Contest: The Year We Were Famous

February 25, 2011

Walking across the country is pretty bold and crazy thing to do!  If given the choice, how many of you would do what Clara and her Mom did?  Clara’s mom packed a curling iron (because it’s important to look your best even when walking though a blizzard or surviving a flash flood!!)  I want to know what one item you’d bring with you that wasn’t related to your survival.


Author Interview: Carole Estby Dagg

February 23, 2011

Everyone welcome Carole Estby Dagg, author of The Year We Were Famous, a young adult historical novel set in 1896. The Year We Were Famous is a fictionalized version of a real cross-country trek made by Carole’s great aunt from Spokane, Washington to New York City. In the novel, Clara and her family are about to lose their farm, and to save it, she and her mother decide to walk across the country in hopes of earning 10,000 dollars.

1. Hello Carole. Welcome, and thank you for taking the time to stop by Damsels in Regress to talk with us. First off, I have to know—did you make up the curling iron, or did your ancestors really bring that along with them!? (Those scenes made me laugh! I loved them. In fact I think the scene with the curling iron and Indians was my favorite scene in the book!)

Yes, Clara and Helga really did bring a curling iron with them, and I found one in an antique store which was probably much like the one they used, with a wooden handle and a narrow metal rod (about 3/8”) with a clamp that would have been heated on a wood stove. I haven’t had nerve to try it though!

Amazing that you mentioned that particular episode, because it was a couple lines in a Minneapolis newspaper article about demonstrating the curling iron to Native Americans that prompted me to give up the idea of writing a non-fiction book (which, as a long-time librarian I thought I could write) and attempting fiction (which I didn’t think I could.) The raw fact ‘they demonstrated the curling iron’ was nothing compared to what it must have been LIKE to demonstrate the curling iron to a group of Native Americans. It was one of the first scenes I wrote for the book, nearly fifteen years ago, and about the only one which has changed very little over the years.

2. I recently wrote a novel based on real events. I found, like you, that I had to alter the story. I know that while your novel is based on a true story, you added many fictional characters and events. Was it hard for you to fictionalize the story? Did you resist at first, or where you always open to it? How hard was it to decide what to fictionalize?

Yes it was hard to fictionalize. After all, Clara and Helga were real people, my own great-aunt and great-grandmother, and I was hesitant to put thoughts in their minds and words in their mouths that they might be offended by. The longer I worked with the material, though, the more they became ‘characters’, with my own invented back stories and motivations. Most of the pivotal events were based on snippets in the newspapers (flash flood, being lost in the Snake River Lava fields, spraining her ankle, meeting President-elect McKinley, curling iron) but I made up other events and characters to help connect the dots between known events.

3. I know I get attached to certain scenes in my novels that end up getting cut. Was there any one particular scene that you especially loved but didn’t make it into the final novel?

There were at least half a dozen scenes I was reluctant to cut. I spent weeks researching and writing each of these scenes: meeting with widow in the Pennsylvania coal country; a stay with the Amish; most of the blizzard scene in Oregon; a stay with a freed slave who had a soddy in Nebraska; a meeting with Molly Brown, who had just built her fine house a couple blocks from where Clara and Helga would have checked in with the governor; a whistle stop encounter with Annie Oakley (my research put Clara and Buffalo Bill’s wild West show in the same place at the same time in Nebraska.) I cut at least 200 hard-won pages, but I have to agree with my early editor, Jennifer Wingertzahn, that the pacing is better without any scene that doesn’t move the overall plot and character development forward.

4. There is a ton of detail in your novel, from farm life to the railway to the women’s suffrage movement. I was really impressed with how seamlessly you worked in all this information. Just how much research did you have to do?

YEARS! I once estimated that I had wading through at least six million words of background reading, but as a retired librarian I didn’t mind. The danger, in fact, was putting off writing while I read just one more book about rattlesnakes, President McKinley, Nellie Bly, Buffalo Bill, dime novels, the suffrage movement, habits of bears, frontier cures for blisters, various native American Indian tribes, biographical information on the Indian agent on the Umatilla reservation and the photographs he took, or history of Salt Lake City (yes, there really was a bagel shop then!)

