Author Archives: Susan Albert

Writing a Woman’s Life, Part 2

In the first post in this series, I wrote about why I chose to begin doing research into the life of Rose Wilder Lane. In this post, I’ll continue the story.

When I first learned about Rose, back in the early 1970s, I had no idea that, years later, I would write a novel about her—I was simply curious about her. No, make that deeply curious, for as a child, I had read and loved all the Little House books, which I had been told were written by her mother, Laura Ingalls Wilder. Laura was an iconic figure, in my mind. There was no other writer quite like her.

Then I read Laura’s book, The First Four Years, which shocked and surprised me, since it didn’t seem possible that this not-very-well-crafted book could have been the work of the author of eight beautifully-written and award-winning books. But I discovered from the introduction that Laura had a daughter, Rose, and that—even though her writing career had long been overshadowed by her mother’s— Rose was remembered at least by some as a “famous author” who traveled abroad and wrote a “number of fascinating books.”

This intrigued me, and I began to read and collect Rose’s writings, discovering that she was an accomplished and impressive professional writer with a long string of newspaper stories, feature pieces, travel articles, books, and magazine fiction to her credit. I began to construct a bibliography of all the writings I could find, and added to it whenever I discovered a new article or book.

Rose’s fictionalized biography of Jack London, 1917-1918

Rose’s fictionalized biography of Jack London, 1917-1918

I also began to construct a timeline of Rose’s life, beginning with her birth on the Wilders’ claim in Dakota Territory, through the family’s move to Mansfield MO, and Rose’s early career as a telegrapher for Western Union, her days as a San Francisco Bulletin feature writer, and her travels across Europe. This part of the project got a boost around 1978 when I found a privately published booklet by William T. Anderson, “Laura’s Rose.” Although the booklet lacked citations and sources, it provided a general outline of Rose’s life, some details I hadn’t yet discovered, and a few more titles to look for. There were still a lot of gaps to fill. But because I was teaching and doing other research, my “Rose project” went on the back burner.

Rose on a walking tour of the Loire Valley, 1921

Rose on a walking tour of the Loire Valley, 1921

I was still deeply interested in Rose, however. So I  visited the Wilder farm near Mansfield, where Rose grew up. And whenever I traveled through the Midwest and the Plains states, I looked for the Ingalls family’s house sites—not an easy task, in those days before the Internet. I also managed to locate some of the articles that Laura wrote for the Missouri Realist, which made me even more sure that she could not have been the author—not the sole author, anyway—of the Little House books. Her work was simply too stiff, too uneven, and too unpolished. She would have needed a lot of help to produce those eight books—and who better to help than her much-published daughter? Meanwhile, a couple of scholars wrote articles that also questioned the idea that Laura was the sole author of my favorite children’s books. All this kept me interested in Rose (and Laura, too) while I worked on other writing projects.

And then in 1992, I learned that William Holtz, at the University of Missouri, was about to do just that. His book was titled The Ghost in the Little House: A Life of Rose Wilder Lane.  I contacted Professor Holtz, requested an advance reading copy, and reviewed it—enthusiastically—for the San Antonio Express-News. I was fascinated by the depth and breadth of his research into Rose’s life, and I found myself saying an emphatic yes, yes! to his arguments that Rose played a major role in the writing of the books that were published under her mother’s name. What’s more, his very complete biography filled in the gaps (most of them, anyway) in the timeline I had constructed of Rose’s life.

But even more importantly, William Holtz had done what every good biographer does: he had laid down a research trail. The notes and bibliography at the end of his book took me to the original sources he consulted: Rose’s letters, diaries, journals, and manuscripts, held in the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library.

And that, of course, was where I had to go next, in my efforts to learn who really wrote those wonderful books—the subject of my forthcoming novel, A Wilder Rose: Rose Wilder Lane, Laura Ingalls Wilder, and Their Little Houses.  I’ll be writing about that part of my adventure in Part 3 of this series, Writing a Woman’s Life.

Have you ever been fascinated by a woman’s life—an ancestor, perhaps, or a little known author, or a woman whose contributions have not been fully recognized? What excites you about this person? If you wanted to research her life, where would you start? What ‘what ifs’ make you wonder about things she did or might have done? Do you know enough about her to create a timeline of her life? What information would you need to fill in the gaps? Who would you talk to? What would you read? Where might you visit? What learning trail would you follow if you wanted to discover and write about her life?

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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

Read part 1 and part 3 of this series.

