As I have confessed elsewhere, I haven’t always been an historical fiction fanatic. As a middle-schooler, my daughter got me hooked on reading this genre by introducing me to a lovely duo of books by Jennifer Armstrong: The Dreams of Mairhe Mehan, and Mary Mehan, Awake.
Even though I enjoyed reading historical fiction, I certainly never imagined writing it. Then three things happened that changed all that. First, I read an incredible novel, Catherine Called Birdy, by Karen Cushman. With every page, I would pause and wonder: can a writer really do that? Have so darned much fun with the language and the characters and the situations in an historical novel? (Why, yes, dear reader; she can. But I did not know that then.)
Then my beloved grandmother told me a family story I’d never heard. It turns out that my diminutive great-grandmother proved up on a homestead claim in eastern Montana about the time of WWI — all by herself. My sweet grandma was suffering from that wretched disease we call Alzheimer’s so I wasn’t certain that the story she’d told me was true. But she captured my imagination and I was shortly able to find both the truth of the story and my great-grandmother’s homestead claim documents. Hers seemed like a story that needed telling but, at that point in my career, the only novels I’d written were horrible and hidden away in a drawer; an historical novel was a whole nother kettle of fish.
The third event that transpired is that Karen Cushman — author of that book I’d so admired — was keynoting at the annual Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators Conference in Los Angeles. I registered for the conference, booked a flight and a hotel room and before I knew it, was sitting in a ballroom with a thousand of Karen Cushman’s other best friends. If you haven’t met Karen, she is tall and elegant and supremely confident (also warm and funny, but I didn’t know that at the time). She stood behind the podium and spoke directly to me — or at least it seemed like it. Find your passion, she said, and follow it. Don’t worry about writing the next Harry Potter. Write the stories that matter to you.
Now, when Karen Cushman tells you to do something, you do it. I came straight home and began writing the novel that would become Hattie Big Sky. It was terrifying. Exhilarating. Terrifying. Incredibly terrifying. Four years later, I had a finished manuscript. Six years later, I had a real book.
So this post is a belated thank you note: to my daughter, Quinn, who shared her love of historical fiction; to Jennifer Armstrong, for writing the books that got me hooked, and to Karen Cushman for inspiring me to take the risk to write from my heart.