17 May 2018

This Is The Way We Avoid Writing...Avoid Writing...

The guy it all started with...THIS time.
by Brian Thornton

This time it all started with Ezra Meeker

A pioneer Northwesterner, an Oregon Trail settler who became famous for enriching himself by cornering the world's hop market during the late 19th century, Meeker, was an early and enthusiastic booster of Washington, first as a growing territory, and later as a new state.

I have a project set around the time that Washington became a state (1889) which involves an "Immigrant Inspector" assigned to the Puget Sound area by the INS. As such he has run-ins with illegal immigrants (mostly at this point Chinese), sex slave trafficking rings, drug (mostly opium) smugglers, railroad labor wranglers, railroad labor agitators, and a whole host of others.

With Meeker playing such a prominent role in the early history of the region, I decided that I wanted to dedicate a portion of this on-going project to the South Sound region, and doing research on Meeker and his large extended family seemed like a great starting place for historical evidence that might be used to dress up my germ of a story.

Several rounds of ever-expanding Google searches about Meeker and his extended clan helped lead me to Asa Mercer.

Asa Mercer after he'd left Washington for Wyoming

Poking around in the back yard of the Meekers brought me around to a ton of information on another prominent Washington family: the Mercers, specifically the younger of the original two Mercer brothers, the restless, energetic Asa Mercer.

Now, I write historical mystery. I have a Master's degree in history, and I am a native of the Pacific Northwest, so I've had research-based encounters with both the Meeker and the Mercer families before. This is not new ground for me.

This time, however, I was doing historical research for a fiction-based purpose. So tidbits I might have not bothered pursuing previously, when I was still writing predominantly nonfiction, struck me as worth pursuing, this time around.

This included Asa Mercer's connection with the nascent University of Washington (as a young man he helped build the school's original building, and also served as both its first president, and its first teacher), and his subsequent much more pop-culture friendly association with the so-called "Mercer Girls."
Young Asa Mercer: Check out that pompadour!

For those unfamiliar with the Mercer Girls, here's the short version of the story:

Mercer recognized that the majority of settlers in Washington Territory were young, single (and overwhelmingly white) men. Recognizing an opportunity, Mercer headed east to New England, where, during the height of the Civil War, he convinced a significant number of young, unmarried women to travel to the Puget Sound area, luring them with the promise of "honest work" such as teaching jobs, and the greater likelihood of them finding eligible bachelors who could make good husbands.

These intrepid young women all went on to work in the region as schoolteachers. Nearly all of them would later marry, have children, and serve as the human roots of any number of current Northwest family trees.

Nearly a century after their arrival in Puget Sound the Mercer Girls went on to serve as the inspiration for a "comic western" television series produced between 1968 and 1970.

I'm talking about Here Come the Brides, of course.

A sappy TV show which has not aged well, Here Come the Brides featured three young actors, two of whom spent considerable time during the '60s and '70s as "teen heart-throbs": Bobby Sherman and David Soul.
These two.
Sherman would go on to a moderately successful career as a pop singer/songwriter, and Soul went on to play Hutch in Starsky & Hutch, then to England, where he was still acting as late as 2014.

And the third guy?

He's Robert Brown.

He's the guy on the right, Those are some sweeeeet gloves.

Here Come the Brides was pretty much the high-water mark of Robert Brown's career, name-recognition-wise. And of course when I came across his picture in the course of digging deeper down into this particular rabbit hole, I recognized him right away.

But not for his work on Here Come the Brides.


There's a Star Trek connection.

Yep, I'm a Trekkie.

Nope, not a "Trekker." I don't dress up or go to conventions, or speak Klingon. I just LOVE Star Trek, and have since I was four (the year the original series was canceled).

So of course I recognized Robert Brown from his guest-starring role in the Star Trek episode "The Alternative Factor." As the time-traveler Lazarus, he played a dual role (same guy, two universes. In one he's sane. In the other, he's not.).

He was great.

And he gets to rock a fake beard that looks waaaay worse than either Ezra Meeker's or Asa Mercer's!
Now, I have a rule when it comes to researching for my writing. If I come across anything remotely relating to Star Trek, the writing of Ross MacDonald, the music of Miles Davis, Stevie Ray Vaughan, or Ryan Adams, or the poetry of William Butler Yeats, I am required to cease all research, get away from the computer, and go do something which might be remotely productive.

Because given the excuse, I will dig down that particular rabbit hole all the way to China!

So there you have it:

Ezra Meeker. Asa Mercer. Mercer Girls. Here Come The Brides. Robert Brown. Star Trek.

This is the way we avoid writing today.

(But tomorrow is another day!)

See you in two weeks!


  1. Now that's interesting. I think I heard of the Mercer Girls but thanks for the refresher.

    Here in New Orleans we had a version called Casquette Girls or Casket Girls. Brought from France in the early 1700s to marry the original French colonists who had been raked from the streets of Paris or from houses of correction. Rough men. Casket Girls (named for the small portmanteaus they carried that looked like caskets), were not women of questionable virture. It was the opposite. They were young, virtuous daughters of the poor from orphanages and convents. Brought to Louisiana, they were chaperoned and housed by Ursuline nuns until they were married off. It is a matter of pride to be descended from a Casket Girl.

    Good post, Brian.

  2. Fun post, Brian, and I'm a walking advertisement for clang association. When I start research, I have to keep a list of the questions I need to answer on the desk and adhere to it strictly or I'm off to the races like you are here.

    I can follow link after link after link and find all sorts of fascinating stuff...then, two hours later, I have to back out of twenty sites and start my "real" research again. Libraries were better because it was harder to follow tangents and bright shiny trivia.

    Is the condition part of being a writer or teacher, or is it just human nature?

    On the other hand, is ANYTHING we learn ever a complete waste? Someday, you might need it for another story or to win a bar bet.

  3. I share your pain and just experienced it with a story I was writing, set in SD in 1880. I ended up in rabbit holes on the Chicago Fire, the first streetcars in Minneapolis, the Chicago Theological Seminary, pharmacies of the era, the prairie, etc. And yes, I was a history major. Thank goodness that story is finished and now I am immersed in clowns.

  4. I spent two days once doing "research on post-WW2 Vienna," and far too much time was spent reading about "The Third Man", Orson Welles, "The Chimes at Midnight", which led to Falstaff, Shakespeare...
    But I did find out all about plombage - an old fashioned TB treatment which involved surgically collapsing the diseased lung. Seriously. Worked out great for the story, "Miss West's First Case", so it wasn't all time wasted.

  5. I remember laughing with my parents when that TV show came on with a song lyric about "The bluest skies you've ever seen are in Seattle". Total BS!

  6. Brian, I have a stack of newspaper clippings that may be used someday! Oh, and there's another Star Trek connection in Here Come the Brides: Mark Lenard, who was all over the series and movies was a regular, too!

  7. I look forward to your project, Brian. Ezra Meeker was, for my money, one of the most fascinating people in the history of our state. (Only competition is George W. Bush - no not THAT one.) For those not as well-versed in history as Brian: He served on the jury for Leschi (an Indian who led a war against the settlers in Seattle and was hung as a murderer, despite the fact that Meeker's jury found him innocent on the grounds that war ain't murder). In his old age he traveled the Oregon Trail by covered wagon, automobile and finally by aeroplane, all to convince Congress to make it a national historic site. He succeeded, and it was the first National Trail. He also gave the city of Puyallup its name and, in one of his fascinating books, apologized for it.


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