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In practically every way, Patten was unlike his fictional hero. Patten was a spindly small-town boy with a sense of inferiority. His pacifist parents constantly warned him against the shamefulness of fisticuffs. When he created Merriwell, he simply turned himself inside out. "It was natural for me to wish to make Frank a fellow such as I would like to have been myself," he said.
Patten was born in Corinna, Maine on October 25, 1866, the son of a carpenter, "a good, solid, honest Maine man of no distinctive talents." His mother was "simply and merely a good housewife and a loving, almost adoring mother." From the start, he was a storyteller. "I was trying to write stories even before I knew how to spell some of the simplest words," he later recalled. "My thirst for reading was fed at first upon Sabbath-school literature and such worn and tattered books as I found in my home." He started smoking at 14, when he indulged in 2� cheroots. He also got drunk on hard cider, but the experience, while "interesting, even exciting," helped make him into a Prohibitionist. When he was 15, he shocked his parents by running away. For six months he worked in a machine shop in Biddeford, Maine, and when he returned home, unrepentant, he announced he was going to be an author. He promptly wrote two stories, A Bad Man and The Pride of Sandy Flat, which he sent to Beadle & Adams, the leading dime novel publishers. He received a total of $6 for both stories. "That," he said, "settled my career."
For the next 13 years Patten wrote westerns for Beadle & Adams. To get local color for such epics as Hurricane Hal, The Cowboy Hotspur and Nobby Nat, The Tenderfoot Detective, he once took a train as far west as Omaha, where he spent a day before returning east. For a brief spell he also ran a weekly newspaper and managed a semipro baseball team. In 1886 he married the first of his three wives, Alice Gardner, who corrected the grammar in his copy. In 1891 they moved to New York.
After several years of routine success, Patten quit Beadle when the firm deducted $10 from a $100 payment because he asked for the money 10 days before publication of a story. To get by, he wrote boiler-plate pages for small country newspapers, 60,000-word juveniles for Golden Hours and, after much persistence, a series of boys' stories for Good News, a Street & Smith weekly. He also wrote a play, Men of Millions, which opened in New Haven. The leading lady, who played a social-climbing wife, so overacted that she was hissed from the stage and refused to return. The comedian got drunk. Patten decided it would be best to return to Maine. He was 29, the father of a 3-year-old son and close to broke. His big chance came a couple of months later, in December of 1895.
Shortly before Christmas, Ormond Smith, senior partner in Street & Smith, wrote to say that the firm was interested in putting out a weekly series, "something in the line of the Jack Harkaway stories, Gay Dashleigh series which we are running in Good News and the Island School series...the idea being to issue a library containing a series of stories covering this class of incident, in all of which will appear one prominent character surrounded by suitable satellites. It would be an advantage to the series to have introduced the Dutchman, the Negro, the Irishman, and any other dialect that you are familiar with.
"It is important that the main character in the series should have a catchy name, such as Dick Lightheart, Jack Harkaway, Gay Dashleigh, Don Kirk, as upon this name will depend the title for the library.
"The essential idea of this series is to interest young readers in the career of a young man at a boarding school, preferably a military or a naval academy. The stories should differ from the Jack Harkaways in being American and thoroughly up to date. Our idea is to issue, say, twelve stories, each complete in itself, but like the links in a chain, all dealing with life at the academy. By this time the readers will have become sufficiently well acquainted with the hero, and the author will also no doubt have exhausted most of the pranks and escapades that might naturally occur.
"After the first twelve numbers, the hero is obliged to leave the academy, or takes it upon himself to leave. It is essential that he should come into a considerable amount of money at this period. When he leaves the academy he takes with him one of the professor's servants, a chum. In fact any of the characters you have introduced and made prominent in the story. A little love element would also not be amiss, though this is not particularly important.
"When the hero is once projected on his travels there is an infinite variety of incident to choose from. In the Island School series, published by one of our London connections, you will find scenes of foreign travel with color. This material you are at liberty to use freely.
"After we run through twenty or thirty numbers of this, we would bring the hero back and have him go to college—say, Yale University; thence we could take him on his travels again to the South Seas or anywhere...."