Chal Pancoast, The Roving Reporter

In my last post, I mentioned that the Chalmers Pancoast Story might be the least likely of the library books I’m reading to provide any useful information. But it’s relatively short and my reading time has been very limited. I decided to get it out of the way first, since I’m going to have to renew most of the books, possibly more than once.

I’m glad I read beyond the front matter! Before he gets into his adventures as a ‘cub reporter,’ Pancoast provides a good look at life in a small Ohio town from about 1888 or ’89 until about 1900. And because he was a professional writer, it’s pretty well written too. I qualify that because writing standards and styles have changed over the years. It’s well-written according to the standards when he was writing.

If you’ve ever seen a movie about small town living in the past, you would probably recognize some of the things the author describes: the clothing, how young boys amused themselves and/or earned a little pocket money, life on a farm in his earliest years, transportation (or lack thereof), and more. Just the kind of things I need to know for my father’s character.

I now know a fair amount about my father’s adult life, but very little about how he and other boys may have spent their days, and various other details that are important in turning my real father into a believable character in a novel.  Pancoast’s little book fills in a lot of blanks.

Frank, my father, and his father George were crazy about streetcars and trains. Grandpa George actually built Frank a model electric street car for one of his early birthdays, and Frank was a streetcar conductor for a while when he returned from China, where he served as a Marine during WWI.

Pancoast talks about a narrow-gauge railroad–The Bellaire, Zanesville & Cincinnati–that ran from the town about thirty miles south of my present location to the eastern part of the Ohio River. He lists all the stops along the way. Just for kicks, I checked every map I could find to get an idea of the actual route and see if it was close enough to where the family lived that Frank and Grandpa George might have ridden on it. None of the men in the family seem to have been averse to exploring the countryside, especially after they had cars. For example, the Lowrey men took Frank to several Civil War sites, including Gettysburg.

Sure enough, the route of the railroad was much closer to their Pennsylvania and Ohio homes than was Gettysburg. On the east end of the line, they could have caught a boat and gone for a cruise. What an exciting outing that would have been for a father and his young son. I have no idea whether or not they actually rode that train, but it’s at least a likely possibility.

The family moved to California before Frank was fourteen. He supposedly lied about his age when he was fourteen so he could join the Marines, at least according to Grandma Jenny. And they lived in L.A. during the time Chal Pancoast was a young reporter in the west. So again, this little book is providing useful information (along with some videos from the History Channel, and a few more books).

The research is taking up a lot of time because I’m having so much fun doing it! It’s very unlike research required for most term papers in college or even serious articles for publication. In those, some of the opinions may be subjective, but even the opinions need to be backed up with some solid facts, or at least some indication that the author knows what he or she is writing about.

In writing a novel, an important part is creating interesting and believable characters, and putting them in interesting and believable environments and situations. It’s more fun because the writer can use the research results creatively to flesh out characters, describe environments, and include appropriate day-to-day activities between moments of high drama.

Another challenge: blending the real story that I know with the parts I create, and doing it in such a way that readers won’t be sure what’s true and what’s pure creativity! An even bigger challenge is something many novelists encounter, according to those who write with some authority on the subject (and the personal experiences of a few writers I know). Fictional characters, it seems, tend to take on a life of their own. You can only take them so far until they take over the story and do what they damned well please.

My problem? My characters were real people that will have to stick to the real story, based on my parents’ notes–leaving me to fill in the missing details. They will not be allowed to rewrite the nitty-gritty of the most significant parts of their stories, no matter how much they kick, scream, or sulk! The can do as they’d like the rest of time.

If you’ve got any meaningful advice on how to manage this particular situation, I’d love to hear your ideas. In the meantime, I’ll write honestly about the real people and events, and let the muse guide me through the rest of it!

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