Friday, August 22, 2014

The background to Finding Fortune, an essay by Pippa Goodhart

Today British writer Pippa Goodhart speaks about the family artifacts and subsequent research that inspired Finding Fortune, her children's historical novel set at the time of the Klondike Gold Rush.  Please read on!


The Background to Finding Fortune
Pippa Goodhart

When I was a child I would watch my mother getting ready to go out to occasional parties. It didn’t often happen, and my mother didn’t have a great range of jewellery to choose from. But she did have one ring which she would add to the wedding ring and engagement rings on her fingers, and this is it...

It is a Victorian ring made of gold, and holding a stone in which there is a splash of gold, just as nature laid it down. The ring had been given to my mother, Christine, by her mother, Dorothy, who had been given it by her mother, Florence, who had been given it by her mother, Polly, who had been given it by her brother, William James, when he came back from the Klondike Gold Rush. Here are Polly (who was blind) with daughter Florence. 

What, and when, was the Klondike Gold Rush? I began researching, and what an amazing historical moment of madness it was! Fur trappers came upon great quantities of gold in the far north-east of Canada in 1896, and, when the summer thaw let them travel into Seattle in early 1897 the newspapers picked-up on the story of scruffy men arriving with suitcases and jam jars and pockets full of gold, apparently there for the taking. Over a hundred thousand people from all over the world then made the heroic/stupid journey to that remote place. Some found fortunes. Many more of them didn’t.

So a story began to grow in my mind. Ida’s lovely Ma has died, and now she and her father are being told what direction their lives should take by a domineering Grandmama. Ida is to go to boarding school, and Fa is to travel to some place in the Empire where he can make himself a living. Fa is going to try his luck in the Klondike … and Ida is determined to run away and go with him.

I had a wonderful time researching. There are photographs showing men and women dressed in adventuring outfits, posed in studios before they set off, and then hollow-eyed and desperate on trails lined with dead horses and hit with avalanches. I also found this book:

…selling cheaply because its cover is ‘worn and scuffed’ to such an extent that you can hardly read that it is The Chicago Record’s Guide For Gold Seekers, published in 1897. Inside are pristine pages, some clearly not even opened before. There are maps, there are boat routes and prices, there are instructions on how to extract gold, and there are long lists of all the equipment and food and clothing that you should take with you into that wild place, just short of the Arctic, where, of course, supplies are cut off for the long frozen dark winter months. That book must surely have gone to the Klondike in somebody’s ‘outfit’! I was handling a book that had lived the adventure of the Gold Rush! Gosh, I do love research!

That research soon showed that the bulk of Ida’s story would be taken-up with the journey to get to Dawson and the Klondike area. By boat from England to the east coast of Canada, across Canada by train, down to Seattle to buy supplies, then a rickety and overfilled ship up the west coast to the tent encampment at Dyea before beginning the notorious Chilkoot Pass trail into the mountains. 

Then building a boat and waiting for the thaw, until the race amongst the thousands to get down the river in time to find a patch of land to search for gold before winter hit again.

Unusually, with this story I began writing before I knew what the ending would be. I didn’t know whether or not Ida and Fa would find gold. If they did, that would feel a bit too easy, and very different from the experiences of most of the ‘Argonauts’. But if they didn’t find gold, wouldn’t that feel an anti-climax for the story after all those months and thousands of miles of travelling? As I wrote, this story seemed to take on a life of its own. I was chasing after it, writing it down, rather than having to drag it along as you do with some stories. The story development and ending just revealed itself, taking me by surprise! If you want to know how, then you’ll have to read the story!

Footnote: The book’s cover shows a silhouette of Ida against a background provided by a board game from 1897, which the publisher cleverly found, showing mountains and claims and Indians and Gold Rush people, moose, dogs, and more.

PS: My lovely Mum has now given that ring to me. And, yes, it does appear in the story.


Finding Fortune was published by Catnip Publishing in 2013 (trade pb, 251pp).  Visit the author's website at


  1. Those older people in the grainy ancient photographs look like they could eat nails.

    Life was hard.

  2. My 86 year old mother remembers Florence (the little girl) as a rather terrifying aged grandmother known as Nana. She was married to a Baptist Minister, so very religious but in a way that let her demand things from others, if you know what I mean ....! So I think your diagnosis is right!

  3. This is a touching family stories and I enjoyed seeing the pictures. I loved reading your comment about the story taking on a life of its own ... and chasing after it. I recently blogged about just that. I love it when a writer gets to know their characters so well that they begin to start telling the story themselves and it's almost effortless for the author. Thank you for sharing this story. B.W. Gibson

    1. Thank you for those kind comments, Brian. If only ALL stories took you by the hand and led you! It's so exciting when it happens.

  4. Finding that book had to have been thrilling, Pippa. I think you struck gold yourself!

  5. I hadn't thought of it like that, but actually you are quite right in that sifting through the mass of research material to find the nuggets that can come together to make a story IS a bit like panning for gold! You don't know whether or not there really is a story there until all that sifting of grit has been done.