Book researching: snail mail to Google Earth

Dad, in his fictitious model railroad town of Zenith, (Those things left behind) reminded us that its adjacent port town was based on the Oregon town of Westport. As I crafted the opening chapter for my newest writing project, for whatever reason, my heart told me that Westport was the perfect location. Unlike in my grandfather’s time, though, my initial research took me to Google Earth.

Although I had remembered traveling through the unincorporated area of Westport while traveling Highway 20 to Astoria, that was about all my brain knew. Google Earth, though, identified the single road leading to the still operating ferry and the Berry Patch restaurant, allowing me to draft this opening chapter essentially sight unseen. When I finally got around to visiting the location last week, in route to a weekend on the Long Beach Peninsula, it was pure deja vu. I had been down that road to the ferry and seen the sign to the Berry Patch! It all was really a bit odd, as my writing already reflected what it might be like to walk the ferry road to the banks of the Columbia.

In 1933, my grandfather Richard Montgomery, Sr., was interviewed by Sylvia Holzman of the Oregon Journal. Daddy Dick, as we kids later called him, was then just beginning the research for what would turn out to be a bestseller. In the article he is quoted: “I’m working on the life of Dr. John McLoughlin, known as the father of Oregon. At present the book is in the ‘collecting’ stage. I’m writing (letters) to people all over Canada and the northwest, and have had some truly amazing letters on the subject. Yes, I’ve a novel in the back of my mind, too, but I’m not so enthusiastic about trying my hand at fixture in general, because I believe non-fiction is less ephemeral, has a better chance of enduring.” This research eventually grew to 358 pages published under the title, The Whiteheaded Eagle.

Even then, my grandfather understood publishing for what it still seems to be: “Actual quality of a book has very little to do with its acceptance by a publisher. What is important to the publisher is his needs at the time.” Somehow he did find what some publisher wanted, as he not only found one for the White Headed Eagle in 1934 (the Macmillan Company), but had previously had success with Pechuck (1932, Dodd, Mead and Company), and went on to publish Young Northwest (1941, Random House). And in those days, our Portland was already a reading Mecca.  In the same article he notes then that Portland ranks excellently as a ‘book-buying community,” and that the public library index shows it to be first or second in the country per capita of population in the borrowing of books.

In Pen, Typewriter, Computer, I admit being unable to now imagine writing in a time when our working versions of books and writing projects didn’t sit somewhere in an electronic world, allowing us to easily adapt, edit and change. But now, thinking about research, I’m not sure which would be more challenging? Imagine the patience it would require to rely fully on letters through the mail, phone calls, and those books and records that happened to sit on the shelves of our historical societies and libraries, rather than at the end of a few keystrokes. It would certainly develop patience: a lot more than what I sometimes feel that I have. Knowing all that, I honor my grandfather and all writers who came before us even more for accomplishing such feats.

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Westport near the ferry.

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