Category Archives: On Writing & the Writing Life

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.

Betwixt & Between: Creativity in a Liminal Time

liminal – adj. [technical]
1. of or relating to an initial or transitional stage of a process
2. occupying a position at, or on both sides of, a threshhold.
origin: late 19th century; from Latin limen, limin ‘threshhold’

For the past few weeks, the word “liminal” has been in my mind. It’s a curious word most often used in sociology, anthropology and psychology, and it is almost oenomatopoetic (sounding like its meaning). Say “liminal” out loud and the word feels drifty, as if it’s a kind of floating place, there in transition, on the threshhold to… what?

I think I first heard the word from Molly, home on break from Reed College more than 15 years ago. Her daddy was talking about how he was struggling with the transition from being a professor of Economics, his time structured–constrained, really–by classes and grad students and committees, to a self-employed consultant who had to find his own work and schedule every day.

Molly said something like, “You’re in a liminal state, Dad.” He who always loved learning new words or new anything asked what ‘liminal’ meant. She explained.

I listened to their discussion as I prepared dinner for the three of us, and rolled the word around in my mouth like a marble, intrigued by the way the consonants and vowels slid out like quiet water.


Richard, Molly, and Isis, our late, great, Great Dane,
at Christmas break in 2003

As a freelance writer, I knew the feeling of it, that curious pause, the hesitation at being betwixt and between that came when I finished a writing project, whether one that had required months and months of my attention like a book, or just the days and weeks devoted to reserching and writing a feature article or commentary.

As soon as a manuscript leaves my desk, I enter that liminal time–even though I didn’t know the word until Molly mentioned it–that shift and confusion in reorientating my life and world to whatever the next project is. There is always that moment, standing on the threshhold or just before it, when I feel a queer combination of bereft and adrift, and also the quickening of excitement (and no small amount of terror) at taking off into the unknown.

Liminal comes to mind now because it’s where I am. I finished what I hope is the final major rewrite of Bless the Birds almost three weeks ago—the day before what what be Richard’s 66th birthday—and sent it off to my agent (who is reading it right now).

I have some smaller projects to work on, but they’re not occupying the same intense and exhilarating creative space the memoir did. They’re good work but not the deep work of heart and spirit that I’ve come to put into my books.

I can’t quite see what’s ahead, though I have a vague outline, and I’m drifting a bit. When I’m not engaged in those immediate deadlines, I read and let my mind wander, which is sometimes comfortable but often not.

I am much more used to a focus and a schedule, but honestly, creativity does not come from being comfortable. This betwixt and between state is far more open to creativity than when I have my tidy self organized and pointed at a deadline.

I need this unmoored, edgy, awkward time to push my boundaries, to throw open the doors in my mind, to think of ten impossible things before breakfast, to be surprised and amazed and unsettled, to open myself to what I didn’t know I didn’t know, the paths that will take me far beyond the familiar and comfortable and safe.

It helps to have useful work to occupy the front of my mind right now, so my subconscious can wander and integrate things that didn’t necessarily seem to be related, find pattern in chaos and meaning in random thoughts and memories and ideas. So that I can weather the uneasiness of knowing that possibilities are so wide open that it’s bewildering and somewhat overwhelming, that I have no set goal to aim at or even more than the vaugest idea of a general direction I might want to take.

Come November, thanks to the Women’s International Study Center and the residency they awarded me at Acequia Madre House in Santa Fe, I’ll have a whole glorious month to explore whatever has presented itself in this liminal time. A month to wander paths–both literal and metaphorical–without caring where they go, just to see and feel whatever is there.

Liminal time, that state when anything and everything is possible, when we have yet to choose the path or even know which door we will go through. It’s scary, discomfiting, annoying, and increatibly [oops, that was supposed to be “incredibly,” but I kind of like “increatibly” too!] liberating; if we can stay with it, that awkward and difficult process may yield our most creative inspirations, like a bud, cells dividing seemingly at random until the whole assemblage forms a glorious bloom.

What’s Your Story?

One of the reasons we write stories from our life is to make sense of our journeys.

What have we accomplished that has made a difference? What lessons should we pass on? What wounds need to be healed? What do we celebrate, and who do we forgive? What story are you creating foryourself?

The answers to these questions are revealed in the stories we tell about ourselves.

Periodically we need to pause and assess how our lives are unfolding. Understanding the twists and turns that our lives have taken gives us a choice to move forward on the same path or in a different direction. “They” say that we cannot change our past (and they are right). However, we can start fresh with a new beginning at any time in our lives.

