Pamela Nowak is an award-winning author of historical romance set in the American West. In 2021, Five Star Publishing released Never Let Go: Survival of the Lake Shetek Women, Pam’s debut in women’s historical fiction. The novel has been described as “[a] tale of bravery, sacrifice, and determination…rich with historical detail and a cast of unforgettable women who refused to accept their fate.” You’ll find Pam on her website PamelaNowak.com, on Facebook, Twitter, and her Amazon author page.
When readers turn the last page of Never Let Go, what do you hope they’ll take away from it?
I’m hopeful readers will feel a connection to the women who were involved in the incidents at Lake Shetek and recognize that each of them was uniquely empowered to navigate through all that happened to her. Too often, the raw facts of history fail to reveal what drove the individuals involved. I hope readers will laugh and cry and “feel” with these women.
What sparked the idea for the story?
Because the story is based on real events, I have to say history sparked the idea but the idea to focus on the women only has been with me, loosely, since I was an adolescent. I grew up just a few miles from Lake Shetek and learned about the historical facts when I was in grade school. Those events came alive when I toured the cabin sites along Lake Shetek at age eleven. Then in junior high, I took a class on Minnesota history and learned more. I even wrote three pages of a manuscript but tossed it because I had no original take that would make the story different from other fictionalized accounts. The history continued to intrigue me, shaping research projects in high school and in college.
Then I got married, raised a family, and started writing historical romance. But the story of the five women who survived the Lake Shetek events haunted me. Every time my hometown paper ran a story, it clambered for attention. In 2017, I made the decision to jump away from romance and follow the story.
How did the book come together?
When I made the decision to finally write it, I had a hefty amount of research material about the 1862 events already and the Minnesota Historical Society has a great digital collection — but there were several challenges. I needed to go through the primary and secondary accounts with a fine-tooth comb to reconcile the different recollections of the timeline of events. I also had to research the lives of each of the five women prior to 1862. Once the research was done, I had to craft individual personalities/goals and motivations/character arcs and fit that into the historical record that shaped the larger plot. And, because I had five protagonists, I had to generate five different voices within the novel.
In terms of a timeline, it took a year for the research and writing of the manuscript, then about three months for beta readers and final edits. With this book, because it was a different genre, I also spent nine months marketing it to agents and editors at larger publishing houses. In the end, the time period of the book proved problematic for them and I sold it to the publisher of my historical romances. It took about a year for the submission/contract/three-phase edits/ARC review process. That put me into the throes of COVID and a six-month delay in release.
Tell us about your main characters and why readers will connect with them.
There are five protagonists in Never Let Go: Laura Duley, Lavina Eastlick, Almena Hurd, Christina Koch, and Julia Wright. Each of the women had her own unique dreams for life and each had a journey westward that created hurdles in the way of her goals. When the Dakota attacked the isolated settlement, each woman had to dig deep to discover the power needed to emerge strong. I think readers will find a bit in each woman with which they can identify, and I’m hopeful I’ve done a good enough job with making the women real and emotionally accessible that readers will connect with all five.
Did what-if questions help shape this work?
What-ifs always help shape my work. To some extent, because the novel is based on real events, there is less room to play with what-ifs. But I still had to craft each woman’s motivations and character as well as to shape connecting scenes so, yes, exploration of possibilities was important.
What makes this novel unique in the historical fiction market?
It has five protagonists—not uncommon for epic novels, but most historicals center on one character. I also think that the book could have been classified as creative nonfiction due to the deep research behind it. Finally, because the fictional elements are so research-inspired and plausible, readers who are familiar with the actual events will likely not identify the fiction from the fact unless they are reading with that purpose.
What was the most rewarding aspect of putting the project together?
There were three huge rewards for me. The first was in seeing the women come to life the way they had lived in my mind for so long. The second was in my growth as a writer with this book. The third was in the reactions of Minnesotans who know the story and expressed their delight in experiencing the story emotionally rather than as dry fact.
Share a few surprising facts you discovered while doing research for the book.
As I reviewed the scholarly accounts, I learned researchers had made an error on the time events that began on the day of the attack. Secondary accounts were all off by two hours. I suspect that had to do with daylight savings time adjustments being made incorrectly and everyone else repeating the error. There were multiple references to sunrise, and it’s now very easy to look up historical times of sunrise online—something not available to earlier researchers. I also discovered that recollections about Across the River/Pawn (one of the Dakota involved) were largely shaped by bias and that there was nothing in the historical record to support him having tricked the settlers or even supported the attack.
For Never Let Go to work, what decisions did you have to make regarding historical figures or events?
The mid-nineteenth century was fraught with cultural bias. Those who wrote the history of the U.S.-Dakota War were shaped by those biases and by the emotions of having lived through the events. I knew this going in, but I made a conscious decision that I would use Julia as a viewpoint character to reveal information about the Dakota culture and tribal structure. For Laura, I stuck to her well-known prejudices. In this way, I hoped to both reflect the prejudices of the time and foster better understanding of the Dakota. I also had to make decisions about shaping Laura’s character to ensure she was sympathetic. This meant I couldn’t rely solely on primary account recollections about her because most of her contemporaries didn’t like her. I had to dig deeper to find the sources of the traits others saw as negative and draw out the positive traits others hadn’t seen.
Of all the books you’ve written, which one was the most challenging and which was the easiest (or most enjoyable) to write?
Every one of them has been both challenging and enjoyable, each in its own way. I’m always in love with my characters, their story, and the history I use. I’m always challenged by the push to improve my writing. But I think I’d have to say Never Let Go was the most challenging (because characterization had to be shaped around fact and scenes motivated to fit into real events) and the most enjoyable (because the story haunted me for so long) and easiest (because I had known the history for so long).
Looking back to the beginning of your writing/publishing career, what do you know now that you wish you’d known then?
That it’s okay to be frustrated because it means I’m learning and improving. If I’m not frustrated, then I’m not stretching myself as a writer.
What writing projects are you working on now?
I’m currently about one-quarter of the way through a manuscript centering on the Fool Soldiers, the group of young Lakota men who ransomed and returned the Lake Shetek captives. The research for their story has been fascinating, exploring what shaped these men and the untold stories of how they were treated after the rescue. My research into Lakota culture has brought rewards and new connections as I’ve touched base with some of the descendants of these men. My challenge is in telling their story as it should be told.
Is there anything else you’d like readers to know?
I love connecting with readers and am always up for both live and Zoom author appearances/library talks and book-club discussions. Much thanks to all who visited today to let me share! Please connect with me on my website or social media (Facebook/Twitter).
KL Wagoner (writing as Cate Macabe) is the author of This New Mountain: a memoir of AJ Jackson, private investigator, repossessor, and grandmother. Kat has a speculative fiction blog at klwagoner.com and writes about memoir at ThisNewMountain.com.