Writing a Woman’s Life, Part 1

The First Four Years, by Laura Ingalls Wilder

At Story Circle, we spend a great deal of time thinking and talking about the importance of writing our own stories: documenting our lives, our passions, our hopes, our achievements—in journals, memoirs, poetry, drama, song, and autobiographical fiction. I’ve done my share of this personal work. Together, Alone: A Memoir of Marriage and Place is my story about twenty-plus years of life in the Texas Hill Country. And An Extraordinary Year of Ordinary Days is the journal of one year of that life.

But I’m also interested in writing the lives of other women, and I’ve done my share of that, too. Some of these are fictional, but some are real, like my eight-book series of mysteries following Beatrix Potter’s life in the years 1905-1913. And if you’ve enjoyed reading such currently popular novels as The Paris Wife (Paula McLain), Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald Potter’s (Therese Ann Fowler), or Loving Frank (Nancy Horan), you’ve been reading the lives of real women—interesting and thought-provoking lives they are, indeed.

Writing a woman’s life is a fascinating project, for many women’s experiences are rich in unexpected secrets, unexplored depths, and unrecognized achievements. I’ve been “working on” one particular woman for the past two decades, and since my novel about her is coming out in October, I’d like to share with you what I’ve learned about this process, illustrated by what I’ve learned about my subject. This is the first of what I expect will be four posts on the topic.

I’m writing about Rose Wilder Lane (1886-1968), the daughter of Laura and Almanzo Wilder. She was born in Dakota Territory, grew up in Mansfield MO, and left home at 18 to become a telegrapher, then a reporter and feature writer, a freelance journalist, a world traveler, a magazine fiction writer, a best-selling novelist, and a political philosopher. You can read her full biography here, and a charming short autobiography here, written in 1938 or 1939 for the Works Progress Association (WPA) Folklore Project.

I was compelled to learn more about Rose because, as a girl, I loved the eight Little House books, by Laura Ingalls Wilder. No, I didn’t just love them, I adored them. I remember reading them aloud to myself, perched in the catalpa tree outside my bedroom window, loving the sound of the words, the flow of the sentences, the craft of the story, so simple and yet so real and compelling. That they were the work of an elderly woman, living on a Missouri farm, and writing true stories about her childhood (I imagined) by candlelight—why, this made them all the more interesting. One of my teachers called Laura an “untaught literary genius,” and I had to agree. And since I wanted to be a writer when I grew up, I was heartened to discover that someone who hadn’t graduated high school and who had lived all her life on a farm could pick up her pen and write such beautiful books—and get them published! If she could do it, so could I. I pinned her picture on my wall—a little white-haired lady signing her book—and vowed to grow up and write just the way she did.

It was a great shock, then, in 1972 or so, to pick up what the publisher called the “ninth book” in the Little House series, The First Four Years, the story of Laura’s and Almanzo’s early years on their homestead and tree claim on the South Dakota prairie. But this couldn’t be the work of the Laura whose books I had read so often that I could recite whole passages from memory! Not to put too fine a point on it, the writing was stiff and awkward, the narrative clumsy, the characters unbelievable. This must have been written by . . . by an imposter, using Laura’s name!

By that time—the early seventies—I was studying literature in graduate school, so I had acquired some research skills that I was eager to apply to this new literary mystery. I was going to find out who wrote The First Four Years and why she (or he) had been allowed to put my Laura’s name on this . . . this inferior work!

Luckily, there was a brief introduction to the book, and I started there. I learned that, after Laura’s death, the manuscript of The First Four Years was given by Rose Wilder Lane to Roger Lea MacBride, her lawyer and literary agent. Rose—yes, I knew about Rose, Laura’s only child. But the introduction told me things about her that I didn’t know: that she had traveled widely, that she was the bestselling author of many books and magazine articles, and that she had gone to Vietnam as a war correspondent at the age of 78. She seemed to be quite a remarkable woman.

And then something occurred to me. What if Rose had written The First Four Years, and not Laura? What if the publisher had put Laura’s name on the book so it would sell better? That would account for the differences, wouldn’t it?

But Roger MacBride’s introduction said that the manuscript was in Laura’s handwriting, so that couldn’t the answer. And when I finally managed to find a copy of The Peaks of Shala, Rose’s 1923 book about her travels in Albania, I could see that Laura’s daughter was a highly skilled storyteller with a remarkable eye for description and a strong narrative sense. The Peaks of Shala, in its own way, was every bit as accomplished as the Little House books.

