Writing A Family History Novel: “Sarah’s Secret: A Western Tale of Betrayal and Forgiveness – April Book Club Selection
Have you ever discovered a family secret and thought, “this would make a great novel?” Beverly Scott did and the result is her first work of fiction: Sarah’s Secret: A Western Tale of Betrayal and Forgiveness. As an avid reader and a family historian, I am always on the lookout for interesting books based on family stories so we’re featuring Sarah’s Secret as our May book club selection. If you’re ready to step back in time to 1911, why not come along for the adventure?
Bev previously shared her genealogical journey to uncover the truth about her family secret. She visited several locations where the family had lived to do onsite research and her descriptions helped me put my own ancestors in their time and place. Sarah’s Secret is set in Oklahoma, New Mexico, Texas, and Nebraska. With the exception of Nebraska, I have family history records and stories in all of those locations.
The book opens with the death of Sarah’s husband, Sam. Now alone with five children, Sarah decides to make the journey from their dugout in New Mexico back to her family in Nebraska. Written in her voice we commiserate with her facing the challenges of the trail. We come to know the kind of real dangers our own ancestors might have encountered.
What was life like living in a dugout? I recently discovered my own great grandparents homesteading in New Mexico living in a dugout so I pictured them as I read.
We had arrived in New Mexico almost two years earlier. During our first few weeks, Sam, helped by the older boys and a generous neighbor, dug out the hard dry soil in the mountainside. The work was grueling but, finally, they had prepared two rooms – one large, one small. They made adobe bricks to build up the walls around the entrance and to construct steps down into the large room. The neighbor had generously offered some leftover wood to build the entrance door.
I was grateful for the shelter it provided–cool in the summer, offering protection from the blistering sun. In the winter, it remained warm when the wind howled down the mountain. . . . Our life was the same as most of our neighbors. Only those who had come to New Mexico several years ago had built adobe houses. many others, those who couldn’t find water, had simply given up and moved on.
The book changes narrator a few chapters in and through the character of Will we learn how he abandoned one family in Texas and ended up with another in New Mexico who knew him by the name of Sam. The author makes his choices seem plausible, if tragic for the wives and children involved.
Sarah’s Secret returns again to Sarah’s struggles to provide for her family, despite her crippling arthritis. Told again in her voice we learn how she is teaching school to make ends meet. When she applies for a widow’s pension based on Sam’s service in the Civil War, she discovers that the man she married was not who he professed to be. What will she tell her children about their father? Will she forgive him? Beverly Scott gives us a thoughtful and satisfying ending to this fictionalized telling of her grandparent’s story.
When we find something unusual in our family’s history, do we think about our ancestor’s situation and why they might have chosen a certain path? That step might be missing in our research and just might lead us to records and conclusion we may have missed otherwise. We could all use a bit of creativity when it comes to understanding our family.
Beverly Scott, author of Sarah’s Secret: A Western Tale of Betrayal and Forgiveness, graciously answered some of my questions, in this interview:
What motivated you to write a book about your grandparent’s story?
I was encouraged to begin the genealogy search by my father’s sister who wanted to find out more about her father H.D. Scott. I knew H. D. had been in the Civil War so I went to the National Archives to discover what records they had. It was there I discovered that the family rumor was true. My grandfather had a previous family. As I shared the details of my genealogy journey with others, they encouraged me to share the story. Ultimately, I realized that I wanted to share my grandmother’s story.
Not ever knowing your grandfather, how did you bring his character to life in Sarah’s Secret?
Developing the character based on my grandfather was a challenge, partly because I knew so little about him but also because he needed to be likeable and understandable to the reader. Why would “Sarah” marry someone who abandoned a pregnant wife and five children? The section of “Will” went through many rewrites as I addressed the issues of his character. My writing group, beta readers and my editor were all very helpful with feedback.
How much of your grandmother’s personality did you use for Sarah’s character?
I knew my grandmother who died when I was in the seventh grade. I only knew her through a child’s eyes and, of course, I didn’t know her at the time she was raising her children. Sarah’s character is close to my memory of my grandmother. There were many times when I felt I was channeling my grandmother. Other times, I just imagined how my grandmother would handle the situation.
What impact has writing Sarah’s Secret made on your life?
Writing Sarah’s Secret has been my retirement project. It has given me structure, required discipline, offered me opportunities to be creative, to learn the craft of fiction writing and to expand my marketing muscles. In many respects, I have had a non-paying job. I was highly motivated to tell my grandmother’s story so I treated it as my work.
Completing the book and publishing it has given me more satisfaction than I expected. There is a real rush in the recognition that I completed this goal from my bucket list. And it warms my heart when readers let me know that they have enjoyed the book.
When I have more of the promotion and marketing behind me, I hope to delve more deeply into other branches of my family tree.
What is your next writing project?
I am not currently committed to writing another book, but I am thinking about some related short stories. And I will continue to write articles for my blog.
What advice would you give someone interested in writing a novel about their family history?
Writing a novel is a major project. I would say, be sure you have the stamina, discipline and resilience to see it through. It helps to be a good writer and have some writing experience. But I had only written and published non-fiction. So, I took some workshops on writing fiction which were incredibly helpful. I joined a writing group which gave me invaluable critiques, suggestions and support. I read books by well know fiction writers and followed blogs with good ideas and suggestions. I learned a lot! Finally, I would say give yourself the time to write and permission to rewrite and rewrite again. Writing a novel “takes a village” and I am grateful to all of those who contributed to the final outcome!