"Good writers write the kind of history good historians can't or don't write. Historical fiction isn't history in the conventional sense and shouldn't be judged as such. The best historical novels are loyal to history, but it is a history absorbed and set to music, so to speak, changed into forms akin to opera or theatrical productions."
Linda Weaver Clarke fuses together her passions for history, storytelling, and writing. She's the author of a series of historical fiction novels called A Family Saga in Bear Lake Valley and has a new book out, and is currently teaching free writing workshops across the United States. I'm pleased to present an exclusive interview with this inspiring author.
1) Linda, let's start with your background. After you raised your six daughters, you went back to college, then became a writer and a teacher. You obviously have a rock solid work ethic. How did the hard work of raising a big family help prepare you for a successful writing career?
LWC: I don’t know if it really prepared me, but to me, family always comes first. My children and husband are very important to me so I put off going back to college until my youngest was in 5th grade. That was when I finally made a decision to go back to college. While she was at school, I took classes and was home before she walked in the house. My husband and children supported me by helping me with my chores and cooking, etc. After receiving my degree, I put together my ancestors’ stories into a form that would be interesting to my children.
2) What--or who--inspired you to write initially?
LWC: My ancestors’ stories inspired me a great deal. When I noticed how intriguing their experiences were, I decided to put them down in story form, making them come to life on paper. After finishing that wonderful task, I couldn’t stop writing so I turned to historical fiction. I wanted to set my books in Bear Lake Valley in Idaho, where my ancestors settled. They were the very first settlers of Paris, Idaho and their names were on a plaque at a historical site. My ancestors were my first inspiration so I decided to give some of their experiences to my fictional characters. At the back of each of my novels, I tell what was really true. I’ve had many people say how much they love the “Author’s Notes” because they wanted to know what was true. After much research, I found that there was a lot of fun history in that area so I turned my book into a 5-book family saga.
3) You've written a series of historical fiction books called A Family Saga in Bear Lake Valley. Tell us about the inspiration behind these stories.
LWC: With each book I write, I always insert some true experience that happened to my parents, grandparents, or great grandparents. I also include a love story in each of my books. The first book, Melinda and the Wild West, was inspired by a true experience. A former teacher labeled a young girl as a troublemaker and her classmates would not let her forget it. A similar experience actually happened to my own daughter and my brother way back in the early ‘50s. I wanted to tell this story but in the form of historical fiction, bringing out the importance of not labeling students, that negative labels tear down and positive labels build up. This book eventually won an award as one of the semi-finalists for the “Reviewers Choice Award 2007.”
In my second book, Edith and the Mysterious Stranger, I based this story on the courtship of my parents. They didn’t meet the conventional way. They met through letters. She said that she fell in love with the soul of my father and they didn’t even know what one another looked like. The day they met, my mother told me that her heart leapt within her and a warm glow filled her soul and she knew she would marry this man. In my story, you don’t know who the mysterious stranger is until the end of the book. Some readers guessed right while others were pleasantly surprised.
In my third book, Jenny's Dream, Jenny learns to forgive. This also comes from a family experience, something that a family member had to learn. Jenny has many dreams and wants to accomplish something remarkable in the world. She has read about the courageous women who were self-reliant, daring and determined such as Susan B. Anthony who fought for Equal Rights, an important part of American history. This was one of Jenny’s dreams, to make a difference in the world. There is one thing standing in her way of focusing on her dreams, though. She must learn to forgive and put her past behind her. In this story, childhood memories begin bothering her and she realizes that before she can choose which dream to follow, she must learn to forgive those who have wronged her. She learns that forgiveness is essential to our well being, that we’re only hurting ourselves by not forgiving. This story is about accomplishing one’s dreams and the miracle of forgiveness.
To read excerpts from each of these novels, go to my website.
4) Historical fiction is both factual and fictional. How much research do you do for your books? Do you primarily use Google, the library, or other sources?
LWC: All of the above! Historical fiction helps us to understand the past. It educates and entertains us at the same time. History books give us the facts, but historical fiction helps us to understand history in a special way. Leon Garfield said, "The historian, if honest, gives us a photograph; the storyteller gives us a painting."
Research is an important part of writing historical fiction or nonfiction. Learn everything you can about the area your story takes place, the time period, non-fictional characters, and historical facts you would like to add.
Find out everything you can about the area to both educate your readers and to make the setting feel real. While the reader can’t be there physically, they can be there mentally. If possible, go to the area you want to write about, walk around, and look at the historical buildings. If you can’t travel there, find pictures of that area, study books at the library or search the Internet. Description is very important in a story. Paint a picture like an artist, describing what you see and feel. Make the scenery believable by describing the crunching of pine needles beneath your feet or allow the reader to smell the pine trees in the forest.
