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.

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