Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Time of Fog and Fire. Rhys Shares a work in progress.

RHYS BOWEN: I've been busy recently, writing not two books in the past twelve months, but three. Yes, I do need my head examined, as my husband tells me. But I was asked to write a Molly Murphy Christmas book, as well as my normal schedule of one book a year for each series. It was a challenge, I can say that now, not to have any down time between books, but I finished the Christmas book, and I'm happy with it. It's called AWAY IN A MANGER and it comes out in November.

However I had to go straight from this book to writing the next Molly Murphy, due out next March. And the subject matter was harrowing so I've spent a lot of this year in emotional overload. It's hard for me not to feel what my characters are going through, and in this case it's an earthquake. Molly goes to find her missing husband in San Francisco and her troubles are compounded when she experiences the 1906 great earthquake. 

Fortunately the research part of this was easy for me. I have lived just outside San Francisco for forty years. I have taken my children to museums and exhibits and am quite familiar with the lie of the land and the extent of the quake damage. But for this book I read many of the first person accounts housed at the San Francisco Historical society. And it's the small personal observations that bring scenes to life. One that struck me was a description of the Chinese fleeing Chinatown. The men striding out, carrying their caged birds and women hobbling behind, some with bound feet. And others burning papers and burying them to appease the Earth Dragon

Of course I used these in my book. It's called TIME OF FOG AND FIRE. Here's a sample:

            And all the while the shaking continued. A light had been left on in the stairwell. Now it flickered and jiggled around, sending crazy shadows dancing over the stairs. As I came out onto the landing someone was running down the stairs ahead of me.  It was Li Na, with Liam in her arms. Thank heavens that sensible girl was carrying him outside to safety.

            Li Na. Wait. I’ll take him now,” I called.
            But she didn’t stop. She wrenched open the front door and ran down the front steps.
            “Li Na. Wait for me!” I shouted after her and ran down the stairs as fast as I could, clinging to the shaking bannister. The grandfather clock fell into the hall with a great clang and crash. Statues were toppling onto the marble floor, which was springing up in chunks as if with a life of its own.
            “Earth dragon. Got to stop earth dragon!”  Li Na shrieked as she ran out of the house.
            Liam spotted me. “Mama!” he cried, struggling in her arms.  But she didn’t stop. She was already out of the front door, down the steps and running at a great rate up California Street.
            Wait!” I shrieked, but she was striding out ahead of me, her cotton trousers not hampering her movements in the way that my dress over my nightgown did.  What was she doing? Where was she taking my son? The world had stopped shaking but from the city below came the wail of sirens, cries for help. Electrical wires lay across the street, hissing and writhing like snakes as they sparked in the darkness. Some of the street lamps had gone out. It was horribly eerie. The mansions I passed seemed unscathed with people in night attire standing outside them, but bricks had been flung across the sidewalk from the almost-finished Fairmont Hotel. The first streaks of light appeared in the eastern sky.

Li Na had reached the crest of the hill where California Streets drops down sharply toward the Bay but still she didn’t stop. She jumped over piles of bricks with the ease of a gazelle and kept running down California Street. I followed, stumbling and tripping over the debris that littered the sidewalk, unable to see more than a foot or two in front of me. A pall of dust rose up around us, getting into my nose and throat. I read the street names as I passed them.  Past Powell Street. Past Stockton. A sharp pain shot through my side and I gasped for breath.  It was hard to run in my dainty shoes while she wore flat cotton slippers.
The buildings on this side of the hill had clearly suffered more. Cornices had been shaken down and chunks of decorative stonework lay across the street and sidewalk. On some houses whole fronts had fallen, oil lamps had tipped over, starting small fires that revealed rooms with furniture hurled around, as if by a giant hand. Paving stones had popped from the street and the rail for the cable car had buckled like a switchback. Until now I had not had to encounter people but ahead of me the street was full of them, standing dazed, in nightclothes, with bleeding heads and damaged limbs. One building had collapsed completely and a man had been buried up to his neck in fallen bricks. “Help me” he implored as I ran past.