And that discovery led me to consider another, even more startling possibility. What if Rose had secretly written—or at least worked extensively on—her mother’s stories, turning them into the Little House books and transforming her mother into a famous author. What if Laura indeed had written The First Four Years but without Rose’s help?

A Wilder Rose

It was those two what ifs that pulled me into the research—a long, long learning trail, both in distance and time—that led to the writing of my novel, A Wilder Rose: Rose Wilder Lane, Laura Ingalls Wilder, and Their Little Houses. In my next post here at HerStories (July 8), I’ll tell you about that research.

But in the meantime, you might think about a woman who has intrigued you—a relative or a friend, perhaps, or someone you’ve read about and admire. What questions are raised by what you already know about her? What more would you like to learn about her story? What what ifs make you wonder about things she did or might have done? What learning trail would you have to follow if you wanted to discover and write about her life?

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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

Read part 2 and part 3 of this series.

Starting cold? Warm up first! (part 2 of 2)

This post is one of Susan’s LifeStory Briefs, written exclusively for Story Circle members and shared with you here with her permission.


Have you ever tried to start a cold car in the middle of December? You hit the ignition, you give it extra gas—and nothing happens! Sometimes getting started on a piece of writing is just as hard as starting a cold engine. No matter how much we might want to get going, sometimes we just can’t find the spark, or we can’t seem to turn on the fuel. What we need is an extra charge for the battery, a little push, a boost. What we need is something to get us started, to warm us up!

Here are some warm-up exercises that will not only get the ink flowing, but will also give you plenty of ideas to write about later. You might try doing each of these warm-ups on a clean page of your notebook, so that you can come back at another time and expand what you’ve written. (We’ve given you some ideas for ways that you can use the material you develop here.)

  • Write about the three most significant jobs (include volunteer work) you ever had. Later, choose one job and write about it. Be sure to tell how you grew from the experience. How did the work enrich your life?
  • List the three most memorable events in your life. Later, choose one and write down everything you can remember about it.
  • What is the funniest thing that ever happened to you? Later, see if you can remember two or three other funny things.
  • List four things you would do differently if you had a choice. Later, write in detail about one of these. Why would you choose differently? What choice would you make instead? What difference do you think it would have made in your life?
  • Write down five things that please and delight you the most. Later, choose one and do it. Write about the enjoyment and pleasure you feel.)

Starting cold? Warm up first! (part 1 of 2)

This post is one of Susan’s LifeStory Briefs, written exclusively for Story Circle members and shared with you here with her permission.


Have you ever tried to start a cold car in the middle of December? You hit the ignition, you give it extra gas—and nothing happens! Sometimes getting started on a piece of writing is just as hard as starting a cold engine. No matter how much we might want to get going, sometimes we just can’t find the spark, or we can’t seem to turn on the fuel. What we need is an extra charge for the battery, a little push, a boost. What we need is something to get us started, to warm us up!

Here are some warm-up exercises that will not only get the ink flowing, but will also give you plenty of ideas to write about later. You might try doing each of these warm-ups on a clean page of your notebook, so that you can come back at another time and expand what you’ve written. (We’ve given you some ideas for ways that you can use the material you develop here.)

  • Make a list of the ten most important things that have ever happened to you. Later, write a page about each one. What happened? Who was involved? Why did it happen? Why was it important to you? What were the consequences?
  • Write down the three most important lessons you have ever learned. Later, write about what you did with the knowledge. Why were these lessons valuable to you?
  • In chronological order, jot down all the houses you’ve ever lived in. Later, choose the 3 most important and describe them. What made them important?
  • Write down the names of the people you have loved longest and most dearly. Later, choose 3 to write about. Why did you love these people? What did they add to your life?
  • Describe the three most imporant choices you’ve ever made. Later, write about what happened after you made each of these choices. What did they lead to?

Seeing Double: Writing from Photos

This post is one of Susan’s LifeStory Briefs, written exclusively for Story Circle members and shared with you here with her permission.


For most of us, a photograph is a way of holding the past in our hands—seeing what happened, when, with whom. Photos are a testimony to a time now gone, and to our intimate connection with people who may no longer be alive. They are a way of “seeing double”—recalling past events and reliving them in the present. For those of us who want to write about our lives, photographs can be a fine resource.

