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.

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