Monday, August 25, 2014

A Grandmother's Life Inspires Historical Fiction


Mary at 23
It's not unusual for writers to stay "close to home" as landscapes and way of life provide ongoing inspiration. In her memoir, Growing up Country, Carol Bodensteiner writes of family life in Iowa. The rural Midwest also sets the stage for her debut novel, Go Away Home. The  main character, Lidde Treadway, is based on Carol's grandmother, Mary Haylock, a farmer's wife and woman of courage and fortitude. I invited Carol to talk about her writing process, women's empowerment which is a theme in the novel, and the research that goes into historical fiction. My review of Go Away Home can be read here.

Carol's essay on her memoir, Growing Up Country, which she wrote for the Women's Writing Circle last year, can be read here. Please welcome Carol to the Circle. ~ Susan


Mary E. Haylock
Your main character, Liddie Treadway, is a woman much like your grandmother. What made you decide to write a novel based on her life?

The seed for this story was planted when I learned as a child that my grandfather died of the Spanish flu in 1918. My connection to that major world event and the grandfather I never knew stuck in my mind.

I always knew my grandmother as a stern, often critical, old woman. Even though she lived until I was in my 20s, I never asked her a single question about him or their lives together. So while the story started with a few tidbits of family lore I picked up from my mother over the years, it truly is fiction.

 After I published my memoir and was looking for the next writing project, the idea of doing something that started with my grandparents finally took root and grew. In a way – for me – Go Away Home creates a life for my grandparents before they married. But the story is fiction.

What are the challenges of historical fiction, in terms of research, writing about social conditions of the time, creating an accurate setting?

Farming in the early 1900s was similar in many ways to farming in the 1950s, the time of my memoir. A closely knit family, hard work, limited yet strict expectations of what women can do. So I started with an understanding of the place and dynamics. The challenge was getting my head around life before electricity, travel before cars, and how the Great War impacted life on the home front. I have to be able to picture things in my mind to write about them, so I went “on-site” as often as possible, to the Living History Farms, the streets of Liddie’s town, Chicago. The county and state historical societies, libraries, websites, and first-person stories were also rich sources.

Liddie dreams of adventure and a career. In the end she realizes her happiness lies on a more traditional path. What was it like for women at that time, what did you learn and how could you apply that to your own life?

Carol and her mom
Women of that time, particularly rural women, didn’t recognize a lot of options for their lives, which does not mean they didn’t have opinions and aspirations. Young women were expected to get married and raise a family. A girl might teach school for a while but when she married, she was not allowed to teach any longer.

Liddie wanted to be a seamstress but the expectation was that she’d do that only until she married. Women were dependent on men for respectability and security, but they were pushing the boundaries. Women like Liddie’s maiden Aunt Kate were single and successful in a career. Women were speaking out to get the vote. Throughout the 20th century, women traveled along a spectrum that led to ever-greater independence and equality for women. That journey continues. I admire Liddie’s willingness to keep pushing to pursue her dreams, and being strong enough to take a path she originally thought she didn’t want when her heart led her there.

Liddie’s sister, Amelia, is shamed for getting pregnant out of wedlock. Forced to leave home and marry the father, she becomes old before her time. What did you hope the reader might learn from Amelia’s story?

We all make choices in our lives. Some of them turn out well, some of them not so well. That’s as true today as it was 100 years ago. Amelia made choices in the beginning that she thought would make her happy, then she had to live (as we all do) with the consequences of her choices. We also have a choice in how we handle the tough times. Do they make us bitter or do we learn and grow? Amelia sets up a discussion of these issues as well as any character in the book.

At the end, Liddie faces difficult circumstances and decisions that family and society might say she has “no business” making. How much or how little have society’s views of the single woman changed? Was women’s empowerment an issue that drew you to writing your grandmother’s story?


I believe women have always sought to find their voices. The obstacles to doing that have changed over the centuries, but the desire remains. Some find fulfillment with home and family, some outside the home, some pursue happiness in both. No one approach is right or wrong. Today, women can vote, run for office, own property, have a career, marry or not. But individually and collectively, women are still reaching for their dreams. My writing goal was to tell the story as well as I could. If that story speaks to women’s empowerment, I’m happy.

Carol Bodensteiner is a writer who finds inspiration in the places, people, culture and history of the Midwest. After a successful career in public relations consulting, she turned to creative writing. She blogs about writing, her prairie, gardening, and whatever in life interests her at the moment. She published her memoir Growing Up Country in 2008. Go Away Home is her debut novel.



Go Away Home is available on Amazon in paperback http://amzn.to/1mAQlJ2 and ebook http://amzn.to/1A69k6C

Growing Up Country: Memories of an Iowa Farm Girl is available on Amazon paperback http://amzn.to/1vveJW2 and ebook http://amzn.to/1m5hz9g

Website/blog http://www.carolbodensteiner.com

Tweet @CABodensteiner

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