The thing to remember about California is that it’s all new.
I’m not implying that the land was unsettled before Americans got to it. Far from it. Before the United States, this was Mexico. Before Mexico, Spain. And before Spain, a number of indigenous tribes dotted the coast. Not to mention the influx of settlers coming everywhere from China to The Netherlands. But the cultural mish-mash from a century of aggressive development has defined California as we know it. It is a state of constant churn, a state of cultural turnover.
If the East Coast is the grown-up part of America, California is the unruly high school senior who throws a house party while his parents are away. Weird things happen. Mistakes are made. Someone lights the dog on fire.
When you arrive in California, you will be struck by its physical beauty. And make no mistake—it is lovely.
But people might not tell you about the time the CIA dosed strangers with LSD in a project called Project MKUltra. San Francisco was chosen for one of the test sites because, even as recently as the mid-twentieth century, the west coast was considered so remote that these experiments were safer to conduct. People went missing all the time in California. A few more wouldn’t shock anyone.
San Francisco, 1851
San Francisco, 2016
Enough about that. I shouldn’t bring us down. You’re in California. Look at the beaches. The way Route 1 wraps around breathtaking cliffs. You can smell oranges ripening on trees. It’s paradise.
You probably don’t want to hear about the crime out here. Or do you? How the infamous Gangster Squad (or the Organized Crime Intelligence Division) was formed in Los Angeles to run the East Coast mafia out of the city. How one of its members, John O’Mara, was asked about their ruthless approach and admitted, “We did a lot of things that we’d get indicted for today.”
You can’t fault California for these things, can you? It’s like throwing your new clothes in the washer. Sure, something might end up bleeding, but it’s a small price to pay for the fresh smell.
Los Angeles, 1857
Los Angeles, 2016
I like to think of California as a place where people with ingenuity and tenacity have a better shot at becoming self-made successes. On the flip side, the mad scramble for cash that started in the Gold Rush has evolved into generations trying to find fortunes in ultra-competitive work environments, sometimes sacrificing personal ambitions to keep up with the rising cost of living.
People come for prosperity. Sometimes they find it. Sometimes they leave. Populations surge and flee in accordance with economic booms and busts and can leave a somewhat-transitory population where people are friendly to new faces but wary of strangers. The risk of living in an area of constant change is that change can bring catastrophe as often as opportunity.
San Diego, 1888
San Diego, 2016
I set my first novel in California so that the reader could experience the untamed nature of this region. THE EUTHANIST follows a young euthanasia practitioner who goes by the name Kali. At the start of the book, Kali has helped end the lives of 26 people suffering from terminal illnesses and, when we meet her, she’s about to help the wrong client. My main character is young, idealistic, and courageous enough to break the law (although demonstrating how quickly California shifts, the laws have changed since I started writing THE EUTHANIST; in 2016, California passed the End of Life Option Act, which allows residents to choose assisted suicide).
California seemed like the most fitting home for this kind of character. The area still has a frontier mentality, and people here take risks. Sometimes they break the law. Sometimes when they break the law, they do so with confidence, not because they don’t believe they’ll be caught, but because they believe in their own righteousness. They are outlaws. And despite centuries of history, or possibly because of it, California still breeds outlaws.
NOTE: The original version of this post was published in ITW's The Thill Begins.