Wednesday, April 3, 2013

A Sentimental Journey: Research for Stuart Brannon's Final Shot

Janet Bly is here on this research day to give us a sense of how she and her sons finished a novel begun by her husband, the renowned western author Stephen Bly.

"When your husband passed away in 2011, you took on a project he had begun. How did you go about gathering the necessary research to complete this novel?" - Sandy

Janet: To write a story set in 1905, there’s context and conflicts, places and people, a whole lot of detail accuracy to grasp. That’s part of the fun. . .and frustration. . .of writing fiction.

When my three sons and I set out to finish the novel hubby Stephen Bly began, we scrambled to do the groundwork of playing major catch-up on what he knew from long years of immersion in his genre and the times. He left us 7,000 words, a one-page story synopsis, and a long list of character names.
We had four months to do the research, craft the rest of the story, and turn in the final manuscript of 77,000 words. So, part of the plan included passing out  assignments. I went on location to the Oregon coast.

I had gone there the year before with hubby, but I came along for the ride that time. He did the work. I enjoyed sunsets over the beach, grilled salmon dinners, digging in the sand and leisurely walks hugged by sea breezes. This time I had to be alert to the specifics of the flora and fauna, the history and smells, and making careful recordings in my notebook and with my camera. I forced myself to ignore romantic memories and the urge to run barefoot along the shore. A very different kind of 'going to the beach' trip.
The Places
I did interviews in Astoria, Oregon, the seat of Clatsop County and sought details at Fort Clatsop, where explorers Lewis and Clark wintered in 1805 and was later the site of the William Smith home where a violent conflict takes place.

I stayed in Gearhart, Oregon, with its razor clams, golf course and infamous Ridgeway Path. I studied about beached gray whales and local snakes, wild horses and cougars. At night I read about general info like horse behavior and control when they're in foreign (to them) landscapes. A short jaunt to Seaside, Oregon, revealed a museum where I could find out about its early twentieth century law enforcement, the layout of the town site and the Salt Works Lewis & Clark memorial.

I searched out what it was like at the Portland, Oregon depot in 1905 and the layout of the Lewis & Clark Centennial Exposition.

Then there was the late addition of the Tillamook Head promontory for one of the major novel scenes, to substitute for the deserted island that we discovered didn’t exist. No islands at all, only rock outcroppings, off the Oregon coast. Did not realize that. Found out in time not to make a critical mistake.

The People
After settling on the local Clatsop tribe for our Indian characters, gathered biographies on famous golfers and historical persons, such as Theodore Roosevelt, Wyatt Earp, Buffalo Bill Cody and W.C. Fields. Read up on the orphan trains and Roosevelt’s Rough Riders. Later we did a sort of casting audition of all former characters in Stuart Brannon novels to determine who made the cut in this last one.

The Products and Inventions
Ads in old newspapers revealed brands of cigars and cigarettes, clothing styles and golf equipment. Then there's the weapons of the era, as well as various gadgets such as flashlights and lawnmowers, telephones and walking sticks to consider. And the wardrobe, of course. In a search of Oregon trains, came across railroad land controversies that worked well with the plot. Loved finding out about the transportation, the motor cars and boats, bicycles and fire trucks.

More Story World Emersion
Narcissa Kinney passed away before this story opens, but she's a real-life character that provides a lot of background for the novel. She made Gearhart a dry town. The stipulation of no liquor bought or sold within the city remained more than seventy years after her death.

Narcissa also brought culture in the form of a 200-acre Gearhart Park that included an auditorium for traveling circuit speakers and entertainment, part of the Chautauqua movement. Gearhart residents and visitors enjoyed classic plays, Broadway hits, opera stars, glee clubs and bands such as John Philip Sousa’s. Fiery orators and activists, crusaders and preachers took advantage of this forum. More than four hundred cities across the country sponsored these same events. President Theodore Roosevelt called them, “the most American thing in America.”

Narcissa’s husband, Marshall Kinney, instigated the links golf course on the north side of Gearhart. My husband loved playing on the narrow ridges, rolls and dips of the grass-covered dunes. We could hear and feel the ocean, though it’s out of sight. Gearhart Golf Links opened circa 1892 and ranks the second oldest course in the west. There’s not a straight trunk along any fairway, only twisted, wind-sculptured trees. A breezy adventure.

In the shadows of the backdrop of the story, one hundred years earlier the waves swell and roll over the empty sea. No supply ship on the horizon as Captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark end their cross-country expedition at the Pacific Ocean. They winter at Fort Clatsop, then the long journey home. All this necessitated a scan of their journals because their adventures spill over into this one.

Creating a story begins with objective facts, the truth in fiction. But I also included the landscape of my own emotions, to partially transfer to the widower, Stuart Brannon. Nothing in life's ever wasted for the writer.


Janet Chester Bly has authored 31 nonfiction and fiction books, 19 she co-authored with Christy Award winning author, Stephen Bly. Titles include The Hidden West Series, The Carson City Chronicles, Hope Lives Here, and The Heart of a Runaway. She resides at 4200 ft. elev. on the Idaho Nez Perce Indian Reservation. Her 3 married sons, Russell, Michael and Aaron, live down the mountain with their families. 

I admire Janet and her sons for being able to complete that novel (on time) so soon after Stephen Bly's death. 

What has been your most difficult research project, or your most rewarding?


  1. So far, my most interesting research time was a casual conversation with some Confederate re-enactors. They gave me an unexpected tidbit I was able to use in my story.

  2. Can I mention one I'm looking forward to, instead? I'm working on a story that requires one person to 'see' a dead person--and it can't be a ghost! I'm going to start with mental health professionals, but who knows where the research will lead?

    1. Fascinating! Could lead to trouble ... which is great for any story.

  3. I borrowed microfilm records of newspapers from a library near my family's homestead, hoping to find something about them. My local library kept the copies for two weeks, and I could research at my leisure. Nothing about my own folks (maybe a good thing!), but lots of insight into social events, products being advertised, etc.

    1. Old newspapers are a great source of information about past days. Thanks, Jenny!


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