Writing her way back into place

Heidi Thomas grew up with the magic of books and reading, and has worked with words as a journalist, editor, and teacher of writing. Now she’s branched out into novels with Cowgirl Dreams, the story of a Montana girl on the verge of womanhood in the 1920s who can’t make herself fit into the conventional female role. Stitchery and cooking are not for Nettie Brady: she longs to be a champion cowgirl like her hero, rodeo rider Marie Gibson. Nettie eventually finds her dream, and a place in the hardscrabble life of ranching and the rodeo circuit, but it’s not an easy ride getting there. Part of what makes this novel engaging is that it’s based on real life: Thomas’s grandmother was a rodeo rider and Montana cowgirl. Another part is the rich sense of place that permeates the story, from the tang of dust and the pale green of new spring grass to the shimmering wonder of the Northern Lights. Thomas explains her ties to the landscape of her novel in this post:

Rims view  
Montana is my inspiration—for my books and many other things in my life. The “Big Sky” stretches from horizon to horizon like a great blue dome. Its sunsets are unequaled, with streaks of orange and gold painting the edges. In spring, green-tinged hills roll through the landscape, buttered with bright yellow wildflowers. White-faced reddish-brown calves frolic through the meadow pastures, happy to be alive.
Spring in Montana often comes late, after a long, snow-filled winter that seems to last forever. After four or five months of isolation, cabin-fever, and bone-numbing cold, spring is the new awakening, a new beginning, a season of hope.

As the saying goes, “You can take the girl out of Montana, but you can’t take the Montana out of the girl.” There is always something palpable that washes over me when I crest the summit of Lookout Pass from the Idaho side and see the sign “Welcome to Montana.” It is a warm sense of peace, a comfortable state of being.

Driving the road through Washington and Idaho that stretches like a long black ribbon, I have time to appreciate the beauty of our world—from the snow-capped ever-green mountains to wheat fields as golden as fresh-baked apple pie, from Washington’s Columbia River Gorge and its cerulean blue against a mocha cliff backdrop, but the silvery sage of eastern Montana still whispers, “Home.”

Dreams 1 x 1.3
Montana is the setting for my novel, Cowgirl Dreams, based on my grandmother who rode in rodeos during the 1920s. In 1999, with a sense of adventure, I made a trip to Cut Bank and Sunburst, Montana to do research for my book.

I wanted to locate the first ranch where my grandparents had lived when they were married in 1923. The only thing I knew was that it was the “old Davis Place under the rims” near Sunburst. I really didn’t think I would be able to find it with that vague bit of information. I started at the courthouse in Cut Bank, the county seat. Everyone knew where “the rims” were, but the younger clerks didn’t know this particular ranch, of course. Someone remembered an “old timer” who had worked in records years ago. I called and the gentleman said he remembered it was a few miles west of Sunburst.

Finally, I located a cousin of my dad’s, who gave me directions. The owners were gracious enough to let me drive through their ranch to the location. “Just drive about a mile and a half and look for a grove of cottonwood trees.”

Old house
Imagine my surprise and awe to find the house still standing, although in bad repair, and being used as a cattle shelter. I spent about an hour there, taking pictures and imagining what the newlyweds must have felt like, living in this beautiful place “under the rims.” This is the backdrop for Cowgirl Dreams, where the dreams began.

Check out Heidi Thomas’ whole blog book tour. Tomorrow she’s at Angela Wilson’s blog talking about writing a novel based on real characters. Thanks for stopping by to talk about how you wrote our way back into place, Heidi!

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