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?


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.

Fictionalizing your life, or how autobiographical is your fiction?

SCN novelist and lifewriter Judy Alter looks back on a book she wrote three decades ago, and finds in it pieces of her autobiography.

I’ve been proofing Mattie, the first adult novel I ever wrote and winner of the 1988 Western Writers of America Spur Award for best traditional novel. It’s been available on Kindle forever and done well at 99 centers–#64 today in Kindle ebooks, Genre Fiction, Medical. I’m going to post it to other platforms and thought after almost thirty years it deserved another proofing.

Mattie’s story is loosely based on the life of Georgia Arbuckle Fix, a pioneer woman physician in western Nebraska at the turn of the twentieth century. I didn’t know at the time that Mari Sandoz had also fictionalized Fix’s life in Miss Morissa, and the comparison by loyal Sandoz devotees was not kind to me.

It’s intimidating to re-read something I wrote all those years back. My style is different—the 167-page book is all long chapters and lots of space breaks, and did I really begin every other sentence with “So”? I’m correcting only egregious errors; why mess with success?

The content is more interesting though. I was seven or eight years out of a marriage that started wonderfully and eventually disintegrated. Mattie goes through the same experience two-thirds of the way through the novel; her once-passionate marriage is gradually chipped away until she and her husband, Em Jones, can barely stand each other. Mattie’s retrospective wisdom about the situation struck me—I didn’t realize that I had learned that much from my own marriage, but, darn, sometimes Mattie really seems to understand life. Wish I’d put that knowledge to work years ago

At the time I wrote, I was raising teen-age daughters, with all the angst that involves. The angst is reflected in Mattie’s rebellious daughter, Nora. Only Nora never reaches the wonderful reconciliation my girls did—they are now best friends with each other and with me. When I wrote, we hadn’t reached that reconciliation either, and the angst was much too familiar.

Late in the book, Mattie takes into her home and bed a drifter named Eli, skilled carpenter, a good man, but not one to settle down. I took a week off from work to write the last chapter. The words came in a rush as though someone was channeling me who knew the story. Eli simply rides off after a while, moving on as is his nature, leaving Mattie devastated again—and puzzled. At the time, I was seeing a man I liked well enough to envision a future with him—he liked my kids and wasn’t scared of them, rare in suitors. He was gentle, kind and fun. But as I wrote those last pages, I had a flash of clarity: he too would be moving on. He was no longer going to be a part of my life story. We were together that night—celebrating our joint birthdays, I recall—and I was sad. But I couldn’t tell him why.

Scary thought, especially for mystery writers, if your writing not only reflects your past but predicts your future.

Happy Cinco de Mayo, everyone.

Judy is the author of two mystery series—Kelly O’Connell Mysteries and Blue Plate Café mysteries—plus the stand-alone, The Perfect Coed. In a long career, she has written fiction and nonfiction for adults and young adults, primarily about women in the American West, and garnered several awards. Judy retired as director of TCU Press, a position she held for 23 years. She is a member of SCN; a member of Sisters in Crime and the SinC subgroup, the Guppies; and a member of the Texas Institute of Letters and the Texas Literary Hall of fame. She edits her neighborhood newspaper and welcomes her fifth-grade grandson every school day. A single mother of four and grandmother of seven, she lives in Fort Worth with her lively Bordoodle puppy, Sophie. Visit her blog and her website.

The Power of Journaling

I started journaling during my thirties while my husband, our two sons, and I lived for nineteen months on a remote island in the South Pacific. I felt so isolated there that the best I could do was write long rants every morning before the boys woke up. Happily those rants turned into my first published article after we returned home.

I started to journal for keeps when our older son Paul was diagnosed as bipolar in 1993 and continued after his suicide in September 1999. Journaling became an obsession and a balm. It became my therapy, a daily habit. Writing through my grief totally turned my life around. It helped me heal because it allowed me to put my pain on the page. And it still is. I journal every day.

At first I journaled in long hand in a notebook. Now I use the computer — the notebook went by the wayside after I left one on an airplane. I just tap away with no stopping for editing. It’s total stream of consciousness. Also, the computer gives me the ability to have complete privacy — the key to honest and open journaling. I keep my journal entries in a password-protected locked document file.

Lately, I’ve learned about several other journaling techniques by participating in journal chats and Facebook journaling groups. It is so inspiring to find out how and why other people journal and how much they’ve benefitted from it.

One technique is making lists of what I’ve accomplished in the past week or so, and what I have to do in the next few days. Keeping this action journal holds me accountable — even if I’m only accountable to myself. It gives me a way to take charge and move from thinking into living and doing &madash; not just waiting for things to happen to me.

Another technique is the confidence building practice of making declarations. Some I’ve made are:

  • I Am a poet
  • I Am a published author
  • I Am creative

I can leave these declarations as is or write a journal entry about each one at future times.

