Hustle and Prose: Laura Ingalls Wilder -The Toast

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A self-sufficient, rural wife who blogs about farm life gets a memoir deal—the idea has become nearly cliché. But Laura Ingalls Wilder beat Ree Drummond to it by 80 years.

Wilder wasn’t blogging, obviously, but she was as close as you could get in the pre-Depression Ozarks, writing a regular column on topics like raising chickens and the business of farming for the Missouri Ruralist. Wilder’s descriptions were clear and strong, thanks partially to the years of practice she’d had in “seeing things out loud” as a teenager for her older sister Mary, blinded by illness. But a column alone does not a hustler make–Laura’s daughter Rose Wilder Lane would be key to Wilder’s next professional steps.

While history remembers Wilder as the writer in the family, by the late 1920s, Lane was one of the highest-paid female writers in the United States. Writing for magazines and newspapers and publishing biographies of people like Henry Ford and Herbert Hoover, she adopted political causes with fervor; she would eventually become, with Ayn Rand and Isabel Paterson, one of the “founding mothers of libertarianism.” Fortunately, the essay about the relationship between the Little House books and the libertarian patina adopted by people like Sarah Palin and Paul Ryan, has already been published.

By the mid-1920s, Wilder had wrapped up her Missouri Ruralist column. She occasionally wrote for national magazines, and she and her husband were living comfortably, if simply, until the stock market crash wiped out their savings. Partially for money, and partially to reconnect with her history after the deaths of her mother Caroline and her sister Mary, Wilder began work on her autobiography Pioneer Girl and gave it to Lane for review.

Lane, who cut her professional teeth in the fast-paced newspaper world in San Francisco, was not the kindest editor. Writing–especially personal writing–is a delicate, doubt-ridden process. Here is an example of how Lane explained some of her changes to a magazine article draft to Wilder:

Dearest Mama Bess, in some ways you’re like a frolicsome dog that won’t stand still to listen; you are always grabbing and jumping and in a hurry. Listen. Please, please, listen, All I did on your story was an ordinary re-write job.

Daughters, man.

Despite her delivery, Lane wasn’t a bad editor–her understanding of pacing, story structure, and the business side of things were indispensible for Wilder. With Lane’s edits to Pioneer Girl, Wilder had herself a manuscript, though there wasn’t much interest from publishers. Then Lane, with her typical self-confident artistic license, performed what might become her biggest professional favor for her mother.

Lane stitched together sections of Pioneer Girl that seemed friendliest to young audiences to make a 22-page picture book called When Grandma Was a Little Girl. Lane sent the manuscript to a friend who was a children’s book author and illustrator, who then shared it with editor Marion Fiery at Alfred Knopf. If there is anyone outside of Wilder and Lane we have to thank for the Little House series, it’s Fiery.

Lane and Fiery met in New York to discuss the project, and Lane acted essentially as an editorial filter for Wilder–she collected Fiery’s notes, combined them with even more of her own, and presented her own editorial letters to Wilder. With Fiery and Lane’s advice, Wilder revised her manuscript, and Fiery offered her a three-book contract with Knopf. Everything seemed ready to go…until Alfred A. Knopf axed the children’s department.

But Fiery wasn’t going to let this project die. She contacted the head of the Department of Books for Boys and Girls at Harper & Brothers, Virginia Kirkus, and convinced Lane (who was beginning to think this project might be a waste of time) to keep her agent, George Bye, involved in contract negotiations, and Little House in the Big Woods was published by Harper’s in April 1932.

Little House in the Big Woods did well; Wilder’s first royalty check from the Bye agency was $529.69 (nearly $9,000 in 2013 dollars)–hefty, considering the times. Though she now only had a one-book contract, she had already begun work on what would become Farmer Boy, a fictionalized story of one year in the life of her husband, Almanzo, as a child on his family’s farm in upstate New York.

Deciding on Farmer Boy as her next step is where we really see Wilder come into her own as a literary hustler. Though she was a strong writer, she’d largely been benefiting from her daughter’s connections. She had plenty of material left to continue Laura’s story and could have skipped straight to what would become Little House on the Prairie, but with Farmer Boy, she made the shrewd decision to feature a male protagonist that would appeal to boy readers, expanding her audience. But there was a one-two punch coming her way.

One: Ida Louise Raymond, her editor at Harper’s, rejected the first manuscript of Farmer Boy in September of 1932.

