Author Archives: Susan Albert

On Writing Women’s Biographical Fiction

Most readers know me as a mystery author, but for the past five or six years, I’ve been indulging my interest in biographical fiction. My first biographical novel, A Wilder Rose, told the story of Rose Wilder Lane, the woman who rewrote the family stories her mother—Laura Ingalls Wilder—had written down. Together, they created the Little House books. When publishers weren’t interested in the book, I published it under my own imprint, Persevero Press. A Wilder Rosehas sold over 60,000 copies and is under option for film.

My second biographical novel, based on letters held in the FDR Presidential Library, tells the story of the friendship of Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok. Titled Loving Eleanor, it too was published by Persevero Press just a few months ago. I’m almost finished with a third, set during WW2 and into the postwar years. The General’s Women is about Kay Summersby, Mamie Eisenhower, and Ike, the man they both loved. It is based on Kay’s memoirs, Eisenhower biographies, and letters I found in the Eisenhower Presidential Library. Another project, now in the research stage: a novel about the five women who loved Franklin Roosevelt: his mother, his wife, his lover, his secretary, and his cousin. I’m tempted to call it Loving Franklin, to pair it with Loving Eleanor.

Writing biographical fiction is—for me—deeply satisfying work. I am far more interested in her stories than I am in histories. I am fascinated by stories of women who have set out to do things, discover things, make their way in a man’s world, even change that world and the people in it. Unfortunately, history—that is, our public memory, the culture’s corporate record of events and ideas—is not only written by the winners but written by the men who have won. The stories of women who counted for something are usually hidden in history, behind his stories, because their achievements often challenge commonly-accepted beliefs about how women are supposed to behave. So I spend a lot of time digging around in unpublished diaries, letters, autobiographical fragments, pieces of memoir—listening for voices that need to be heard. Silenced voices, misunderstood voices, whispers. Not history. Her stories.

It’s a good thing that I enjoy research, because any kind of historical fiction—fiction set in the past—requires quite a lot of it. Biographical fiction, which toes a delicate line between acknowledged fact and imagined truth, creates its own special research demands. And biographical fiction about a well-known, much-admired woman is extraordinarily challenging. For Loving Eleanor, I started in the usual place: by reading everything I could find to read. At the time (2014-2015), there wasn’t much published material about Lorena Hickok, except for brief introductions to her Depression-era investigative reports to Harry Hopkins and an inadequate biography. The Roosevelts, of course, are the subject of dozens of books, so I ended up with a full bookcase and plenty of film and online resources.
herstories_HickokRoosevelt1small
But since I’m interested in the hidden stories, what I’m chiefly after are unpublished documents. It is our great good fortune that Lorena Hickok, who clearly wanted somebody to tell the story of her friendship with the First Lady, donated her collection of letters and other documents to the FDR Presidential Library. Reading them is very much like listening to hundreds of hours of private, intimate conversation. I found myself pulled deeply into the worlds that Hick and Eleanor shared. That’s when the real questions began to arise. Who are these women, behind the personas history has created for them? What do they want, what do they need? What are they afraid of? What is it they have to learn? Where is the real story, the hidden story? These are the questions that take us deep into the imaginative heart of fiction, but keep us within the boundaries established by the biographical and historical facts—the truths—that careful and persistent research can discover.

I heard filmmaker Errol Morris speak recently about making documentary films. “We don’t  judge a documentary film on whether it tells the truth,” he said, “but whether it attempts to seek the truth and asks you to think about the relationship between the film and what the truth might be—if it could be found.”

That’s what I’m trying to do with these biographical fictions about women’s hidden lives. I want to take us toward what the truth of their lives might be—if it can be found.


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: susanalbert.com.

Lorena Hickok, Journalist

 

LovingEleanor1

by Story Circle Founder and President, Susan Wittig Albert

Biographical fiction, which toes a delicate line between acknowledged fact and imagined truth, creates its own special research and writing demands. And sometimes, extraordinary challenges.

For Loving Eleanor—the story of Lorena Hickok’s friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt —I started in the usual place: by reading everything I could find about Lorena (Hick, she was called). As it turned out, there wasn’t much readily accessible material, except for brief introductions to her Depression-era investigative reports to Harry Hopkins, a woefully inadequate biography published in 1980 by Doris Faber, and Rodger Streitmatter’s notes in Empty Without You, his collection of letters written by Hick and Eleanor. I had a lot of digging to do.

