Lena Corazon

Flights of Fancy

Monday Inspirations: The Moulin Rouge

For this week’s installment of Monday Inspirations, I’m thinking about setting.  While plot points and characters are important elements of a strong novel, setting is also essential.  My favorite stories are the ones where the setting functions like a secondary character, and so as I work through tell me no lies, my steampunk romance/murder mystery, I’ve been focusing on how to bring the world of 19th century San Francisco to life.

My main character, Tempest Dumont, is a singer at The Belladonna, a popular saloon located in the rough and tumble Barbary Coast (sometimes referred to as “Hell’s Half-Acre).  Given that this is a steampunk tale, I can engage in a bit of revisionist history, so I’ve decided that The Belladonna is a female-owned saloon that caters to the wealthy playboys of San Francisco, those who want to experience the vices of the Barbary Coast without having to deal with the dangers of the run-down dive bars.  It’s also a lot more glamorous than the other bars in town, with red velvet curtains and gold accents and fancy things like that.

While there are some fun examples of saloons in Hollywood’s classic western films, the movie that I’ve been drawing inspiration from is Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge, which tells the tragic story of an idealistic young writer who falls in love with a courtesan who works at the infamous nightclub.

One thing that I love about the film is the glitz and glamour.  Luhrmann does an amazing job in creating a fantasy world of fueled by color and drama. However, there’s a dark side to the stage life, as we see in the clip below.  This is one of my favorite moments in the film.  The rendition of Queen’s “The Show Must Go On” is poignant and bittersweet (the chorus and background orchestrations are so awesome), and captures the darkness that pervades tell me no lies.  I also love the behind-the-scenes shots of the theater being prepared for the big show — the seamstresses at work, the stagehands placing finishing touches on the sets, the angst that lies beneath the performers’ smiling faces.

Jack's Saloon, circa 1890

The real saloons of the day, of course, weren’t nearly as glamorous as the Moulin Rouge.  Archival photographs (my favorite, as we all know!) show some run-down dives, and newspaper accounts also describe some seriously sketch places.  An 1889 article from the San Francisco Chronicle, for example, makes mention of the “hoodlum beer saloons” of the Barbary Coast where “sitters,” or “men who [would] go in, get 5 cents’ worth of beer once in a while and sleep all they want” would hang out.

Interior of the Cobweb Palace. Source: James Smith, SF City Guides

The Cobweb Palace was one of the popular establishments in San Francisco during the latter half of the 19th century.  Founded in 1856 at Meiggs Wharf by Abe Warner, the Cobweb Palace was named for the webs that were used as decoration inside the tavern.

According to James R. Smith, the bar was also known for Warner’s collection of walrus tusks and shark teeth, along with his set of nude paintings (apparently he amassed over one thousand of these).  Even better was his live menagerie of monkeys, talking parrots, occasional bears or kangaroos, and other small animals.

Entrance of the Cobweb Palace (note the monkeys). Source: James R. Smith, SF City Guides

One of Abe Warner's monkeys. Source: Calisphere, UC Libraries

By the end of the 19th century, the Barbary Coast had reportedly calmed down (translation: fewer cases of theft, violence, and murder).    Still, the rough-and-tumble half-acre of San Francisco lives on in memory and legend, and provides me with a wealth of inspiration for my own work.

How do you brainstorm setting?  What inspirations do you draw on when it comes to world-building?


  1. I will be singing The Show must go on all day! Brilliant pictures Jamila and I think the setting is brilliant for a story. I love the idea of setting as a character in its own right. Would love to have been a fly on the wall in one of the saloon!

    My inspiration is my knowledge of towns in Devon and as I am making one up I am slowly building up ideas. I plan to look at some local history books of certain towns to help me develop a history for my town. Your pictures make me want to set my book somewhere more exotic though….maybe next time!

