How I Came To Write Historical Novels, by Jane Kirkpatrick
Writing historical novels came to me by default: I had wanted to write biographies of remarkable Western American women, to tell true stories of their lives. I wanted to rescue their experiences from the forgotten files of small museums and dusty back rooms of historical societies and share them with a larger audience where readers might see the hardiness of early pioneers and perhaps recognize some of those same qualities within their own lives and thus be inspired.
I’d learned of Jane Sherar, an early pioneer in Oregon, by chance. A descendent now in his 80s wrote of her when he was in the third grade, his essay published in the Sherman County Historical Journal where I read it. He told of how Jane and her husband hoped to build a bridge across a wild river to open up settlement in the largely unpopulated sagebrush-covered country of eastern Oregon. He wrote of her connection with the Wasco, Warm Springs and Paiute people, tribes I happened to be working for as a mental health consultant. But frankly, I found few facts about Jane Sherar. I found information about her husband, her father, her brother…and if she’d had children, I suspect I would have known more about her sons than any of her daughters.
So much of women’s history is lost or I sometimes say it’s “used up or eaten.” Pioneering women seldom had time to journal or even write many letters. Their history might end up as quilts that when worn were used to cover woodpiles or stuffings in a couch. They gardened, dried food, canned and at the end of a year’s worth of history, what they’d accomplished was consumed.
As it happened, I had only that young boy’s essay and an obituary along with a few other family memories to help me tell the story of Jane Sherar. But something in that obituary written in 1907 told me that she must have been a remarkable woman because the Indians came to honor her, holding vigil at her wake, bringing gifts through the night to be there in the morning when she’d be buried. It is a custom among the tribes Jane Sherar spent some time with, to bury their dead at sunrise and for some reason they treated her as though she was of them. Her death as well as her life intrigued me even more. While I knew a few things of her – when she was born, married, helped build a business and a bridge and when she died – I learned nothing of why she might have done the things she did, how had she become so revered by native people or how she felt about anything.
American writer Frederick Buechner notes that fiction isn’t true the way a photograph is true, capturing a moment in time. But fiction is true the way a portrait is true, capturing a subject over time and revealing something of the artist as well. What I wanted was to tell the truth about this woman and her life. Truth is not confined to facts, I learned. Virginia Woolf once wrote that “women’s history must be invented… both uncovered and made up.” I didn’t find that quote until I was well into my decision to tell Jane Sherar’s “true” story not as biography but as fiction because more than anything I believed her story must be told.* I haven’t stopped telling women’s stories since.
*Jane Sherar’s story was published as A Sweetness to the Soul in 1995 and earned a US national award from the Western Heritage Centre. Some years later the novel was named an Oregon 100: The 100 Best Books published about Oregon between 1800 -2000.
Jane Kirkpatrick’s author website: www.jkbooks.com
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Writing Historical Novels