Site Seeing

Most writing requires research, and historical fiction is especially demanding because it means scouring libraries, the internet, old letters, journals and diaries and, on occasion, visiting cemeteries and even ghost towns. It’s often an exhausting process, but the reward is inspiration for plot, characterization and location, the exhilaration of visiting places where the story will play out and immersion into the same milieu as my characters. Not only does “walking the walk” help create both protagonists and antagonists; it can also steer the plot in unexpected -and challenging- directions. This was certainly the case with my latest book Communion of Sinners. Inspired by Life in a California Mission, the 1786 journal of Jean Françoise de la Perousé, it’s set along the north central coast of California which is, luckily, a beautiful place to do research. Once I decided to set most of the action in Carmel and Santa Cruz, I explored these towns and their Franciscan Missions and began weighing what scenes to situate where, and which of my characters to involve. I thought readers might like to see photos of the sites that helped flesh out my story, accompanied by quotes from the book.

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On his drive from New Orleans to Carmel, I decided my protagonist, Sam Crockett, needed a taste of what was coming and immediately took him to Mission Soledad. “Before those desiccated mountains stretched Salinas Valley, a sunbaked, wind-blasted plain uninhabitable without irrigation. Damn, Sam thought. No wonder this place was called the Devil’s Frontier.” Water has made the valley bloom since the Spanish arrived, but I could still imagine how remote Soledad must have seemed when the Mission was founded in 1791. Sam felt isolated too, especially after making a grisly discovery in the ruined campo santo.

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When I ventured inside the Soledad Mission chapel, I spotted such a peculiar juxtaposition of the sacred and profane that I decided Sam should share the moment. “(He) took only one photo of the altar because, except for the pop singer, he had never seen a Madonna in black lace.”

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There was more evidence of the past with its ongoing decay as I wandered the mission grounds and found what remained of the original structures and the cemetery. Following in my footsteps, Sam saw “adobe walls chewed by wind into a miniature Monument Valley.” Despite efforts to the contrary, I suspect it’s only a matter of time before this erodes away as well.

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In Carmel-by-the-Sea I found what I regard as the most beautiful Mission in the entire chain with its handsome bell tower, inviting courtyard and lush plantings. As striking as it is, the imposing façade harbors an unusual imperfection which I wanted Sam to notice as well. “The four-pointed star was slightly lopsided, as if the Mission’s most exotic ornament had sinned by ambition. It somehow humbled the grand basilica, and he liked that.”

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When Sam’s photojournalism partner, Claudia Durand, arrives from New Orleans, she tours Carmel Mission by herself and snaps “a few discreet photos of Serra’s bronze and travertine memorial before returning to the forecourt to rest her feet.” It isn’t long before her peaceful moment is wrecked by a mysterious man who has, unknown to her,  already threatened Sam. The stranger will appear yet again to reveal a most unexpected motive.

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As the action moves up the coast to Santa Cruz, Sam and Claudia discover that entire buildings have been erased or shuffled around the small 1791 Mission chapel and the newer, much larger Holy Cross Church nearby. One of the biggest surprises is that, “the church stands on the original site of Santa Cruz Mission.” Because this was earthquake territory, that otherwise mundane fact held rich possibilities.

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When I read that the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake had savaged Santa Cruz, I wondered what ghosts might have been unleashed near the Mission. “The quake was not without a ghoulish touch when the parking lot alongside Holy Cross Church was impacted strongly enough to reveal the remains of a nineteenth century burial.” Sam and Claudia learn that this is “the tip of a very ugly iceberg” when more ancient skeletons appear, bludgeoned skulls indicating they did not leave this world voluntarily. The mystery was deepening.

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I entered the Mission at day’s end, when pinkish windowpanes flattered the simple surroundings. My main characters arrived at the same time. “Sam remembered the priest’s comment about the stained glass windows as the setting sun suffused the chapel in a roseate glow. ‘You’re right. This is a perfect time for photographs.’” It was also the moment when the plot kicked into high gear.

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There was other local phenomena I wanted to incorporate, namely the legendary Carmel sunsets which truly blew me away. To ensure Sam enjoyed them too, I housed his hosts, the Ruskins, in a “1901 shingled Craftsman that always drew attention from tourists wandering Santa Lucia Avenue. A generous porch surveyed sunsets over Point Lobos and Monterey Bay which Paul and Dina routinely enjoyed, along with a glass of wine, in her Grandmother Alice’s cherished Adirondack chairs.” Lots of wine and sunsets are washed away on that idyllic spot.

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I also wanted to showcase the beautiful lagoon where the Carmel River pools before emptying into the Pacific. With apologies to the locals, it was a place of such natural splendor that I couldn’t resist despoiling it with a corpse. “Sam pointed across the lagoon to police tape, the only color in a monochromatic landscape. ‘It’s where they found that poor runaway.’”

Each photo is linked to a string of murders, some with bloody handprints dating back to the early mission days. I had great fun uncovering clues as I raveled and unraveled the mystery and hope you’ll want to join Sam and Claudia as they’re targeted by a murderous Communion of SinnersthCA2F2BIQ

 

3 Comments

  1. Don Sylvia
    May 17, 2014

    The attraction of the false romance of the historical California missions with the more factual bent of today was very intriguing in this story. It reminded me of when I first came to California in the mid-70’s and visited the Mission de San Juan Capistrano. I too was taken in by it’s beauty but, at the same time, instantly feeling a strong spiritual connection between it and one of the places that fascinated my youth, Fort Niagara on Lake Ontario in New York. That was a fortress built for protection and embodied violence. The feeling is palpable and each location is strangely exotic at the same time. This book and it’s characters will stay with you that same way.

  2. Bebe Bahnsen
    May 17, 2014

    Michael, I felt as if I were there. Thank you.

  3. Liz
    May 19, 2014

    Michael, your photos are terrific (as is ALL your photography!) and, when coupled with your excerpts, really highlight the details of your amazing storyline. As Don Sylvia pointed out in his comment, even in the midst of the physical beauty, something menacing can still be felt. I definitely felt that in Carmel.
    Thanks for this treat!

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