Laura loved singing school. It began with singing scales to limber up the voices. Then Mr. Clewett taught them a simple exercise, the first in the book. He gave them the pitch with his tuning fork again and again, until all their voices chimed in with it.
…on the way home Laura sang. “Oh childhood’s joys are very great, A-swingin’ on his mother’s gate, A-eatin’ candy till his mouth Is all stuck up from north to south, But though I have to mind the rule, I’d rather go to singing school!”
“That’s why I thought you’d like to go,” Almanzo said. “You’re alway singing.”
–These Happy Golden Years
It was a perfectly new book, beautifully bound in green cloth with a gilded pattern pressed into it. The smooth, straight, gilt edges of the pages looked like solid gold. On the cover two curving scrolls of lovely fancy letters made the words, Tennyson’s Poems.
Laura was so startled and so amazed by this rich and beautiful book, hidden there among the flannels, that she almost dropped it. It fell open on her hands. In the lamplight the fresh, untouched pages lay spread, each exciting with unread words printed upon it in clear, fine type. Straight, thin red lines enclosed each oblong of printing, like the treasure it was, and outside the red lines were the pages pure margins.
–Little Town on the Prairie
I have invited a special guest today for the “I Remember Laura” blog-a-thon: Melissa Wiley, author of the Little House spin-off series featuring Laura’s grandmother, Charlotte, and her great-grandmother, Martha. I remember how excited I was several years ago when I saw that more books about Laura’s family were being written. I eagerly began to collect them as they came out.
A few years later, quite by accident, I happened to “meet” Melissa on a homeschool forum. (She’s a homeschool mom, too!) Being a huge Little House fan… and something of a would-be writer myself… I bombarded her with questions, which she very graciously answered. That was several years ago, and at least 2 computers ago, so I no longer have those emails. Not to worry, though. I just popped off another email to Melissa and asked if I could interview her for my blog. And once again, she graciously agreed.
Melissa, thanks so much for agreeing to allow me to interview you for this week’s “I Remember Laura” blog-a-thon. How is it that you came to write the Charlotte and Martha stories? Are you related to the family?
No, I’m no relation, just a lifelong fan of Laura’s work. When I was a newlywed and editorial assistant at HarperCollins, Roger MacBride had begun writing his Rose books and was wanting to commission books about Laura’s mother, Caroline, as well. My boss, the great children’s book editor Stephanie Spinner, was one of the people asked by the Caroline editor to look at some sample chapters the editor had commissioned from an author she was considering for the series. My boss knew what a Little House fan I was and asked me to take a look. I shared my thoughts with her in a report, which was in turn passed on to the Caroline editor. In this way my extreme enthusiasm for and devotion to Laura’s work became known to the Little House editors. When my first baby was born a year later, I quit my job at Harper and began doing freelance writing, including several paperback novels for HarperCollins. A year or two later, when the Little House editors were looking for someone to write about Martha, Laura’s Scottish great-grandmother, they asked if I’d be interested in the job. Would I be interested? I was turning cartwheels of jubilation.
Initially the Caroline author, Maria Wilkes, was going to write the Charlotte books too. But around the time I turned in my first Martha manuscript, Maria realized family obligations were going to prevent her from writing for two series a year. Our editor asked if I could take on Charlotte as well. I was eager to, and since this coincided with my husband’s decision to leave his staff job at DC Comics and go freelance himself, I was able to commit to the second series. There was only one catch, but it was a doozy! Harper wanted my first chapter of Little House by Boston Bay almost immediately. They wanted to include the chapter in the back of the Little House in the Highlands bound galleys which were about to be distributed to sales reps and bookstores. Could I get them something by the end of the week?
“Well,” I said, “I can try…as long as the baby holds off a while longer!” I was already a few days overdue with our second baby. Fortunately, she held on for another week, and I was able to dive into Charlotte’s story. I already knew a lot about her from having pored over the Ingalls Wilder family archives during my Highlands research. I wrote “The Saturday Family,” and that became the first chapter of Boston Bay.
How did you find out about their lives to write their stories?
The LIW estate gave me access to all the letters and papers they had containing references to Martha and Charlotte. Wherever there were gaps, it was up to me to fill them in with historically accurate adventures. For Charlotte, we knew quite a bit: her birthplace, the names and birth/death dates of her brothers and sisters, where she met her husband, that she worked as a seamstress in Roxbury, MA, at one point. For Martha, the record is much sketchier. We knew she was the daughter of a laird and we knew she married a man her family considered to be beneath her station. We knew his name and their wedding date and location, but beyond those details, everything in the Martha books is fiction.
