The most asked reader question is: Where do you get your ideas? The second most asked question is: Why do you write what you write?
My very very basic answer to both questions?
Growing up with my grandparents was a constant history lesson.
Now here’s the skinny, in other words, the longer explanation.
I didn’t grow up in a computer world and didn’t watch much TV. The stories that fascinated me most were told by my grandparents
My family was nothing like The Waltons TV series, but I do credit my grandparents for inspiring my love of history. Both my grandmothers were old-timey schoolmarms who rode horses to one-room schoolhouses. My grandfathers, while far from famous were rather interesting characters too.
So bare with me and you’ll understand why the granddaughter of two schoolmarms ended up writing historical romance.
On my mother’s side were Grandma Beulah Le Gore and Grandpa Roy. At one point in their lives they owned a resort in Red Lake, Ontario Canada. During the off-season they lived in Iowa.
Grandma Beulah was a large woman with spectacular pendulous breasts, and she used to sit enthroned at the head of a sturdy dinning room table dishing out stories to us grandkids as she played solitaire or knitted Barbie doll clothes. Grandpa Roy was a quiet man, a tool and die maker who invented a paring knife which unfortunately his boss took credit for. Within our family he was famed and I do mean “famed” for having the most beautiful blue eyes God ever gave a man. Think of a less stern version of Jean Luc Picard from Star Trek – balding head and all but with thick lashed French-blue eyes.
On my father’s side were Grandma Clara Bell McPherren and Grandpa Clyde. For a while they ran a resort on Gull Lake in Brainerd, Minnesota called Cast-A-Bait and like my other grandparents they lived in Iowa during the off-season. Grandma Clara Bell was a small-boned woman, and I suspect she was a beauty in her day. She hated her name especially after the invention of television brought Howdy Doody into homes with a clown called non other than – Clara Bell! Grandpa Clyde was a barrel chested man, as big as Grandma was small. I’ve heard it whispered that he was once a pugilist/boxer when boxing gloves weren’t always worn. The story goes that he killed a man in the ring and never fought again. Later he became a resort owner and truck driver.
I remember Clyde and Clara’s Minnesota resort best. Sometimes we sat on the dock with cane poles, and I was usually the grandchild of choice who was privileged to accompany Grandpa on the lake in one of his boats. [I wasn’t a chatterbox and knew not to wiggle and tip the boat.] When we weren’t fishing I watched him clean fish for the resort vacationers at the fish house. He told tall-tale fishing stories, and I learned about all kinds of fish. Many times my dad and grandpa took my sister Pat and I ice fishing on another lake called Mille Lac which us kids pronounced Millac. Once while fishing along the St. Louis river a bear decided he wanted our catch. I was given the burlap bag of Catfish to carry as we scrambled out of the woods. Trouble was their long whiskers poked through the bag and stung my legs with every running step!
Back to the Schoolmarms:
Kids have no filters and one day I whispered to my mom, “Why does Grandma Le Gore have such a big flat chest?” My whisper hadn’t been as quiet as I thought and Grandma Le Gore answered.
She said that when she was young, a woman did not show off her figure. It just wasn’t done, especially in farm country where strict old fashion Christian mores often outlasted those in the big city. Also, fashion had a part in it. Back in the day she wore a style called the pigeon breasted dress, which in many cases diminished the appearance of a woman’s bosom. [See more here] In order to accomplish that look, many “well-endowed” young women bound their breasts flat to their chests. The result was a break-down of the breast tissue. Combined with nursing babies, the end results were pancaked pendulous breasts.
Sometimes us grandkids stayed overnight at Grandma McPherren’s house, and I remember watching her draw her eyebrows on. I was around thirteen before I mustered the courage to ask her what happened to her own. I was secretly worried my own brows might disappear!
She told me that during the late 1920s and 30s it was fashionable to shave off eyebrows and draw a thin line instead. Eventually, her eyebrows stopped growing entirely.
Flat breasts and no eyebrows – all in the name of fashion! Don’t scoff. Recently, I’ve seen pasty-faced runway models shaving or whiting-out their brows and drawing thin lines instead – in the name of fashion. It gives true meaning to adage of history repeating itself.
Just as fashion was slow to change in the country modernization of schools was also slow.
Grandma Le Gore’s school-teaching stories were especially colorful. Small farm communities were too poor to pay her enough wages to rent a place of her own so she’d rotate living with the families of her students. Some of her stories came from that situation, like not having enough to eat if the family was poor.
At one point, most of her students were new immigrant children who didn’t speak a word of English. I can’t imagine trying to teach these children the three Rs in a language they didn’t understand. But Grandma said they learned English pretty darn quick from the students born in this country.
In another story from Grandma Le Gore, I learned that the Le Gores originally emigrated from France and settled in the southern states to raise horses. Although raised in Iowa, my family still uses 19th century slang and terms common to the South and even Texas. When I moved to Texas, I fit right in!
The McPherren side of the family is said to have originated from two roguish brothers who emigrated from Donegal, Ireland and eventually became Iowa farmers. They were Scot-Irish, that is, Scots who immigrated to Ireland when England appropriated lands from rebellious Irish lords and handed it over to immigrants from Scotland. Man, I bet that made the McPherrens popular. Not!
And so we’ve come full circle with where ideas for my stories come from.
The idea for How To Fell A Timberman took root around stories my Grandma Le Gore told me about her resort in Canada. During that time the logging industry was thriving in the area. She recalled how wild wooly loggers came to town to blow ‘er in – get drunk and have a good time. The decent women in town would literally pull their skirts aside to keep from coming in contact with a logger. They were rougher and tougher than most men and loved a very good time. Probably because logging wasn’t and still isn’t for the feint of heart.
Added to this, when I was in the 4th, 5th and 6th grade we lived in Scanlon a small village butting up to Cloquet, Minnesota. Cloquet was a paper mill town just south of Duluth and was once a thriving logging and sawmill community. Cloquet and the surrounding area is also home to many Swedish, Finnish and Norwegians whose families settled in the area in the 19th century.
During the summer Scandies mostly farmed. But many logged during the winter months to earn extra money for their families. Logs were skidded out of the woods on ice roads. And in the spring the logs were floated to sawmills on the rivers. But most farmers headed back home to their fields when the snow melted.
When I lived in Minnesota, one of my best friends was Swedish/Finnish, the other Norwegian. My Swedish/Finish friend Pam Johnson’s dad John was called Babe [after the blue ox] and was a manager at the paper mill in Cloquet. Babe was much loved in the community and I used his name for a character in my book, How To Fell A Timberman.
Family history and my own more recent history ignited a lot of what-iffing, and I came up with the story of a Norwegian immigrant family in the logging business. And of course there had to be a schoolmarm just like my grandmothers. And she had to be from Texas.
The first book in the The Bjornsons series is How To Fell A Timberman. It’s the story of Vidar Bjornson, third brother in the Bjornson family. His story takes places in Washington Territory after leaving Minnesota to escape a troublesome past. Vidar’s name means tree fighter and if you’re wondering why I wrote his book first, the answer is easy. His story came to me first.
As I near the publication date of How To Fell A Timberman, I’m also working on the sequel, How To Kiss A Troll.
Watch out for my next blog about Vidar and an excerpt from How To Fell A Timberman.