August 31, 2020

The Path of Fiction vs. Non-fiction, a Journey of one Author

Jane Kirpatrick

A funny thing happened on my way to writing my latest novel. I was invited to write a biography about Abigail Scott Duniway, who once lived and loved and wrote and walked in history. I was already contracted to write my novel Something Worth Doing from Revell about the life of this remarkable women. She was a wife and mother of six and a suffragist in the late 1800s. She devoted her life to bettering the lives of women and kept alive the move for women to be full citizens and have the right to vote. She persevered on behalf of women’s rights for over 40 years before Oregon women and national women earned the right to vote. She is one of only six women memorialized on the walls of Oregon’s capital building. Her story is compelling, and I wanted to answer the question, where did she draw her strength from?

The non-fiction request was to write a chapter about Abigail for a book titled Eminent Oregonians. Four journalists and me — a novelist — agreed to write chapters on fascinating historical Oregonians who made their mark in the Northwest and even beyond. Abigail is the only woman featured. Her story of being defeated over and over and how each time she came back is inspiring. She believed that something was worth doing.

I thought writing fiction and non-fiction at the same time would be a good parallel journey. All the research I’d do would help both projects, right? I’d bring a novelist’s voice to the non-fiction work and bring a historian’s eye to the novel giving increased authenticity to the story. Easy Peasy.

I had some experience with non-fiction writing having entered my publishing journey by writing features for newspapers, human interest stories for magazines and essays that were published in over 50 publications from Sports Afield to Private Pilot to Decision. I’ve also written and published grief and caregiving devotionals and a book about quilts as well as a memoir.

I began writing novels because I couldn’t find information about an historical woman whose life I wanted to celebrate in biography. I could find information about the woman’s husband, father, brothers and sons, but little documented information about the woman herself. There were holes in her historic story. I didn’t want to fictionalize her life. It seemed diminishing to put words into another person’s mouth. I wanted to tell a “true” story. A real writer should be selected to do the work. I wasn’t a novelist. 

Then I read a quote from writer Virginia Woolf who said, “women’s history must be invented. . . .both uncovered and made up.” In part that’s true because unless women kept diaries or letters held by descendants, their lives were recorded by the food they fixed, the quilts they made. Many pioneering women wrote notes on calendars —“chickens stopped laying eggs today; Mary came by, we hung sheets together” — and those brief comments were the story of their everyday lives and were often tossed out upon their deaths. The idea of writing to find the truth of a story being possible in fiction changed my writing trajectory. I began to imagine that nonfiction spoke of what a person did and when they did it and fiction let me explore why they’d done it and how they might have felt about their actions, offering another kind of truth. My first novel, A Sweetness to the Soul (Multnomah), earned some prestigious awards affirming that a woman’s story was worth telling. After that, I decided to write more novels about ordinary women who lived extraordinary lives.

For Abigail Scott Duniway, I sought two kinds of truths in writing about this woman in two genres. Footnotes abound in the scholarly chapter. Writing the novel made me consider what facts to include and what to leave out to enhance the plot. My fiction editor had concerns that my first draft was too filled with facts and that the story was suppressed. She was right. Major revisions! The chapter editor had the opposite concerns, wanting more facts and fewer speculations about a life once lived. Major revisions!

I rewrote them both. Eventually, both editors were happy, and I discovered a serendipitous feature in Abigail’s life. Like me, she was a novelist. She wrote 22 books including the first privately published book in Oregon in 1859. But she was also a non-fiction writer getting her start by producing articles for agricultural newspapers. She had a standing column called “The Farmer’s Wife,” which was like a contemporary blog. Eventually she established, owned and operated a newspaper, The New Northwest, for 17 years beginning in 1871. This newspaper supported the rights of women. Her non-fiction writing and her speeches are codified online at for her speeches and at for information on The New Northwest newspaper.

Keeping story paramount and weaving novelist devices into my non-fiction chapter made me appreciate the work of journalists, the important codes that guide them as they seek the truth. And fictionalizing a life where much has been recorded and staying true to the history, is a challenge to allow Abigail’s story to come through. Fiction I hope provides the truth in what allowed her resilience to be an inspiration for so many generations. My hope is that Something Worth Doing will inspire even more people giving them paths for perseverance in our own time.

Jane Kirkpatrick is the New York Times and CBA bestselling and award-winning author of more than thirty books, including One More River to Cross,
Everything She Didn’t Say, All Together in One Place, A Light in the Wilderness, The Memory Weaver, This Road We Traveled, and A Sweetness to the Soul, which won the prestigious Wrangler Award from the Western Heritage

Her works have won the WILLA Literary Award, the Carol Award for Historical Fiction, and the 2016 Will Rogers Gold Medallion Award. 

Jane divides her time between Central Oregon and California with her husband, Jerry,
and Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, Caesar. 

Learn more at

1 comment:

  1. I love the quote from Virginia Woolf and then yours about how nonfiction spoke of what a person did and when they did it and fiction let me explore why they’d done it and how they might have felt about their actions, offering another kind of truth.