  2. So interesting. I think some time we writers forget that our setting is a character too and we need to make it come alive.
    I like to set my books in other countries so I use childrens books- the ones you’d get for reports and such- and travel shows, esp Bizzar Foods and No Reservations- they spend a lot of time with the loval people a describe how everything tastes, smells, sounds and feels like. I have yet to try a history story- so I don;t knwo how I would do that one.

    • Alica, I really like the idea of utilizing travel shows as a source of information and inspiration. I hadn’t thought of that before, but you’re right — they really do showcase the “local color” quite well. I’ll have to give that a try.

      Thanks for stopping by!

  3. I love this post – great photos! Setting as character is a wonderful layer to a novel. Willa Cather was one of the best at this, her classic novel My Antonia gives us the plains of Nebraska and its weather extremes as one of the more interesting of the cast of characters. Old photos and films set in the time period are good inspirations. I grew up in the city my WIP is set, just about 100 years before I lived there. I have the advantage of knowing generally the history and actual physical landmarks of the city. I’m visiting there in a couple weeks and working with a research specialist at the city’s historical society. Museums and research libraries are great places to check out, the people who work there are just waiting for someone to help, both in person and online. My novel is set for part of the story in saloons in the 1870s – 1890s, those were some wild and crazy places!

    • Oh, how funny! I was born in San Francisco, which was one reason why I chose the setting. It’s a little love note, in way, from me to the city where I’ve left my heart. And I’ve also set mine 100 years before I was born, just for the fun of it. 😀

      I’d love to hear more about your research trip! I’ve been availing myself of the digital archives that have been set up by the libraries in the area, but I know there is a wealth of information that hasn’t been digitalized yet.

  4. Really interesting stuff. I like the idea of taking inspiration from the real world but glaming it up for a steampunk setting. The Show Must Go On is one of my favorite songs, though of course I prefer the Queen version. 😉

    My WIPs are all epic fantasies set in a world of my own creation. I take my inspiration from several different ancient societies and world mythologies. With a big emphasis on Egyptian culture and religion.

    • Sarah, no one can sing that song like Freddy Mercury. He had SUCH a gift. Random side note: my father tells me that his very first concert was to see Queen, and I am unbelievably jealous.

      For my story, Strange Bedfellows, I’ve also been looking at ancient societies. Egyptian culture and religion is probably my favorite, so I’d love to hear more about how you’re adapting it.

      • OMG, if I was smart enough I would totally spend the rest of my life working on a time machine just so I could go back and see Queen in concert. They were the gods of rock.

        I spend a good deal of time talking about just that on my blog back in April for the A to Z challenge. All the posts are collected on a page there if you’re interested. And honestly, I’m so obsessed with Egypt I’ll be talking about it for a long time. 🙂

      • Perfect! I’ll check out those posts!

  5. I love it when I can find something that looks how I imagine my story, whether it’s setting or actors who look like my characters. The Cobweb Palace makes me go “ew!” 😛 I hate spiders.

    • Haha, I’m with you on the spiders! Apparently the guy who founded the Cobweb Palace loved them, but I honestly don’t think I could’ve sat around and had a beer with all those webs hanging around.

  6. I love that you’re sharing this research and information for your setting with us, I find it fascinating and would love to use some of it in my own steam-punk story some day. But mostly it’s good for getting the gears turning on other ways I could develop my settings–say finding real-world or film analogues to reference.
    My general method when world building is to start with a character or concept and build the world around that. For example I have a dark fantasy setting that started with the fact that I wanted vampires to be significant there. So first I thought about what I meant by vampire, and decided on the sophisticated and highly cultural model started by Count Dracula, but retaining the feral and predatory underpinnings of older vampire mythology. That ended up mapping out a huge chunk of my world for me, because now I knew that there was a large sophisticated “cradle of civilization” for the world that had previously been ruled by humans–and that the vampire tribes had come down from the savage northlands and conquered the humans, then similar to the Mongols in China adopted elements of the human society so as to appear refined.

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