Did anyone see Antonio Banderas and Catherine Zeta-Jones in that old Zorro movie? It had action, sizzle, humor, and a happy ending. The setting was California before hordes of fortune-seekers descended on the land and changed it forever, before it became a state, before…well, just about everything we know about the place known for wine, sunshine, tech, and high-priced real estate today.
The time period known as California’s halcyon days came after Mexico gained independence from Spain and took over governing the eight hundred “hidalgos” or aristocrats who owned most of the land. Spain had already taken much of it away from the Native-Americans, leaving hidalgos with acreages that spanned over 40,000 acres minimum, with some reaching the 100,000-acre mark.
In California’s culture it was a time of vast cattle ranches producing hides and tallow for trade with ships from many countries. Lifestyles of the rich and famous—hidalgo style—included a lot of parties called fiestas, gambling with horse-racing at the top of the list, day-long barbecues with dancing, and devotion to their religion, mainly Catholicism. Young girls married as early as 14 and were strictly chaperoned and had little if no choice in who they would wed. The word of the patriarch of the family was law to the extent he could punish those who didn’t obey.
Young boys had tutors and girls usually did not. Schools came with the Americans when they invaded and declared California part of the United States in 1846, starting a war with Mexico that lasted about two years.
Why do I write in this obscure subgenre known mostly by those aficionados of old Zorro films and tv shows? It was a fascinating time full of change and contradictions, a time that can be compared to feudalism in Europe where hundreds of retainers worked for the liege and all of those things necessary for living were made or grown right on the property.
The “romance of old California” today is reflected in restored missions and architectural styles that had roots in Spain. But I’m not the only one interested in these times. Successful producer Shonda Rhimes is going to bring us back to this place—probably mostly old Los Angeles—when she airs Pico and Sepulveda, a new series on Netflix late this year or early next, and frankly I can hardly wait.
I love this time period. My first book, “Shadow of the Fox,” is set mostly in what today is Orange County, and my next book “Return of the Fox” comes out May 27 and is set mainly in Los Angeles. Both are steamy historical romances, but there’s a lot of history in the background. Are they about that masked (and heavily trade-marked) character of old? Absolutely not, even though the family shares the same last name, kind of like Smith or Jones in the U.S.
Why—you ask—do I write in this place and time if few others do? Maybe it’s because I majored in history and I love genealogy. These are my people. I’m giving validation to my ancestors, to my great great grandmother born in 1845 in Los Angeles and to another branch of the family whose progenitor walked to California with wife and baby in the 1860s from the interior of Mexico.
My “bread and butter” books are my Regencies. But these, the books of my Mission Belles series, are the books of my heart.