Monday, July 11, 2011

Take Note

Carol Estby Dagg grew up hearing the story of how her great-grandmother, Helga Estby, had walked from Mica Creek, Washington (near Spokane) to New York City.  It was a wager that set the stage for the trip: if she could make it to New York by the appointed time, she would earn $10,000 from a publisher who would publish their story.  Along the way she campaigned for women's suffrage.  Her traveling companion was her 17-year-old daughter, Clara.  The Year We Were Famous is a novel based on that remarkable adventure.

Through the book (told from Clara's point of view) we follow them along the east-west railroad lines over mountains, through desolate countryside, into Indian territory, small towns and major cities.  It's a perilous trip, filled with unexpected weather, injuries, and the mercy of total strangers.  Through it all, two strong-minded women are struggling to get to know themselves and each other.

Dagg grew up on the stories and wanted to share them with others, but she didn't have much meat for the bones of the story because, in the end of the women's journey the book was never published and their journals were destroyed.  She had to fill in the details with research and imagination.

I found Carole Estby Dagg's website as fascinating as the book itself.  She tells about her research -- reading books, diaries and women's magazines of the Victorian era, studying the railroad maps of the time, learning about frontier remedies for blisters, studying the habits of bears.  Writing classes, multiple drafts of the book, great patience, and fifteen years -- that's what it took for her to get this amazing story published.

I've read about novelists' research and writing methods.  Most have tickler files where they drop any pertinent information or ideas to save for just the right time.  Mystery writer Mary Higgins Clark chooses her charcters' names from browsing the obituaries.  Lee Strobel says that he enjoys the process of getting to know his characters as his books unfold.  His daughter, novelist Alison Strobel, on the other hand, has her entire story figured out before she even begins the writing process.  Some, like Peg Kehret, author of Five Pages a Day, and Left Behind's Jerry Jenkins, set a goal for the number of pages they will write in a day.

My friend, Joan Husby, has written numerous articles as well as several children's books and a collection of stories about her life in the Robe Valley near Granite Falls, called A Logger's Daughter: Growing Up in Washington's Woods. She is currently working on a couple of other books, a historical fiction about Monte Cristo and a fantasy for teens called Farview.  She says that research can go on for a long time, and you can get lost on rabbit trails!  Her books usually start with a place that grabs her attention, such as Monte Cristo.  It's near where she grew up and has an interesting background.  She's researching the Indian pre-history and the current farming of the area.  Once she's got her place, the develops her story, and then her characters.

She reads widely, grabbing details wherever she can find them.  She loves the fun of it -- having all the history and details she can glean from libraries, museums, newspapers, online and through interviews.  She immerses herself in the location and the period, keeping open to any information that might inspire part of the plot.  For example, Joan became pen pals with the lighthouse keepers on Egg Island off Vancouver Island.  When she visited them she took notes and pictures and copied information they provided for her.  She met visitors -- work crew members, other light keepers, helicopter pilots who delivered people to the island or whomever -- and she listened to their fascinating stories.  Some of these stories worked themselves into one of her children's books.

Joan says she used to do notes by hand.  Now she types them or cuts and pastes them into desktop folders.  She has found the free software program Evernote to be a great tool for taking notes.

Although I doubt there's a novel in me, if there is, I think I will enjoy the research phase every bit as much as the writing phase.


Joan Husby said...

What a fun blog, Ginger. Research is an essential skill for almost any kind of writing, even blogging. Thanks for using me for some of your research!

Ginger Kauffman said...

It's always a pleasure, Joan, to pick your brain! Thanks for the opportunity to learn from you.