How I Wrote the Imaginary Emperor (Or Allowed It To Write Itself) by Steve Bartholomew

Posted by on May 10, 2012 in 19th Century U.S., Featured Book, Historical Research | Comments Off on How I Wrote the Imaginary Emperor (Or Allowed It To Write Itself) by Steve Bartholomew

Someone once asked me how to overcome writer’s block. I responded that there’s no such thing. Someone else asked me where I get all my ideas. I answered by asking how she could avoid having ideas.

Any time I think I’m running low on ideas, I only need to pick up a book about the history of California and the West. One of the richer gold mines is San Francisco during the 19th Century. The City never seemed to run out of characters amazing, heroic, crazy or villainous. Much as it is today.

The Imaginary Emperor is an example of a “character driven story.” I know this is an over simplification. Nevertheless, there is often a distinction made between “character driven” and “plot driven.” There are writers of novels, plays and short stories — many of them highly successful — who actually sit down and map out a plot before beginning to write. Personally I find this practice incomprehensible. Why write a story if you already know exactly what’s going to happen?

In the case of Emperor, I began with the character of Joshua Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico. Was he a loony, a genius, or both? I started reading everything I could find about him: I soon discovered there was less than you would think. A lot of the books repeated each other. A lot of the other material was just plain wrong. He never wrote an autobiography, nor did he have any close friends to describe him. In fact he didn’t seem to have any close friends that we know about. This was unacceptable. In my book I proceeded to invent some friends.

A few of the other characters in the book were also based on real people, in particular Mary Ellen, who was Mary Ellen Pleasant, one of our earliest civil rights workers. (She single-handedly integrated San Francisco street cars.) Sophia Hull is based on Sarah Althea Hill, whose lover in real life was Senator Sharon. Sarah was actually a friend of Ms. Pleasant, who must have met the Senator at one time or another. Did all these people know the Emperor? They could hardly avoid meeting him, since he was constantly in public, and a highly regarded tourist attraction in himself. And then there were the two dogs, Bummer and Lazarus. . .

But you get the idea. I simply put all these folks together in a story and watched them interact. I threw in some made-up characters, such as Marina, who was inspired by Lotta Crabtree. Whenever the action began to slow down, I’d simply go to the Emperor or Sarah or someone else and ask, “What would you do now?” The answer always came. Thus, the “character-driven” novel.

When I began the story I had only the vaguest idea of where it would go. By the time I got to the end, I was surprised and delighted to find how it turned out. For myself, this is one of the joys of writing. Or, for that matter, reading.

Steve Bartholomew