After much research I found that Bear Lake Valley had a lot of intriguing history. In my research, I found that in the western part of the United States, the market for cattle was lucrative. Cattle rustling was a terrible problem in the West. I also learned that a ten-foot grizzly bear by the name of Old Ephraim roamed the mountains of Cache Valley and Bear Lake Valley, wreaking havoc everywhere he went. I learned that the Bear Lake Monster is an old Indian legend and part of their history. Many accounts were written about it, testifying to its reality. I also found out that women had to fight for the rights of equality. A woman was not encouraged to go to college or become anything more than a teacher or a nurse. She could not bob her hair or raise her hemlines without the threat of being fired from her job. When doing research, it makes the book come to life and it’s so much fun to imagine what things must have been like as we learn more about history.
Research is an important part of writing. Learn all you can about the area, any non-fictional characters, and the time period. Remember: “The storyteller gives us a painting."
5) Let's talk about your latest project, the Family Legacy Writing Workshops. You hold these free writing workshops at libraries across the United States to teach the basics of writing and help others put their family history into stories. How did you develop this idea? Please give us more information about your Family Legacy Writing Workshops, which sound so intriguing.
LWC: I teach people how to turn their family history into a variety of interesting stories. The importance of family legacy can never be over emphasized. I believe we are the people we are because of our ancestors. Who are they and what were their traditions? Did they fight for a cause and what was it about? Each of us has a story from our ancestors or even our very own story to tell. If these stories are unwritten, then how are our children going to know of their parentage? It’s up to us to write these experiences down. We must record and share these stories with our children.
First, collect your thoughts; write down any experiences that you remember. Talk to family members and discuss memories. You can make several short stories, making the history into segments. Or you can write the whole history as a continuous flow. Your children will want to know their heritage, what their ancestors stood for. Make your Family Legacy something your children will remember, something they will be proud of. For a sample of what you can do with your family histories, you can read the short stories on my website.
6) They say that teachers also learn from their students. What do your students teach you about the art of writing?
LWC: Yes, I do learn from others. As we discuss writing, someone will ask a question that I’m not sure how to answer. I give my opinion but then someone else raises his or her hand and adds to it. Many times their ideas are even better. Here’s one example. Someone asked how they could get their parents to talk about their past so they could write down their biography. They had tried and tried and their parents would respond with, “I can’t remember that far back.” Well, one person raised her hand and said, “Get together as a family. Make sure you have some of your parent’s siblings or friends there, and then begin talking. It’s amazing how memories come back to us as we talk in a group. Also, make sure you have a recorder.” That was a fantastic idea. I learned something and was able to take this information with me to other workshops.
7) Without giving away too many of your writing workshop secrets, can you give us a few pointers on writing well?
LWC: Emotion is the secret of holding a reader, the difference between a slow or a dynamic recounting of a story. When you feel the emotion inside, so will your readers. By giving descriptions of emotion, it helps the reader feel part of the story as if he were actually there himself. Emotions of a character can help us feel satisfied because we can feel what the character feels. Emotion is part of our lives, so why ignore such an important element in a story? But remember: Show, don’t tell.
If an ancestor had to defend her home from marauders, how did she feel? If she were frightened, then her heart would be pounding against her ribs. If an outlaw challenged your great grandfather, what were his feelings deep down inside? If he were angry, did his face turn red with defiance? If your grandfather was faced with a grizzly bear in the wild, how did he react? If he were shocked, did his face turn pale and was he trembling with fear? These are questions that you must research. Find out all you can so you can tell your story. If your ancestor didn’t record his feelings, then imagine what it would be like in a given situation.
For those writing their own autobiography, don’t forget descriptions of love. You know what it feels like to be in love or to be loved, so describe it. Tell how you met your husband or wife and how it felt when you realized you were in love for the first time. Did your heart swell within, sending a warm feeling down your spine, and making you feel as if life was worth living? Remember, emotions are part of life and can be an essential part of your story.
After finishing a workshop in Boise, Idaho, a woman at the Historical Society Library said to my daughter, who comes along to assist me, “I felt as if I had handcuffs on my wrists and your mother has just unlocked them.” I was so touched by what she said.
8) On your website you say that writing can be a healing process, and that it can act as therapy. Does writing about our experiences, even painful ones, help us?
LWC: Oh, yes! That’s why it’s a healing process. If we can express ourselves on paper, then that’s the beginning. We need to record our experiences, and in doing so, it might help us to understand ourselves a little better.
9) Who are some of your favorite writers of historical fiction and why?
