For me, biographical fiction—novels built on the lives and times of real people—the most interesting and challenging of all fictional genres. I read all I can find, from Erik Larson’s Thunderstruck to Melanie Benjamin’s The Aviator’s Wife to Watergate: A Novel, by Thomas Mallon, and many more. And over the years I’ve been writing fiction, a great many of my books have involved real people. Each of the Robin Paige mysteries is based on someone who lived during the Victorian/Edwardian period (Winston Churchill, Rudyard Kipling, Lily Langtry). The eight Cottage Tales are based on eight years in the life of Beatrix Potter. And A Wilder Rose tells the true story of Rose Wilder Lane and her mother, Laura Ingalls Wilder, and their collaboration on the Little House books.
In the first and second posts in this series, I told you how I became interested in the life of Rose Wilder Lane and how I began doing the research on her life—creating a timeline of her life, reading as much of her work as I could find, visiting the farm where she lived when she and Laura were working on the first three books, and—happily, in 1993, reading William Holtz’s biography, A Ghost in the Little House. That book, which Holtz had spent nearly a decade researching, introduced me to the rich treasury of primary sources in the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library, where Roger Lea MacBride, Rose’s literary executor, had deposited her work. He chose that site because Rose wrote the earliest (1919) biography of President Hoover.
I first visited the library to work on Rose’s papers in 1993. Now, you can see the scope of the holdings online, but that wasn’t available when I first began work, and it was a matter of digging for what I wanted. But after reading Holtz’s biography, I knew exactly what I wanted: the diary Rose kept during the late 1920s and throughout the 1930s. It turned out to be a Line-A-Day five-year diary, and Rose was diligent about keeping a record of her work. I photocopied the diary and letters I wanted, and took them home for further study. As well, over the years, I obtained additional photocopies, thanks to the help and support of the library’s archivists.
Reading Rose’s diary closely, I could begin to see the amount of work she put into her mother’s books. But it was only after I transcribed all 83,000 words of it (!) into a computer file that I understood how Rose lived and worked at Rocky Ridge Farm during the difficult days of the Depression. I began to get a sense of her constant worry about making enough money to support two households (her own and her parents’); the need to sandwich her work on Laura’s books into an already full writing schedule; her relationship with Troub; the debilitating summertime heat and the winter ice storms that left both Rocky Ridge and the Rock House without power for days at a stretch; the depressing economic and political news; the health concerns, her own and her mother’s; the continuous stream of guests and visitors; and more.
When I sat down to write the novel, it was Rose’s diary that was my guide and constant companion. I used it to create the story’s timeline and anchoring themes, establish the characters, develop Rose’s voice, show the family relationships, and solve (at least to my own satisfaction) the long-kept mystery of Rose’s participation in the writing of the Little House books.
In 1935, Rose was finally able to escape from the farm. After that time, she and her mother corresponded frequently. Their letters (1936-1939) were also useful to me in writing the novel, especially those that were written about their collaboration on On the Banks of Plum Creek and On the Shores of Silver Lake. From the letters, it became clear that they worked this way. Laura would deliver her draft of the book to Rose. Rose would then ask for additional information or suggest a different way of approaching the work. Laura would respond, sometimes argumentatively, sometimes apologetically, sometimes with additional details (clothing, landscape, theme). Rose would rewrite the book, using her mother’s manuscript as the starting point and incorporating some of her mother’s responses and additional material. When she was finished, she typed a clean copy and sent it to her mother to be forwarded to their literary agent, George Bye. (She would also send a cover letter that Laura would rewrite in longhand.) Bye would forward Rose’s typescript to the Harper editor—under Laura’s name, of course. Rose’s polished, publishable text led Ursula Nordstrom, a Harper editor, to remark, “None of the manuscripts ever needed any editing. Not any. They were read and then copy-edited and sent to the printer” (quoted in Rosa Ann Moore, “Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Orange Notebooks and the Art of the Little House Books,” p. 118).
My understanding of the compositional process was strengthened by my comparison of Laura’s manuscripts of Little House on the Prairie and On the Banks of Plum Creek (held by the State Historical Society of Missouri) to the published versions. This research work required quite a few hours at the microfilm computer reader at the Burnet County Library, which obtained the documents from the Historical Society for me. When you place Laura’s manuscript next to Rose’s published rewrite (which was untouched by their Harper editors), the differences are immediately and easily apparent.
And I haven’t even mentioned all the other authors whose work I consulted along the way: John E. Miller, Bill Anderson, Anita Fellman, and more. I have bookshelves full of these secondary materials, as they are called. You’ll find them listed in the bibliography at the end of the book.
All this background work took quite a few years—in the cracks and crannies of my other writing work (the mysteries you’ve been reading). I began the actual writing in 2011 (as a narrative nonfiction), decided to rework the book as a novel and did rewrites in 2012 and 2013.
The story of A Wilder Rose doesn’t end there, of course. There’s more to tell, and I’ll be doing guest posts here and at other blogs over the next few months. Watch for those, please. And I’ll be glad to try to answer your questions, if you’ll leave them in the Comments, below.
Susan Wittig Albert is a best-selling novelist, memoirist, and author of both adult and young adult fiction and nonfiction. She lives on a 31-acre Texas Hill Country homestead with her husband and frequent coauthor, Bill Albert. She founded The Story Circle Network in 1997. Her website:www.susanalbert.com