From Cow Counties to Swimming Pools and Movie Stars

Why do I set all my stories in turn of the century California?

Well, the California part is easy–I love this place. It’s been home to my family for a very long time and I can’t imagine living anywhere else. It also has a pretty unique and rich history, which The Great Exception does a much better job of describing than I could. There are endless plot bunnies to be mined here, if you don’t mind the mixed metaphor.

But why turn of the century?

California is entering a period of rapid change at this time. Especially Southern California. (The history of Northern California is fairly different, due to many reasons. There really are two distinct states embedded here in California.)

Prior to this period, Southern California was referred to as the “Cow Counties”. Because there weren’t many people and the best use of the land, due to the lack of water, was to run livestock on it.

But as the turn of the century approached, things began to rapidly change. Ramona is published and suddenly an entire tourism industry springs up around it. Rail companies have fare wars over tickets to Los Angeles–you could go from the East Coast to LA for as little as $6.

Los Angeles is undergoing a very determined effort to grow as rapidly as possible–it’s already on its way to becoming LA. There are real estate booms and subdivisions.

The old culture of the Californios is nearly dead, replaced entirely by American culture. But an imagined Californio culture lives on in the romance of Ramona and is sold to the tourists flocking in by the trainload. The missions are in picturesque disrepair. (And will soon slide into ruinous disrepair.)

(Which of course, isn’t at all to say that Hispanic culture has gone–it is definitely still present, just different from what came before.)

And in spite of all this growing and modernizing and tourism, there are still parts of California that are frontier-like. The little town I set my stories in is based on a real town–a town that won’t be electrified until 1950. Agriculture and cows are still the dominant way of life for that town at the turn of the century, an echo of the “cow counties” that are slowly being erased.

And one day’s train ride away from that little town, there’s Los Angeles, already leaping into a new century. Getting ready to put in swimming pools and bring in the movie stars.

And I suppose that’s why I write about when I do, because the contradictions of modern California are all there already. California is still the biggest agriculture state in the US and also home to nearly the entire entertainment industry. We still have lots of cows and the tourists still stream in.

It’s a place where real people live, and love, and die, yet it’s also very much an imagined place.

And because I love it so very much, that’s where I set my love stories. I really never had any other choice.

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