Crowds were now coming up the hill toward us. And among those crowds now were Chinese people—men in baggy trousers, with skull caps on their heads and long pigtails down their backs. They carried bundles of possessions or cages with small birds in them. Behind them women hobbled pitifully, trying to keep up on bound feet. We reached Grant Street and the beginning of Chinatown. I caught a glimpse of Li Na’s white tunic, far ahead of me. She turned left at Grant Avenue and vanished. I followed. I was thoroughly winded and finding it hard to breathe now in the dust and smoke that hung in the air.

We were now in the midst of utter destruction. The pall of dust gave everything an indistinct and unreal quality in the half light. Flimsy buildings had slid off foundations and were lying at drunken angles.  Shops had spewed out contents, with vegetables and fruit rolling under our feet. What had been streets were now littered with fallen bricks and debris. From around me came the sounds of constant moaning, and in the distance the ringing of fire-truck bells, as small fires had broken out, creating pockets of hazy glow in the darkness.  One of them was on my right—some kind of temple building had collapsed, its green and gold pagoda style roof now lying pancaked a few feet from the ground with smoke curling up around the edges. Further away black smoke was rising all around.
Grant Street was crowded with Chinese people. Some were trying to flee, dragging small carts of children and possessions. But others were kneeling on the ground, digging away furiously. Some were holding up pieces of paper to which they had set fire, then dropping them into holes in the ground. It would have been fascinating had I not been so terrified. I stepped gingerly past the burning papers and ran on. How would I ever find my son in this chaos?
“Li Na!” I shouted over the wails and sirens.  It was impossible. 

I'm currently doing the rewrites and polishing on TIME OF FOG AND FIRE.  
It comes out next March. So do you enjoy learning about real history from books?
And I'm curious--who do you like best  Molly or Georgie? This is a question I'm asked all the time and of course I ask them which of their children they love best. Impossible to answer.




  1. Oh, wow . . . just reading about your writing schedule this year makes me tired! [However, we're all really excited to have an "extra" book this year.]

    This piece about the earthquake gave me shivers; it's absolutely astounding. [It brought to mind the earthquake scene in "San Francisco."] I can't say I've read any of the first-hand accounts, but it certainly seems to me as if you've really captured the feel of what it must have been like. [We lived through our share of earthquakes when we lived in Los Angeles; can't say that I miss them.]

  2. Molly or Georgie? Not a chance that I can choose one over the other. I love them both!

  3. What an amazing scene! When you cut us off, I couldn't believe I had to stop reading.

    I have to say I love Molly. I'll follow her anywhere (and have). And I very much enjoy learning real history by reading fiction.

    (Darn Captcha gave pictures of doughnuts. FIVE pictures of doughnuts...)

  4. Wow. Reading this I feel like I'm really there. Rhys, were you drawing on any personal experience with earthquakes?

  5. A wonderful slice of history! Anxious to read your book. I lived in NorCal and So Cal a total of seven years, with rattling shelves and lurching beds, but nothing more serious.

  6. I'm in complete awe of you , Rhys! Love this so much..and all the research you did shines through beautifully and naturally. You are incredible.

    And not a chance I' could choose. I just wonder how you channel such different characters and voices and times.. HOW do you do that?

  7. Love the little details, Rhys. It's always great when research comes through without sounding like you're reading the encyclopedia.

    I don't think I could choose, either.

    Edith, I got the donuts yesterday. =)

  8. from HANK: AND THE WINNERS of the arc of WHAT YOU SEE are:


    and Celia Fowler

    (I couldn't resist--you are all too wonderful, so I had to pick two..)

    Please email me at h ryan at whdh dot com with your address!


  9. What a GREAT title, Rhys! And I love the details in the scene. I've always loved learning history through reading novels, and both of your series give such different perspectives.

    Cannot wait to read Time of Fog and Fire!!!

    Georgie or Molly? I couldn't choose. But I have to say I really, really loved the latest Molly...

  10. Love, love, love the excerpt! And even though I've yet to read any Molly books, I can't choose either. But I have to get a start on reading this series. I'm a native Californian: lived in Southern California up to the Northridge quake in 1994, then to Northern California (the second city north of the Golden Gate Bridge) and back to Southern California this year. Have experienced any number of quakes, but no injuries or serious damage to homes. It's wonderful to learn the history and I agree with others' comments about your writing making it so seamless, Rhys.


