Writing Lessons from Laura Ingalls Wilder: Does Age Matter?

Monday, July 25, 2016

No—and yes.

If the question is whether it matters how old you are when you start writing, the answer is “no.” Laura was 43 when she started her professional career writing a column in a local newspaper. She was 63 when she wrote her first book: an autobiography that she couldn’t find a publisher for. Little House in the Big Woods was published when she was 65, and These Happy Golden Years was published when she was 76. As long as you have your health, it’s never too late to start.

Of course, old age can interfere. Laura left a draft manuscript, which was published years after her death and titled The First Four Years. Her later writing was hindered by rheumatism, caring for Almanzo before his death, and her own declining energy level after it. But age itself isn’t an excuse not to write.

If the question is whether it matters how old your audience is, the answer is “yes.” Laura’s first attempt at a book was an autobiography written for adults, but she couldn’t find a publisher. Then Rose met a children’s book editor who liked the idea of a children’s book based on Laura’s frontier memories. Laura envisioned Little House in the Big Woods as a way to preserve Pa’s stories and pass them down to children. It sold well, and she followed with Farmer Boy (about Almanzo’s childhood), Little House on the Prairie, and on through These Happy Golden Years. She found her niche in writing for children.  

That doesn’t mean it was an easy path.

I’ve always been struck by the difference between Little House in the Big Woods and the subsequent books. Little House in the Big Woods is a shorter book that seems to be aimed at early readers and even younger listeners, while the later books are aimed at a slightly older audience of readers from 8 through 12 years old. I personally think that Laura could have continued writing at the Little House in the Big Woods level and attracting new members of that audience, but I don’t think she would have captured the middle grade readers who ended up being her biggest fans. Instead, the books aged as the characters did. Up to a point, anyway.

If you remember the post from two weeks ago, this was a point of contention between Laura and Rose. As Laura said in a January 26, 1938 letter to Rose: “Just a word more about Silver Lake. You fear it is too adult. But adult stuff must begin to be mixed in, for Laura is growing up.” The final does include some of the matters that Rose apparently complained about, such as a riot by the railroad workers, but they may have compromised on the descriptions or changed situations to soften the effect. Unfortunately, I don’t have the original manuscript to compare with the published version.  

In any event, Laura had a point. In that same letter, she mentioned that her readers “all seem wildly interested and want to know how, where, and when Laura met Almanzo and about their getting married. . . . Surely Laura will have to be rather adult then. And I think it will be more reasonable and easier to begin mixing it in, in Silver Lake.”

Whatever compromise Laura and Rose came up with worked. Laura got her way about including more adult matters as the books progressed. But even when Laura and Almanzo were dating, the books remained wholesome and readable for their middle grade audience.

Some people are best when writing for adults, some excel when writing for young children, and others fall somewhere in between. Even children’s writers cover a wide range. I tried writing early chapter books and failed miserably, and I’d probably be even worse at writing picture books. But I’m confident with middle grade fiction.

The age of the writer doesn’t matter, but the age of the audience does.

That’s this week’s lesson from Laura Ingalls Wilder.


The photo shows Rocky Ridge Farm in Mansfield, Missouri, where Laura lived while writing the Little House books. I took the picture in 2010.

Writing Lessons from Laura Ingalls Wilder: Using Theme to Hold the Story Together

Monday, July 18, 2016

Each of Laura’s books had a theme that unified the story. The theme wasn’t the story, however. It was the glue that held the story together.

In a January 25, 1938 letter from Laura to Rose, Laura said that homesteading was the theme of By the Shores of Silver Lake. But the theme wasn’t obvious on the surface of the story. As Laura explained in that same letter: “The book is bound to be mostly about the R.R. and town, for securing the homestead in spite of difficulties is the story, and being at home at last on the homestead, at last is the climax and finish.” (The italics are in the original.)

Then there are those books where the theme overshadowed—or perhaps became—the plot. These passages are from a February 19, 1938 letter from Laura to Rose. The story under discussion became The Long Winter.

            Here is what is bothering me and holding me up. I can’t seem to find a plot or pattern as you call it.

            There seems to be nothing to it, only the struggle to live, through the winter, until spring comes again. This, of course, they all did. But is it strong enough or can it be made strong enough, to supply the necessary thread running through the book?

            I could make a book with the plot being Laura’s struggles to be, and success in becoming a teacher, with the Hard Winter and all being obstacles overcome on the way. Laura taught the next winter you know.