Using Photos to Remember

Here today, gone tomorrow—the past is as slippery and hard to hold as a wet fish. But when we have a photo to write from, our memory of the past may become much clearer—or we may find something new to notice, some new discovery about the past that has eluded us.Try this: find a favorite photo of yourself with someone who has influenced you—your mother, your father, a much-loved aunt, a husband or lover. Look at it for a moment, thinking about your relationship with the person and putting yourself back into the perspective of the girl or woman you were at that time. Then write. Who were you, back then? Who was this person? Why was he or she important to you then? What lessons did you learn, at that time, from him or her?

A Later Perspective

As you wrote the passage above, you were seeing the photograph from the point of view of the person you were at the time it was taken. Now, let’s try a different perspective, take a later point of view. We know that nfluential relationships are often double-edged: that is, we may be influenced to change in ways that might not be altogether right for us. Look at the photo again, but this time from the point of view of the woman you are now. How might your life have been different if the person in the photo had not been there? What did you learn from this person that you now wish you hadn’t? Is there something in the photo that gives you a clue to this more problematic aspect of the relationship? Perhaps there is something in the posture, in the facial expression, in the setting, that helps you see something different. Viewing the past from your present perspective may help you to uncover a different understanding of the events and relationships you have experienced.

Seeing Double: Finding the Truth

We’ve all heard the old saying, “Photographs don’t lie.” But this isn’t always true. In a workshop a few years ago, an older woman named Pearl brought a photo of herself as a small child, sitting on her mother’s lap. Both were smiling, both looked happy. “But those smiles were lies,” Pearl wrote. “My father had abandoned both of us. We had no money and we were afraid. But Mother didn’t want her parents to know how bad it was, so she sent them the photo to show that we were doing fine. ‘Just keep smiling,’ she would say, ‘and nobody will know the difference.’ Deception was the first lesson I had to unlearn,” Pearl adds, “when I began to search for my real self.” If you look through your photograph collection, you may find one that you can “see double”—that is, one you can see with the eyes of the person you were then, and with the eyes of the person you are now. What truth can you find in this photo? What new thing does it show you about the past through which you have lived?

Memoir Albums

If you have lots of photos, you might consider assembling a memoir album: a book of photos and your interpretations of the people and the events depicted—together with your own history, of course. You may be surprised by what you learn from this. Photographs can be a key to the treasures, and the traumas, of the deeply buried past. —Susan Albert

The Past in Pictures

You can learn a great deal about your past by studying the photos you have collected, particularly those of the family you grew up in. Use these questions to help you get started writing.Who?
Who are the people in the photographs? If you know them, write a paragraph or two about them: who they are, where they lived, how they were connected to you. If you don’t know them, ask family members to help with identification. Pay attention to the details of dress, posture, facial expression: these silent messages often speak very loudly.

Where and When?
Where were these photographs taken? What scenes are depicted? What do these tell you about the people? What years were the photos made? How old were you? What details of the period are evident in dress, vehicles, furniture, etc.? What can you write about the time and the place?

What?
Photographs often commenorate important family occasions: weddings, funerals, reunions, holidays. What are the occasions of the photos you have collected? What family rituals are being celebrated? What does this tell you about your family’s ethnic background, religious beliefs, economic and social class? How do you feel about these occasions now, as you look back on them? Write about the events, including not just the details of the event, but your feelings, as well.

From Manuscript to Book: Part 3, Editing Your Own Work

Edit

I’m posting a brief series about editing and copyediting. Here’s Part 3– important lessons learned from long experience in editing my own work and the work of others. Here are seven things you can do to clean up your manuscript before you send it to a reader (a friend, beta reader, agent, copyeditor, or editor).