Another journal technique is to write in pen in a lined or unlined notebook and draw pictures and add quotes and clippings to accompany the words on the page. My niece’s collage journals look like works of art. Other journaling ideas include: writing down one good thing every day, keeping a dream journal, recording things that make us laugh, and creating a drawing or painting instead of words to express our thoughts. How we journal is our choice.

Most everyone I know has good and bad stuff in their lives. I learned journaling is a way to come to grips with that. Journaling through my grief gave me a wonderful gift. I discovered I could write, and I created a book from the memories I wrote down in my journal entries. I recommend everyone try it and learn the power that can be gained from journaling.

From Memories to Memoirs, Part 8 — Balancing Story and Reflection

This is the eighth in a series on moving from memories to memoirs. Click here to read Memories to Memoirs, Part 7.

What could be simpler to understand than the act of people writing about what they know best, their own lives? But this apparently simple act is anything but simple, for the writer becomes, in the act of writing, both the observing subject and the object of investigation, remembrance, and contemplation.

Sidonie Smith and Julia WatsonReading Autobiography: A Guide for Interpreting Life Narratives

If you’ve been following this 10-part journey from transforming memories into memoirs, you’ll have traveled from defining memoir and truth in memoir to triggering memories and learning how to write about them in ways that will move your readers. So far we’ve focused on the telling of events through scene, and you may have written a number of scenes using the tips and techniques recommended in this series. If we were writing fiction, scenes would be enough.

A novel moves from scene to scene, action to action (even if that action happens only in the mind of one of the characters). But a memoir contains another element — reflection — the writer’s observations, beliefs, meditations, and musings about what happened. In memoir, you paint your understanding of events.

As the quote at the beginning of this article implies, memoir, for the writer, is really a journey of investigation, an attempt to make meaning of and reconcile with life events and their purposes in her life. That process of investigation — the journey of the writing itself — must be transparent to your readers. After all, they too want to understand.

In memoir reflection can appear in many places and forms: sometimes it occurs in snippets in the voice of the narrator in time (the younger self in the middle of the experience); sometimes it takes up paragraphs as the narrator discusses his current understanding of what happened; and sometimes it is presented within scene, within dialogue and gestures, though this is less common than the first two.

For example, in my memoir, Not the Mother I Remember, I reflect both on my own experiences and my mother’s as revealed in her journals and letters. For example, in the chapter, “A Man’s World,” I write:

Everywhere we went my mother was the only woman traveling alone with children and without the protection of a man. I knew we stood out for this reason, but I was too young to understand my mother’s fears, how difficult it was to navigate the language barrier in each new country, or how concerned about money she was.

This passage highlights how my perceptions of events as an adult can reveal aspects of an experience I was unaware of as a child.

Here’s another example from Maya Angelou’s Even the Stars Look Lonesome. In this excerpt, she writes of moving to North Carolina after her divorce and buying a house in which to live. She reflects upon the healing that occurs in the shift from living in a house to living in a home.

This is no longer my house, it is my home. And because it is my home, I have not only found myself healed of the pain of a broken love affair, but discovered that when something I have written does not turn out as I had hoped, I am not hurt so badly.


  1. Take out one of the memoir scenes you have written.
  2. In your journal, answer the following questions, as well as any new ones that arise while you are journaling.
    1. How did this event change me and influence who I have become?
    2. How has my understanding of this event changed between when it happened and now?
    3. Why did it happen?
    4. What lessons did I learn, if any, from what happened?
    5. If I could go back in time, what would I do differently?
  3. Incorporate some of your reflection into what you have written. You can incorporate it into the scene directly, using sentence starters such as “Looking back …” or “If I had known …”  Or you can write a separate paragraph including your thoughts about the event.
  4. Only incorporate reflection that illuminates meaning not already evident in the scene.
  5. Keep your reflections short and to the point. Too much reflection can feel like a lecture and bore your readers.
    Join the conversation.

Finally, please leave a comment sharing your challenges and discoveries about including reflection in your writing.

Photo Credit: h.koppdelaney via Compfight cc
Reprinted by permission from Amber Starfire

From Memories to Memoirs, Part 7: Creating Fresh Metaphor

This is the seventh in a series on moving from memories to memoirs. Click here to read Memories to Memoirs, Part 6.

In Memories to Memoirs, Part 6, I wrote about the importance and impact of fresh metaphor to the life of our stories. Not only does metaphor engage the imagination of our readers, it is key to our own writing voice. Because metaphor is the frame through which we understand concepts, it reveals where we grew up, where we live, and how we think; it is is both cultural and highly personal.

Most of the time, we use metaphor unconsciously. However, when we write — and particularly when we revise — we have the opportunity to use metaphor deliberately and with intention. We can create new, fresh metaphors that set the tone for and communicate the deeper meanings of our stories.

