Narrowing my focus to just the "a" in mendota, studying my own handwriting a bit for ideas.
The boxed ones are the ones closest to what I'm aiming for.
So I dove back into FontForge, and started sketching some splines freehand, got some good results by the, uh, 11th try or so.
(1) is a tolerable monoline. I like the thorny thing in the bottom right of (3) and (4). In (6) I got pissed off at the curve points not doing what I wanted and corner-pointed the whole damn thing. Surprisingly, it had the kernel of something nice in it. (7) was an alternate weight scheme, and looks like crap, I think. (8) is just a smoothing-out of (6). Both (9) and (10) achieve something I like again in the lower right corner, but different from (3) and (4). I sort of lost the nice shape of that little strip of whitespace in (11), but pushing the bowl down on the left side was a revelation: the counter between the bowl and the ear looks so much better bigger like that.
Hmm. I do have enough scanned material now, though, that I could try making a straightforward autotraced handwriting face. Got it in illustrator splines, but it would take getting off my ass a bit to turn it into an actual font.