On the trail of the Silver Spider, Part 5: weaving fact and fiction

Research was one enjoyable part of writing The Silver Spider, especially when it came to colonial times in Panama and the canal building era in the early twentieth century. At first, “research” came in the form of travel as my family and I sailed both coasts of Panama in the winter of 2011-2012. As we sailed west across the Pacific and the novel took shape, I came to supplement personal experiences with historical research from various sources.

Since I already had first-hand knowledge of Panama and the pre-Columbian treasures that inspired the silver spider (see previous post), what I needed most was a feel for the life and times of the canal builders at the turn of the twentieth century. The most colorful source I found was the 1912 book Zone Policeman 88: a close range study of the Panama Canal and its workers by Harry Franck, in which the real-life census taker recounts his exploits traveling throughout the canal zone during the time of construction. It’s a memoir that’s insightful and funny in turn. His description of life in Bachelor Quarters allowed me to create a realistic (and entertaining) backdrop for my fictional character Charlie Parker as he works on the canal in the the early 1900s. Here’s an excerpt from Zone Policeman 88:

House 47, I say, was a house of “rough-necks.” That fact became particularly evident soon after supper, when the seven phonographs were striking up their seven kinds of ragtime on seven sides of us; and it was the small hours before the poker games, carried on in the spirit as Comanche warfare, broke up through all the house.

Harry Franck’s book is available as a free ebook on Amazon.com, and I can highly recommend it. Having read his memoir, I couldn’t help but work a similar scene into my novel. The scene takes place as Charlie Parker is being shown to his accommodation in Bachelor Quarters in 1910:

Douglass Browning‭’‬s voice dropped as they approached a three-story building with screened verandas on all sides.‭ ‬“That‭’‬s House‭ ‬47,‭”‬ he noted,‭ ‬with a heavy undertone.
    A bottle flew out the window and smashed on the walkway; hoots of raucous laughter and shouted obscenities followed. “Probably playing cards,” Douglass muttered. “And gambling!” His tone emphasized the serious nature of this offense. “It’s the rough-neck house,” he whispered, glaring at the still beside the back door.

Alas for adventurous Charlie, he gets assigned to the milder-mannered House 46 − for starters, at least.

I had to go even farther back in time to catch the flavor of colonial times in Panama, and found very useful information on a number of websites, including William McLaughlin’s The History of Portobelo and Bruce Ruiz’s Panama History. I also read John Masefield’s 1912 book, On the Spanish Main, which was hot reading among canal workers in the post-Roosevelt years (and nowadays, free on Amazon.com). On the Spanish Main chronicles the exploits of buccaneers like Sir Francis Drake and Henry Morgan, who preyed upon the Spanish treasure pipeline in the Americas. In my novel, character Charlie Parker reads Masefield’s book while convalescing from a bout of Typhoid Fever − another case of fact and fiction intertwining. In a way, Masefield’s book did double duty, since it gave me a look at 1667 as seen from a 1912 perspective.

David McCullough’s epic The Path Between the Seas, a history of the Panama Canal, tipped me off on both those books. This is a must-read for any traveler or sailor interested in the Canal. It’s here that I found references to the sometimes zany social clubs that American canal workers created (yes, there really was a club called “The Independent Order of Panamanian Kangaroos” and a “Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks”). McCullough’s book also provided sobering details of the huge divide between white “gold” employees and Afro-Caribbean “silver” laborers. It was great fun working details like these into my novel. Anyone interested in reading more without taking on McCullough’s 600 pages might try Matthew Parker’s slimmer tome, Panama Fever.

These are just some of the most colorful sources I was able to tap into while researching my book. You might try a few of them yourself either before or after reading The Silver Spider. More to come in a future post!

Many thanks to William McLaughlin for the historic photograph of Bachelor Quarters, above.