Fiction isn’t memoir and memoir isn’t fiction.~ Arthur Phillips

Today I am pleased to welcome Carol Bodensteiner, memoir writer and author of Growing Up Country: Memories of an Iowa Farm Girl. Today Carol and I will be talking about her transition from memoir to historical fiction for her next project. 

Please join me in welcoming Carol to Healing by Writing!

SM:  Carol, in reading your bio, it is clear that most of your professional life has involved some form of writing. Did you always want to write, or did it just happen spontaneously while in college or a specific job?

CB: In grade school, I wrote an essay I was particularly proud of. When I got a “C” on that essay (probably because of my atrocious handwriting), I was totally deflated. That early experience stuck with me and I managed to make it through high school and most of college without any real sense that I had any writing skill. I came to understand not only that I liked to write but also that I was pretty good at it when I took an editorial position at an association and subsequently moved into public relations.

SM: You have published your memoir, Growing Up Country: Memories of an Iowa Farm Girl. What was the catalyst behind writing down these cherished memories?

CB: I blame my mother. She believed in my writing before I did. She said to me so many times, “You’re a writer. You can write our family stories.”  Finally I listened. My original intent was to write about my parents, and it took years to get to my memoir. I’m grateful Mom never quit pushing me on this.

SM: Currently, you are working on a historical novel set in WWI. What draws you to write about this time period and specifically WWI?

CB: My maternal grandfather died of the Spanish flu in 1918, and I’ve always been intrigued by my link to that huge world event. My grandmother never remarried. She was a stern woman who didn’t talk about the past, but then I never asked her, either. So, my upcoming novel – Go Away Home – is fictional, but in a way it gives a life to the grandfather I never knew and to the grandmother I only knew as a taciturn old woman.

SM: Historical fiction necessarily requires research on the part of the writer. Have you done an extensive amount of research for this work?

CB:I love research, and I’ve done a lot for this novel. This era is rich with social and technological change: cameras become available to the average person; cars are more prevalent but in Iowa at least, the roads didn’t support them; women are fighting for suffrage. One of my characters is a professional photographer, so I’ve had to learn how photography studios were set up and how film was developed and printed – in a time when electricity was not available everywhere. Though the novel is set during WWI, it’s not about the war per se. Nonetheless, I’ve had to research the politics of the era and understand how the war affected Americans before and after the U.S. got involved.

SM: Would you speak to the differences and/or similarities you see between writing memoir and historical fiction?

CB:With memoir, of course, I was working with the actual events of my life and the greatest challenge was to decide what to include and what to leave out. Since my novel began with a few known events from my grandparents’ lives, the biggest challenge was to let go of reality and create a story arc that worked. Both genres are similar in that they need to be good stories, well written.

SM: At this point, can you say whether you are enjoying working in memoir or historical fiction more? And why?

CB:There are so many similarities in good creative writing that I can say I like both and find each form rewarding in its own way. I do like working with events I’ve lived myself, even though writing about them can sometimes be painful. At the same time, I’m fascinated by the rush of energy I feel when my fictional characters do the most unexpected things.

SM: Are there are other book projects on the horizon for you?

CB: I can only think of one project at a time, but as my novel gets closer to publication, I’ve begun to think about what’s next.  On the non-fiction front, I’m fascinated by the Orphan Trains (an Orphan Train plays in my novel) that brought a quarter million orphans from the streets of east coast cities and put them in homes across the U.S. I’ve also thought about personal essays and memoir-based short stories. On the fiction front, some of my beta readers have clamored to know what happens next for the characters in my novel.  What I’ve learned is to trust that what needs to be written, will be written. So I will be as curious as anyone to see what comes out when I put my fingers over the keys!

SM: Lastly, do you have any advice you’d like to share with other writers?

CB: Keep writing. Don’t worry about what it will look like and how long it will be or if anyone will buy it. All that can be sorted out later. For now: Keep writing.

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Thank you, Carol, for sharing your thoughts on transitioning between two genre in your writing, specifically from memoir to historical fiction. Good luck with your new book!