Hick was a woman who went through life with her elbows out. She began working as a journalist at the Battle Creek Journal in 1913 when she was just 19. She had a gift for telling a taut, well-honed story, and her abilities were quickly recognized. Two years later, she moved to the Milwaukee Sentinel, briefly to the New York Tribune, then (in 1918), to the Minneapolis Tribune, where she earned her stripes as a reporter, feature writer, and Sunday editor. In an unusual move, her editor, Tom Dillon, assigned her to the sports desk. Her breezy, conversational style was new to sports journalism, and as a female sportswriter, her work was groundbreaking.

In 1927, at the end of a failed love affair, Hick went back to New York, first to the tabloid Mirror and then to the Associated Press. She was the first woman to be hired in the flagship New York bureau. Fearless and energetic, she quickly earned a by-line. In her first year at the AP, she covered the sinking of the steamship Vestris, which gave her another first: she was the first woman to have a bylined front page story in the New York Times. As an investigative reporter, she covered politics (FDR’s election as New York governor in 1928); political corruption (the downfall of New York mayor Jimmy Walker and the hugely complicated trial of banker Charles E. Mitchell); and sensational crime (the Lindbergh baby kidnapping). I’ve found her bylined stories in hundreds of newspapers across the country, and almost every story is a standout.

In 1933, at the top of her game, Hick left the AP. It was an anguished decision she felt she was forced to make. Her deepening personal (and very intimate) friendship with the new First Lady made it impossible for her to write objectively about the Roosevelt administration. She believed that she was ethically compromised, and she did the honest–but very painful–thing. She went to work for Harry Hopkins, the director of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration. For the next two years, she traveled across the country, investigating government-sponsored relief programs and reporting on Depression-era conditions in 32 states. Her nearly 80 confidential FERA reports, written in bleak hotel rooms late at night, provide us with vivid, no-holds-barred descriptions of the appalling—and yet heroic—plight of millions of destitute Americans. She felt their anguish. Even now, reading her reports, we can feel it, too.

When Hick left FERA in 1936, it was the end of her work as an investigative journalist–but not the end of her writing career. In another post, we’ll take a look at her 15-year career as a biographer.

 

Lorena Hickok, Biographer

This is Part 2 of a two-part series of posts about Lorena Hickok, the journalist whose friendship helped to put Eleanor Roosevelt into the media spotlight–and the central character in my novel, Loving EleanorPart 1 is about Hick’s work as a journalist. But she didn’t just write newspaper stories. After she retired from political life in 1945, she wrote biographies. This post is a quick sketch of that part of her writing career.

In 1952, at the suggestion of Eleanor’s literary agent, Nannine Joseph, Hick undertook the writing of profiles of women in political life–the first book of its kind. Called Ladies of Courage, it was an inspiring account of women’s struggle for recognition in American public and political life in the thirty-five years since women had gained the vote. ER lent the luster of her name to the book and Tommy typed the manuscript, but Hick spent the better part of two years on the research—including extensive interviews with her subjects—and the writing. Before she submitted the finished manuscript, she shared it with ER, who wrote: At last tonight I’ve finished reading your material [for Ladies of Courage] and it is simply swell I think. Much more interesting than I thought it could possibly be made.

The book, which included profiles of Frances Perkins, Clare Boothe Luce, Helen Gahagan Douglas, and Oveta Culp Hobby, was published in 1954. Thanks to ER’s name recognition, it received extensive newspaper attention. Hick traveled around the country, speaking to women’s groups about the book and about the challenges women faced in political life. In recognition of her authorship, ER assigned her the royalties, which cumulatively amounted to about $4,000 (about $35,000 in 2015).

As a journalist, Hick had always been deeply interested in people who had stories, who met extraordinary challenges. In the profiles of the Ladies of Courage, Hick had found a narrative voice that enabled her to tell these stories. After that book was published, she began work on what would be three biographies for young readers in Grosset & Dunlap’s much-heralded Signature Books series: The Story of Franklin D. Roosevelt (1956), The Story of Helen Keller (1958), and The Story of Eleanor Roosevelt (1959). For Scholastic, Hick also wrote a biography of FDR, this one focusing on his early political life: The Road to the White House: FDR, The Pre-Presidential Years (1962).

Of the four books for young readers, Hick’s biography of Helen Keller was the most successful. It was adopted by several school-affiliated book clubs, and sales were boosted even further by the 1957 teleplay by William Gibson, The Miracle Worker, followed by the Broadway play and the 1962 film of the starring Patty Duke. The royalties would help to support Hick for the rest of her life.