            I could tell of the hard winter, how school closed. Laura studied at home, going to school next summer from the farm. And how she was only well started in school the next winter when she had to quit to go teach. She would never be able to go to school and learn to be a teacher. She just was a teacher without. Get the idea? That would be a plot. It would not make the book too long. But it seems to weaken it. To be sort of anti-climactic after the Hard Winder and it couldn’t have that name. I don’t like it. But where is the plot in Hard Winter?

Laura followed her instincts and didn’t use her quest to become a teacher as the plot. I’m not even sure I can find a discernable plot in The Long Winter, unless it is the fight to survive. But that didn’t ruin the book for me. In fact, it was my favorite Little House book as a child and on my first re-read as an adult.

It works because it has a cohesive theme. The struggle to live is strong enough to supply the necessary thread running throughout the book.

It’s nice to have a strong plot, but it isn’t always necessary when the book has a good theme that holds the story together.

That’s this week’s lesson from Laura Ingalls Wilder.


Nobody knows exactly where the Little House on the Prairie was located, but the picture shows one possible site. I visited this spot in Kansas with my mother in 2010. The cabin was built from the description in the book.

Writing Lessons from Laura Ingalls Wilder: Should you trust your editor or your instincts?

Monday, July 11, 2016

Laura’s daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, provided suggestions on the Little House books, acting much as a substantive editor would. Laura appreciated Rose’s input, but she didn’t always agree with it. And sometimes their differences took a while to work out.

Take a blizzard scene from On the Banks of Plum Creek. Pa is gone when the blizzard comes, and Ma goes to the barn to do the chores. It appears that Rose caught a POV error where Laura was seeing what Ma was doing without being there with her. Rose suggested that Ma take the character Laura along, but Ma would never have risked it, and the author Laura wasn’t willing to write an unrealistic scene. Laura and Rose eventually agreed on a third approach. Instead of going to the barn physically, Laura follows Ma in her mind as she imagines what Ma would be doing each minute she is gone.

Laura and Rose’s biggest disagreements involved By the Shores of Silver Lake. Here is just some of their correspondence:

January 26, 1938 Letter from Laura to Rose

            Just a word more about Silver Lake. You fear it is too adult. But adult stuff must begin to be mixed in, for Laura is growing up.

            * * *

            We can’t spoil this story by making it childish. Not and keep Laura as the heroine. And we can’t change heroines in the middle of the stream and use Carrie in the place of Laura.

January 28, 1938 Letter from Laura to Rose

            I like your idea of the beginning less and less the more I think of it. That was the way I tried to start it but all the objections I have mentioned cropped up as I wrote it. It made too much of Plum Creek. We don’t want to go back there. . . .

            It made an unpleasant beginning, a tale of sickness and failure and death. We don’t want to tell of Jack’s dying. Nor of Mary’s sickness. Nor of Pa’s failure so that it was necessary for him to make a new start because he hadn’t gained anything by all his hard work. The readers must know all that but they should not be made to think about it. The story of Silver Lake is connected with Plum Creek close enough in Laura’s mind and her thoughts are given to the reader, but it is second hand and the knowledge isn’t even sad, as it would be your way. It will be passed over lightly by the reader in the interest of the new adventure which is already begun.

            I’m afraid that I am going to insist that the story starts as I started it.

February 3, 1938 Letter from Rose to Laura

            You certainly are handling the material much better all the time, and if you don’t want this book touched, you’re absolutely right not to have it touched. . . .

            I don’t say that Harper’s won’t take this manuscript as it stands. They’ll take it on your reputation, and publish it; any publisher will. But you’ll lose your audience for future books, and cut your income, unless you work it over, and work it over by concentrating on every word and sentence until you know precisely what its values are, why you use it. . . . There’s a lot of fine stuff in it that doesn’t need to be touched, and there is deadwood, and clumsy spots and a lack of sufficient sharpness of identification with Laura.

            * * *

            It’s your book, and if you want to send it to Harpers as is, that’s all right with me. I’m only telling you what will happen if you do. You can do that, or you can work at the manuscript, till you bring it all up to the level of its best parts now. Unless you want to do that work on it, my advice would be to make it your last book and not do any more. This book as it is will go on your reputation, but it will not add to it, in my opinion.

February 19, 1938 Letter from Laura to Rose

            You don’t know how much good your letter did me and I can’t tell you. You see I know the music but I can’t think of the words.

            * * *

            Anyway your letter picked me up and gave me courage. It is sweet of you to say the nice things you did about my writing and I will try to deserve them more.

