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Unlikely Inspiration

George C. Flavel House in Astoria, OR

Sometimes, inspiration for a story can come from unexpected places. This happened to me last weekend. In my case, the inspiration was a “welcome” binder in a rental property.

I am a compulsive reader and all-around nerd, so I always read the guest book whenever we check into a hotel room or whatnot. I want to see the local map, find out what good bars and restaurants are nearby, and know the best way to make a speedy exit if necessary.

When we checked into a 2-bedroom rental for a long weekend in Astoria, Oregon, I immediately thumbed through the binder that had been left on the kitchen table. Tucked in the back pocket of the binder was a number of newspaper pages from the Daily Astorian from 2012. I expected a review of the place we were staying (the “Painted Lady”), or a rehash of a long-past local festival. The first page I saw carried the banner headline “Mary Louise Flavel found.” This piqued my interest right away – who was Mary Louise Flavel and why were people looking for her? As I continued to read through the newspaper articles, it soon became evident as to why, and I soon became amazed at the story that led up to Mary Louise’s discovery.

First, a bit about Astoria. Located at the mouth of the Columbia River, Astoria was the first American settlement west of the Rockies. The town was founded in 1811, by John Jacob Astor’s Pacific Fur Company as a fortress trading post. Given the strategic location as the Pacific connection to one of the continent’s main inland waterways, it soon began to thrive.

Captain George E. Flavel was one of the first licensed sea pilots in Oregon. As the only bar pilot at the mouth of the Columbia, he had a virtual monopoly on sea traffic moving in and out of the river. He charged accordingly, and one contemporary editorial described him as “the bloodsucker at the mouth of the river.”

The Flavel family fortune grew, as Captain George expanded into shipping, banking, coal, commercial real estate and other business ventures. The fortunes of the town grew with the fortunes of the Flavel family. Captain George built a fine house in the Queen Anne style a few blocks from the waterfront. The family eventually donated it to the county historical society, and it is operated as a museum today.

George E. Flavel House, now a museum in Astoria, OR

Flavel’s son, George C., also became a bar pilot, and built himself a grand house a few blocks away from his father’s. After the original house was donated, George C.’s became the family seat.

As I continued to read about the fate of the house and the Flavels that lived there, I was amazed. It was an incredible story of the decline and fall of a prominent family, and a town who turned on them. I read through the newspaper articles twice, then grabbed a notebook and filled four and a half pages with notes. The next day, we went to the Flavel House Museum, and I picked up a book in the gift shop that offered some more details on the rise and fall of the Flavel family.

That evening, as I was watching the ships laying at anchor in the river, I had an epiphany: “Astoria is Fester.” Even the geography is similar (although the Columbia is much wider than the Black River flowing through Fester). With that realization, I began plotting how to fit the story of the Flavels into the context of Fester. I grabbed my notebook again, and soon had the outline for about 75% of the story that may serve as a sequel to Fester.

Which leaves me with a nice conundrum: should I pursue this new inspiration, or should I continue with the story on which I had been working, a story about stand-up comedians, tentatively titled Laughingstock? It’s a nice problem to have, for a writer.

At this point, I’m only a chapter or two away from finishing the equivalent of Act 1 from Laughingstock, so I owe it to the story to get at least that far. Then I’ll take a stab at the Fester followup. We’ll see what inspires after that.