When Hick was doing the research for the Keller biography, she became deeply interested in Keller’s teacher, and went on to write a biography for older teens called The Touch of Magic: The Story of Helen Keller’s Great Teacher, Anne Sullivan Macy. The book was published by Dodd, Mead in 1961. Hick felt a special admiration for Macy, who had given Helen Keller her voice. “No author ever finished a book with greater regret,” she wrote in her foreword. “During the months I worked on this book she became as real to me as a living person . . . I miss her.” I can’t help wondering if Hick saw something of herself in Anne Sullivan Macy. Perhaps Hick thought that the empowering help she gave Eleanor—encouraging her to do the press conferences, supporting her early efforts as a writer, urging her to write her newspaper column—was something like the help that Teacher (Helen Keller’s name for Macy) provided her student. Teacher gave Helen her voice and helped to create a place for her in the world. It’s no exaggeration to say that Hick gave Eleanorher voice, as well.

While Hick was working on the Macy biography, she struck up a professional friendship with Allen Klots, her editor at Dodd, Mead. When The Touch of Magic was finished, Hick proposed to Klots the project that became Eleanor Roosevelt: Reluctant First Lady, the book for which Hick is probably best known. It sketches out their most intense friendship without, of course, giving clues to its intimacy. Finished in 1961, Reluctant First Lady was published just prior to ER’s death. it sold well and the royalties from that and her other projects provided Hick with something approaching a comfortable living.

Throughout her adult life, Hick was severely diabetic, and the disease began to curtail her professional activities in the late 1930s. When she finished Reluctant First Lady, she began a biography of labor leader Walter Reuther (also for Dodd, Mead), but her failing eyesight compelled her to stop not long before her death in 1968. That project was completed by Jean Gould and published under the title Walter Reuther: Labor’s Rugged Individualist—with Hick’s name on the cover, as well as Gould’s. That book brought to eight the number of biographies Hick produced in the last fifteen years of her life.

And speaking of biographies: a new dual biography of Hick and Eleanor, by Susan Quinn, will be out in September. I haven’t seen it yet, but I’m anxious to read it. I hope Quinn will pay attention to Hick as a writer, as well as the woman who helped to give Eleanor Roosevelt her voice. Hick’s first biographer, Doris Faber, failed her. She deserves a biographer who understands and pays attention to her professional work, as well as her empowering friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt.

Want to read more about Susan’s journey in writing Loving Eleanor? Check out The Secret Story Behind Loving Eleanor.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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

The Secret Story Behind LOVING ELEANOR

 

 

LovingEleanor1

By Story Circle founder and president, Susan Wittig Albert

Some stories beg to be told; some books beg to be written.

For me, the story of the long and intimate friendship of Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok was one of those stories–and Loving Eleanor was one of those books. Of all the many responses I’ve had when I’ve discussed the book (forthcoming Feb 1) with readers, the question I most often hear is some variation of “Why didn’t we know this already?”

The most important reason is the most obvious one: the over 3300 letters that document the women’s 30-year friendship were intentionally kept secret. Most of Lorena’s letters to Eleanor were destroyed, probably by ER’s children, after her death. However, Hick kept ER’s letters (and some of her own).

In 1962, after Eleanor’s death, Hick (then in her 70s), realized that she had to find a way to keep the letters safe. The most important threat came from the Roosevelt children, who would not have wanted evidence of the deeply romantic nature of their mother’s friendship with another woman to become public knowledge. They would have destroyed the letters, as they almost certainly located and destroyed the letters ER wrote to her longtime friend, Earl Miller. Another threat came from Joseph Lash, who considered himself the “official” biographer of the Roosevelt family. If Lash acquired the letters, he would likely solidify his relationship with the Roosevelt sons by destroying them. And of course, publishing them herself was not an option at the time, as you can guess.

Hick chose the best and most prudent course. She had a personal relationship with a curator at the FDR Presidential Museum, who urged her to leave her collection to the library. She took his advice, stipulating that the letters be sealed for ten years after her death. She trusted the professional librarians there to keep the letters safe, and they did–although it is fair to say that they had no idea what was in them. Hick died in 1968; the letters were opened to the public, without any announcement, in 1978.

To be continued… Watch this space for another installment of the story. In the meantime, you can read an excerpt from the novel and view my Pinterest photo collection on the book’s website.

Loving Eleanor will be published on Feb 1, 2016. It is available for preorder now on Amazon. Susan Wittig Albert is the founder and current (2015-2017) president of SCN. Susan is a New York Times bestselling author who is publishing her biographical/historical novels under her own imprint, Persevero Press.

