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  • [Behind the Book]: Finding Place in Historical Fiction ~ The Keys to the Kingdom
[Behind the Book]: Finding Place in Historical Fiction ~ The Keys to the Kingdom
Contributor
Written by
christie nelson
January 2018
Contributor
Written by
christie nelson
January 2018

When your eyes glaze over from doing research, and you still can’t quite visualize a crucial setting in your novel, there’s only one thing to do: arrange a site visit.  In my case, the site is the former newsroom of the iconic Hearst Building in San Francisco where reporters, copyboys and editors hammered out the highly popular Examiner from 1937 to the middle of the 20th century managed by the media mogul William Randolph Hearst.  

As a hometown girl, I’m familiar with this landmark on the bustling corner of 3rd and Market, but viewing the upper floors is off limits to visitors. I find the phone number of the property manager and dial the number.

On the second ring a voice answers.  “Hello, Brennan Zerbe.”

I jump to my feet and jam the phone against my ear.  “Hi, Mr. Zerbe. I’m writing a historical novel set in San Francisco in 1939. One of my main characters is a newspaper reporter at the Examiner.” The words can’t come fast enough.  

He cuts me off.  “Come in and I’ll give you a tour.” 

“Really?

“When are you available?”

“Anytime.”

Three days later, I walk through the doors of the Hearst Building, clutching a notebook. Twenty cast bronze mythical animals are situated above the entry way. Julia Morgan’s 1937 remodel of the façade and gold lobby is a stunning art deco gem.  Instantly, I inhabit my protagonist, Lily, imagining both her fear and determination to land a job. Riding the gold-toned elevator, I absorb every period detail, including a dial phone with a little seat. The door opens into a sumptuous wood-paneled office.  The secretary looks up. 

“I have an appointment.”

“How do you do?” I turn.  The tall, dark-haired Mr. Zerbe holds out his hand.  “Please come in.”

His ornate desk is immaculate. I hear traffic and horns beeping below on the street.  

“Have a seat and tell me more about your book.”

While we’re chatting, he pulls out historic photos and lays them on the desk as I ooh and ah.  He copies all of them, slides each one into an envelope, and hands it to me. 

“Sounds like you’ve got an interesting story.  Let me show you around here first.” 

He leads the way down a hallway into a conference room. 

“Back in the day, this was WR’s office.”  We stop in front of enormous framed black and white photos.  I recognize the images of the Hearst Castle in San Simeon and Wyntoon, a private Hearst estate in Siskiyou County.  I’m in the inner sanctum of one of California’s pioneer families. The smell of prestige, power and influence hangs in the air.

“Let’s go down to the fifth floor, which was originally occupied by the newsroom.”  He takes out a ring of keys, and in minutes we step into a curved hallway flanked by doors on either side. We walk the circumference of the hallway. 

“Originally this floor was wide open with the exception of a few offices and lavatories. Now every door along the hallway opens into a small private office. We have tenants of every stripe—writers, researchers, dreamers, you name it.”

My mind races. I’m mentally concocting a scene in which Lily steps out of the elevator smack into the open newsroom.

Mr. Zerbe interrupts my reverie.  “Would you like to see where the presses operated?”

“Of course,” I say, furiously jotting down notes.

This time we take the freight elevator that slowly rumbles and creaks down into the bowels of the building.  As the door opens, dim light exposes the outline of an underground cavern.  

“Wait here while I find another light.”

He moves into the center of the space; I’m barely able to see him reach up and pull an overhead chain.  Suddenly, twenty-five foot concrete walls spattered with black ink flare into view. 

“Watch your step,” he cautions.

I move into a cold subterranean labyrinth toward Mr. Zerbe who leads me along partitioned areas. The smell of ink is still sharp and every surface is pocked and stained.     

“The presses are long gone, but back in the heyday, rolls of paper as heavy as cars came through a tunnel under Stevenson St. and were loaded onto the presses. It was backbreaking, precision work and the sound was deafening.” He stops at the end of a corridor.  “I’ve got one more thing to show you.” 

As he unlocks a door, I’m speechless. It’s as if we’re in a oHHolHollywood set of a 30’s nightclub replete with pool tables, a curved bar, a stage draped with red velvet curtains, a dance floor and tiny tables scattered around it. 

“Welcome to Local Edition,” he says.

“Is this real?”

“Real and open for business.  The entry is on Market St. A friend of mine had an idea and he pulled it off.” 

Along one wall glass-fronted cabinets display clippings of vintage Examiner editions. Typewriters are suspended from the ceiling. There’s even a section of one of WR’s airplanes.

We say good bye in the lobby, Mr. Zerbe, keeper of the keys to the kingdom.  I can’t thank him enough.  He smiles and wishes me good luck.  I promise to bring him the book once it’s published.  Not only did he give me a tour of the Hearst Building in which the mystery of the Examiner newsroom was unlocked, he gave me a sure sense of place so necessary for my story.

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Comments
  • Michelle Cox

    Love this article, Christie! I was drooling reading it. Such a great addition to your lovely novel!