We were created by a loving God who gives us the gift of free will to be authors of our life stories. How is your story unfolding? Are you the hero(ine) or the victim? As children we depended on others to give us a good life, and sometimes they let us down in tragic, even horrific ways. But we are the adults now–the ones in charge–the ones who are responsible for our happiness and peace of mind. The truth is, we can keep doing the same things over and over expecting different results, or we can have the courage to change and embrace the life we were meant to live.

Writing prompt: Write a letter congratulating yourself on a time you stood your ground. How did it make you feel?

Helpful resource: One of the books in my personal library that has helped me dig deeply into myself for understanding is Barry Lane’s Writing as a Road to Self-Discovery (Writer’s Digest Books, 1993).

Joyce Boatright has been writing stories from her life since 1991. She serves on the Board of Story Circle Network.

White Board Magic

by Jude Walsh Whelley

While in Prague for a Deep Writing Workshop with my creativity coach Eric Maisel, he walked us through a demonstration on how to use a white board to focus and track your work. He mapped out a three-month plan to write a non-fiction book. I have found that using the white board to focus my work really helps. I use this technique in different ways; this is the current version.

I note the goals at the top. These are the big ideas, the final products.

Then I list the specific things I am doing that week to advance those goals. Now the nice thing about a white board is the ability to easily erase and revise. So I can set my plans for the week and then adjust them as the week progresses. For example, I may have on the board to read a particular article for research and get that into Evernotes. Then the next step listed might be to incorporate that into the chapter where it belongs, to add some words to that chapter. But if in reading that article, I get leads on two or three additional articles that look good, I can revise my board to include more research time as opposed to writing time.

What is most helpful for me is having the plan in such an easily viewed form. My white board is oversized; many folks work with much smaller ones but bigger is better for me. It is hard to miss this in my smallish workspace. Setting the board up weekly is best for me now because I am working short at the moment, concentrating on personal essays. As I begin to plan a non-fiction book I will move to the three-month plan on the big board with a smaller board for weekly tracking. If I am working on two projects simultaneously, I just use different colored dry erase markers to identify which task goes to which project.

Simple, easy, efficient! Thanks Eric Maisel for a strategy that continues to serve me well.

Jude Walsh Whelley writes fiction, memoir, and poetry. She lives in Dayton, Ohio. This post was previously published on her blog, Writing Now.

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.

Critique Abundance

JudeCritique

by Jude Walsh Whelley

Last Thursday it was my turn for critique with the Plot Sisters, the five amazing women writers who read and respond to my work. I am new to this group, they have been responding to one another’s writing for several years. We respond to only one writer per session and she has the entire two hours devoted to her work. I gave the Sisters one essay that I wrote  more than a year ago and found as I was cleaning out my documents files. I read it over, realized I could do a much better job with it now and revised it to give to the group. And then I trusted them with a newly hatching piece, only partly written, a true first draft.

They responded to the revised piece first. I can see how my craft has improved! These years of writing almost every day, taking craft classes, reading widely, and attending workshops is paying off. I am a better writer. I had a good start on that essay, I liked the content, but could tell it better. I now have the skill set to be able to look at my work and know what to do to improve it, so I made some changes and expanded the work before sending it to them.

The changes I made were only the first step in getting to a polished piece, a piece ready for submission. Having this critique session with people I trust and respect, gave me a more complex level of response, elevating the essay’s potential. The Sisters gave three forms of feedback: their comments during the session, the writing with either hand marked or track change comments, and a few paragraphs of general critique and suggestions. The photo above was the treasure I took home after the session. Talking over the piece, listening to their remarks and criticisms, seeing it through their eyes, made me want to rush home and immediately begin revising.

They responded differently to the second piece. Recognizing that it was not fully developed, they responded tenderly, simply saying what they liked and what drew them in and what potential they could see. I felt like the egg I had been sitting on, keeping warm so it could grow, was passed from nest to nest and returned to mine a little more developed within its shell. And that now there was some pecking from inside that shell, signaling it was ready to enter the world.

 You can surely see why I titled this post Critique Abundance! I left that session energized, inspired, and easy to revise. Thank you Plot Sisters!

Jude Walsh Whelley writes fiction, memoir, and poetry. She lives in Dayton, Ohio. This post was previously published on her blog, Writing Now.