The research itself, however, was only the first step. I usually have to live with it for a couple years and a dozen re-writes as it gradually goes from an information dump to the stage where my main characters are living on the scene with that information and I can work bits in naturally, as the character moves through the action. It was painful—truly painful—to toss 99% of my research and just use the bits that were essential to the story.

5. I have to ask! If you’d been in your Great Aunt Clara’s shoes, would you have walked across the country?

A bookworm doesn’t build up the stamina Clara had as a hard-working farm girl. But if I had been as strong as Clara I would have been tempted, especially if my parents urged me to go.

6. Can you tell us a little bit about your next novel? Do you have another historical planned?

My next novel will also be about Clara—more fiction than fact, because Clara disappeared for over twenty years after the walk. After spending 15 years thinking about her, I couldn’t help wondering what she did during those missing years. I’ve also started another historical fiction with an entirely different cast of characters and setting.

7. Finally, I’m always curious to know what other authors are reading. What books are on your to read list? And do you have a favorite historical novel?

Don’t make me choose one favorite from 60-odd years of reading! Let me waffle by telling you what I’m reading now, The Passages of H. M.; A Novel of Herman Melville, by Jay Parini.

Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us!

Book Review: The Year We Were Famous

February 21, 2011
The Year We Were Famous
Carole Estby Dagg
Grade 6 and up
288 pages

Come walk across America with Clara and Helga!

Set in 1896, The Year We Were Famous is based on the true story of the author’s great aunt and great-great grandmother. It’s a fast-paced historical adventure that will please all.

In order to save her family’s farm, seventeen-year old Clara Estby and her mother, Helga, set out to walk across the United States in hopes of raising enough money to save the farm from foreclosure. They start in Spokane, Washington and work their way across America until they arrive in New York City almost nine months later. Their journey is filled with heartache, laughter, dangers and new experiences as mother and daughter learn to better understand each other along the way.

I have to say; I didn’t know what to expect when I started this book, but the more I read the harder it was for me to put the book down! I really, really enjoyed it. Clara and Helga are two very different people. Clara is very practical, while Helga is much more carefree. Their personalities clash throughout the novel, but in the end their determination to save the family farm helps them overcome their differences. And with each new challenge they face they learn to rely on and respect each other for the very traits that make them so different. I really liked these characters for both their faults and their strengths. At times I wanted to shake the mother (much like Clara) and at other times I wanted to tell Clara to stand up to her! That’s what made me love them so much. They weren’t perfect, but their interactions were real and heartfelt and I could relate to them.

The pacing works wonderfully. We don’t see every step of their journey, but we experience enough to really understand the difficulties, worries and joys Clara and Helga experience. Snakes, highwaymen, flash floods, lava fields, blizzards…it’s one challenge after another! However, it’s not all about the hardship. Along the way, we get some wonderful moments as well! My favorite scene had to be the “curling iron” demonstration! You’ll just have to go read the book to find out more! Trust me it’s worth the read!

The historical detail in the book amazed me. From life on a farm, to the bicycle, to the women’s suffrage movement, to president-elect McKinley… Every single page put me back in 1896, without my ever feeling like I was being given a history lesson. Needless to say, I thoroughly enjoyed the book and recommend it to all of you! This is one you don’t want to miss.

Damsels’ Trip Around the World: Australia

February 14, 2011

Last stop on our little trip this month: Australia!!  It’s the one place I really want to visit that I haven’t yet. Spending ten years growing up in Europe had some advantages. The biggest one: I’ve seen most of Western Europe. Loved it! I’ve also seen a decent part of the United States. This summer I’m finally going to spend a week in Canada…so that leaves me with Australia. I’d always had a fascination with it, but it wasn’t until I met my good friend Lara that Australia became more than kangaroos and koalas to me.