  11. I love that title, and I can't wait to read it. Since I grew up an hour north of San Francisco, the setting will be more familiar and that's a part of history I'm familiar with since it is something I studied in school. Can't wait to find Molly in it. (And have her find Daniel.)

    Georgie or Molly? Evan, of course. ;) Seriously, right now I'd say Georgie, but in December, it will be Molly. Essentially, it's whoever I've read last.

  12. Mark, I'm the opposite. If I'm writing Molly I find myself longing to spend time with Georgie. It's the grass is greener syndrome.

  13. Wow, Rhys! What a great passage that puts us right there in the midst of that disastrous earthquake! Terrific specific, telling details. And the research enhances the excerpt and brings it alive without weighing it down, as sometimes happens with less adroit writers. I was so disappointed when the passage ended because I wanted to know more. I love that fabulous title, too.

    As far as which character I prefer, usually the one I'm reading at the time. Love them both.

  14. The scene is gripping--can't imagine Molly's terror as Liam disappears from sight in that surreal chaos.

    Love San Francisco during this time period--as a writer you make it come alive--if I wanted a lecture, I'd go back to school! ;-)

    And I'd say Molly has the edge in my affections--maybe it's just the Irish in me!

  15. That's easy. Molly for the turn of the century and Georgie for the 1930's. Ha! You left us hanging. Why is Lia running off with Liam? Can't wait to find out.
    No carbs for me, so my captcha is pancakes. Figures.

  16. cj Sez: The Time of Fog and Fire sounds absolutely breathlessly fascinating. It's going to be great reading.

  17. Love the scene! You are an amazing writer.

    I must admit I've only read 3 of the Molly books. I devour the Georgie books so I have to say I like her better. I need to get working on Molly.

    I'm making my first trip to San Francisco in November Please don't schedule any quakes for that long weekend. :-)

    And interesting that you use the name of a pro tennis player (retired) for your Chinese character.

    Thanks for sharing your work in progress.

  18. Wow, that's exciting! I've lived in the Bay Area my whole life and in SF for 27 years, so earthquakes have been a part of my life forever. In fact we just had a 4.0 earthquake the other day. (Did you feel it, Rhys?)

    Using the 1906 earthquake as a backdrop for a Molly Story is genius. I look forward to reading it. And I also look forward to all the other books you're putting out soon. Thanks for the hard work!

  19. Coming here late today, as Wednesday has become my designated pick-up-granddaughter-from-kindergarten day. Then we go for a treat, go back to her house to play, and today I gave her a piano lesson. Fun day!

    Rhys, I so wanted that excerpt to go on and find out where Li Na was taking Liam. I'm so afraid she's taking him somewhere as a sacrifice or something crazy like that. I don't see how I can wait until March to read this wonderfully titled book (hint, hint). I am thrilled that there is a Christmas Molly book, and I so appreciate that you were willing to work extra hard to bring it to us this year.

    Molly or Georgie? That's such a hard call, and I'm not sure I can make it. The period leading into the 20th century in the United States is historically one of my favorites, and I always learn such interesting pieces of behind the scenes history to go with the more familiar in the Molly books. And, of course, I love the character of Molly and the supporting cast. But, then I adore Georgie and have such fun reading about her adventures, with the bits of English history and those required visits to Balmoral in Scotland. And, guessing when or if Georgie and Darcy will ever finally make it to the alter is great fun, too. I do see why others have said that the favorite depends on which series you're reading at the time. I think for me that Molly has the edge, but I am in a most happy reading place with either.

  20. So behind on blog reading!

    Georgie is so dear to me. I enjoy reading about Molly, too, but Georgie is funny and brave, and well, plucky.

  21. My heart is pounding from that scene . . . you have made it so real!

  22. Rhys, I love your characters... especially as they relate to their time in history and culture.

    I can't imagine writing three books in one year? And no downtime?

  23. Ms Bowen, Georgie and Molly are such different women. To like one better than the other, impossible. If I want to laugh, smile, and sigh: can she get herself into such interesting tangles? Sometimes she makes her own road blocks. If I want to think seriously about the responsibilities of women and how they know their independent souls: Molly, strong, capable, career, mother, lover...
    And, I still feel an empty place where Evan Evans would grow to be a husband and father...
    Thank you for all your lovely and loving stories.