In the end, Laura and Rose reached a compromise. Rose basically got her way on how the book began, but Laura got to keep some of the more "adult" material, such as rioting by the workers constructing the railroad. Both may have been toned down, but I can't tell without the original draft for comparison.

The dispute didn’t harm the close relationship between Laura and Rose, and Laura was always gracious about receiving criticism. Here is an earlier letter, this time to her publisher:

March 21, 1933 Letter from Laura to Ida Louise Raymond

            Indeed I am very grateful to you for giving me your frank opinion of Farmer Boy.

            An honest opinion even though not favorable is much more to be desired than one more flattering if insincere.

Sometimes you have to trust your editor, and sometimes you have to trust your instincts. But always accept the editor’s critique with careful thought and good grace.

That’s this week’s lesson from Laura Ingalls Wilder.


The picture shows Rose Wilder Lane and, according to Wikimedia Commons, it was taken sometime before 1921. The photo is in the public domain because of its age.

Writing Lessons from Laura Ingalls Wilder: Fact versus Fiction

Monday, July 4, 2016

This 4th of July, it is only fitting to write about a quintessentially American author. Actually, I’m dedicating an entire month to writing lessons from Laura Ingalls Wilder.

I’ve always been a fan of the Little House books. I even took my mother on a Laura Ingalls Wilder road trip in 2010, visiting the places where she had lived. So when Roland was looking for a Mothers’ Day gift this year, he bought The Selected Letters of Laura Ingalls Wilder, edited by William Anderson. That’s the main source material for these posts.

The Little House books were mostly true, and Laura often replied to fan letters with statements like this one: “The books are true, you know. All those things happened to me and my parents and sisters, just as I have written them.” In another letter, she described By the Shores of Silver Lake this way: “The book is not a history, but a true story founded on historical fact.”

Laura wrote and marketed her books as children’s stories, not as autobiographies or memoirs. That gave her license to change scenes and even invent them, although she kept the new material consistent with her life at the time. Her letters point out a number of places where she altered the facts for the sake of the story. Some I was able to guess ahead of time or knew from other sources, but some were new information. Read this partial list and see how many you bought into and how many you knew were fiction.

·         In the books, Laura lived in the Big Woods of Wisconsin when she was four and five and moved to Indian Territory when she was six. In reality, Laura was only three when she lived in Indian Territory (the subject of Little House on the Prairie), and what she remembers and tells in Little House in the Big Woods probably occurred after they returned to Wisconsin, not before they moved to Indian Country.

·         The books also leave out the year or two that the Ingalls lived in Burr Oak, Iowa, which occurred between the events in On the Banks of Plum Creek and By the Shores of Silver Lake. Laura thought that including the time at Burr Oak would make the series too long and introduce too many new characters.

·         At the beginning of By the Shores of Silver Lake, most of the Ingalls family is recovering from scarlet fever, which took Mary’s sight. In reality, Mary lost her sight from spinal meningitis, and the scarlet fever itself seems to be made up. Laura didn’t think her readers would understand spinal diseases. She also tried to use the scarlet fever to mask the missing years in her narrative. The family did move back to the Plum Creek area after living in Iowa, though, so the starting location is correct in By the Shores of Silver Lake.

·         Nellie Olesen shows up living in De Smet in Little Town on the Prairie and These Happy Golden Years. In reality, she never did move to De Smet. The scenes involving her did happen, however. Laura just substituted Nellie for the girl who really lived them.

·         In By the Shores of Silver Lake, Mr. Edwards shows up at the land office and saves Pa’s claim. Laura admitted that this scene is entirely fictional. She added it because her readers were begging her for more stories about Mr. Edwards.

Creative fiction such as autobiographies and memoirs must stick close to facts. Minor adjustments that fill in gaps are okay as long as they are consistent with the story, but significant changes are not. So how did Laura get away with it?

Laura’s stories were not exact replicas of her life, but that’s okay because they were not marketed as autobiographies or memoirs. Even as a child I thought of them as stories based on her life, not as unadulterated facts. And Laura referred to the stories together as her life in novel form.

So if you want to write about your life but it needs a few enhancements to make it interesting to readers, no problem. Simply bill it as fiction or as a story “based on” your life.

That’s this week’s lesson from Laura Ingalls Wilder.


The picture of the Ingalls family was taken around 1894 and is in the public domain because of its age. Seated from left to right are Caroline (Ma), Charles (Pa), and Mary. Standing from left to right are Carrie, Laura, and Grace.