Queensland, Australia

I didn’t really know much about Australia other than it is big…very big. A little bit of research, a lot of talking with my friend, and lots of time spent looking at photographs and I realized the place I want to visit most is Queensland. Queensland is the Australian state that occupies the north-eastern section of the mainland continent. It is bordered by the Northern Territory to the west, South Australia to the south-west and New South Wales to the south. It is surrounded on the north and east by the Coral Sea and Pacific Ocean.

I want to visit Brisbane, the state capital. This area was originally the Moreton Bay penal colony, intended as a place for recidivist convicts transferred from New South Wales where they were originally serving out their sentences. I know very little about the history of convicts being shipped to Australia from England, but it’s one thing I really want to learn more about. There’s something about that part of Australia’s history that fascinates, me and I’m sure there’s a story somewhere waiting for me to find it. The state eventually encouraged free settlement and today Queensland is an agricultural state that also sees many tourists–one day I plan to be one of those tourist! I’d make a stop along the Gold Coast, too, as I’ve heard all about it from my friend, and if I’m going to go to Australia the trip wouldn’t be complete without a visit to one of their amazing beaches.

The photo that made me want to visit Northern Queensland.

While I want to visit Brisbane and the Gold Coast and see what South East Queensland has to offer, the area that has truly captured my attention is the Tropical North. A sizable portion of the state is in the tropics and is home to many natural wonders, from the Great Barrier Reef to the tropical rainforests. I’d go scuba diving in the Great Barrier Reef, visit Daintree National Park and go north to visit Cape York Peninsula. But what I want to do most is visit Atherton, ‘capital’ of the lovely Tropical Tablelands, a land of (and I quote the guide book here) “beautiful lakes, waterfalls, and tropical rainforests.”  What drew my attention to this portion of Australia? A photo of the Millaa Millaa Falls in Tablelands, Queensland. I’ve been doing research on rainforests for my current novel, and when I came across this picture I knew I had to one day visit it. I never realized part of Australia was located in the tropics and home to rainforest, but now that I do, it’s on the top of my list of places to visit. It’s strange. I was never interested by rainforest, but ever since I started researching them the desire to visit one has slowly moved towards the top of my “Places to Visit” list.

One day I’ll visit Queensland. I can visit a rainforest and marvel at nature’s beauty (and probably get eaten alive by insects, but hey it’ll be worth it). And hopefully I can take that experience and really make Avrina’s planet come alive for everyone. Of course along the way I hope to come home with another story too…this one involving a small piece of Australia’s history.

Damsels’ Trip Around the World: Greece

February 8, 2011

Our next stop on our virtual trip around the world is Greece. Now I know what you might be thinking. Oh, right, ancient Greece, lots of historical stuff there. Great archeological ruins. Great examples of classic architecture. Wonderful mythology that has sparked many a fantasy novel. Recent economic troubles. (Okay, you may not be thinking of that last one.)

All except the last are great reasons to visit Greece. They’re just not my reasons. Of course if I get the opportunity to go, I’ll be sure to tour famous archeological ruins, UNESCO World Heritage Sites, museums, and olive groves. But the idea of visiting Greece was never compelling for me until I saw—wait for it—The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants movie.

Fira Santorini Cyclades Islands; Author: ppalmward

When the character of Lena, played by Alexis Bledel, goes to Greece, I found myself riveted. The beauty of the place knocked my socks off. The story would be rolling along, but I was distracted by the terrain, by white buildings on a hillside, by donkey rides. There was a romance being played out on the screen and all I was thinking was, Look at that water. Have you ever seen such a color? (And I’m a sucker for a good romance.) Now I’m not saying I didn’t enjoy the movie. I did. But the thought that I wanted to visit a country because of a young adult novel made me happy.

So, onward to Greece. I’d love to experience the culture firsthand, eat great food, wander hilly streets, and take in the vivid colors. Oh, yeah, I’ll visit some ancient ruins, too. Anyone want to go?

Winner of Prisoners in the Palace

February 4, 2011

Congratulations to Elly! You’ve won a copy of Michaela MacColl’s Prisoners in the Palace. Please email us at damselsinregress [at] gmail [dot] com with your address and I’ll send it to you.  Thanks to all who entered!