In the last decade, I’ve embarked on a long-held wish: to research and write a book. The book, fiction, steps back into the 1920s, the time of my grandparents and when my own parents were children.
One storyline deals with medicine of that time, I think, because of my maternal grandfather, Edgar Miller Long. He was a doctor, a general practitioner, as was his father, Benjamin L.Long. For me, their stories were shrouded in secrecy somehow, due in part to pain and loss.
Little was said about him in the family. As I got older and more curious, I began to piece strands of their history together. Once when my aunt, who was much older than my mother, visited us, she recalled details about their father, things my mother had never heard. I wondered how could that be.
“He had a reputation as a great diagnostician,” she said. A Martin County publication, I later learned, detailed family lineages, including those of the Longs and their contributions to the people of Hamilton, N.C. and to Martin County. They were only town doctors during the first two decades of the 20th century. The account restated the ‘great diagnostician’ label in referring to my grandfather. Comforting and still perplexing somehow. I wanted to know more.
I visited Martin County, where my mother lived during her first few years, once with her and other times alone. I reviewed county records. I hoped to find a county elder who had a first-person account. Courtesy of the Martin County Historical Society, I met a few older residents and I interviewed two men who had been treated as young men by my grandfather. One had contracted polio, the other had been injured in a fall.
When I learned the doctors had both attended medical school in Baltimore, Md., I inquired at the registrar’s office and found a wonderful source of information about medical school training of the 19th and early 20th centuries. A staff member listed the courses my grandfather would have taken there more than a hundred years ago.
Memoirs of some country doctors agreed with my findings about Depression-era doctors’ getting payment by eggs, ham, chicken or other farm product. I gleaned that medical treatment then relied on relatively few medicines; the contents of the black doctor’s bag were fairly light, with comparatively few options. Once I’d developed character and plot, I enlisted a neighbor of ours, a retired professor of pediatric medicine, to be my window into medical conditions and treatments of the period.
To create a town of the times, I delved into histories of a handful of small towns, ones that might approximate the one I’d heard about from my mother. I had to take a crash course in the geographic, economic and social landscape of the day. Martin County’s history was punctuated by the Roanoke River, and river transport was crucial to the economic survival in the late 1800s before the coming of the railroad. For economic viability, the existence of pine forests led to the manufacture of turpentine, tar and pitch (“naval stores”), a key livelihood just as farmland enabled the cultivation of major crops like tobacco and cotton in the Jim Crow South.
Sooner or later, I had to stop researching, which many journalists — myself included — have trouble doing. In 2015, I wrote a first draft, enlisted a well-published novelist as my editor. Now to find a publisher for the book. I know I need an agent. To enlist an agent, I found I’d have to show I have a readership or a platform; thus, in 2016, I detoured a bit and began writing the blog. I hope an agent will promote the book, a family saga, to a publishing house. I am in the second year of the blog; later this year I’ll continue manuscript revisions. Stay tuned.