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Ink and Fairydust

How did your interest in Little House get started? I've been a Little House fan as far back as I can remember. I grew up watching the TV show and reading the books---I don't remember which crossed my path first! I have two sisters and we played Little House all the time. I liked being Laura best even though I'm the oldest sister. When did you start writing and how did you know you were meant to be a novelist? I have always loved to write, have always *needed* to write. I wrote a lot of short stories when I was a kid, especially in high school---though truth be told, I hardly ever finished them. I wrote a great many beginnings of stories and only a few endings! After college, I enrolled in an MFA writing program at the University of North Carolina in Greensboro. I studied with the great Fred Chappell and the poet Alan Shapiro. I entered the program as a poet, but in our workshops I realized that all my poems were long, narrative poems-stories in verse form, really. I began writing short fiction again, and by the end of my two years there I knew I wanted to write children's novels. My heart has always been with middle-grade and young adult fiction. What drew you to the characters of Martha and Charlotte (as opposed to Rose and Caroline)? Well, Martha and Charlotte are who the publisher asked me to write about. The Rose books were written by Roger MacBride, the heir of Laura's daughter, Rose Wilder Lane. Roger commissioned the Caroline books, giving writer Maria Wilkes access to all the family records and archives he had inherited. Then I was brought on board to write about Martha and, later, Charlotte. I was thrilled to get to tell Martha's story---the Scottish setting was vastly appealing to me. And I loved visiting Old Sturbridge Village, an 1830s living history museum in Massachusetts, so I was very excited to

write Charlotte's books, which were set a bit earlier than Old Sturbridge's period but were still quite similar in terms of how people lived. How difficult was it to research Martha and Charlotte and their families? The Laura Ingalls Wilder estate gave me access to everything they had on Martha and Charlotte, which wasn't much, actually---just the bare bones of their lives. I had to turn to primary source material (diaries, newspapers, etc) and historical research to flesh out the stories. That was great fun, but grueling! I worked with a researcher in Scotland and other in Boston who were able to do some of the leg work I needed. I would send a list of questions---"I need to know what kind of wood Martha's table would have been made of," that sort of thing---and they would send huge packages of articles and papers. Land records, newspapers photocopied from microfilm, church and court records, everything we could find. How much of what you wrote is fact and how much is fiction? We know Martha's birth and death dates, her husband's name, and (from a letter written by Laura's sister, Grace Ingalls Dow) that she was the daughter of a Scottish laird and married a man the family considered beneath her station. We know that she went to America

and married in Boston. We have records of the birth and death dates of all her children, including Charlotte, and their marriages. We have an advertisement Charlotte ran in a local paper, offering her services at a seamstress at an address in Roxbuy, Massachusetts. So all of that is factual in my books---but everything else is fiction. All the adventures the girls have, and the details of their family lives, are from my imagination. You try to "respectfully imagine" (to use Gail Godwin's apt phrase) what their lives might have been like, drawing upon period diaries and papers to get a picture of the time and place. If the series hadn't been discontinued, could you tell us some things we might have seen in later books? Well, we were going to see both girls get married! Martha was to be sent away to a young ladies' school in Edinburgh, where she would get some polishing (and be aching to go back home). I had a plan for her to challenge a surprised Lew Tucker to a footrace upon her return---a spontaneous dare kind of thing, and he'd be caught off guard and Martha would win. There's a reference to this episode in one of the Charlotte books. And I had a whole thing planned with Martha's wedding dress and its buttons...I imagined one of those buttons might have made its way down through the years to Ma Ingalls's button collection. What was the most surprising thing you discovered in researching for the series? That Scottish lairds didn't necessarily have a high standard of living. Higher than their tenants, certainly, but not high compared to, say, an English lord. And that most Scottish houses of this period had dungheaps right outside their doors. You'd just open the door and fling the contents of the chamber pot off to the side. Ick! We know you have a busy life as a wife and mother! How do you fit writing into that? It's challenging! I work for about two hours each evening, and a longer stretch on Saturdays. But when I wrote the Little House

