Panning for gold, 1850.
I love history (obviously), and most of my work stems from a specific tidbit I’ve found in my regular reading. While I have many juicy morsels squirreled away, only a few will ever amount to another novel.
My romance series, When The Blood Is Up, is rooted in women’s boxing that began in the 1700s. In fact, the more I learned about women’s boxing in the Georgian era, the more fascinating it became, hence writing an entire series based on the concept.
My as-yet unpublished historical novel The Square Grand, emerged from the fact that in 1906, the Piano Tuners Association of America gathered up over three hundred square grand pianos and burned them on the beach in Atlantic City, New Jersey. For those of you that don’t know, a square grand piano is rectangular in shape and a hassle to tune. It was a bid on the part of a piano tuners and piano sellers to get people to buy the new technology of upright pianos instead.
Portrait of a young Californio woman—a Spanish settler of California prior to its inclusion in the United States.
But some historical morsels are just that: such small nuggets that I don’t know what to do with them. For instance, in a National Geographic from decades ago, there was a throwaway snippet about ancient Burmese warriors who inserted tiny rubies in patterns under their skin, effectively giving themselves armor. I have been unable to confirm this from another source, but I find it absolutely fascinating. They aren’t the only ones who have inserted precious gemstones in their bodies: there is rumor that the Yakuza insert pearls just under the head of their penises. Which sounds like erotica that I am not qualified to write.
But what would I write about if I weren’t finishing a series set in Regency London? In terms of setting, I’d love to explore women in the Gold Rush. Not the brothels or the taverns, but the women who were out in the wilderness (where I live now), panning and mining for gold in a place where there weren’t enough lawmen to uphold a law. Where you were who you said you were. Where fresh eggs cost as much as a new shirt and murder was as common place as suppertime.
I know women lived up here. I know they weren’t as ubiquitous as men, and it was far more dangerous for them. But I’d like to rewrite the fantasy we have of women in the Gold Rush who were prostitutes or madams. There certainly were those. But women did far more—this land was occupied by indigenous peoples and Spanish settler families long before the 49ers came this way.
I want to rewrite the idea that rape was an expectation. Where a woman couldn’t be respected because men just couldn’t manage it. Men could. We’ve seen that respect in some writings, even though misogyny was widespread. But we can’t let that misogyny color our understanding of the whole of the Gold Rush epoch. During that time period, women could own land in California, and the land they owned prior to marriage stayed separate, so should a divorce occur (which was commonplace even then in California), the property would remain hers. Women had more rights than our collective American fantasy of the Wild West says. There are so many male tough explorer types that have been explored in literature. I want to see the women who did it—like they say about Ginger Rodgers: just as good as Fred Astaire, but moving backwards and in heels.
When I think about it—which is every time I go pick up a pizza at the Saint Charles Saloon in Columbia State Park (we call it Chuck’s), because it is an official gold-mining ghost town—I think about what Westerns and Gothics have in common. The Western trope is largely a male one that emphasizes loneliness and self-reliance, the Gothic trope is largely the female one, which emphasizes loneliness and a need for sudden self-reliance (usually because the household wants nothing to do with you). In a Western, the hero cannot trust other men. In a Gothic, the heroine cannot trust the man she married (or is affianced to). In a Western, the rule of law is negotiable. In a Gothic, the rule of society is negotiable behind closed doors. In a Western, the landscape is harsh and forbidding, a land that must be conquered. In a Gothic, the landscape is harsh and forbidding, which means escape is impossible.
The only thing I need to start my next venture is that one piece of history that intrigues me so much that I cannot help but tell this story. That I must write it down. And you know what? I think it’ll find me when the time is right.
Edie Cay writes award-winning feminist Regency Romance about women’s boxing and relatable misfits. She is a member of the Regency Fiction Writers, the Historical Novel Society, ALLi, and a founding member of Paper Lantern Writers. You can drop her a line on Facebook and Instagram @authorediecay or find her on her website, www.ediecay.com