Author Bio:

Carol Bodensteiner is a writer who finds inspiration in the places, people, culture and history of the Midwest. After a successful career in public relations consulting, she turned to creative writing. She blogs about writing, her prairie, gardening, and whatever in life interests her at the moment at  She published her memoir GROWING UP COUNTRY in 2008 as a paperback and as an ebook in 2011. She has had essays published in several anthologies. Her debut novel, historical fiction set during World War I, will be published in 2014.


Tweet @CABodensteiner



Growing Up Country: Memories of an Iowa Farm Girl is available in paperback and ebook forms from:


Barnes & Noble

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Please join us below for discussion and comments about writing memoir and historical fiction. We’d love to hear from you!

20 thoughts on “Interview with Carol Bodensteiner, Memoirist Now Writing Historical Fiction

  1. Carol, you hit the nail on the head here regarding historical fiction: “the biggest challenge was to let go of reality and create a story arc that worked.” Great interview, Sherrey.

    1. It was a blessing and a curse to have some facts in mind. The blessing was it made it easier to make the memoir to fiction move. The curse was those darn facts! It was a challenge to let go of reality.

    2. Brenda, as you know, I plan to make the same genre transition after my memoir is completed. I found Carol’s assessment so on point as well. Glad you stopped by!

  2. I enjoyed this interview, Carol and Sherrey. I am writing a memoir and fiction, but I am an avid genealogist too. I love historical fiction and I see the possibility of a close tie with memoir writing. Thank you both,Patti

    1. I’m a genealogist, too, Patti, though I’ve set it aside while I finished the novel. The genealogist’s need to get all the facts correct got in the way of the novelist’s need to let go of the facts! Good luck with your writing, Patti.

    2. Hi Patti! Good to see you this morning. Appreciate your comments, and I didn’t know about your interest in genealogy. I may need to pick your brain on that.
      BTW, I’ve just learned about a one-day writing conference in Seattle. I’ll send you a private email with details. 🙂

  3. Dear Sherrey and Carol, Memoir writers who turn to fiction as their next project is a topic that has intrigued me. Through this interview, you show the similarities and differences and areas of overlap in writing the two genres. I love your advice Carol to just write and the story that needs to be told will reveal itself. Fascinating interview about the story behind the story of your novel and the importance of research in bringing the story of your grandparents to life. I’m looking forward to reading your novel, Great interview!

    1. A memoir workshop leader gave me the “just write” advice when I was working on my memoir. I’ve found the advice to be equally valuable in writing fiction. Thanks for commenting, Kathy.

    2. Kathy, thank you for joining us today. It seems there are many of us intrigued by this topic, and I’m so glad Carol and I could join forces to bring it to life here. Glad you had a chance to stop in and read.

  4. Carol, thank you for your willingness to share about your writing experiences here on my blog. I have enjoyed communicating back and forth to accomplish this interview. Best of luck with the new book!

    1. Thanks for inviting me, Sherrey. Your questions have made me think more deeply about my writing life journey. It’s interesting to find so many people stepping on the same stones in the river.

  5. I’m going in the opposite direction. I’ve been focusing on fiction, but have recently become interested in memoir writing. However, I have a lot of my mother stories that I recorded after her death (wish I had recorded her on tape). A writing instructor once encouraged me to write Mom’s stories as fiction. Perhaps I will at least draw on some of them for historical fiction.
    Sherrey – thank you for this interesting interview.
    Carol – I purchased your memoir for my Kindle today. Can’t wait to read it!

    1. When we can’t ask, writing the stories as fiction makes sense – for your mother’s stories and for my grandparents, Joan. Thanks for buying my memoir! I hope you enjoy the stories.

    2. Hi Joan, so good to have you stop by and join the discussion. I think it’s wonderful that even though it’s not your mother on tape, you have recorded her stories in some way. Good for you, and what a great foundation for historical fiction. Reminds me of my father’s story I want to tell, but I know so little about his family. He was placed in an orphanage with two older siblings at a very early age and there is so little I have to go on. What I do have will be wonderful when threaded through a work of historical fiction. We must work with what we have. 🙂 Glad you enjoyed the interview.

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