Prairie Hill – pondering the sources of fiction

Prairie Hill cover

Now and again people ask me whether my novel, Prairie Hill, is autobiographical. I answer “no” but it’s not strictly true. Looking over the novel I find all sorts of odds and ends of details which come from my life – a dingy, cobwebby basement I once explored, pigeons flapping from rafter to rafter inside an abandoned building, a ruby-crowned kinglet taking me for a walk along the railroad tracks, and a man dressed in an oversized rooster costume waving to passersby, advertising the best chicken in town.

I like to think about the sources of fiction. These tidbits from “reality,” close observations of friends and family and strangers, overheard conversations and glimpses through the windows of daily life, combine with an author’s perceptions and imagination to create setting, characters and story. None of the characters in Prairie Hill are exact replicas of people I know or have known. However, even when a writer describes a real person as accurately as possible, the filter of his or her own sensibilities moves the writing a step or two toward fiction.

I’ve kept a journal since the summer I turned ten. It evolved from an account of my activities from breakfast to bedtime, to seemingly endless declarations of teenage angst, to a more conscious attempt at capturing life around me – people I encountered, places I spent time in, daily life lived through. The many thousands of pages made me a more thoughtful observer and a better writer. The journals also provided me with a huge amount of useful material. Have I used any of it in my fiction? Not directly, but I have a good example of how what I absorbed long ago proved useful when writing a novel many years later.

In my 20’s I knew an old woman named Franny who spent much of her day pushing a mop across what seemed like acres of linoleum floor. Her feet hurt her and she’d need to rest and so she often came by where I was working and talked with me, or “chewed the fat” as she liked to call it. She was bitter and given to scowling, but the lines would soften on her face when she reminisced. We became friends and she’d bring me little presents such as apples from a local orchard. I liked her colorful way of speaking and I began to write down what I recalled. Her voice stayed with me for many years and it is Franny’s voice and a touch of her appearance and personality that I gave to Hulda Bjorklund, the old farm woman who becomes friends with and even a mentor of young Jenny Diggles and Jimmy Lathrop in Prairie Hill.

Here, for comparison, is some of Franny’s dialogue, taken from my journal, followed by an excerpt from Prairie Hill told from the perspective of Hulda Bjorklund.

A journal from the late 1980’s

11/21/88

“I still miss that of my mom, her bread. Every Sunday at noon she’d fry some bread dough before puttin’ the bread in. My girlfriends, they all knew when she’d be makin’ bread. They could smell it outside the house.

“My dad gave me a licking I’ll never forget. They gave me a brand new snow suit, and we went to the hill for sleighing. I tore a hole in that snow suit and my sister went and told my dad before I ever got home. He was waitin’ at that back door for me with a razor strop. He took my snow pants off and whipped me till my mom told him to stop. They said ‘money don’t grow on bushes around here,’ that’s what they says back then. It was the Depression. I was young then, maybe that’s why I didn’t like him. My mom said he and me we’re too much alike.

“One time up at our cabin he showed us where he went huntin’, way down in what they called a hog’s head. We girls got bored and walked back and got lost in the marsh, and we had to call him when it was dark to find us.”

“He had enough guns ta buy a house. He wouldn’t clean them guns once a year. He’d just take ‘em out of them three gun cabinets and rub ‘em down with a rag. There weren’t ever no fingerprints on them guns. That son of a bitch up at Taco John’s, he got most of my dad’s guns. My nephew chased him home once and told him never to come to his door again. He wasn’t gonna get no more guns.

“Before he passed away I had to drive him around. He liked to drive fast, too. But the doctor said he couldn’t drive no more. He had cataracts in both eyes. But did he like the way I drove?

“He was stubborn, and I ain’t saying I’m not.”

From Prairie Hill:

Hulda Bjorklund

I’ve lived a long time in this house, seventy-three years from the day I was born. In them days there weren’t too many farmer kids born in the hospital and I was no exception. I had a real good childhood, better than them kids today. Daddy was tough on me, no doubt about that. I weren’t good enough to suit him, he said, but I could tell deep down I was. They said I wasn’t that all fired good looking, but I coulda married. There were a couple fellers hanging around, even after Daddy gave them the third degree, but they didn’t hang around long enough to catch me. I grew older and lost what looks I had and the folks needed me more and I just stayed on, working the place until I was the only one left. Every now and again I wonder what will happen to this old house and barn and what’s left of the acreage. My brother’s family don’t want nothing to do with it. They’ll just sell it. “Hulda,” they say, “nobody vacations in Prairie Hill. Nothin’ there.” But that just makes me mad. You don’t hear the whippoorwills like you did when I was a little girl and the foxes are gone – good riddance if you ask me – but I still feel awful good on a spring morning listening to them birds, eyeing them pretty flowers and knowing I got food on the table I grew on my own land. It hits me sometimes that they’ll tear my home place down and pave it over like all the rest. You know, I couldn’t believe it when they put up that shopping center, Fox Hollow (ain’t been no foxes there for thirty years!) on the edge of town where the Nilsson farm used to be and they kept the silo right there sticking up like a big corncob at the end of the parking lot, with a bed of petunias planted all around it. Looked damn silly. I asked Norman Cobb about that silo and he said the shopping center people wanted it for atmosphere. I craned my neck to look way up at that silo and remembered how tickled the Nilsson’s were when they got it ‘cause it stored a sight more corn than the old cement kind. I wondered if there was a single kernel left in that big old thing. The pigeons found the silo before the shopping center came and they never left.

Jimmy rapped on my door and I opened up, old Ollie bursting past me and jumping up on the poor fellow. “Get back you crazy fool,” I says, “get back.”

Jimmy don’t care none. He gives Ollie a big ole hug and pats him all over and I can’t remember the last time I saw Ollie’s tail tick so fast, back and forth, back and forth. Anybody Ollie likes is alright by me. “You know dogs, Jimmy, dontya.”

He nodded. “Yeah, I had a Labrador retriever named Shadow, the sweetest-tempered dog you could ever meet. She was alive last I knew, but old. Her muzzle was turning gray, but she still couldn’t wait to go out for long walks.”

“You ain’t been home in awhile,” I said, knowing it was true.

He nodded.

“Your folks must miss you.”

He shrugged. “I don’t know, Hulda.”

“Ain’t you in touch with them?”

“No.”

“Ain’t they in touch with you?”

Again he said no.

I gave him my best scowl. The Lord’s blessed me with a face that’s good at ‘em.

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2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. eliseteitelbaum
    May 31, 2012 @ 05:03:19

    Fred, your article fired me up to follow your father’s advice, peace to him. Writer’s Digest should definitely publish it.

    Reply

    • Fred Burwell
      Jun 01, 2012 @ 16:27:31

      Thank you, Elise. I hadn’t thought of Writer’s Digest, but that’s a nice idea! Stay tuned for more pieces about the writing process and about journals!

      Reply

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