Encinitas author’s books portray sweeping story of America

Encinitas resident Richard Fitchen is working on a five-book, historical fiction series spanning America’s history. In other words, he’s ambitious.

While many authors would quiver at the thought of such a herculean project, Fitchen said he “can’t hardly wait to get started writing in the mornings.”

“It’s terrific fun,” he said. “I’ll start researching and writing and next thing I know, a few hours have gone by.”

“Staircase to Liberty: Joseph’s America,” the latest book in the series, can be found on So far, three novels in the saga have been released.

Fitchen has drawn upon his background in political science and library sciences to research and write the sweeping series. He taught in the U.S. and abroad, later becoming the social sciences biographer in Yale University’s Libraries. He retired as a bibliographer and head of the reference department at Stanford University Libraries.

“Being able to research things, knowing where to go, who to talk with, there’s a kind of understanding you develop,” Fitchen said.

That’s not to say the series is overly academic. As with all historical fiction, detail and accuracy are important, but Fitchen said characters and storytelling drive the saga.

“It’s important to me that it not be just history or sociology or political science,” he said. “The reader should care about the characters. It’s not just reading facts on a page.”

The five-part series travels through American history by following generations of two families: the progressive, mixed-race LaBarres and the ruthless Camerons, who threaten the LaBarres at every turn. In “Staircase to Liberty,” Britain still rules America as Joseph LaBarre’s naval trading business is threatened by London. Not to mention, Angus Cameron plots to take out Joseph and cripple the fledgling United States.

Characters in the book aren’t merely witnesses to history, but rather play a key role. Joseph LaBarre, for instance, convinces patriot leaders, including George Washington, that unfettered trade is necessary to achieve liberty.

“These schooners at the time were carrying on trade and in some cases defending ports,” Fitchen said.

He wrote a few short stories in his younger years. When he retired in 2000, he decided to tackle his idea of writing a five-volume series “covering all the American national experience and major events.”

Fitchen wrote a novel about pre-Civil War America that was, he said, long and heavy on history. He was encouraged to pare it down, but just couldn’t bear to shed too many words.

Instead, years later, he moved on to the sequel “United by Covenant: Ben’s America,” the third in the series that covers just before the Civil War to 1906. By then, he was guided by a new writing philosophy: Less is more.

“I left what I considered to be the best pickings in the book, so it’s more accessible and interesting.”

Although Fitchen is certainly bookish, he has no shortage of practical knowledge. For instance, he worked as a firefighter in Santa Cruz County for the Division of Forestry during college.

“It’s definitely not intellectual work,” he said. “You’re breaking fire lines. You’re fighting fires.” Real-life experiences like this inform his writing, he added, even though much of the saga takes place centuries ago.

Another book in the series, “Republic in Triumph,” tells the tale of civil liberties, women’s rights and the transportation revolution through the lens of attorney Jessie LaBarre.

Fitchen said the next book in the saga, which he’s still working on, will explore the technology boom in Silicon Valley in the 1980s and then move up to present day. Themes will run the gamut, from the environment to security to economics.

For that book, he’s working on compiling the major events of the past three decades. So he wrote down a list of noteworthy events for each year in this span. His office, he said, is often filled with such notes, particularly when he’s in the groove.

“This could inform plotting or events in the book,” Fitchen said.

At the end of the morning interview, Fitchen said the rest of his day would be devoted to research and writing.

“I’m excited to return to 1980 and learn more,” he said.