Susan Wittig Albert

Susan Wittig Albert

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

Aside

by Susan Wittig Albert Last week we published part one of our interview with our Stories from the Heart Conference keynote speaker, Brooke Warner. Want to see Brooke in person? Make sure and sign up early for the conference! Brooke … Continue reading

Aside

by Susan Wittig Albert Brooke Warner is the keynote speaker at Stories From the Heart VIII. She is the founder of Warner Coaching Inc., publisher at She Writes Press, and author of What’s Your Book? A Step-by-Step Guide to Get … Continue reading

Why We Must Tell Our Stories

a-jernberg-swedish-peasant-woman-writing-with-a-quill

by Susan Wittig Albert

As women, we have always found ourselves in story. From the beginning of human existence, while we planted and harvested and prepared food, spun thread and wove cloth, tended our babies and cared for our elderly parents, we told one another the stories of our lives, and the lives of our grandmothers and mothers and daughters and granddaughters. Our shared stories became a many-voiced chorus singing the same song: the story-song of women at work and women at play, women loving and living, women birthing, women dying. Those stories were full of pain because human lives have always been like that. They were full of joy because lives are like that, too. Pain and joy were woven like golden threads through the full, rich, round stories of women’s lives, passed from mother to daughter to granddaughter through the generations, so that the experiences of women would not be forgotten.

Of course, the urge to shape our lives in story is not just a woman’s urge. As women remembered themselves in story, so did men, telling tales in which men worked and played and fought and died, honorably and dishonorably; tales in which men governed, wisely and unwisely; tales in which men loved women, fathered children, revered parents.

Then men learned to write and wrote these stories down so that they could share their experiences with other men and pass their knowledge of themselves from generation to generation. When writing became printing, these stories, oral and written, were gathered into books, so that men’s triumphs and tragedies would be remembered.

medieval-woman-writing-detail-150x150But what happened to women’s stories when men learned to write? In one sense, nothing happened. Women still remembered themselves in story as they worked, played, and rested, and those stories still echoed through the generations, from heart to heart. But through the centuries of recorded history, far fewer women than men were initiated into the mysteries of writing, and those who did learn to write did not often write about the lives of women. Because ordinary women couldn’t write, their stories of ordinary life were lost or misremembered or changed. It was the same cycle of decay we find elsewhere in the oral tradition, in primitive tribes or among the enslaved in assimilated societies, overwhelmed by the rush to technology. Because the stories weren’t valued, they weren’t written. And because they weren’t written, they weren’t valued. They were just . . . well, women’s stories. Tittle-tattle. Old wives’ tales. Idle gossip, created to pass the empty hours when men weren’t around. Not worth writing down. Not worth much in the coin of the realm.

This is not to say, of course, that women’s stories vanished. A few women could write, but the stories they preserved were mostly the stories men taught them, or wanted them to write. Women appeared (often in starring roles) as characters in men’s stories, first orally, then in writing, then in print, and much later in movies and television. But these were (and are) women’s lives seen through the eyes of the male storyteller. Men told what they knew about women, what they had been taught, what other men expected to hear. That Adam was evicted from Paradise because he listened to Eve. That women are unclean (and dangerously mad) during their menstrual periods. That women can’t participate in business or government because they have inferior intellects. And until women began to have unmediated access to the printed page, we had no way of crying out, “Wait! These are not our bodies, or our minds, or our lives! They are only men’s imaginings of us!”

So men’s stories about women were accepted, uncorrected and unchallenged, as true stories, and everybody was fooled. Including women. For writing is such a persuasive medium that most of us believed that we were (or ought to be) like the women in men’s stories. We should wait patiently at home, while men discover new continents. We should love men, while men love ideas. We should give birth to children (preferably male children) while men give birth to writing and the electric light and the airplane and the bomb. Of course, there were many women who did not want to wait for men, or love men, or give birth to men’s children, but their refusals were scarcely heard and rarely heeded. Theirs were the deviant voices, singular, sinister, frightening. For many women, it was necessary (and easier) to be agreeable, to be what they were expected to be—at least on the surface.

But underneath the facade of conformable docility, beneath the appearance of a life shaped by men’s stories of how women ought to think and act, there has always echoed a different story, a true story. My story. Your story. Our stories, our real, true, different lives.

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Susan Wittig Albert, founder and current president of Story Circle Network, is the author of several books including the long running China Bayles mystery series, two nonfiction books, and two memoirs. She currently blogs at Lifescapes

Writing a Woman’s Life, Part 3

This is the third post of a three-part series about the writing of A Wilder Rose. Read Part 1 and Part 2.

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.

Herbert Hoover Library

Herbert Hoover Presidential Library, West Branch IA

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

Read part 1 and part 2 of this series.