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Named to "Writer's Digest 101 Best Websites," this #SharingwithWriters 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. Please feel free to add to the conversation using the very tiny "comment" link. For those interested in editing and grammar, go to http://thefrugaleditor.blogspot.com.

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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 popular.

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 thing!

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 to Dream.

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 women—yet.

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, is the second book in the Cowgirl Dreams series about strong, independent Montana women. Dare to Dream completes the trilogy.
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.

----- Carolyn Howard-Johnson, author of This Is the Place; Harkening: A Collection of Stories Remembered; Tracings, a chapbook of poetry; and how to books for writers including the award-winning second edition of, The Frugal Book Promoter: How to get nearly free publicity on your own or by partnering with your publisher; The Frugal Editor: Put Your Best Book Forward to Avoid Humiliation and Ensure Success; and Great Little Last Minute Editing Tips for Writers . The Great First Impression Book Proposal is her newest booklet for writers. She has three FRUGAL books for retailers including A Retailer’s Guide to Frugal In-Store Promotions: How To Increase Profits and Spit in the Eyes of Economic Downturns with Thrifty Events and Sales Techniques. Some of her other blogs are TheNewBookReview.blogspot.com, a blog where authors can recycle their favorite reviews. She also blogs at all things editing, grammar, formatting and more at The Frugal, Smart and Tuned-In Editor .


  1. Thank you for hosting me on my book blog tour today, Carolyn!

  2. How fun and enlightening it is to read about how you handled your grandmother's story. If can ever finish writing about the Montana Vigilantes, I'll tackle something like that.

    Thanks for sharing that, Heidi!

    1. Thanks, Carol! Our grandmothers certainly left us a treasured legacy!

  3. Be sure to leave your t-shirt size when you comment. The winner of the drawing will receive a Cowgirl Up! T-shirt. See my Facebook page for the design.

  4. I wish had a book cover to add to my Western Style board on Pinterest.

  5. Dear Heidi, What a wonderful story! I am so glad you shared the story behind the scenes for you trilogy. When my first husband and I drove through Montana, I thought it would be a neat place to live. Congratulations on your books and good luck with all your writing endeavors.

    Thanks, Carolyn for letting Heidi share on your blog.

    Never Give Up

  6. Joy, as I recall Joan Stewart offers a webinar on how to make a pinterest "ad" for your board. She is the Publicity Hound. Contact her. Subscribe to her newsletter. Tell her I sent you and ask her for info on this webinar! (-:


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