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Fictional Settings: Mare Island

An abandoned shipyard and one author's thoughts about fictional settings

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Many writers begin with character, but often as not, my stories begin with fictional settings. I get to know my characters by seeing how they behave at work. Do they eat out or sit at their desks? Do they pack a lunch box? Is it black or aluminum, or does it have a cartoon logo? Does the lunch box contain a thermos of coffee or hot soup? Would my character be considered a “blue collar worker” or “skilled tradesperson” or a manager? “Lunch” says a lot about a character’s habits and social standing. If that’s so, then how does this fictional setting influence the character’s hopes, uncertainties, and regrets? An author who describes a character eating lunch at work reveals a lot about that person’s life.

rusting warehouse in Mare Island

What would this building have looked like when it was new? The big windows would have let in plenty of light, and the now-rusting steel doors would have made the building secure.

Most of us spend eight hours a day away from home. Work colleagues–and the dangers or satisfactions inherent in our workplaces–affect our well being. If we feel beaten down at work, that spills over into how we behave at home. Yet, much of our modern fiction focuses largely on the drama inherent in family life (or the claustrophobic drama going on inside the character’s thoughts). Many writers place eighty to ninety percent of the action in the family sphere.

What if we turned that on its head? What if work became eighty percent of a novel’s focus? Certainly, an author would need a pretty big landscape to make work feel that important. I would submit that Mare Island Naval Shipyard might be a fictional setting worth such an attempt.

What Is Mare Island Naval Shipyard?

Mare Island Naval Shipyard is located in Vallejo, California, just on the edge of San Pablo Bay. Fifty thousand people once worked here. From the age of the industrial ruins, I would have guessed the shipyard to have been a response to the bombing of Pearl Harbor. However, it’s much older than that.

Mare Island’s original 956 acres were purchased by the Navy in 1853. The first ship built there was the Saginaw, a wooden sloop-of-war built in 1858. Over the years the shipyard expanded. However, all 5000 plus acres of Mare Island were taken out of service on April 1, 1996. Now, the site is being “repurposed” and its land distributed to government agencies and housing developers.

If you live in the Bay Area, go see it before it’s gone. There’s no guard at the gate. No one’s checking your ID. Stroll about past the old Navy hospital and the officers’ quarters. Check out the chapel’s Tiffany windows.

A Perfect Fictional Setting

If you’re a bird watcher, bring a birding guide and binoculars. Photographers, bring your cameras. If you’re a writer bring a notebook.

Mare Island, with its giant cranes, empty warehouses, and massive drydocks, would make a terrific fictional setting for a novel about the people who once worked here.

bond rally Mare Island

A bond rally by workers at Mare Island raised enough money to pay for an entire submarine.

In 1935 the USS Henley, a destroyer, was built at Mare Island. During World War II, the focus shifted to submarines and landing craft. Through the sale of war bonds, Mare Island’s patriotic workforce raised enough money to pay for an entire submarine. But, there’s more to this tale. Mare Island was also the site of persistent racial discrimination.

Books Set in Mare Island

I was overjoyed to discover that I’m not the only author fascinated by this haunting, evocative relic of our industrial past. Here are three books worth checking out.

Author Brooks Rodden has written a nonfiction book called Mare Island. The book was inspired by his discovery of this industrial “ghost town.” A beautifully produced book, Rodden has provided stunning original photography as well as historical tidbits and the author’s own responses to the site.

Also nonfiction is Standing Tall: Willie Long And the Mare Island Original 21ers: A Legacy of Courage, Activism, and Social Justice by Jake Sloan. The book is about the racism and work conditions in Mare Island. “In 1961, there were an estimated one thousand plus African-Americans working at Mare Island Naval Shipyard.” For decades, they had suffered under systematic, discriminatory working conditions in hiring, training, pay, and promotions.

Gary Cullen’s The Boys from Boston, another nonfiction book, explores what happens when a town is “invaded” by young army troops.

“The famed 211th Coast Artillery Anti-Aircraft Regiment from Boston, Massachusetts arrived into the City of Vallejo a few days after the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. Its job: to protect Mare Island Naval Shipyard and the City of Vallejo from any further Japanese attacks.”

Thankfully, that never happened. These are true stories about the soldiers, their work, and the women they married.

What about you? Have you discovered any hidden gems about World War II or the working life? Please share in the comments. 



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