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How and Why I Wrote The Quilt Walk

Volume VII, Issue Three | September 2012

It wasn’t my idea to write a children’s book. I never intended to tackle one. I figured writing for children was a skill I didn’t have, like writing French poetry. It was hard enough creating adult novels. Why take on something I knew nothing about?

But after The Quilt That Walked to Golden was published in 2004, a friend challenged me to turn the title story into a children’s book. At the time, I was between novels and didn’t know what to write next, so I figured I’d try. What was the harm?

The story was already there. In 1864, Thomas Burgess returned to his home in Ohio after a trip to Colorado where he had hoped to discover gold. He didn’t find the precious metal, but he’d spent time in Golden and realized the town needed commercial buildings.

So back in Ohio, Thomas and his brother loaded their covered wagons with building supplies for the trip to Colorado. The wagons were so full of construction materials plus food and other necessities for the trip that Thomas told his wife, Mary Ann, there was no room for her clothes. Mary Ann and the brother’s wife, also named Mary, could take only the clothes they wore. The men were firm. So the two women put on all the clothes they owned, and since pioneers often tramped along beside the wagons, the two walked to Colorado. When they reached Golden, the women tore up the worn clothing and made a star quilt out of it. In the family, the quilt was known as the Quilt That Walked to Golden.

That’s the family legend, at any rate. Research shows many of the fabrics in the Quilt That Walked to Golden date to a later time. And the quilt may not have been made until the 20th century. But that’s what’s so intriguing about quilts. Their makers tell one story, the fabrics another.

Mary Ann and Thomas were accompanied on the trip by their daughter, Alice. So when I penned the first children’s manuscript, I wrote it from her point of view. I used the Burgesses’ names and all the facts I had turned up in researching The Quilt That Walked to Golden. The completed manuscript, which I titled The Quilt Walk, was 15,000 words.

What I didn’t know was that the kind of book I’d written, which was for very young readers, should have been 5,000 words. Nobody publishes 15,000-word children’s books. So I put the manuscript aside, forgot about it, and went on to write Tallgrass.

Then last year, I was approached by Amy Lennex at Sleeping Bear Press. She inquired if I’d ever thought of writing a children’s book.

Funny you should ask, I replied. I have this manuscript. My agent sent it to her, and Sleeping Bear offered me a contract. The only thing was the book had to be expanded. Amy was aiming at the 8-to-12-year-old market, and that meant a longer book.

No big deal, I thought. I could add a few “ands” and “buts,” maybe some adjectives. I might even weasel in a couple of adverbs, which I rarely use.

Then the contract arrived, and I discovered Sleeping Bear wanted 50,000 words. That was a lot of “ands” and “buts.” The manuscript didn’t have to be expanded; it had to be rewritten! And I’d never published a children’s book. How could I write one that was half the length of an adult novel? But I’d agreed, and there was the contract. How humiliating it would be to say no at that late date.

I realized then the book would have to be entirely a work of fiction. The earlier manuscript was based on the facts I’d dug up for The Quilt That Walked to Golden. It was only fair, then, that I rename the characters. So the Burgesses became the Hatchetts, and Alice Burgess turned into Emmy Blue. I also changed the starting point. The Burgesses had come from Ohio, but I didn’t want to write about their trip from Ohio to the Mississippi, so the Hatchetts start out from their farm near Quincy, Illinois, on the banks of the Mississippi. By changing the names and starting points, I was free to make up adventures for Emmy Blue. I kept the title of the early manuscript, however, The Quilt Walk, because it’s the story of a little girl who quilts as she walks along beside the covered wagon.

My books aren’t written as message books, but I like them to include something for readers to think about. I wanted to do more than just entertain children with The Quilt Walk. So the book contains incidents of domestic abuse, women’s place, and the lack of options for women in the mid-19th century. I had to be careful, however. What 10-year-old wants to read a heavy-handed account of the status of Victorian women? So those themes are part of the fabric of the book, but they don’t dominate. And they are not graphic. I want girls to be entertained, but I also want them to think.

Writing a children’s book required a different style. Amy nudged me into writing less complicated sentences, and she suggested some of my words were too sophisticated for my young audience. She also suggested I take out much of the detail that is always part of my adult novels. I’d done research on what went into a covered wagon and what the country between the Mississippi and Golden was like. I’d even visited Quincy and St. Joseph, Missouri, so that I could include period details. Much of that had to come out. Children want a little detail but not too much. They don’t want a list of every item placed in a covered wagon. They care about the story.

Perhaps the most helpful thing Amy did was to ask over and over again, would a 10-year-old girl make that conclusion or observation? Would she use that word? I had to try to think like a 10-year-old, something I hadn’t done in 60 years.

Forrest’s drawing of Pa and the covered wagon.