LWC: Ron Carter is one of my favorites. He writes about the Revolutionary War and how we got our freedom, using fictional characters. His novels take us back to 1775 to 1812. This series, Prelude to Glory, has several volumes, of course. I learned so much about our “Founding Fathers,” the patriots, and George Washington. At the end of each chapter or at the end of the book, he lists his bibliography, where he got his information. I learned to respect and love these patriots and George Washington so much and my heart swells within every time I see our beloved flag.
10) Tell us about your two latest books, David and the Bear Lake Monster and The Art of Writing. Which was more difficult, or more fun, to write?
LWC: The Art of Writing is a 34-page booklet that I have available at each of my workshops. It contains my complete lecture. One has to attend my workshops to get it. It’s actually called Writing Your Family Legacy. I enjoyed writing this booklet but I can’t deny that writing historical fiction is a blast.
David and the Bear Lake Monster was so much fun to write. I have dedicated this book to my great grandmother, Sarah Eckersley Robinson, who was my inspiration. She became deaf at the age of one and was a very brave and courageous woman. She never let her deafness stop her from developing her talents. I took a lot of her experiences from her biography and gave them to my heroine to bring some reality into my story. To me, the experiences of my ancestors have always intrigued me.
Sarah was known as one of the most graceful dancers in town. She never sat on the sidelines at dances because of her natural ability. She was known for gliding across the floor with ease, with just a touch of her partner’s hand. Sarah had such agility and gracefulness, not only on the dance floor, but also while swimming and diving. People would actually throw coins in the water so they could watch her dive after them. They would applaud, letting her know how much they enjoyed watching her, and then throw another coin in the water.
Once an intruder actually hid in her bedroom under her bed, thinking he could take advantage of her since she was deaf. He must have thought she was an easy victim but was sadly mistaken. She swatted him out from under her bed with a broom, and all the way out of the house, and down the street for a couple blocks, whacking him as she ran. She was a spunky woman! Because of my admiration for my great grandmother, I named my character “Sarah.”
In my research about the “hearing impaired,” and talking to a dear friend who became deaf in her youth, I became educated about the struggles they have to bear. It was a surprise to find out that some struggle with self-esteem and the fear of darkness. I didn’t realize that concentrating on reading lips for long periods of time could be such a strain, resulting in a splitting headache. After all my research, I found that I had even more respect for my great grandmother and her disability. What a courageous woman!
The different accounts of the Bear Lake Monster, the names of the people who saw it and their contribution to this legend are found in the bibliography at the end of my book. The accounts were true, according to Bear Lake History.
The mystery of the Bear Lake Monster has been an exciting part of Idaho history ever since the early pioneers arrived in 1863. The legend of the Bear Lake Monster made life a little more exciting for the pioneers. Some people claimed to have seen it and gave descriptions of it. Throughout the years, no one has ever disproved the Bear Lake Monster. A bunch of scientists tried to discredit the monster and said it was a huge codfish that was shipped in from the East but could not prove this theory. Does the Bear Lake Monster exist?
The interesting thing is that all the reports have pretty much the same description. The monster’s eyes were flaming red and its ears stuck out from the sides of its skinny head. Its body was long, resembling a gigantic alligator, and it could swim faster than a galloping horse. It had small legs and a huge mouth, big enough to eat a man.
Is the Bear Lake Monster fact or fiction, legend or myth? Whatever conclusion is drawn, the legend still lives on and brings a great deal of mystery and excitement to the community. Remember, when visiting Idaho, never doubt the Bear Lake Monster or you’ll be frowned upon. No one makes fun of the great legend of Bear Lake Valley!
11) What is the synopsis of your new book, David and the Bear Lake Monster?
LWC: Deep-rooted legends, long family traditions, and a few mysterious events! Once again the Roberts family is reunited with David trying to solve personal issues and overcome his troubles! David quickly becomes one with the town and its folk and finds himself entranced with one very special lady and ends up defending her honor several times. She isn’t like the average woman. Sarah is different. This beautiful and dainty woman has a disability that no one seems to notice. He finds out that Sarah has gone through more trials than the average person. She teaches him the importance of not dwelling on the past and how to love life. After a few teases, tricks, and mischievous deeds, David begins to overcome his troubles, but will it be too late? Will he lose the one woman he adores? And how about the Bear Lake Monster? Does it really exist?
Linda, thank you very much for taking the time to do this interview. I read some of your short stories online, and recommend them to readers of this blog. I will never forget the story about Sarah (mentioned briefly above), entitled The Intruder, and look forward to enjoying more of your Bear Lake Valley series.
As always, comments are appreciated!