books, my husband was also a stay-at-home writer and I had longer writing shifts then. He would work from 9-3 while I was with the kids, and then I would write from 3-6. It was a great schedule for all of us. Speaking of writing, how did you learn the craft of noveling? Did you just always write, or did you get any particular college degrees that helped you? I think *reading* is the thing that has done the most for my writing---for anyone's writing! The more you read, the better you write, the better grasp you have on voice and story structure and pacing. But yes, my MFA program did help me tremendously, because Fred Chappell is such an incredible writer and teacher. And also because spending those two years focusing exclusively on my writing was a way for me to discover whether I was really, truly serious about pursuing the craft. Do you have any other projects under way? I have a beginning reader in the works with Random House, I recently finished a middle-grade novel, and I'm working now on a young adult historical fiction novel. What advice would you give aspiring writers? Read read read. Until your eyes are falling out. Carry a notebook everywhere to jot down story ideas, funny lines overheard, images, memories. Write every day---something, whether it's a poem, a journal entry, a blog post, part of a story---but something. And then read some more. The writer Hunter S. Thompson said he learned to write by typing out one of Hemingway's novels from start to finish. That experience taught him word by word, sentence by sentence. In a funny way, I had a similar experience. When I was a young staffer at a publishing house, I got a job on the side typing out Noel Streatfeild's BALLET SHOES. The entire book! It's quite long! And wonderful. The publisher was reissuing it, and they didn't have a copy on disk. It had to be typed on a computer for them to move forward. So I did that, for about $8 an hour I think, and I learned so much from the process. I'm not the fastest typist. Medium-fast, I guess. As I worked my way through the manuscript, I was studying Streatfeild's sentence structure, her chapter pacing, her characterization and dialogue--everything. It was an amazing and quite unexpected learning experience. Melissa Wiley is the author of eight novels of Laura Ingalls Wilder and the homeschooling mother of six. She blogs about books, education, and family life at Here in the Bonny Glen (

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It was a skeleton in her closet. Or rather, 50,000 words on her computer harddrive at which she couldn’t bear to look. Despite everything Anna had done to prepare for NaNoWriMo, she still had a sinking feeling that her results would be better off in her trash bin than on a Barnes & Noble bookshelf. So December slipped by, and January, and February... spring came, and it was time to order her free printed copy of her novel that she'd earned by doing NaNo, and she found herself panicking. There was no way she was going to publish – even for herself – that piece of junk! But how could she possibly edit it in time? If only she had buckled down to work on it back in January, like she had originally resolved! Has this ever happened to you? Have you written something that had tons of potential, but now you can't bear to look at because you know it is full of problems? Oh dear, reader, don't be so downhearted! You are not alone! Most first drafts are positively awful! You do know that Regina Doman rewrote Black as Night over a dozen times before she reached the published version, right? No writer sits down and churns out perfect material. In fact, revision is a good two thirds of the writing process! So give yourself a pat on the back for getting the first third of the process done, then pull out your computer and get to work. Before you revise, keep some things in mind. What does my character want in this chapter? What is the theme of my novel? What appears later in the novel that I never set up? Then as you write, take out excess dialogue and

description that have nothing to do with furthering the plot or highlighting the theme. Edit to make sure that your character acts consistently with their goals. If they want to find the glass slipper, don't have them always leaving the road to drink beer in a tavern. Unless, of course, their evil father is forcing them to find the glass slipper and what they really want is to escape from his domineering! Then send him off on every tangent you can find! Compare your finished draft to a three act structure (see last month's article). Do you have all the information you need in your first three chapters? What is your first turning point? Your mid-point? Your last free choice? Can you cut out anything from the first chapter to get to the action quicker? Can you shorten the denouement? (I cut my denouement from three chapters to one in my final revision. It makes everything much neater, simpler, and more engaging in the long run). If you want feedback from others on the flow of your plot, do NOT ask them to read the whole novel. Write a detailed 5-10 page synopsis and have them read that. They should be able to tell you whether anything seems superfluous, or if there isn't enough tension, or whether you need a bigger climax. For this feedback, make sure you ask only people who know a lot about plot and story structure! Just because someone knows grammar doesn't mean they understand plot! Find a seasoned novel writer or editor if you can, or a friend or professor who has a wide understanding of good stories and how they work. Go through the manuscript again, and again, and again until you are perfectly satisfied on all accounts. Then, hand it over to a group of trusted readers. These should be people who have read a lot in the genre of your novel, and also know something about writing. Ask them to mark down typos, grammatical errors, any inconsistencies they find, or anything that confuses them.

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December 2010  

Journey into the past along with the I&F staff as we take adventures in one-room schoolhouses, homes without running water, and visiting the...

December 2010  

Journey into the past along with the I&F staff as we take adventures in one-room schoolhouses, homes without running water, and visiting the...