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Beth Cato: Researching the Great San Francisco Earthquake of 1906

Today my guest is Beth Cato, whose new book, Breath of Earth, is available today. I get to tell you about her new book, and she’ll also discuss one of my favorite topics–researching the historical events behind it!


From the back cover: 

After the earth’s power under her city is suddenly left unprotected, a young geomancer must rely on her unique magic to survive in this fresh fantasy standalone from the author of the acclaimed The Clockwork Dagger.

In an alternate 1906, the United States and Japan have forged a powerful confederation— the Unified Pacific—in an attempt to dominate the world. Their first target is a vulnerable China. In San Francisco, headstrong secretary Ingrid Carmichael is assisting a group of powerful geomancer wardens who have no idea of the depth of her own talent—or that she is the only woman to possess such skills.

When assassins kill the wardens, Ingrid and her mentor are protected by her incredible magic. But the pair is far from safe. Without its full force of guardian geomancers, the city is on the brink of a cataclysmic earthquake that will expose the earth’s power to masterminds determined to control the energy for their own dark ends. The danger escalates when Chinese refugees, preparing to fight the encroaching American and Japanese forces, fracture the uneasy alliance between the Pacific allies, transforming San Francisco into a veritable powder keg. And the slightest tremor will set it off. . . .

Forced on the run, Ingrid makes some shocking discoveries about herself. Her already considerable magic has grown even more fearsome . . . and she may be the fulcrum on which the balance of world power rests.

Available at: Amazon / Barnes & Noble / Powells /

Add the book on Goodreads.




Now, here’s what Beth has to say about researching! 

Oftentimes, research for a story or novel is difficult because of the obscurity of the subject matter. For other topics, the sheer amount of data is overwhelming. That is certainly true of the San Francisco Earthquake and Fire of 1906.

My new novel, Breath of Earth, is steampunk alt history with magic and mythological creatures. I like to joke, “Spoiler alert: there’s an earthquake.” There is no avoiding the fact that the Big One happens, but the reasons why are quite different. It was vital that I capture the spirit of San Francisco as it was before, during, and after the disaster. Plenty of people would recognize it if I screwed up.

The internet is a great place to start research and refine some details, but I like to go the old-fashioned route and acquire books for the core of my research. And since I want to keep these books around for reference, I need to own them. That means buying used is the only way to go. Some, I stumbled upon at thrift stores or used book sales, but most came from They have free shipping and the vendors are charities.



Since my early teens, I have owned a former library book, published in 1906, about the earthquake. The Complete Story of the San Francisco Horror features an ornate cover of Columbia comforting a sobbing woman wearing a crown that reads ‘San Francisco.’ It reads like gushing propaganda at times as far as the city leaders and soldiers, and is laughably inaccurate in its science, citing professionals who directly connect the San Francisco quake with the eruption of Vesuvius that same month. It may have been a ‘current event’ nonfiction book, but I found nothing usable inside.

Two modern books by Simon Winchester proved to be much better: A Crack in the Edge of the World: America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906, and Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded: August 27, 1883. The latter was helpful in its explorations of tectonic theory and the time period. Plus, Winchester is a darn good creative nonfiction writer.



To really capture the day-to-day details that make novels sparkle with life, I find it’s better to look to other novels. 1906: A Novel by James Dalessandro showed the city in a wonderful way; his description of how a cable car functioned was especially useful for one of my scenes.

When writing a period novel, it is also wise to read novels written and set in the same period. The accuracy in depictions is undeniable, and you can also pick up on the cadences of speech or popular slang. However good the data is, though, the books themselves can be tedious and outright offensive to modern sensibilities. Case in point: McTeague by Frank Norris. Norris wrote and published the book just a few years before the earthquake, and from him I learned about the popularity of steamed beer (a distinct San Francisco technique, and one that is now resurging with the craft beer movement) and the feel of the city, its businesses, and its people. However, McTeague is a loathsome individual and his marriage is horrifically abusive up through its tragic end. I was relieved to finish the book.


Google Maps and Other Maps

I can’t even say how many hours I wandered San Francisco through Google Map’s Street View. Yes, the earthquake leveled the city and it has been extensively rebuilt in the 110 years since, but the hills remain as they are, and those are an important feature of the city. I needed to describe my characters escaping uphill, downhill, or wandering Russian Hill, and where nearby water was in reference.

I spent a lot of time looking online for good, high resolution old maps, too. I finally found one from 1896 that I printed out across six sheets of paper and then laminated on cardstock. I wrote all over that with a dry erase marker to note historically-accurate cable car routes as well as my own fanciful locations, such as characters’ homes and workplaces. I also relabeled a swath of waterfront for airship mooring masts.




Bountiful photographs exist of the earthquake’s aftermath. That makes it easy to describe the rubble, the dead horses buried amid piles of bricks, and how cable car tracks bent from the force of the earth’s movement. Even more, some actual movie footage exists:

San Francisco before the quake:


Hollywood has made a few attempts to show the earthquake as well. There is a 1936 movie called San Francisco that stars Clark Gable as a Barbary Hill saloon keeper. It depicts the disaster as well as it can, but my most lingering impression of the movie was the ham-handed morality message at the end: this city was a center of sin and vice, but it will reborn in Christian virtue! I can’t say the movie was a waste of time, though. I learned how phone calls were made via central dispatch.

This is just a sampling of the resources I used within Breath of Earth. It would have been wonderful if I could have visited San Francisco to wander the hills myself and visit museums and landmarks, but since I couldn’t do that, I am thankful to live in a time when so many resources are accessible via Google and online shops.




BethCato-HCVBeth Cato is the author of the Clockwork Dagger series from Harper Voyager, which includes her Nebula-nominated novella WINGS OF SORROW AND BONE. Her newest novel is BREATH OF EARTH. She’s a Hanford, California native transplanted to the Arizona desert, where she lives with her husband, son, and requisite cat.

Follow her at and on Twitter at @BethCato.