Lena Corazon

Flights of Fancy

ROW80 Check-in: Exploring “Hell’s Half-Acre”

Summer marches on, and now that grading is through, life is calming down a bit.  I spend my days writing and dealing with the family, and by the time I fall into bed, I’m usually exhausted.  But I’ve reached 21k on tell me no lies, I’ve outlined and organized the next chapter of my thesis, and I’ve managed to spend time with friends and family, so I think I’ve been fairly successful in terms of progress.  However, I’m starting to feel like I’m spending way too much time on the computer, so I’m going to have to unplug sometime soon and just read a book.

A sketch of Barbary Coast, circa 1889

I took a little time out yesterday to return to the San Francisco Chronicle‘s digital archives and poke around a bit.  In my last round of research I spent time poring over crime reports, but this time I did a search for any mention of the Barbary Coast, and whoa.  I was worried that my depiction of the Barbary Coast was too dark, but after reading these articles, I’m actually wondering if it’s dark enough.

A sketch of "Cutthroat Alley," circa 1889

By the late 1880s, the Barbary Coast was reportedly much calmer than during the wild west days of yore.  Still, judging from these articles, conditions were still deplorable.  Vice, murder, theft, drugs, alcohol, domestic violence, suicide, child abuse… all of these were commonplace in “Hell’s Half-Acre.”  Men were violent, women were loose, brassy and bold.  It’s easy to imagine a serial killer at work in these parts, preying on ladies of the stage.  Better yet, my MC, Tempest Dumont, would have totally fit in with her swearing, boozing, flirting ways.

One of the "battle-axes" of the Barbary Coast

This passage from an 1889 article, “Hell’s Half-Acre: Sights and Scenes on the Barbary Coast,” totally sums up the vibe that I’ve been going for in my WIP:

Entering a saloon on Kearny street near Jackson, on the east side, there were found about half a dozen horribly dissipated looking hags seated at tables with men of the same general appearance of themselves. Gin, rum, and bad beer had painted all of their faces of a lurid hue, the faithful reflex of evil passions within.  “These,” said the guide, as he pointed to the women, “are the ‘battle-axes’ or ‘blisters’ of Barbary.  They live on drink, you may say, and spend about half their time in jail.”

The scene actually reminds me of Roarke’s, the local bar where my characters hang out. It’s a rundown, ramshackle dive where the company is questionable and the only beer on tap is little better than bitter swill, much different from the glitz and glamor of the Belladonna, the saloon where Tempest works.

I’ll be writing more about setting and the Barbary Coast in the weeks to come, and hopefully I’ll get a chance to check out the Barbary Coast walking tour before I head back to Santa Barbara.


  1. You’re doing great work and we all need to take a break from time to time.

  2. There’s an old movie, entitled “The Barbary Coast”, which I remember watching. You might want to check it out! I often like old movies…….especially ones that have Yul Brenner or John Wayne…Ha! (This one, unfortunately, has neither….sigh)
    Great job on adding to your word count. I like taking a break to lose myself in a great story, too. ~ Nadja

    • Nadja, I’ll have to check out that movie. I ran across an old film review for it from the New York Times and it looked really intriguing.

      John Wayne is wonderful! I just caught the episode of I Love Lucy where he guest-starred — definitely one of my favorites. He also starred in the film “Lady for a Night,” another of my favorites, as a gambler and a rake who falls for a saloon singer. I’ve been meaning to dig it out and watch for a bit of inspiration. 😀

      Have a wonderful week!

  3. Great job on the goals! I know exactly what you means about spending too much time with the computer. I’m planning to unplug on occasion as well, it’s just a matter of sanity 🙂

    Have a great week Jamila!

    • Thanks, Gene. Yes, I think I am quickly approaching the computer breaking point, so tomorrow it’s all about writing by hand and reading books. 😀

      Have an excellent week as well!

