Writing Family Stories by Carole Dagg

Carole Estby Dagg will be conducting a workshop at NCWA’s Renewal Conference. See end of post for details.


Carole Estby Dagg-114Who in your family did something so inspiring, heroic, or audacious that someone should write a book about her? In my family it was Great-aunt Clara and her mother Helga Estby. As a retired librarian and a hundred-books-a-year reader, I had read historical fiction and non-fiction in many formats. Which approach would be best for my book about Clara and Helga’s 4,000-mile walk across America? During ten years of experimenting with different approaches, I developed a series of decision points which guided me to the way I wanted to tell their story. Maybe this list will help you decide how you want to tell your family story too.


Whom do you want to read your story? Linda Lawrence Hunt had already written Bold Spirit, a more scholarly book for adults about Helga’s life and the walk. I considered a picture book, like Barbara Cooney’s Miss Rumphius or by Allen Say’s Grandfather’s Journey, but decided that the themes I wanted to explore needed a broader scope. Thinking that Clara and Helga’s walk would inspire young adult readers to follow their dreams, I settled on writing for 11-16 year-olds.

Fiction or Non-fiction

I started out writing the book as non-fiction, but had a hard time coming up with enough verifiable facts for a book-length narrative that just covered the walk itself. Some of the one-liners in newspapers inspired my imagination, though, so I gave in to those stirrings of  imagination and tried to get into the minds of my main characters so I could write the book as fiction.

Point of View or Focus Character

Most of the family lore was about Great-grandmother Helga, but since I was writing for younger readers, I decided to tell the story from the daughter’s point of view. I tried writing both in third person and first person, but settled on first person because it felt more intimate and might make it easier for readers to identify with her.

Time Frame

Linda Lawrence Hunt’s book, Bold Spirit, looked at Helga’s whole life, but what had always intrigued me was the 4,000-mile walk itself, so I limited my narrative to the year of the walk, 1896.

Narrative Style

I’ve read successful historical novels in verse, but I knew I wasn’t a poet. I experimented with several other approaches – a fictional diary, letters, mixed media with period postcards – but finally decided to go with straight narrative, with the occasional letter.

Months before my book came out, I discovered that Jane Kirkpatrick (Keynote Speaker at this year’s NCWA Renewal Conference) also had a book about Clara Estby, The Daughter’s Walk, scheduled to debut one day after mine. Jane, Linda, and I have enjoyed several presentations together, explaining our different perspectives on the same story. To see the three different approaches, compare our three books:

Bold Spirit, by Linda Lawrence Hunt (adult non-fiction; longer time span, focus on Helga, the mother)

The Daughter’s Walk, by Jane Kirkpatrick (adult historical fiction, broad time period; Clara as point of view character, first person)

The Year We Were Famous, by Carole Estby Dagg (young adult historical fiction, shorter time span) published by Clarion Books, an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

If you have questions, I’d be happy to answer them at my Saturday morning session, “Writing Historical Fiction: The Making of The Year We Were Famous”  at the NW Christian Writers Renewal conference May 17-18 or by email at carole_dagg@yahoo.com. I look forward to meeting some of you at the conference!


Clara and Helga silk

Great-grandmother Helga Estby in Parisian topknot and Great-aunt Clara in photograph taken in Spokane shortly before their 4,000-mile walk.

Carole Estby Dagg is a retired librarian writing in Everett and in a converted woodshed on San Juan Island.  Her book based on her great-aunt’s 4,000-mile walk earned a starred review in Publishers Weekly. Visit her at www.CaroleEstbyDagg.com.


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