“In April of 1932, an unlikely literary débutante published her first book…Little House in the Big Woods, was the first volume of an American family saga that has since sold about sixty million copies in thirty-three languages
The New Yorker article Wilder Women
From Shaft to Little House on the Prairie—that’s how we roll here at Screenwriting from Iowa.
In yesterday’s post I mentioned how Shaft screenwriter Ernest Tidyman didn’t start writing screenplays until he was past the age of forty. Laura Ingalls Wilder actually didn’t start writing novels until she was in her 60s. And though she is most known for the book Little House on the Prairie, her start can be found in the little house in the big woods—in more ways than one.
Little House on the Prairie (which inspired the popular TV show of the same name) was actually her seventh novel, her first being Little House in the Big Woods. And like Little House on the Prairie it was based on her own childhood growing up in the Midwest.
Wilder was actually born in a little house in the big woods. Yesterday I visited the replica cabin that stands about seven miles outside Pepin, Wisconsin where Wilder was born in 1867. Even if you’ve never read Wilder’s books there are a few things you can learn from her as a writer.
The majority of writers do not become household names. So for a female writer born more than a hundred years ago to have enduring success is an accomplishment all by itself. So if you’re a writing in an unlikely place, here’s some inspiration for you.
The little house that I took the above picture of is smaller than some bedrooms I’ve been in. It’s in an area that today, while beautiful, is still a rather remote spot in the United States. As of the 2010 Census, the population of the village of Pepin was 837. Minneapolis is an hour and a half drive today, but was a world away back in Wilder’s day.
Wilder did not have the benefit of a college education, and did all of her writing by hand. (So if you’re looking for excuses that are holding you back by from writing anywhere in the world, Wilder is not a good role model.) Born in a very small house in a remote area far from any big cities, no college education, and no computer or the latest software, and no connections to Hollywood.
Yet here we are almost 150 years after her birth talking about her.
But the best part is that Wilder didn’t starting writing novels until she was in her sixties. And she only did so for the always great reason—she needed the money. She was actually a popular writer of articles and essays for the Missouri Ruralist and had a comfortable life with her farmer husband until the Stock Market Crash of 1928 when she and her family lost all of their investments.
In 1930 she began writing a story on her childhood, and in 1932 Little House in the Big Woods was published. As she continued to write and publish books her financial concerns went away. Though most of her windfall came after she had been married for 50 years. It takes a little time sometimes. She died on her family farm in Mansfield, Missouri in 1957 at the age of 90.
There is some debate on just how much editing Laura Ingalls’ daughter did on her books. Rose Wilder Lane was her oldest daughter and had her own first book published in 1915, the biography The Story of Art Smith. She is the one who typed Laura Ingalls books and is a said to have been a well paid writer & ghostwriter in her own right in the 1920s. Rose also had publishing connections and is the one who not only inspired her mother, but is believed to helped in collaboration of the Little House stories by aissisting with dramatic pacing and literary structure.
P.S. Is there an Iowa connection here? Of course. Laura lived for a brief time in her childhood in Burr Oak, Iowa, and that is where she learned to read. And many of Rose’s personal papers are held in the Rose Wilder Lane Collection at the Herbert Hoover Library in West Branch, Iowa. (Which, for what it’s worth, is just over 10 miles from where screenwriter Diablo Cody went to college in Iowa City. Call it The Wilder Women Club.)