One way to create new metaphor is simply to have fun and play with language.

A Fun Metaphor-Creation Exercise

Select five of the following concepts and create metaphors by completing the sentences using concrete objects for comparison. After you’ve stated the basic metaphor, play with its possible extensions.

For example: A basic metaphor might be “Life is a basket.” If life is a basket, what does that mean? What kind of basket is it? Wicker? Wire? Wood? What does it hold? Is it a burden that you have to carry around with you, or is it something else? My life is an in-basket filled with events, interactions, and possibilities — I can choose what I take out and what I leave in. What else might the image of a basket contribute to a person’s understanding of life?

What happens if you choose something unexpected, such as “life is a cup of coffee,” or “ideas are raindrops”?

Now it’s your turn. Complete at least five of the following, or use concepts of your own:

  • Life is …
  • Love is …
  • Ideas are …
  • Hope is …
  • Faith is …
  • Death is …
  • Education is …
  • Parenting is …
  • A discussion is …
  • Happiness is …
  • Virtue is …
  • Consciousness is …
  • Kindness is …
  • Cruelty is …
  • Spirituality is …
  • Community is …
  • Security is …

What new metaphor(s) did you create? Share with us by leaving a comment.

Photo Credit: tobym via Compfight cc

Reprinted by permission from Amber Starfire

From Memories to Memoirs Part 6: Writing in Metaphor

This is the sixth in a series on moving from memories to memoirs. Click here to read Memories to Memoirs, Part 5.

In the previous installment of this series, we examined the strong verb and its importance to our story’s tone and pace. In this post, we’ll look at figurative language — metaphor.

What exactly is metaphor? Metaphor compares abstract concepts to familiar objects and is the mechanism by which we understand those concepts. Essentially, it helps us understand what we don’t know by comparing it to what we do know.

George Lakoff, in his classic work, Metaphors We Live By, says that metaphor is the frame with which we construct meaning and through which we view the world. In Writing Life Stories, Bill Roorbach goes so far as to say that metaphor is the “foundation of conscious thought” and “the source of all meaning.”

Bottom line: Whether we realize it or not, we use metaphor all the time.

Here are examples, borrowed from Lakoff, of metaphors we commonly use for the concepts of “time” and “mind”:

  • Time is money (we can spend it, waste it, save it).
  • Time is a moving object (it’s before us, behind us, the time will come, the time has arrived, in the time ahead).
  • Time is a stationary object (we go through the years, approach the end of the year, go further into the century).
  • The mind is a machine (he broke downmy wheels are turning, I’m a little rusty, I’m running out of steam).
  • The mind is a brittle object (easily crushed, fragile, snappedhandle with care, cracked up).

In both speech and writing, metaphor appears in many forms:

  • Symbol — In my memoir, Not the Mother I Remember, tar symbolizes hatred.
  • Simile — He’s crooked as a bent nail.
  • Unnamed metaphor — when someone says, “My business plan is the foundation for all my actions,” he is comparing his business to a building, but the comparison is not stated directly.
  • Named metaphor — “She is the wind beneath my wings.”

The metaphors we employ in our stories are the heavy lifters of communication. (Notice how, in order to communicate their importance, I compare metaphor to strong workers?)

Metaphor puts images into your readers’ mind. It not only helps them quickly understand what you are saying without a lot of explanation, it sets the tone.

Clichés are simply metaphors that have become such a part of our everyday lexicon that we often don’t even know we’re using them — phrases such as dead as a doornail or pretty as a picture (similes, not metaphors, in these two cases), he’s a team player, they don’t pull any punches, she plays hardballthink outside the box, and back against the wall.

As writers, we want to avoid the use of cliché in our work (the exception to that rule is in dialogue, where the cliché is consistent with the character of your speaker). Instead, we want to learn how to incorporate fresh, unique similes and metaphors that illuminate rather than obscure our communication (communication=seeing). How can we achieve this goal without first knowing our underlying, most basic of metaphors and how we build upon those in the way we conceptualize experiences, events, and ideas?

To better understand how we use metaphor in writing, we have three tasks:

  1. Pay attention to metaphors in others’ and our own writing.
  2. Identify the basic, underlying concepts represented by those images and concrete objects.
  3. Identify creative ways to extend those metaphors (more on that in the next installment).

Reading Exercise

Reread a chapter or story by one of your favorite authors. As you read, underline the symbols, similes, named and unnamed metaphors the author uses. How do those metaphors enhance your understanding of the story? How do the metaphors affect tone and mood? Which metaphors strike you as particularly fresh and exciting? Which seem ho-hum?

Now do the same with a chapter or story that you have written. What objects have you used to provide images for ideas? How will your metaphors enhance your readers’ understanding of your story? How do they affect tone and mood? Which metaphors are fresh and unique, and which are overused? Which are cliché?

