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'Journey to Wizards' Keep' honors female friendships that first blossomed at Wilson High School


SUBMITTED PHOTO - Co-authors and friends Sara Cole (from left), KC Cowan and Nancy Danner pose around 30 years ago, when they first started writing a draft of their fantasy novel.It started with a whim inspired by Tolkien. It persisted with the efforts of three friends, miles apart and without the benefit of modern communication devices. And it came to life again after 30 years thanks to one local woman's mild hoarding habits and good hunches — and the trusty protection of 2-inch ringed binders.

"Journey to Wizards' Keep," written by best friends and Wilson High School alums Sara Cole, KC Cowan and Nancy Danner, was published late 2016. But Cole started writing the book, originally titled "The Log," back in 1978 when she finished reading "The Lord of the Rings" for the second time.

"The only thing I did not care for with 'The Lord of the Rings' was that there was a very huge lack of female characters," Cole said. "I thought, 'Wouldn't it be cool to have something that was along the same lines, but with strong female characters?' And I like writing, so I sat down and wrote a chapter."

She decided to pass the first chapter along to Danner, who wrote a short second chapter and sent it off to Cowan, who finished off the third chapter and quickly returned it to Cole.

The three continued their round-robin writing for years. They penned the work by hand on lined paper for the most part, made copies and sent them out to the next writer. Each chapter was compiled into binders once completed.

Eventually, Danner dropped out of the rotation because of a busy teacher's schedule. But Cole and Cowan took the reins, as they continued to do in reviving the book decades later. Alternating chapter writing provided entertainment for the women, but also mild frustration.

Cowan noted that one character's romantic arc was disrupted multiple times by Cole, who in one chapter had Kay the Archer's betrothed leaving her for Nan the Dancer. "And you killed off one of my other love interests!" Cowan said recently while talking about the book, over Cole's guilty chortles.

Still, Cole and Cowan said they enjoyed working together and splitting the duties by chapter. The collaborative effort of the writing process points to the strong bonds of friendship that held the young women together during the early parts of their adulthood, and into today.

"I love the fact that it's about three girls who become close friends, written by three girls who have been close friends," Cowan said.

The three co-authors found each other — what they describe as their "tribe" — in the Wilson High School choir, and solidified their bond when they each starred in their class's senior production of "Anything Goes." The supporting characters in the book were for the most part based on WHS friends and teachers.

Though fantasy, the novel pays homage to the real world the three girls had just left to pursue college. Set in the Valley of William Etté near the Hooded Mountains (sound familiar?), "Journey to Wizards' Keep" follows Princess Irene of Cabbage, Nan the Dancer and Kay the Archer.

"Sara means princess, Cole means cabbage and so I was Irene (my middle name), the Princess of Cabbage," Cole explains. She then changed Nancy Danner to Nan the Dancer, and Cowan named her character Kay from the Crystal Seas, a riff on KC.

Cowan said the characters are heightened versions of the authors and their idiosyncrasies.

Taking on its own life

The girls continued writing "The Log" until 1982. At that point, life got in the way and the process came to a halt, with the women never really discussing it again. But Cowan kept her binders through a multitude of moves, in different closets and eventually in her current home's basement.

In 2012, exactly 30 years after they stopped writing, Cole called Cowan and asked her out of the blue if she still had her copy. And it was lucky she did, because both Cole and Danner had lost track of theirs.

Cowan began transcribing the binders' contents in an email for Cole, but when she came to the end, she realized they had never written the final chapters. This sparked creative intrigue in both Cole and Cowan, who eventually convinced Danner to come up from California to map out the conclusion.

When Cole and Cowen began to resurrect the book, they had only hoped to share it with some friends after self-printing a few copies at Powell's. But Cowan became convinced the work was publishable and for the next few years pushed to make it happen, eventually landing with the tiny publishing house Ravenswood.

"I really did feel there was an honest-to-God book in here, so I asked Nancy and Sara's permission to alter their writing and try and give it a single, cohesive voice," Cowan said.

The project snowballed from there. Eventually, the book transformed from a young-adult fantasy tale to a female-centered adventure story with fantasy leanings. Then Cole ended the final chapter with a clliffhanger, which led the women to consider writing a second book, and then a trilogy.

Cowan said they sold out of their printed copies at Annie Bloom's Books, and that the book has been received with excitement by a variety of readers, young and old. Cole's niece, for instance, can't wait to read the second iteration. And one day, when Cowan went to visit her husband at work, a woman who works with him took Cowan aside to sing the book's praises.

Cowan and Cole both have other jobs — a freelance journalist and public outreach officer for the Clackamas County Sheriff's Office, respectively. But the project has awakened in them a sense of creativity and passion that could lead to future pursuits.

For Cowan, especially, whose own career shift led to the original idea to publish the book, "Journey to Wizard's Keep" offers the potential for a long future in writing. For now, Cowan and Cole are securing the publishing of the final two books in the trilogy, but Cowan has a twinkle of excitement in her eye while mentioning a prequel.

"It's really started a new chapter in my life," Cowan remarked. "I'm heading toward retirement, but I feel like I could keep doing this with Sara for years to come."

Contact Hannah Rank at 503-636-1281 ext. 105 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

BUY THE BOOK

You can find "Journey to Wizards' Keep" ($17.99) by KC Cowan, Sara Cole and Nancy Danner online at Amazon.com

Cover art for 'Journey to Wizards' Keep,' a novel co-written by three Wilson alums and best friends starting in the late 1970s.

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