What If

Writers’ Trigger:

Perhaps you have noticed that there is nothing linear about life. Just as soon as you think that you are on a path of your choosing, life intervenes: a parent dies, a child breaks a leg, the roof leaks, or the car’s transmission goes. Life seems to jerk forward in fits and starts, and like a pinball veer (unexpectedly and with great speed) to the left and right. Sometimes life does a reverse spin as it ricochets through space.

A common exercise in writing workshops is to ask, “What if?” Asking “what if” heightens the drama and more closely approximates real life.

  • Take a short piece that you have already written and twist it with “what if.”
  • Begin with facts (current news or historical) and slip into fiction by thinking in terms of “what if.” Follow in the steps of Jim Fergus – see below.


This “what if” blog is prompted by reading 1,000 White Women by Jim Fergus. In an interview with Barnes and Nobel (see Barnes and Noble audio interviews), Fergus said of his historical fiction that he plays fast and loose with the facts.

Little Wolf by Edward Curtis

In the case of 1,000 White Women, it is a fact that in 1854, Little Wolf, chief of the Northern Cheyenne tribes, went to Washington, D.C. to speak with President Grant. Aware that the Native American tribes were in a losing battle with Westward Expansion, Little Wolf had thought of a way to ease the Indians’ assimilation into the white culture.

To that end, Little Wolf proposed trading 1,000 horses (500 broken / 500 unbroken) for 1,000 white women who would travel to eastern Montana and marry Cheyenne braves. The children of those marriages would bridge the cultures and bring peace.

1,000 White Women begins with the fact that Little Wolf did make the proposal; however, because of public outrage, he was disparaged and the exchange never took place.

Fergus wondered … what if the exchange had taken place? In his novel, the fictional exchange does take place- quietly and undercover as a great social experiment blessed by the church.

The story is told through the journal entries of Mary Dodd. When the reader first meets Mary, she is in a mental asylum where she has been institutionalized by her parents for bearing two children out-of-wedlock. For Mary (and for most of the volunteers whose back-stories are varied but representative) leaving the life that they knew… jumping off a cliff and into the unknown… was better than living as they were.

Religion, politics, military policy, social mores and the cultural practices of both the whites and the Indians are interwoven in a complex pattern by a master weaver. The lives of the white women are the weft and the warp that bind the wool together.


About timeout2

I have lived 100 lives. I write essays, short stories, poetry, grocery lists and notes to myself. If I am ever lost, look for a paper trail, but be careful not to trip over any books that lie scattered here and there. I am a reader. I am a reader in awe of writers. When I don't live in Westcliffe, Colorado, I live in London where I am a long-time member of Word-for-Word - Crouch End.
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