The more you read with attention to metaphor, the more you will naturally begin to generate more when you write. In the next installment, we’ll continue this look at metaphor and have some fun creating fresh, new images.

In the meantime, share one of your favorite metaphors — by any writer — in the comment box below.

Photo Credit: h.koppdelaney via Compfight cc
Reprinted by permission from Amber Starfire

From Memories to Memoirs Part 5 — Strong Verbs

This is the fifth in a series on moving from memories to memoirs. Click here to read Memories to Memoirs, Part 4.

You have been working on ways to remember and write your life story vividly, with concrete and sensory details that draw your reader into the world of your story. Now, consider how the verbs you choose effect tone and pace.

In the midst of a story, when you describe a static object, you are in effect slowing or freezing time. When your character, Jane, stops to gaze longingly at the red shoes in the store window, your readers stop with Jane, seeing the shoes through her eyes. And while the shop and the window and the shoes are being described, nothing is going on but the looking and the wanting. Soon, Jane comes to a decision and walks through the door into the store; or she shuffles away, shoulders slumped; or she concocts a way to have them and calls her best friend to share the news. In any event, the action begins again and, with the action, description of the action.

Use Strong Verbs for Action

The verbs you use contribute to (or do nothing for) your story’s pace and tone. Consider the differences in tone and pace in the following sentences:

Jim walks along Main Street.
Jim strides along Main Street.
Jim ambles along Main Street.
Jim sashays along Main Street.
Jim patrols along Main Street.
In each sentence, Jim is moving along Main Street, but the verb used describes how he moves. It contributes to Jim’s character (how he moves says something about him) and pace. To amble is slower than to stride, and to patrol has a completely different attitude than to sashay.
Rule of thumb: if you find yourself using an adverb to modify a verb, you need to find a different, more effective verb for your character and story. For example, if you wrote, “Jim walked briskly along Main Street,” strode or marched or stomped might serve you better. The point is, use a verb that adds something — a feeling or an attitude and describes how the action is accomplished.

Never use a “vanilla” verb, such as walk or look, when another verb, such as ambled or stared would be more effective.

Use Strong Verbs in Description

It’s important to remember that description of an inanimate object does not need to be inanimate. The description can be full of life and have movement of its own. Strong verbs and precise adjectives act together to move your story forward in some way. 

The two following example passages slow the pace of their respective stories by describing moments in time, yet the descriptions themselves do not feel slow.

In her memoir, Sixtyfive Roses, Heather Summerhays Cariou writes about her experience with “primal therapy” in the office of her counselor.

So it was that I found myself shivering on the thinly carpeted floor in Ron’s tiny concrete office, my head filled with a white wind, an icy white wind that was whirling all through me, as if my body was a wide-open space. 

There is no action in Cariou’s sentence. In fact, it’s rather passive: Heather lies on the floor and everything happens to her. But the verbs are strong — shivering, filled, whirling. Cariou uses the image of icy white wind to represent the coldness of her emotion and wide-open space to represent her body. A combination of strong verbs and figurative language (which we’ll discuss more in Part 6) gives movement to the description.

Here’s a partial description of a road — Grand Avenue — as remembered from Bill Bryson’s childhood in The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid. (The full description covers about a page and half.)

But when the road was being laid out sometime in the second half of the 1800s there was a heavy rain in the night and apparently the surveyors’ sticks moved — at least that was what we were always told — and the road deviated from the correct line, leaving the capitol oddly off center; so that it looks as if it has been caught in the act of trying to escape. It is a peculiarity that some people treasure and others would rather not talk about. I for one never tired of striding into the downtown from the west and being confronted with a view so gloriously not right, so cherishably out of kilter, and pondering the fact that whole teams of men could build an important road without once evidently looking up to see where they were going.

Think about how much is packed into the previous paragraph: There is no real action to speak of, yet his inanimate road deviatesleaves a capitol off center, and is caught in the act of trying to escape; the adverbs Bryson chose add an element of surprise: a view that is “gloriously not right, so cherishably out of kilter; we learn that the road was laid out in the second half of the 1800’s and is not straight due to a rainstorm (or so the rumor goes); and we understand, due to the author’s precise use of modifiers and adjectives, how he feels about the road.

Your Turn

Write a 250-500 word description of a person engaged in an activity that has discrete steps (washing a car, gardening, playing hopscotch, lifting weights). You’ll need to organize the flow of action as it occurs.

Now, examine your use of verbs and rewrite your piece in 3 different ways, substituting different verbs for each action or active description to create different tones and slow down or increase the pace of the action.

Share your experience: What did you learn by playing with this exercise? How will what you learned affect your writing and revising?

Reprinted by permission from Amber Starfire