Women who have unusual occupations or do out-of-the-ordinary things have always been a source of fascination to me.
Maybe it’s because I was raised as an independent self-reliant girl on an isolated eastern Montana ranch.
Or maybe because I had a grandmother who rode steers in rodeos during the 1920s.
For many years, I believed her story should be told. But she wasn’t a famous personality like Annie Oakley or Dale Evans, so who would be interested in publishing a biography about a little-known Montana cowgirl from the 1920s?
Still, because I was a journalist, at first I attempted to write non-fiction stories based on anecdotes my dad told me or newspaper clippings I found in a scrapbook my grandmother put together.
The stories were stilted, the characters wooden. I was frustrated. I knew these people. Why couldn’t I make them come alive on the page?
I finally realized I was too close to the subject. I couldn’t put words in my grandparents’ mouths. I didn’t know how they felt. I wished they were still alive so I could talk to them. But they weren’t.
So I changed my grandmother’s name and created a fictional character, Nettie Brady. I could still use Grandma’s experiences and combine them with stories about other cowgirls of that era. I could add conflict where it may not have existed in her real life, and I could add emotional reactions to make my character come alive.
But I still had some trouble. I wrote scenes that did nothing to move the plot forward, just “because it really happened that way.” I remember many spirited discussions with my critique group over these scenes, where one fellow writer accused me of writing “like a journalist.”
Well, I bristled, I AM a journalist!
I later realized that was her way of saying that I was “telling” rather than “showing.” Ah, so much to learn! I signed up for an extension program course in fiction writing through my local university. The theme refrain for this class and its critique groups was “Feelings.” After constant reminders: “What is she feeling here?” or “What does sad feel like?” I learned to show my character’s emotions through her actions and reactions, rather than telling my readers she was angry, or sad, or frustrated. (I still work on that with every draft I write!)
Many of us spend countless hours writing and rewriting a scene “because it’s true.” Or including long paragraphs of statistics, because it’s historical fact and “it’s interesting.”
But is the truth always interesting? Does it serve the action, the forward movement of the story? Does it develop your character into a living, breathing, feeling person that your readers can identify with?
I found I had to give myself permission to “let go of the truth” to write a better story, a stronger character.
That did not mean giving up historical facts or even great anecdotes. But I needed to customize those facts and stories to fit my character and my plot. Did I need a half-page list of what items were available at the grocery store and what they cost in 1929? Isn’t it fascinating to compare to what things cost today? Yes, it is. But I only needed one or two items that were relevant to the story and important to the character in this particular scene to show this information.
In the first draft I had a great scene where Nettie and her father go to check on the school teacher after a bad blizzard to find that she’d run out of coal for the fire and was almost frozen to death. But was it relevant to the rest of the story? No, it was just an aside. Nettie was no longer attending school, the teacher was not a major character in the story, and I had plenty of great cold winter/blizzard stories already. I took it out. The story read just fine without it—better, in fact.
So, including information and scenes in your book just “because they’re true” does not necessarily make it a good story. It’s fiction, and you can take liberties with the truth to make it more interesting. That's why I chose to write a novel, rather than a biography or memoir.
A native Montanan, Heidi Thomas now lives in Northwest Washington. She has just had her first novel published, Cowgirl Dreams, based on her grandmother. Heidi has a degree in journalism, a certificate in fiction writing and is a member of Northwest Independent Editors Guild. She teaches writing and edits, and is working on the next books in her “Dare to Dream” series, and blogs.