  1. Put your darling on the shelf. When your project is finished, go on to something else. Give your work time to cool off and yourself time to put some distance between you and that precious thing you’ve written. When you come back to it, return as a stranger, with analytic eyes.
  2. Print and read (or read from your Word file). Seeing your work on paper and hearing it read may clue you to problems, glitches, and stylistic infelicities. Print and read aloud, making pencil changes to your text. Or read aloud from your Word file, making changes as you do. Another option: send your Word document to your Amazon Kindle account, and read it on another device. I sometimes read a Kindle copy on my iPad, marking the changes I want to make.
  3. Search and destroy those personal gremlins. Every writer has her own personal gremlins (words like affect/effect, less/fewer, your/you’re). Know what yours are, so you can be on the alert for them.
  4. Repetition repetition repetition. Readers notice careless repetitions of words and phrases. You should notice them first (and reject, revise, replace) before you submit your work. My copyeditors use the phrase “close repetition” to remind  me of too many raised eyebrows, frowns, nods, sighs, and so on. I try to catch these before a file leaves my computer.
  5. Present a professional appearance. You don’t wear shorts to a job interview; you make sure you’re appropriately dressed and your hair is combed. (Makeup optional.)  Conforming to “industry standards” makes your work look professional. Here are the basics:
  • Send your manuscript as a Word document (.doc or .docx).
  • Align the text to the left, ragged (don’t justify).
  • Double space in Times New Roman black 12-point font.
  • Single space after periods.
  • Use page breaks between chapters. Start chapters a third of the way down the page.
  • Use #s to indicate scene breaks: insert a space above and below.
  • Number the pages. Center bottom is fine.
  • Check for chapter breaks. I reduce my file image to about 50% or 60% and click rapidly through the pages. This gives me a quick overview of the file and I’m able to see missing breaks.
  1. Run spell check. Yes, I know—Word checks spelling as we type. But another spell check won’t hurt. You might not accept the changes, but you may catch some errors before they get to your editor or reader.
  2. Puzzled? If you have a question about usage, grammar, or formatting issues, check with an industry-standard style manual, such as the Chicago Manual of Style. I subscribe to the online edition (currently $35 a year), and I use it when I’m writing. When my copyeditor returns a file, she frequently notes problems by referring to the CMOS. The print edition is also available, but the online edition allows you to make notes, create your own references, and search.

I’m expecting The General’s Women back from my copyeditor in the next few weeks. When that arrives, I’ll share some thoughts on that process. Watch this space.

Reading note. Editing is the very edge of your knowledge forced to grow–a test you can’t cheat on.–S. Kelley Harrell

From Manuscript to Book: The Copyeditor

Copyedited2

Part 1 in this series, The Copyedit, is here. This is Part 2.

The Copyeditor

As a traditionally published author, I’ve worked with many copyeditors, but I never get to know their names, since we only meet via the manuscript. In fact, because they work on contract for the publisher, I rarely get the same copyeditor twice. One of the pleasures of publishing my own work is the privilege of working directly with the people who help me produce the book you’ll hold in your hand or read digitally.

For The General’s Women (coming March 2017), I have a new copyeditor, Sandra Spicher, who comes with a great deal of experience and a top recommendation from my (now-retired) editor at the University of Texas Press. I thought you might like to meet her.

Sandra

About herself, Sandra says that she was “one of those kids who drooled over those old ads in the back of comics and magazines: ‘Get paid to read books!'” As a freelance writer and copyeditor, she’s living the dream. She tries to leave time for her own projects, but a good book can usually tempt her. “If a manuscript sparks my interest,” she says, “I can’t say no. I work on a mix of fiction and nonfiction, but my heart belongs to fiction. I’m especially drawn to complicated stories that feature female, LGBTQ, and POC protagonists.”

As a copyeditor, Sandra is radically eclectic:

Because I’m fluent in Spanish, publishers often treat me to books that are written at least partially in Spanish or have some Latin American affinity. Recent projects I’ve copyedited or indexed include a translation of a colonial Spanish religious official’s investigation into the deaths of priests in Florida, an architect’s loving description of colonial churches in Mexico, a view of syncretism in Guatemala, and the relationship between art and literacy in colonial Peru. An offshoot of that has been books set in the Middle East, either historical or contemporary. Besides Latin American and Middle Eastern studies, film and TV, race relations, aviation history, and literary criticism are some of the subjects that crop up in the nonfiction books publishers send me.

But Sandra isn’t just a copyeditor. The General’s Women won’t require an index, but if it did, she’s the person I’d turn to. “I also enjoy the process of indexing,” she says, and tells us why:

It requires a deep engagement with the text to choose what headings and subheadings will most serve a particular book’s varied audiences. I recently indexed a book about the HBO seriesThe Wire that made me want to watch the whole thing again. Books about race in Brazil and post-Katrina New Orleans have left me gasping for breath at their insights. After indexing the revised edition of Philip Naylor’s North Africa, I sense that George R. R. Martin might have had a peek at something like it while writing A Song of Ice and Fire. There’s certainly some precedent for the Red Wedding.

I’ve asked Sandra to tell us something about a day in the life of a copyeditor. That’s coming in Part 3 of this brief series, so stay tuned.

Reading note: Knowing how to tinker with a broken piece of prose until it hums is a source of contentment known by all who have mastered a worthy craft.― Carol Fisher Saller. The Subversive Copy Editor