Buffalo’s West Side Renaissance: The Mentholatum Company, Fred and Me

Buffalo’s West Side Renaissance was well underway when I discovered that the Mentholatum Company was in the process of being repurposed as a 54 market-rate apartment building with commercial or retail space.  Hearing this news made me think about how the Metholatum Company first came to my attention.

It happened when two new tenants, Hungarian brothers, and characters of my imagination moved into one of Fred’s second floor apartments back in 1965.  The brothers could only afford to move into the building because they were hired to work at the Mentholatum Company.  They worked as boxers and packers of products for distribution to all parts of the free world, which also included filling orders in many different languages.

The Company was built in 1919 and had natural sunlight, was clean and spotless, with modern equipment.  The Mentholatum Company took crystals of menthol taken from hermetically sealed cans and compounded them in glass and tanks.  The product was used as an external application for the cure of many inflammations including sore throats, ear aches, headaches, chapped hands and more.  The company also donated almost two hundred thousand jars of Mentholatum to help win the release of Cuban invasion prisoners in 1965.

Writing about Fred and his dream of leaving a legacy of hope to honor all of the tenants he was able to observe and connect with over a hundred-fifteen year period of time, was a challenge.  For myself and researchers, it was a decades-long history lesson with multiple twists and turns.  My goal was to discover time-tested factual information and create realistic characters who share what their life was like in their historical period of time.

Fred the building, was my inspiration and through unusual circumstances managed to take me on the adventure of a lifetime.  Writing this new blog was tough because I want to give my readers a personal view of what this novice novelist experienced in the past six years.  To be honest my characters became an extended family.  Often when I talked about them to my researchers and “Fred’s Friends” they asked me if the characters were real.

Please visualize a gigantic inflated balloon filled with historical research such as story lines, drafts, outlines, revisions, ideas, scraps of paper without lines, questions looking for answers and answers, and notebooks piled high, that kept generating more questions and interview topics.  I was afraid it was going to burst open before I finished the book.  Year after year, each topic inside my balloon was explored.  There was nothing in the balloon that showed me exactly what to do first or last.  I was excited, driven, and determined to tell Fred’s story, like he dreamed it would be told.

Then it happened in 2017.  My balloon burst into a full-fledged historical novel ready for publication.

 

 

Puzzle Pieces Grow

Research puzzle pieces became the roots of this historical novel.  They were the seeds of decades of historical facts that had to be rechecked multiple times to ensure their accuracy.  My large manila envelopes became a constant reference regarding Fred’s building.

Year by year, each envelope was filled with tiny and large bits of valuable information I could find easily tucked into their proper envelopes.  Edward F. Pickett, the architect, John C. Muessen, the builder, and Evelina Spanner, the building’s first real owner come alive fictitiously on the pages of this book.  My readers will learn about their lives in the context of the historical times they lived in.

The hardest part of creating each character took place after I reread inches of truth-based research. Janet and Pat were diligent partners with excellent questions and ideas I could use to explore the unknown. I believe it was Fred’s plea for help that created a constant desire in me find out why I was selected to write his story, before evidence of his existence was gone.

What surprised our research team the most was how vital it was to provide accurate historical information about what life was like for all of the characters in the novel. Over the decades Fred was often a quiet observer without their knowledge.  He was only able to communicate via mental telepathy to three people. All of his other tenants in the book were quietly observed and honored while he learned what it was like being human, yet knowing he would never be one.   Before I knew it, each character became real, almost like family in my mind’s eye. I feel privileged to have been able to peek into their lives and with Fred’s help, putting puzzle pieces together into a legacy of hope for all generations.

The Research Puzzle

It wasn’t long before I realized I had to figure out how to organize all the research our team was generating about our sad looking apartment building, number 1469.  It was important to find a way to make it easier to categorize the research and I was worried about how long it would take before the novel’s first draft would appear on paper.

I had to write the entire book in long hand because it was the only way I could make the novel could come alive. It was a challenging process.  First, I had to read the research over and over and it was a struggle to create the first chapter. It took a lot of thinking, writing, and constantly revisiting our research. I began by describing building 1469’s current physical state and then decided to describe what he looked like as a brand new building in 1900.  His current physical condition was poor, except for his structural integrity.

As often as I could, I drove by Fred and waved to an empty building. For the first couple of months building 1469 had no name.  But in a future blog, I’ll tell you an amazing story about how he was named and wondered if it was by chance or fate.

