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Willard Thompson

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Blogs by Willard Thompson

Willard's Blog
5/26/2008 8:49:48 AM    [ Flag as Inappropriate ]

May 27, 2008

Viva Book Clubs!

Last week I was privileged to lead a book Club in St. Louis, Missouri, a bit of a stretch from my home in California, but well worth it. Authors don't have a lot of opportunities to sit down and listen to their readers, but the experience was invaluable.

This book club was composed of both men and women. They brought to the discussion of Dream Helper, A Novel of Early California a wide range of perspectives. What I was most interested in learning was how the story would play in the Midwest where many—perhaps most—people are unfamiliar with California's early history.

Perhaps my concerns were unfounded because the Midwest Book Review the week prior to my trip had written positively about the novel, saying, in part, “Dream Helper, A Novel of Early California, is a captivating novel from first page to last and a must for historical fiction enthusiasts with an interest in the old west.” (Thank you Midwest Book Review!) (To read the first chapter of Dream Helper click here.) The St. Louis book club found Dream Helper to be a universal story of two cultures in conflict and the effects that conflict had on individuals from both sides caught up in it. They were quite vocal in discussing the plight of Native American peoples throughout North America and found the story of the Chumash Indians told In my novel to be a strong example of the arrogance of Europeans who pioneered our new nation.

They also had lively discussions about the religious attitudes of the early Nineteenth Century, debating how the good intentions of the Franciscan missionaries could have gone so wrong.

Their response to the novel was very positive but that doesn't mean they were all in lock step in their comments. And that's one of the great values of a book club. For me, watching them share their ideas and opinions, agreeing and disagreeing on character motivations—as if the characters were alive—was eye-opening. I am convinced that any author can benefit from watching a group of readers in action. But more than that, I think serious fiction readers should seek out book clubs to join so they can sharpen their analytical skills.

And don't overlook the social benefits of book clubs: the one I attended in St. Louis certainly had a good time with wine and hors d'oeuvres before the meeting and a yummy desert when their discussions were done. Try it, I think you'll enjoy book clubbing if you aren't doing so already.

Tell me about your book club experiences. Click here


May 15, 2008

How Important Are Characters?

Think about this: after you've read a great novel is it the plot your remember or the great characters? As years roll by we may forget the specifics of a story but just mention a favorite character's name and it brings a smile.Emma Bovary, Scarlett O'hara, Jay Gatesby, Captain Ahab and Tom Joad are among my very favorites that stand out. I'm sure you have your own. Send me an email with your favorites.

Writing historical fiction poses a challenge in character development. Why? Well, to start with, historical fiction writers usually include some real people as part of their story. Those people may be well known, with vivid personalities, strong physical characteristics and perhaps a few psychological quirks. The writer has to find a way to utilize there real people to tell his story without disturbing the truth we know about them.

In Delfina's Gold, the novel I'm currently writing, among the real charaters that bring the story to life, at least two are controversial; Johann August Sutter and Major John Charles Frémont. Sutter, the Swiss who built an empire in the Sacramento Valley only to see it torn asunder by the hoards of gold seekers who came over the Sierra, was considered by some to be a con artist; others see him as a sincere, hard worker determined to survive in Mexican California.

Frémont was the enigmatic soldier who just about single-handedly brought the Mexican-American War to Alta California. He had the backing of a powerful U.S. Senator and a brilliant wife who made her man "look good" in just about every situation although many historians paint him as darkly brooding.

You'll have to wait awhile to see how I treat these two, but it's the fictional characters that drive Delfina's Gold relentlessly forward. There are four or five main characters in the story, each lugging around his or her emotional baggage, and a "colorful" supporting cast to go with them. Plotting the novel comes easily, but trying to bring imaginary characters to life, in real situations a reader can relate to despite the fact they lived in a different era, and show them in strong conflict so you and my other readers can laugh and cry and love and struggle and root or hate them is my goal, my passion whenever I get my hands on the old laptop.

Cheers for now,

May 5, 2008

Historical Research -- The First Person Approach

Even though I get off point sometimes this blog is about California history and historic fiction writing. Both subjects require research, a subject I used to shudder at the mere mention off as a teenager, but now find quite fascinating.

I've discovered a treasure chest of first hand accounts of life in early California, written by the men and women who actually witnessed and experienced our history in the making. For the most part they make fascinating reading. I'll mention a few here that I think are pretty generally available at public libraries. You can also find some of them at used bookstores and online at both and

Naturally the grand daddy of first hand accounts of Early California is Two Years Before the Mast by Richard Henry Dana, Jr. It is must reading. In fact, if you only read one book of early California history, this is the one.

Right now I'm in the process of writing Delfina's Gold, the second novel in my Chronicles of California series, so I'm focused on the period between 1830 and 1846. There are several great sources of first hand accounts of this period in Mexican California. Two from Heyday Books in San Francisco are especially interesting. Lands of Promise and Despair is a collection of short essays written during the Spanish and Mexican periods of our history. They are accompanied by summaries and interpretation by co-editors Rose Marie Beebe and Robert M. Senkewicz.

That same duo teamed up to edit The History of California by Antonio María Osio. Osio came to Alta California in the 1830s and was associated with all the important Mexican men of his time. His history was written as a (long) letter to Father José María Suárez de Real describing all that he saw during the Mexican period.

