Named to "Writer's Digest 101 Best Websites," this blog is a way to connect with my readers and fellow writers, a way to give the teaching genes that populate my DNA free rein. I fervently hope it will also be a forum for the exchange of ideas. Please feel free to send me your own questions on all things publishing and don't forget your editing questions. For those interested in editing and grammar, go to www.thefrugaleditor.blogspot.com.
Tuesday, May 20, 2014
How Family History Can Be Used in Fiction
Much of my fiction and poetry is based on family history, geneaology, and family stories so I was pleased to see my friend Heidi Thomas publish using similar inspiration. Then it hit me: I don't think this blog has ever covered that subject. This is a how-to article from Heidi, but it's also a bit of a case study. Enjoy.
How Family History Can be Used in Fiction
By Heidi M. Thomas
Years ago, when I took a children’s writing class, the instructor told
us that biographies of everyday women who did extraordinary things were
I immediately thought of my grandmother who at age 17 and 18 was riding
bucking steers in rodeos during the 1920s. That was a pretty extraordinary
But my grandma wasn’t famous. She didn’t continue her rodeo career and
she didn’t win world championships in bronc riding at Madison Square Garden or
in Europe, like several Montana women.
I kept mulling over the possibilities of writing a book about her, and
even tried to write some factual vignettes. But sticking to the facts was like
being confined to a corral—I couldn’t go anywhere with them. Using my
grandparents’ names and writing about their lives seemed too intrusive, too
close to home.
The story went nowhere until I gave myself permission to write my
grandmother’s story as fiction. Changing her name and asking “What if?” to fill
in the blanks freed me. Grandma died when I was 12, so I didn’t know a lot of
the details about her rodeo life. By speculating how she felt about the
opposition to women competing with men, I could flesh out a character and a
story that was engaging.
This idea that had been rattling around in my head for years turned into
a novel trilogy: Cowgirl Dreams, Follow
the Dream, and the newly released Dare
The first two novels follow my grandparents’ lives fairly closely, while
I took more fictional liberties with the third. My dad filled in many details
and gave me anecdotes, especially about their months-long trail drive in the
1930s to find grass for their starving horses.
The next book in my series will address another bit of family history—my
mother emigrated from Germany after WWII. Again, the subject is too close and
painful to write just the facts, so this has become a novel as well. It will
become the story that “should have been.”
Family history can provide a trove of information and inspiration
for novel-writing. Don’t be afraid to use it!
Dare to Dream Synopsis: Montana cowgirl Nettie Brady Moser has
overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles on the journey toward her dream of
being a professional rodeo rider. In the 1920s she struggled against her
family’s expectations and social prejudice against rodeo cowgirls. During the
Great Depression, marrying Jake Moser and then raising their son took priority
over rodeos. And then she was devastated by the death of her friend and mentor
in a rodeo accident.
In the spring of
1941, Nettie, now age 36, is regaining her heart and spirit, and she is
determined to ride again at an event in Cheyenne, Wyoming. To her dismay, the
male-dominated Rodeo Association of America enforces its rule barring women
from riding rough stock and denies her the chance to ride. Her fury at the
discrimination can’t change things for
Based on the life
of the author’s grandmother, who rode rough stock in Montana in the 1920s, this
sweeping rodeo saga parallels the evolution of women’s rodeo from the golden
years of the 1920s, producing many world champion riders, and shows its
decline, beginning in the 1930s and ending with World War II in 1941.
Bio: Heidi M. Thomas grew up
on a working ranch in eastern Montana. She had parents who taught her a love of
books and a grandmother who rode bucking stock in rodeos. Describing herself as
“born with ink in her veins,” Heidi followed her dream of writing with a
journalism degree from the University of Montana and later turned to her first
love, fiction, to write her grandmother’s story.
Heidi’s first novel, Cowgirl Dreams, won an EPIC Award
and the USA Book News Best Book Finalist award. Follow the Dream, a WILLA Award winner,isthe
second book in the Cowgirl Dreamsseries about strong, independent Montana women. Dare to Dream completes the trilogy.
MORE ABOUT THE AUTHOR/BLOG POST GUEST
Heidi is a member of Women Writing the West and Professional
Writers of Prescott, is also a manuscript editor, and teaches memoir and
fiction writing classes in north-central Arizona.