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What Writing Is to Me: Finding a Strange Thing and Examining It

When physicist John Wheeler was asked if he had any advice for young people considering the study of that science he said, "Yes, tell them to find something strange and thoroughly explore it." I think that's what we writers do. We pay attention to an oddity that leaps out at us and wonder why that is. Guest column by Jane Kirkpatrick, author of 17 historical novels and three nonfiction titles, all based on the lives of actual historical people.

When physicist John Wheeler was asked if he had any advice for young people considering the study of that science he said, "Yes, tell them to find something strange and thoroughly explore it." I think that's what we writers do. We pay attention to an oddity that leaps out at us and wonder why that is. Our task is then to write the answer to those questions and find an agent or editor equally passionate about that strange thing helping us move our exploration into the market place of readers' hands.

As a writer of mostly historical novels based on the lives of actual people, primarily, women, I'm forever finding "strange things" that need exploring.

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Guest column by Jane Kirkpatrick, author of 17
historical novels and three nonfiction titles, all based
on the lives of actual historical people. Her works have
won the Wrangler Award (also won by Barbara Kingsolver
and Larry McMurtry) and have been chosen for the
Literary Guild, Crossings and Doubleday book clubs.
Her latest novel, The Daughter's Walk (April 2011),
about 19-year-old Clara Estby iand her 7,000-mile
walk from Spokane to New York in 1896, received a
starred review from
Publishers Weekly. She and her
husband homestead 160 remote acres in Eastern
Oregon. See her website here.

My first novel grew from reading an obituary in an old newspaper of a frontier woman whose body lay in state at their hotel and was visited "through the night by the Wasco, Warm Springs and Paiute people who left precious gifts." At the time, I happened to be working for that same confederation of tribes as a mental health consultant and wondered what I could learn about that woman and what she must have done to earn such honor and respect. A Sweetness to the Soul went on to garner me an agent and publisher and won a number of awards, but I think it was the exploration of that strange thing that touched readers, too.

In my current release, The Daughter's Walk, three strange things attracted me. First was the fact of history. In 1896, a mother and daughter accepted a wager from the New York fashion industry to walk from Spokane, Washington to New York City within seven months hoping to win $10,000, enough to save their family farm from foreclosure. It was a time when women were discouraged from attending colleges because they might get "brain sickness" from too much knowledge as women were considered quite weak. Yet here were two women with the fortitude to attempt a cross country trek.

The second oddity was that the women carried very little with them as they walked along the railroad: maps, a compass, a pepper box gun and a Smith and Wesson pistol and a lantern. But Clara, the daughter, also carried a curling iron. Really, a curling iron? How strange is that?

Finally, a footnote about what happened after the journey was very strange. The note said that when they returned to Spokane in the spring of 1897, Clara changed her last name and separated herself from the family for the next twenty years.

What happened that caused this breach in the family? Where did Clara spend those years? Doing what? And what circumstance after twenty years of exile brought Clara back?

I've long believed that stories are the sparks that light our ancestor's lives, the embers we blow on to illuminate our own. To explore the something strange of The Daughter's Walk, I interviewed descendants, combed census and property records, became a junior genealogist and speculated about the strange things of this story hoping to convey my passion for this story to my agent and editor in ways that inspired readers' lives. I also learned things about my own mother-daughter experience I never would have discovered without The Daughter's Walk.

Virginia Woolf once wrote that "women's history must be invented...both uncovered and made up." As writers, it's our privilege to propose and hopefully convince agents and editors that what we've explored and made up is an intriguing story that will interest many. Only the readers will let us know if we succeed but we'll have had the joy of exploration no matter what.

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