My great-grandmother, Hattie Inez Brooks Wright, died when I was 10 years old so I really never got to know her. What mattered to me as a kid was that she baked the best Snickerdoodle cookies without ever measuring one ingredient.
About five years ago, I heard that this tiny woman once homesteaded by herself in eastern Montana. The idea seemed so unbelievable that I had to find out if it was true. I typed in Hattie’s name on the Bureau of Land Management Web site and a claim number popped up! Hattie did indeed homestead near Vida, Montana, in June of 1914. Four years later, after proving up, she sold out, and moved to Spokane where she eventually married my widowed great-grandfather and helped raise his four children.
Hattie never kept a journal so I don’t know what prairie life was like for her. I learned that she traveled to Montana from Iowa with some cousins, but her claim was a long ways from any of theirs. A shirttail relation gave me a photograph of her with her sister’s family. She’s wearing the same apron–at least the same style–she wore as she whipped up those Snickerdoodles. I obtained a copy of her homestead records so I know where her claim was and that she set fence and planted flax and wheat. That is all I know about her personal story.
There is an old writer’s adage to write what you know. After learning this tantalizing snippet about Hattie, I began to write about what I didn’t know: about heading west via trains, cars, and trucks instead of covered wagons; about what it took to ready 320 arid acres for planting; about the fact that people’s loyalty to this country was challenged because of where they were born or what their thoughts were about World War I; about staying warm in winters which could get to 65 below; about summer hailstorms–called White Combines–that could mow down one year’s crop, one year’s hope, in minutes.
What I didn’t know kept me researching and writing for several years. Though I was able to get many materials through Interlibrary Loan (God bless our library system!), it took three trips to Montana to complete my research, including three days in a smoky newspaper office, reading every single issue of the 1918 Wolf Point Herald.
What I didn’t know led me to create an independent female character, 16-year-old orphan Hattie Inez Brooks, who jumps at the chance for a home of her own when her uncle leaves her his homestead claim. She goes to Vida, bringing with her “warm clothes and a cat,” as her uncle’s will advised. She battles the prairie, the weather, her own pride and ignorance, and the tumultuous feelings stirred up by rampant anti-German prejudice.
What I didn’t know was that writing historical fiction is nearly as delicious as my great-grandmother’s Snickerdoodles. It’s CSI: History as I poke around in the past, trying to uncover just the right detail to help me recreate another time and place.
I’m a quote collector and one of my favorites is from Russell Hoban’s A Mouse and His Child: “You’ve got to take those daring leaps, or you’re nowhere.” (Notice he says take, not make!) Five years ago, I took a daring leap to write Hattie Big Sky. I can’t wait to see where my next leap takes me.
To learn more about Kirby, visit www.kirbylarson.com; to learn more about her novel, visit www.hattiebigsky.com