Both these accounts are from the perspective of the Californios. Two Yankee accounts of the early days are Life in California by Alfred Robinson, a hide and tallow trader for the Boston firm of Bryant & Sturgis. From his base in Santa Barbara, where his marriage to one of José de la Guerra's beautiful daughters was described in Two Years Before the Mast, Robinson traveled the length and breath of Alta California recording his impressions.

And finally, for now, William Heath Davis's masterful Seventy-five Years in California describes live in the Golden State from his arrival in the 1830s into the 20th Century.

Do you have any favorite first hand accounts of California history? I'd like to hear about them if you do. Click here to send me a message. I'll post it so you can share it with other history fans. And please don't forget Dream Helper. My novel is doing well but we can always use more readers.

Please sign up at to receive Golden Nuggets, my California history newsletter.


April 21, 2008

Read Any Good Books Lately?

There is something seriously wrong in the book publishing industry today--not just in the U.S. but globally. Consider: Each year there are more books published (one ever 90 minutes by one count) than the previous year and each year the number of people who admit to reading books (as if it were a bad habit) dwindles. Ever wonder why? It might be because the reading public is getting tired of all the trash large commercial publishers are putting out. For sure there are many good books being written; it's just that its hard to find the golden nuggets amongst all the gravel.

The commercial publishing industry's dirty little secret is that of all the new books published each year more than 70% fail to sell 500 copies. And most fail to sell 100. Commercial publishers make their income from Celeb tell-alls and bios of people, most of whom will be forgotten when the books go out of print. No wonder the reading public is put off!

So how do you find a good book, especially a good novel when you're ready to settle in for an evening's read? A visit to your local BIG BOX BOOKSTORE will more than likely confuse more than help. Keep in mind that the only reason books are pile up in the front of a store like Borders or Barnes & Noble is that publishers paid big bucks to put them there -- not because anyone thought they were great reads. Book reviews in your local Sunday newspaper are another way, except that a growing list of newspaper publishers are dropping their book sections.

If you're lucky enough to have an independently owned bookstore in your community your may be in luck. But local bookstores are an endangered species these days. Each month more of them are forced out of business by the economics of competing with BIG BOX BOOKSTORES and on-line retailers, some of who now believe we should read our books electronically on handheld devices. Really!

So here's my best advice. Use the Web to find a good summer read. No matter what your preference, you can find good recommendations by going to some quality websites. In the coming weeks I'll review some of my favorite books, but in the meantime, for your historical fiction fans, here are some websites your should check out.

Historical Novel Society
Historical Fiction Network
Western Writer
Author's Den
Good Reads

Have a great read!

I'd like to hear from you about some of your favorite books and your views of the state of the publishing industry today. Just click here to send me your message and I'll post them as they come in.

April 10, 2008

Just a few words about Dream Helper, my new historical novel.

DREAM HELPER, A Novel of Early California, has done quite well in the first months of distribution. We started out making it available in the Santa Barbara/Ventura county area because DREAM HELPER is set at the Santa Barbara Mission and presidio in the early years of the 19th Century.

It describes the plight of a wonderful young Chumash Indian woman who is baptized at the mission and then finds herself trapped there. If you want to know more about the novel click here. You can buy it at,, right here at Rincon Publishing, as well as local bookstores.

DREAM HELPER received a great review in the Santa Barbara Independent. The review said: "...The mixture of historical setting and fictional narrative makes Dream Helper the vivid story that it is. Thompson's goal was to never let the history get in the way of a good story, and he has accomplished that with style..."

Elena Gray-Blanc, the reviewer, went on to say, "The characters in Dream Helper are memorable, the action is intense, and the poignant portrayal of a culture's last struggle for survival is worth the read." My thanks to Elena for the nice words. But I need more reader reaction--yours. Please click here to let me know what you think of DREAM HELPER.

And now it's on to the next novel in The Chronicles of California. It's title is DELFINA'S GOLD and will bring to life a number of historical characters from the Mexican Period of California and add some fascinating fictitious characters and even some old friends from DREAM HELPER. This is an ambitious project; in all I want to trace the history of California all the way into the 20th Century. So please give me your feedback on DREAM HELPER. And feel free to share any historical info you like or ask any questions you want this community to help you with.

Enjoy The Journey, Willard

If you're a fan of California historical fiction, a Western history buff or just a reader who enjoys reading fine literary novels of adventure and romance, you've come to the right website.

Chronicles of California is a new website featuring the historical novels of Willard Thompson, author of Dream Helper, the first book in the Chronicles. Thompson is an award winning author who writes both historical fiction and non-fiction.

You'll be able to buy Chronicles of California novels on line, starting with Dream Helper, a novel of early California that puts its readers into the lives of early settlers of Santa Barbara — The Franciscan Priests, Spanish officers of the King of Spain's army and the Mexican men and women who were the first occupants of the Royal Presidio — all seen through the eyes of a young Chumash Indian woman.

Following Dream Helper, Delfina's Gold will be published in 2009. With a weak Mexican government in control of California, traders flock to her shores from New England in pursuit of cattle hides and tallow. Russian sea otter hunters eye the land covetously from their base in northern California and Englishmen from Hudson Bay grow bold in search of furs. When American mountain men crossing the Sierra Nevada Mountains are added to the mix, California is up for grabs.

When historic figures Thomas O. Larkin, Augustus Sutter and Major John Charles Frèmont enter the story the stage is set for a showdown of epic proportion.

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