  4. Wow, that sounds like something even I’d want to read, and I don’t generally go in for thrillers/mysteries. I get nightmares. I know, silly, but as a grown woman it is aggravating to still have night terrors that wake you up.

    Great job on the setting research. It sounds like Barbary Coast is almost another character in your story, a good thing. I admit I struggle with setting in my book, because it’s just present day Washington, DC.

    • Thanks for stopping by, Elizabeth! You know, I actually avoid thrillers/mysteries as well (I’m also susceptible to nightmares), and I didn’t intend for this tale to take that direction… but my characters spoke, and here we are. I’m hoping to balance out the scary bits with a decent dash of romance. 😀

  5. Research can be so much fun sometimes. Good luck with your goals.

  6. Sounds like you are making solid progress. Way to go!

  7. Interesting research! Keep up the great work! And remember, if you’re not well rounded, you won’t have anything to write about, anyway. So take your break and enjoy a book. I might have to take my own advice. 🙂

  8. Fascinating research, Jamila; I’m amazed that the Barbary Coast was every bit as bad as imagined–I remember the old movie that Nadja mentioned, too. You’re making me really look forward to reading about Tempest.

    Great job on your goals; and go read a book! Have a great week!

    • Nancy, I was also surprised by my findings. I had suspected that the popular conception of the Barbary Coast as a rough-and-tumble place was an exaggeration, but apparently not. I’m having a lot of fun separating fact from fiction. 😀

      Hope you have a wonderful week as well!

  9. love that research – a thousand stories waiting to be written there – good luck for this week

    • Yup, there are all these ideas that I have percolating around based on the research. I’m jotting it all down in a notebook, so hopefully they’ll come in handy in the future.

      Enjoy your week, and thanks for stopping by, Alberta!

  10. Your research always makes me wish I was writing about what you are writing about! I guess a more ‘normal’ way of putting that is it is so inspiring! The Barbary coast sounds fascinating and I really think at some point I am going to have to think about a historical setting for a story.

    Thanks for your comment on my NaNo post….maybe we should throw caution to the wind and just do it!!!!

    • Aww, thanks, sweetie! There’s something that just calls to me about historical settings. Maybe it’s the research, or the chance to bring something back to life through my writing, but it just makes me so happy.

      And yes — we totally need to just do NaNo. I am totally geared up for it. 😀

  11. Your research sounds interesting and so does your MC! Keep up the great work and take your breaks as often as you can.

  12. Love the excerpt from the article, really paints a vivid picture. Sounds like the research is very helpful in making the story come together. Always good to take breaks and read a book. I’ve been doing that very thing this week. You are doing great. Keep it up!

    • Thanks so much, Robin. I’m excited to just disconnect for a bit and read for a bit. It’s definitely a luxury that I haven’t allowed myself for a while.

      Have a great week!

  13. Wow, thanks for sharing your research! That’s fascinating stuff. Way to go on keeping up with the goals! Back when I was doing graduate work, my creative writing dried up to a trickle. 😐 That’s amazing that you can balance both.

    • You know, for the first couple of years of my grad program, I thought that my ability to be creative had been hijacked by rational social science side, but I’m so glad to see that I was wrong. 😀

      Thanks for stopping by, Ruth!

  14. Great progress! Take that break, you deserve it. 🙂 Your research sounds awesome. Keep it going!

    • Thanks so much, Angela. I’ve got a stack of books waiting to be read, so I’m definitely going to put that at the top of my to-do list this week.

      Hope you had a great weekend!

  15. Such interesting research- I lived in the bay area and didn’t know this!

  16. Excellent progress on your book! I hear you on the need to unplug. I’ve been giving myself permission to do that a little more often after the last few months of non-stop writing. It has been good to sit down and read some books again.

    Enjoyed reading about the research you’re doing!

    Hope you continue to have a great week 🙂


  17. Wow you are really on a roll – keep up the good work!
    I love it when you read something that backs up what you’ve written 🙂

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