Writing Lessons from Laura Ingalls Wilder: Cutting What Doesn't Belong

Monday, August 1, 2016

I had planned four Laura Ingalls Wilder lessons for July, and then I was going to move on. However, my plans, like my fiction writing, are flexible.

As I prepared last month’s blog posts, I became interested in Laura’s first book, which was an actual autobiography (not a fictionalized version) written for adults. The manuscript was not published in either Laura’s or Rose’s lifetime, but it is now available as Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography edited (and annotated) by Pamela Smith Hill. I didn’t have it, so I found it on Amazon and bought a copy.

Laura’s Pioneer Girl manuscript went through several drafts, most of which contained Rose’s edits. To get as close to Laura’s voice as possible, Hill used the original unedited draft and noted where the changes occurred in subsequent versions. This manuscript apparently became the master reference for Laura when writing the Little House books, so Hill also noted the differences between Laura’s recollections of her life and the fictionalized versions.

One issue hinted at in The Selected Letters of Laura Ingalls Wilder and explicitly mentioned in the Pioneer Girl annotations is the choice to cut out some incidents and details that didn’t contribute to the fictional stories. Laura’s reluctance to cut some of these details resonates with me because I have the same problem.

On the Banks of Plum Creek contains a scene where Laura plays on a plank used as a bridge. The creek is swollen from the spring rains, and Laura is almost swept away in the rushing waters. In real life, Ma was very sick and Laura was trying to reach the neighbor on the other side of the stream to ask him to go to town and telegraph for the doctor, who was 40 miles away. Why did the scene get transformed? Here is part of the exchange of letters between Laura and Rose, as quoted in note 66 on page 85 of the annotated Pioneer Girl.

“I am doubtful about Ma’s sickness,” Lane wrote her mother on June 13, 1936. “It is such a wretched miserable time, and in that kind of nasty grasshopper atmosphere, I think the grasshoppers are enough. I believe it would be better to cut out Ma’s sickness altogether.” But, she added, “the part about the creek is a pity to leave out.” Wilder, however, considered the entire episode important. She wrote Lane, “I do think the picture of two little girls doing what they did while Ma was sick and the fact that it was nothing for a Dr to be 40 miles away and no auto, would make a great impression on children who are so carefully doctored in schools and all.” [Internal cites omitted.]

In the end, Laura agreed to cut Ma’s sickness from On the Banks of Plum Creek.

When writing my historical fiction, I often want to include details and events that I believe my audience should learn about. Unfortunately, not all of them add to the story, and some even detract from it. And Laura and I aren’t the only ones who have struggled with this problem. I have read and critiqued other authors dealing with the same issue.

It hurts me to cut educational scenes that don’t add to the story, but I am getting better at it. For the reader, the story comes first, and the writer needs to honor that.

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


The photo shows the banks of Plum Creek near Walnut Grove, Minnesota. The sign marks the spot where the Ingalls’ dugout was located. I took the picture in 2010.

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