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.
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.
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.
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?