Getting It Right

In August I traveled to Portola, California, site of the Western Pacific Railroad Museum, to do a signing at the museum during the town’s annual celebration, called Railroad Days. It was a great launch for Death Rides the Zephyr, my historical mystery set onboard the train called the California Zephyr. The streamliner’s route went through the Feather River Canyon, so Portola was a daily stop for the train. The protagonist of Death Rides the Zephyr is a Zephyrette, the hostess who was the only female member of the onboard crew.

DeathRidesTheZephyr_c1-highres

My friend Julia and I stayed at the Pullman House, an inn that was, according to the manager, a bordello during the railroad heyday, when Commercial Street in Portola had nearly a dozen saloons catering to the railroad workers. The inn’s rooms are decorated with railroad memorabilia, including a Pullman step I coveted. I could look for one on eBay, I suppose. But where would I put it?

My booksigning at the museum was great fun, with a steady stream of visitors in town for Railroad Days and an opportunity to ride a train or climb on some rolling stock. I talked with people about the history of the train called the California Zephyr.

Directly across from my table in the museum was the Silver Hostel, one of few remaining dome lounge cars that traveled on the CZ. It contained a coffee shop, bar and lounge in the front part of the car, and in the rear, crew quarters, including a dormitory for the dining car staff and roomettes for the dining car steward and the Zephyrette. The museum is in the process of restoring the Silver Hostel. Most of the car is torn up, but the Zephyrette’s room at the rear of the car is still fairly intact.

During the signing, one of the museum volunteers came up to talk with me. He was buying a book, which I signed for him, but he’d already read the advance reading copy that my publisher, Perseverance Press, sent to the museum.

You got it right, he told me. Both the railroad stuff and the history.

As a writer, I love to hear that, and I told him so.

In the three-plus years it took to write Death Rides the Zephyr, I took pains to make sure I got it right. I read books, everything from the history of the California Zephyr to a book about Pullman porters and another book about the Korean War. I sifted through information available on the Internet, not only train information, but history, getting a sense for the fashion, music, books, movies, and headlines of December 1952, the time the book takes place. I leafed through files available in the libraries at the California and Colorado railroad museums, including the trip reports written by Zephyrettes at the end of each run.

I went up to Portola last year to drive a locomotive, just to see what it would be like. I took two special trips, traveling aboard a Pullman car, to see what it was like to travel in a roomette. I climbed around on railroad cars, like the Silver Plate, a dining car, and the Silver Solarium, a dome observation car. That’s the car on the book cover, folks.

I picked the brains of fellow railfans, including Glenn Stocki and Roger Morris (Roger created that wonderful cover). I interviewed two former Zephyrettes, Rodna Walls Taylor and Cathy Moran von Ibsch, about their experiences riding the rails.

Zephyrette Photo

A Zephyrette makes dining car reservations.

As I wrote the book, I had photographs, rail car diagrams and timetables tacked up around my workspace, and I consulted menus so I could write about what my Zephyrette and the passengers were having for dinner.

I want to get it right. I knew if I didn’t, I’d hear from every railfan in the country. I’m proud of the book I wrote and I hope readers enjoy it, and get a sense for what it was like to travel aboard the sleek streamliner people called the Silver Lady.

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6 Responses

  1. What a triumph for you, and how satisfying for your readers!

  2. Can’t wait to read it! I have always enjoyed riding trains, but I’m not enough of a railfan to know any historical details. Still, I appreciate knowing how hard you worked to make it authentic.

  3. Great blog, Thanks for letting us in on the process. Learning you spent 3 years on it makes me feel like less of a slug. I only started my second book 8 years ago, give or take. Oh-well.

    Love your book cover and look forward to reading the book.

  4. I’m getting a copy for my spouse, who is deep into rail history. Of course I’ll read it first! That day at the museum must have been enormously rewarding and fun!

  5. Already have a copy ordered! Looking forward to a chance to say “hello” when you visit the Colorado Railroad Museum in Golden, next month!

    Bruce (aka CZ10)

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