Wednesday, July 25, 2012

ROADTRIP TO RESEARCH or How I Started the Sequel to Merely Dee by Driving All Around the Great Lakes

I apologize, faithful readers, for neglecting to post a new blog til now, but I've been overwhelmed this July with family concerns (the death of a dear aunt and getting two kids settled in college apartments). But even more to the point of this blog, I've been anxiously researching a sequel to Merely Dee. This Eastland novel was supposed to be a stand alone, single book. I had no plans to continue Dee Pageau's story, but readers wanted answers to her lovelife dilemma. So I started jotting down notes, and before I knew it, I had an entire novel plotted out. All I have to do now is flesh out the historical details.

I began at the beginning, or should I say, at the end of Merely Dee. It's months later, the winter of 1915. The Eastland has been righted and raised and towed by tugs away from the disaster site at the Chicago River. Western Electric is at full-staff again, and Dee is thick in the middle of a love triangle. But what else is going on in the world?

Chicago has become a fast-growing industrial city, the working class poor hobnobbing it alongside the Palmers, the McCormicks, and the Marshall Fields. Jane Addams's Hull House is a thriving settlement nearly a block long. Suffragists hold meetings to address the issues of women's rights, the every-growing problem of neglected street children, and the concerns for drunk and abusive husbands/fathers. Prohibition is just around the corner. The Great War has already broken out in Europe. And a fictious Eastland seaman, named Lars Nielsen, has joined the crew of the SS Theordore Roosevelt.

I started my research of that exciting time period with books, but that answered only so many questions. I needed to know about a Merchant Marine's life on a Great Lakes steamer. What was it like to live on a ship day in and day out? What did mariners do for money when the ice settled in on the lakes and their ships were dry docked for the winter? To find the anwers, I set out in my SUV. Fortunately for me, I was able to drag my husband along for company (and a little R&R for him).

Our first stop: Millburg, Michigan, burial place of Eastland's notorious captain, Harry Pedersen. By the winter of 1915, Pedersen was all over the news. He, and five other men, had been arrested and charged with conspiracy to operate an unsafe ship. He stated--in no uncertain terms--that he would not be the scapegoat for the disaster and continued to change his story to suit his circumstances. I was never a fan of the man, and so I wanted to go full circle on my Eastland research, and dance on his grave. But the reality of his final resting place was humbling and sad. I could no more dance upon his decaying, unattended headstone than I could beat a dog. Pedersen's long life came to a pathetic and lonely end, and I left Millburg satisfied for the victims.

Harry Pedersen's headstone set in the ground alongside his wife's.

Me and Bob Bowersox
At the wheel
Onto happier things! Our next trip took us to Toledo, Ohio, to visit a 1911 steamship freighter,the SS Carl Schoonmaker. The freighter has been restored to its original brillance and is now a floating Maritime Museum. The Eastland and the Teddy Roosevelt were excursion ships, not freighters, and their design and purpose were different. But all three ships were from the same era and just seeing this freighter, climbing her narrow steps, staring out her wraparound bridge windows, took me back to a bygone time. I imagined Lars Nielsen on those decks and my book came alive. But this ship was not the biggest surprise of the day. Our tour guide was a retired Merchant Marine, with 40 years experience on the Great Lakes. Bob Bowersox, Vietnam Vet, and lifelong resident of Toledo, told me stories that would add depth to Lars's fictional existence. Bob fielded every question I had and then went on to answer some that I didn't even know I needed. I left Toledo with a page of scribbled notes and a huge smile on my face. Thank you, Bob Bowersox, from the depths of my heart!

Curator Laura Shields, docent Jackie Glidden, and me.  
Before heading home, we stopped for a two-day rest in Michigan City, Indiana. For those of you familiar with the Eastland story, you know that the ship was heading to Michigan City the morning she capsized. The picnic grounds at Washington Park along the beautiful southern shore of Lake Michigan were a favorite amusement spot for Chicago tourists. For just seventy-five cents, the tired and over-worked citizens of the crowded city could take a round-trip adventure on a steamer for a relaxing day of sun and fun. Washington Park has changed over the years, but Lake Michigan and the sandy beaches are as beautiful as ever. I had an appointment with Laura Shields, curator of the Old Lighthouse Museum, an actual working lighthouse on the shore of the Great Lake. I'd emailed her in advance of my visit, asking if she had any information on the SS Theodore Roosevelt. She invited me to take a seat in the basement library and presented me with a folder two-inches thick. For the next hour, I was in heaven, going through old postcard pictures, newspaper articles from the early 1900's, and family photos of passengers on decks of the Roosevelt.  
The Old Lighthouse Museuum as it stands today.
I still have much more research to do. Soon I'll take to the highways again, this time to visit the Hull House Museum on the campus of the University of Illinois in Chicago, and another museum in Elmhurst that is featuring an exhibit on the history of chocolate in Chicago--including the Brach's Candy Company where Karel Koznecki works. I'll be sure to take plenty of pictures for you, dear readers. Until next time... happy and safe travels to you and your families this summer!

One last thing before you click off! I need a favor that only you can provide. If you've read Merely Dee, and you have some free time on your hands, please consider writing a book review for me. You can write one review and download it in several places:,, and Goodreads. If you don't have any extra time, please just make a quick visit to these sites and rate my book from 1 to 5 stars (one being bad and 5 being great) and then hit the 'like' icon. I would really appreciate it and so would Merely Dee! Thank you for your continued support this year. You've been more than awesome!