Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Weaving a Story by Katherine Kirkpatrick @ReadKirkpatrick

Weaving a Story

by Katherine Kirkpatrick, 

Author of 'Between Two Worlds' (novel, ages 14 and up)

Between Two Worlds, copyright © 2014 by Sam Weber

Katherine Paterson wrote: “There are magical moments in writing historical fiction when the woof of one’s invention moving through the warp of history suddenly seems to make sense. The pattern begins to merge, filling the writer with surprise and joy” (from the essay “In Search of a Story: The Setting as Source”).

Like Paterson, I love those aha moments when the fact gathering gives way to something larger, when the story takes on a life of its own. This experience happened to me as I was writing my young adult novel Between Two Worlds, set in the Greenland Arctic in 1900-1901. The novel tells of a real-life 16-year-old Inuk woman, Eqariusaq, also known as Billy Bah, on board explorer Robert E. Peary’s ice-locked ship Windward.

Caption: Billy Bah, age 16, by Clarence Wyckoff, 1901. Sam Weber, the jacket artist for Between Two Worlds, used this photo to help him depict the main character’s face. Copyright © Kim Fairley and Silas Hibbard Ayer III

Happily, after amassing pages of unrelated facts about Inuit life, I began to envision my characters in scenes. For example, as I was reading descriptions of how an Inuk woman uses her ulu (curved utility knife) to trim hides before sewing, I pictured a group of women on a ship. They bickered over who would take the largest and best strips of seal furs for her garments. In finding the action, I’d created the start of a scene: the women were not just sewing, they were arguing.

In writing this scene, I imagined sensory details: the luxurious feeling of the furs, their pungent smell, and how tired the women’s jaws must have been after softening hides with their teeth. I asked myself questions to compose my scenes. How did Inuit women resolve who gets what in terms of choice supplies? How did mothers occupy young children when they worked? How long did it take to sew together two pelts? Research involves thinking through logistics, as much as it is about gathering facts.

In some ways researching Between Two Worlds was easy, because I’d already written The Snow Baby, which also features explorer Peary’s family in the Arctic. But this time I chose to tell the story from an Inuk girl’s point of view. For inspiration, I often flipped through the pages of a beautiful book called Boreal Ties: Photographs and Two Diaries of the 1901 Peary Relief Expedition, edited by Kim Fairley Gillis and Silas Hibbard Ayer III. This book features two New York businessmen, Clarence Wyckoff and Louis Bement, who journeyed to the Arctic as what we would call today “adventure tourists.” Unlike the illiterate sailors from poor families who served as crew on Peary’s ships, Wyckoff and Bement traveled with pens, journals, and the latest camera equipment. After their voyage, the men pasted copies of each other’s photographs in their scrapbooks while often not identifying which man took which shot.

To my delight I found most of my characters within this treasure trove of images. Impish eight-year-old Marie Peary, obviously the little darling of the Windward’s crew, prances about on deck, clad in furs from head to toe. One photograph shows her at the ship’s wheel pretending to steer. Another shot depicts a group of Inuit girls and women teaching her to sew. Another image shows Marie and an Inuk who I feel sure is Billy Bah posed in front of a tupik (leather tent), having their photograph taken.

Only one photo is tagged with her name, a stunning portrait, “Billy Bah, girl of 16.” She looks straight at the viewer, half smiling, seemingly pleased. The photo helped many other images in my mind to coalesce with known historical facts. No author can reach into history with 100 percent accuracy. But through fact gathering, questioning, guesswork, and intuitively weaving imaginative scenarios into the rich fabric of actual events, I came to tell a story, my story of Billy Bah. I hope you enjoy Between Two Worlds.

We are so appreciative for Katherine to stop by our blog and tell us more about 'Between Two Worlds'.  Thanks Katherine!  You should totally stop by and check out Katherine's website!  Find her on Twitter.  Don't forget to add 'Between Two World's' to your Goodreads To Read List.


  1. Thanks, Mel, I'm excited to be a guest on Novels, News, and Notes! You're providing a great networking service to all of us writers in the Pacific Northwest.

  2. This looks like a winner to me! I would love to get this for my son.


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