Friday, June 8, 2012

Public speaking and the historical fiction author

Stephanie will be sharing her presentation "Calico Trails in Falls City, Nebraska, on Tuesday, June 12.
Falls City Library & Arts Center
1400 Stone Street
Falls City, Nebraska.
 Supper at 5:30 (call 402/245-2913 to make a reservation) 
or come to the library at 7:00 p.m. for the free presentation

The first time someone asked me if I did public speaking as a writer, I was shocked. Of course not. I’m a historical fiction author. I hide in the library and study dead people. And then I play—alone—with imaginary friends to write a story based on the people I’ve “met”—alone—at the library. Or the museum. Or the historical society archives.

Eventually, though, I realized that I had, after all, led women’s Bible studies at church on occasion, and maybe I should give it a try. Why not take the opportunity to share what God has done in my life? So I developed my personal testimony as my first talk. I called it “A Patchwork Life,” and I used some of my old quilts to illustrate the talk—not only as a visual aid, but also as a way to make people look at something besides the speaker shaking in her boots over being up in front of a bunch of strangers.

Many writers—perhaps most of the writers I know—are actually introverts. Oh, they write and lecture and teach, but they get their energy from being alone. Since writers spend a lot of time alone, that’s probably a good thing, but it also fools a lot of people about who we really all when no one is watching. Happy to be alone. Not just at peace with silence but often energized by it.

This next Tuesday evening, I’m taking my “show on the road” so to speak and giving my Calico Trails presentation at the Falls City, Nebraska, Library and Arts Center. This is one of my favorite talks, because it includes LOTS of quilts and hence, less of me in the spotlight. I get to share what pioneer women’s lives were like in their own words, sharing some of the things I’ve read in their diaries and reminiscences over the years, and once again I’ll get to celebrate the women who have encouraged me, all the way from the 19th century.

Couldn't resist getting out of the car and taking this photo in Kansas. 
Martha Mott wrote home, asking if her parents might have some old clothes they could send her so she could make her little boy a coat. And then apologized for bothering them. I discovered her letters home in the archive here in Nebraska, and delighted as I met a sister in Christ who spoke often of her faith in a personal God. Of praying for rain, and praising God when it came. Or  didn’t. Grandmother Newton worked the farm alone while her beloved husband was away during the Civil War, and then wrote of making thirty-one quilts to give her descendents as “something to remember me by.” Her great grandson lovingly preserved her letters and entrusted them to me for a season of study. Katie Maze ended up using the box her father had made for her kitchen utensils as a casket for a child she lost to diphtheria. I bought her out of print memoir from a rare book dealer, and then enjoyed the serendipity of seeing a quilt she made in a local collection. Emily Carpenter  wrote in her diary, “Huldah sick and I care nothing about cattle.” (Emily’s family was making the trek west with a sizeable herd of cattle.) I read a fragment of Emily’s diary tucked into an archival file named for someone else.

Miss Mary Longfellow, Custer County, Nebraska
courtesy of Nebraska State Historical Society
I once had a friend who said that if it had been up to her to settle the American West, we’d all still be in Boston drinking tea. The more I learn about the women of the 19th century West, the more I am inclined to agree with her. I’m a hardy soul, but I have my limits … and I think life in a sod house on a rainy day with a sick baby would have reached it. Except, of course, for God’s grace, which enabled those women, just as it enables me today. And that’s what I love about learning about the women of the past. They encourage me. They give me perspective. They remind me that, as poet Roy Lessin wrote, “The God who helped you in the past, is the one who’s faithful still.”

If you can join me in Falls City, Nebraska, please do! Falls City Library & Arts Center, 1400 Stone Street, Falls City, Nebraska. Supper at 5:30 (call 402/245-2913 to make a reservation) or come to the library at 7:00 p.m. for the free presentation. I’d love to meet you and introduce you to a few of the real women who continue to inspire my imaginary friends.

If you love reading about the real women of the past, try the Covered Wagon Women collection of actual Oregon Trail Diaries. Or No Time on My Hands, Grace Snyder’s memoir. Or something by historians Lillian Schlissel or Joanna Stratton. If you’re like me, you’ll be newly grateful for your dishwasher, your doctor, your refrigerator, your furnace, your spider spray, and light bulbs. I’m really thankful for light bulbs. And indoor plumbing. And … those women who endured.


  1. Great post, thanks for sharing!

  2. Thanks for letting me know, Anne. (Steph, who is looking at quilts and deciding which ones to take this time!)

  3. I've heard Staph give her presentations using quilts and they are excellent. It really brings history to life and made me feel a bond with the women of the past.

  4. I am so interested in the diary of Emily Carpenter and where I might find it at the Nebraska State Historical Society. You mentioned finding it in the file of someone else . . . who? The Carpenters lived in Section 14 of Cedar Township, Buffalo County, NE and I live in Section 7. There is a short history of the Carpenters on pages 300-302 of the Buffalo County Nebraska and Its People by Samuel Clay Bassett, Vol.1 printed in 1916. A Mrs. Davis died from exposure when the roof of her dugout fall in during a blizzard in April of 1873. I am hoping the diary might have more info on the incident.
    Mrs. Carpenter was an early teacher and community leader. I have posted her obit on for Major Cemetery, Buffalo County, Nebraska.
    I attended two of your sessions Saturday at Cozad and am glad to find a kindred seeker of history. I spend hours researching the pioneers of our community and posting info on FAG.