Two: In October and November of 1932, the Saturday Evening Post published a serialized version of Lane’s new novel, Let the Hurricane Roar, directly adapted–without permission–from Wilder’s Pioneer Girl. Lane had taken note of the great reception for her mother’s first book, and realized that, during a time of hardship, there was a market for stories about previous generations beating the odds in difficult environments. As Wilder biographer Pamela Smith Hill puts it, “Lane pulled out the most dramatic, most colorful elements of her mother’s autobiography and distilled them into a kind of fictional pioneer elixir to fortify her readers against depression-era hopelessness.” In doing so, she killed any potential commercial future for Pioneer Girl.

Wilder felt betrayed; that sort of plagiarism would, in any other case, have landed Lane in court. But–and whether it was a testament to their mother-daughter relationship or their author-editor relationship or both–Wilder and Lane were able to work through that breach. Wilder distracted herself with revisions to Farmer Boy, and Lane once again edited it for her. Raymond now accepted the manuscript, but, citing the tough financial times, offered a contract that cut her royalties by half. Wilder, knowing she wasn’t likely to find a better offer, agreed.

In 1934, Wilder wrote what she called Indian Country, had Lane edit it, and they sent the manuscript to Raymond. Raymond changed the name to Little House on the Prairie and accepted it for Harper’s 1935 list. Luckily, Farmer Boy and Little House in the Big Woods were still selling well, and Wilder, Lane and Bye were able to push for a better contract than Wilder had gotten for Farmer Boy. Little House on the Prairie was a solid hit, and Raymond gave Wilder the informal go-ahead to begin work on the next installment, which would become On the Banks of Plum Creek.

With On the Banks of Plum Creek, which won her the first of her four Newbery honors (she never won the medal, though they did create an award in her honor) Wilder was off to the races. Her books became increasingly about the characters themselves rather than the everyday things they did, and the central conflicts of the books became clearer and weightier (I think we can all agree now never to trust a wheat crop).

With the next installment, By the Shores of Silver Lake, Wilder wrote a YA book before the genre officially existed. Much like what J.K. Rowling would do decades later, Wilder purposefully wrote for an audience that grew up alongside the main character, and each book in the series (The Long Winter, Little Town on the Prairie, These Happy Golden Years, and The First Four Years, published posthumously) continued to age up in tone and subject matter.

As Wilder’s writing experience deepened, so did her understanding of contract negotiations, and her need to rely on Lane as an intermediary lessened. Working with Bye, she made sure that her contract for The Long Winter earned her 10 percent on the first 3,000 books sold, and 15 percent after that. And, when she sent in the manuscript for Little Town in 1941, she also successfully renegotiated her royalty rates for Farmer Boy–eight years after the fact.

Wilder died three days after her 90th birthday in 1957. That the Little House phenomenon kept on after her death—TV and film versions, additional licensed books by other authors, other memoirs–makes it clear that the work that she, Lane, Fiery, and Raymond all did was worth it.

So what can writers today, as we try to develop our own hustle, learn from the work of Laura Ingalls Wilder?

Foster your editorial relationships
The Little House books were an obvious joint effort between Wilder and Lane, but most good pieces of writing are. It starts with you, but it won’t find its way to anyone else without the help of others. Your workshop peers, your beta readers, the audience at your readings, your retweeters—they’re all doing you a solid. Do the same for them.

Never chuck a draft
Without Pioneer Girl, there would be no Little House books. Wilder was working on wide-lined school tablets; you have no excuse not to be saving multiple drafts in Word. Even if something is making you crazy, even if you’re sure it’s shit, save it–it might be your fertilizer down the road.

Write what you know, but stuff the cracks if you need to
The Little House books are based on Wilder’s childhood, but she changed the fictional Laura’s age (making her older in Little House than she really was when she lived in the Big Woods) and changed the Ingalls family’s migration pattern (made it seem like they continually moved west). Tweaks like that helped the narrative of Laura’s childhood encompass the expanding American west. Be transparent about it, but don’t be afraid of artistic license.

Write at every age
Wilder published Little House in the Big Woods when she was 65 and then still had a good quarter-century of writing ahead of her. Just write; there is no magical age that will unlock your writing potential when you finally know enough about life and are somehow also simultaneously still young and inspired.

Works Referenced:

Wendy McClure, The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie (Indiebound | Amazon)
Pamela Smith Hill, Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Writer’s Life (Indiebound | Amazon)
Laura Ingalls Wilder, The Little House Collection (Indiebound | Amazon)

Rebecca Brinson is an editor and writer and a cofounder of Northwest Essay, a personal statement editing service. She'll have a Gibson, please, extra onions. Follow her on Twitter.

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