Jane Kirkpatrick: Character’s Voices

Historical Author Jane Kirkpatrick has a new novel release, The Daughter’s Walk, based on Clara Estby who, with her mother, walked  3,500 miles from Spokane, WA to New York City to promote a new shorter skirt fashion, earn $10,000, and save the family farm. This is a fascinating, entertaining book that explores what happened to Clara after their return, when she was shunned by her family. It is a story of transformation, from the beginning, when Clara pessimistically fights the journey and her mother plays the part of the “eternal optimist.” By the end, they’ve switched roles in their “grand adventure.”

I asked Jane to talk about how she discovers and develops her character’s voices and why she chose to write this book in the first person point of view.

It’s interesting you should comment, Heidi, on the voices of the characters in The Daughter’s Walk. The original version was written in third person through the eyes of Clara and alternating with her mother Helga.  Then in part two, I had Clara be the narrator as first person and finally, in part three, I returned to Clara and her mother, alternating in third person.  I thought it worked.

But my editor — whose opinion I greatly trust — said to me, “Whose story is this?  Clara or Helga’s” and once I asked myself that question I realized I wanted to tell Clara’s story rather than her mother’s.  The nonfiction book written by Linda L. Hunt, Bold Spirit, Helga Estby’s Forgotten Walk Across Victorian America told the story mostly through and about Helga and the social events that affected their lives, but mostly Helga’s.  Readers of that book SO loved Helga that Norwegian chapters of Daughters of Norway named their chapters for her.  She was practically a saint! In my effort to be faithful to Helga’s story I had really short-changed Clara’s and it was her story that inspired me to write the novel in the first place.

So back to the drawing board as they say! What I found is that Clara needed to be heard and it was much easier to tell the entire story through her than I’d thought.  I still think I honored Helga but I was more interested in the journey Clara had to take as a result of the walk and the consequences of it. I could ask myself what Clara might be thinking when her mother did this or that and explore Clara’s motivation as I began to see the world through her eyes.

How do I create a distinctive voice for each of my characters?  Good question!  Their history creates some of the design, were they German American, Norwegian, Native American, Swiss and did they learn English as a second language as that affects the sentence structure when they speak. I try to find some piece of dialogue or a bit of behavior that feels natural and becomes associated with each character so eventually I might not have to use “she said” because we know who is speaking by the word choice or how she “blinked her eyes.”  We might also know some internal state because she says or does that bit “when she’s nervous” or when she’s about to go ballistic.

Each character also has to change over time and how that progresses will also shape that character’s voice.  About half way through a novel, I feel like the character starts to tell me things about them that I didn’t know or hadn’t uncovered in my research.  It usually requires that I go back and rework earlier sections but it’s also true that a reader likes to have that character unfold over time. As authors we don’t have to show readers everything about that character in the beginning.  We do need though to have some distinctive characteristics so the reader can visualize early on who this person is and whether they might want to spend an entire book with them .  If it’s a first person POV, it also has to be a character whose way of seeing the world offers sustained interest over the length of the book.

For Clara, her interest in her hair (she carried that curling iron all the way across the country!) seemed a natural way to help shape her voice.  It became a way to show her internal state, how she dealt with disappointment.  I also found that her hair was a way of engaging with her women friends and that interaction then expanded the character of each of those women.  I hope I did all of that in a believable way.

As for which voice — first person or third — is easier to write in…they both have their challenges and their delights.  I’ve had a number of men tell me they like reading my books because the men are real, not always perfect but people they can relate to.  I’ve never written a book with a first person male protagonist.  Might be interesting to try but so far I just love finding stories of fascinating historical women and then entering their psyche and their lives hoping to glean what is universal about our worlds despite the generations that separate us. It’s one of the joys of writing.

The Daughter’s Walk will be available April 5 at booksellers and on Amazon. Jane Kirkpatrick has written sixteen historical novels based on the lives of actual women, and three non-fiction books. Her books have won numerous awards, including Best Books by Library Journal at the Women Writing the West WILLA award.

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9 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Heidi,
    You are truly onto something of value to all writers of the West when you invite famed women authors to discuss craft. Thank you Jane, as usual, for your sharing and insight. Great post, Ladies!

  2. What a delightful interview! It’s always so interesting to learn how a story came to being, how the author sees the characters. Jane does an extraordinary job of bringing characters to life and making them believable.

  3. Thank you for this great interview. Jane is one of my personal sheroes, and I love learning more about how she writes.

  4. Jane, you offer helpful insight into developing a character’s voice. Your comments sparked an idea for increasing the tension between a mother and daughter in my own current work. Thank you for that! I’m anxious to meet Clara through your book.

  5. When we read your books, Jane, they seem to flow so effortlessly. Of course that indicates the work that went into them, such as different drafts changing point of view. As always, I’m so impressed!

  6. My thanks to Jane for appearing on my blog and sharing insights. You truly are an inspiration to us all!

    Thanks to all of you who have stopped by to comment.

  7. Sounds like you put a lot of heart into the character. And the book sounds fascinating.

  8. […] Jane Kirkpatrick: Character’s Voices (heidiwriter.wordpress.com) […]

  9. Interesting interview. I read Linda Hunt’s Bold Spirit, and am anxious to read Clara’s story.

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