For a while I continued to use my small white one inch notebooks with the subject matter inserted in a plastic holder on the front of the notebooks.  When they could no longer hold any more information I transferred the research into several large three to four inch notebooks.  The building’s ownership was traced backwards from 2012 back to 1900 and then forward to 2015 when the book ends.

It was a priority to find a way to be able to find all the information immediately.  I’m not good at looking at file folder labels, so I selected extra-large manila envelopes, twenty-seven of them, and filled each one of them with priceless knowledge from the past.

Keeping Track of Time

As the author of a first time historical novel, I was responsible for establishing The Orphan Building Research Team’s research goals and objectives. I did this by scheduling time alone, for planning the bi-weekly follow-up research questions we needed to answer. Then, it was important to coordinate our team research sessions.  In-between these sessions, we planned field trips to various research sites and scheduled multiple interviews with individuals who grew up on the West Side of Buffalo, New York.

Time became a priority and a balancing act for all of us. When we were researching together, time evaporated right before our eyes.  We would look up from our pile of research books and it would almost be time to leave and live our separate lives. Time was special and we knew that Fred was afraid that his story wouldn’t be told before evidence of his existence was gone.

I began the creative process slowly, yet gingerly, because the novel had to be truth-based first and foremost.  Fred’s apartment building had to be described as accurately as possible from the time he was built in 1900 until a hundred and fifteen years later.   It took time to read and reread our research using my hand written notes, while my characters waited on the sidelines to emerge on the page.  Eventually, I also wrote the entire book in longhand, over and over, chapter by chapter.

After letting my pages marinate while I worked on a new chapter, I would go back, revise and rewrite the previous one again, hoping the three major fingers on my right hand would survive until the project typist could type the entire novel.  Each chapter was revised again at least two or more additional times.

Time was both a friend and a challenge.  Time is a perfect writer’s companion.

Stepping Back into the 1900’s!

Buffalo, New York, in the early 1900’s

Our journey into the past began when the Orphan Building Research Team parked our cars in the lot of the Church of Latter Day Saints Family History Center, waiting for their door to open. It was incredibly exciting, as we were greeted by two friendly research volunteers at the center. We came prepared with a list of basic questions; Who was Fred’s architect and his first owner? and How much did the land and the building cost in 1900?

When we found out the the name of Fred’s architect, we were so excited that we could have jumped up and down because our adopted building was becoming an important part of our lives!  We spent hours and hours learning as much as we could about our amazing architect, Edward F. Pickett.  We wanted to know: Where was he was born?, How old was he when he built Fred?, and What were his other accomplishments?

With solid advice from these diligent research volunteers, we knew it was time to take the next step into the world of historical research!

Let The Research Begin!

It happened in 2012, six years after I first heard the plea of a desperate-looking empty apartment building located on the West Side of Buffalo New York. With no previous experience doing historical research, I knew it was going to be a “learn as you go” experience, but I couldn’t wait to get started!

I knew I needed to form a small research team of like-minded, “wannabe” researchers who loved the challenge of learning new skills, and I selected two special friends who were both enthusiastic about my project. We became a close team of three, determined to find out about the meaning of building #1469’s plea.  It took six years to begin this adventure, going back in time to 1900 and then slowly moving toward 2015. Before I could officially start work on this particular project though, I had to complete my second nonfiction job search book while working full time, as it was already in the works. Luckily, I was able to have two sabbaticals to work on that book, which was completed in 2012.

I prepared for this new research project by reading, reviewing, and then re-reading historical research books, in preparation for an adventure into the past. My other researchers, Pat and Janet, were willing to take a small hourly wage and to be paid twenty hours of work at a time. We mainly researched together bi-weekly and on our own. Stepping into the unknown was incredibly exciting!

…to be continued!


Welcome to The Novice Novelist Blog!

I’m excited to begin a blog based on six years of experience working on my first historical fiction novel titled FRED: Humble Building of Dreams!  I couldn’t have accomplished this adventure into the past without the help from my Orphan Building Research Team, Fred’s Friends, an excellent typist, a great pre-publication editor, and a creative designer/branding coach who turned the material into an informative user-friendly author website.

I’m looking forward to sharing my insights and knowledge about writing a novel and what I’ve learned along the way. This website reflects FRED’s survival spirit and my goal of finding the perfect literary agent and publisher who will believe in this project, as much as I do!

Best Wishes,

Frances