recent cast picture, I count 18, and that doesn’t include dear Bates or lost Lavinia) we understand each person’s story and care deeply about them. What a feat, to balance such a volume of stories.

My favorite character? Mrs. Patmore. Lesley Nicol is an incredible actress, with an expressive face. She so perfectly expresses the staunch demeanor of someone who knows her place, but can wiggle a little to assert herself. I will never forget her lost expression as she sat on the bed by herself, Anna having left her, to await her dreaded eye surgery.

There are a few things to quibble with. For instance, Matthew’s constant popping in from war (“The trenches? Oh, yes, I’ll go back in just a moment. But in the meantime, I’m terribly interested in my own love story, and I’ll surely avoid shellshock by holding onto this stuffed puppy”). For another, the lack of resonating emotion for very big events, like Lady Crawley’s miscarriage (of the very vaunted male heir!), or the in-house death of a diplomat. We go so quickly from thing to thing, and it’d be great to slow down just a little and digest these momentous plot twists.

But they are just quibbles. Downton Abbey is the best fun I’ve had with TV in quite a long time, and like I said at the top of this post, I’m thinking about it all the time. I can’t believe we have to wait (sob sob) until next January to see Season 3. I may just have to move to England to see it earlier.

. . . . . .

Friday, January 06, 2012

Storybook architecture

A reader emailed me recently. She had remembered my (long ago! dating to 2002) Montclarion column about Storybook architecture in Oakland. This style is near and dear to my heart. The article is not cached online, so I’m going to post it here on the blog, slightly rewritten from its original text.

Storybook is the style of architecture that makes you feel like you suddenly slipped into the Germanic forest of Hansel and Gretel, and are peeping at a quaint cottage in the clearing. The Montclair neighborhood boasts two wonderful public examples, pictured here.

At top is the firehouse on Moraga Road. Its roof is not supposed to be painted white to represent snow, but should rather shine with its original copper finish to represent flames –see them roaring up at either end of the building-- quite appropriate for a firehouse. Note the scalloped roofline, the heart above the entry, the tiny windows in the eaves: all illustrative of that olde worlde charm.

The other structure is the library on Mountain Boulevard. Its roofline was built to look like it was already sagging for centuries, although the library was quite new at the time of this photograph. You can see the clinker brickwork behind the bushes and its general homespun, European appeal.

I must credit the coffeetable book Storybook Style: American's Whimsical Homes of the '20s by local architect Arrol Gellner. It’s filled with gorgeous photos by Douglas Keister of many Bay Area buildings, including private residences in Oakland, Berkeley, Piedmont and Alameda. In an email interview, Gellner told me that he thinks "Storybook Style homes, more than any other, represent the embodiment of the builder's personality, creativity and sense of humor. They're also a snapshot of an optimistic era when anything seemed possible, which no doubt appeals to people in these jaded times."

So what defines Storybook? Gellner calls it a "rambunctious evocation of medieval Europe" and sets the three criteria: an overstated rendition of medieval forms, use of artificial measures to make the building look extremely old, and the third, amorphous quality: "whimsy."

Storybook homes, at their most extreme, have crooked chimneys, lopsided walls, roofs that undulate like the wind making waves on a pond, misaligned shingles, askew shutters, clinker brick: all things to suggest antiquity, as if the very house is settling due to its age. Some homes have drawbridges (like Humphrey Bogart's Hollywood home) or streams with bucolic bridges over them, reminiscent of a pastoral Europe.

Gellner presents an interesting reason for why Storybook architecture arose. Even dating to the 1700s, people were fascinated by the Middle Ages (my dictionary says the Middle Ages ended in 1500, so the fascination began 200 years later). For instance, Marie Antoinette's famous "farm" at Versailles was her interpretation of a medieval countryside hamlet. The 1869 castle Neuschwanstein (which Disney later based his Sleeping Beauty castle on) is in essence fake, because it purports to look far older than it is.

Gellner points out that because Victorian style was so fussy, with its overwrought gingerbread detailings and interior doilies and tassles, people longed for a return to simpler times, like the society of a medieval town where goods were made by hand rather than in a factory. This was the basis of the Arts and Crafts movement, which valued craftsmanship. By the 1920s, people were ready for Storybook architecture, which allowed them to pretend they had stepped back in time. However, it seems to me that storybook architecture is a little fussy on its own, with turrets and eaves and different roof levels. Gellner says Storybook architecture relies on Craftsman ideals (like using natural materials, buildings of a small scale and architecture that appears organic to its setting) that were "recast in a rather more theatrical style."

And why theatrical? A major factor contributing to the rise of Storybook was the indomitable presence of Hollywood. By the 1920s, talking movies had created the first "stars" – people whose homes needed to reflect their unique standing in life. Moreover, there was a ready workforce that was used to creating fantasy sets – or was inspired by them – builders whose dials were already set on creative. Hollywood is indeed, as Gellner says, the "epicenter of Storybook style," although I did see at least 10 Oakland buildings featured in the book, as well as a handful from other Bay Area cities.

Another reason for this style? Men returning from WWI with memories of appealing European villages.

Sometimes entire housing tracts were built in Storybook style. Three are local, and were all based on designs by Oakland-based architect W. W. Dixon. One is Stonehenge in Alameda, another is Normandy Gardens in Oakland, and the third is on Oakland's Ross Street. This street was chosen because its electrical and phone cables had already been undergrounded by the time of the construction, and the street had pleasant light standards, rolled curbs and concrete pavement rather than asphalt. Part of the Ross Street tract, built by R.C. Hillen, was removed during freeway construction in the 1960s.

A few other streets host Storybook enclaves. One is 75th Avenue near MacArthur Boulevard. This stretch is called Holy Row, Gellner says, because at one point many of the homes were lived in by various church leaders. These homes were built in the early 1930s. Another street is the charming, tiny Veteran Way in the Dimond District, with three full-fledged Storybook homes and several "almosts."

Storybook architecture was gone by the late 1930s when Art Deco took over—a style that was also revivalist, looking in part to Egyptian motifs after the 1922 discovery of King Tutankhamen's tomb. Unfortunately, there are few buildings left. Gellner told me "Sometimes we (he and photographer Keister) had to spend days just to find one good one. It was like finding a diamond buried in a sand dune." So Oakland should certainly appreciate its good fortune in having many structures!

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