I have 4 Martha books and 4 Charlotte books on my shelf. Is that all there are?
Yes. There were originally slated to be more of each, but publishing plans changed.
The Martha stories take place in Scotland. Have you been to Scotland?
No—I would dearly love to go someday! I had a researcher in Edinburgh who did some of the legwork for me, looking up things I had little access to myself. I would send her a batch of questions and she’d send back a huge file of articles and books for me to read.
Oh yes, many times. I also made several visits to Old Sturbridge Village, a living history village not far from Boston which is modeled after a typical New England village of the 1830s. That’s a few decades after the time period of my Charlotte books, but change came much slower in those days.
What kind of original documents and source materials did you get to see on in the course of your research?
If you mean materials from the LIW archives, I had access to letters between Laura and her Aunt Martha (Caroline’s sister—not my Martha; the granddaughter of my Martha) and genealogical information compiled by one of Aunt Martha’s descendents. The Aunt Martha letters contained many anecdotes about Martha and Caroline’s childhood, and those stories formed the framework for Maria Wilkes’s Caroline books. The information about “my” girls was limited to basic biographical info, no colorful family anecdotes.
To flesh out their lives, I turned to other primary source materials such as diaries and letters from the appropriate time periods and locations. I found some excellent tomes on domestic life in 17th century Scotland which had been written by late 18th-century authors; again, these contained many excerpts from period documents. For the Charlotte books, it was much easier to find primary source material, of course: all the newspapers of the era are on microfilm at the Boston libraries. Many of the episodes that happen in my Roxbury books are drawn from actual historical events, such as the parade on Washington’s birthday, the hurricane, the first gaslight in Boston, and the building of the Tide Mill Dam. I also made extensive use of land records and court documents (especially regarding the construction of the dam).
I love how your “voice” in the stories closely reflects Laura’s “voice” in telling the stories from a little girl’s perspective. Was that hard to develop? Or did it just seem to come naturally?
I didn’t want to try to duplicate Laura’s voice, but I felt strongly that the voice for my novels should feel like it belonged with Laura’s, was akin to it. I did study her style quite closely. I tried to develop a unique voice for both Martha and Charlotte, conveying the flavor of their very different settings. The Martha voice is somewhat more rollicking than the Charlotte voice. But absolutely, I made a conscious decision not to use a more contemporary style of writing.
Family history is something that fascinates me. I like to think that we are influenced by our ancestors, and we can have an influence on generations to come. Did you find that to be true at all as you were researching Laura’s grandmothers?
Oh, absolutely. I was especially struck by how much personal tragedy both Charlotte and Martha had to weather, and how their attitudes about that must have influenced their children. I looked carefully at Ma Ingalls, her calm acceptance of trial, her courage. I think of how dreadful those few days must have been when she feared Pa was lost in the Plum Creek blizzard, and how each day that passed must have left her more certain that he was never coming home—and yet she was able to keep the home atmosphere cheerful, entertaining her little girls with thimble games and stories. As a mother, I know how very, very hard that is to do: to push worry aside and make things happy for the children. And it seemed to me that Caroline’s strength in such situations must surely have been influenced by watching her own mother grapple with loss and adversity. Caroline’s father died when she was quite young. Charlotte, her mother, was left with a brood of quite young children, yet she chose not to go live with her brother’s family, depending on him to support her own family. She moved to an undeveloped area and doggedly worked to build a life for her children. That was an immensely courageous decision.
And so I looked in turn to her mother, Martha, and pondered how Martha, raised in comparative luxury (though certainly the household of a minor Scottish laird was nowhere near as luxurious as, say, his equivalent in England’s lifestyle might have been, at that time) and then separated from her family and everything she knew, faced suddenly with running her own household in a much more hands-on fashion that she’d been trained for, must have had displayed her own tremendous strength of character. She lost several babies in their infancy, for example. I imagined that in order for Charlotte to grow up as stable, resolute, and lacking in bitterness as she did, her mother must have modeled a kind of cheerful perseverance that made its way through the generations. I dealt with this question head-on in Puddingstone Dam, which is my favorite of all the books. I wanted to show how Martha chose joy deliberately, and how the realization of that dramatically affected Charlotte’s character.
This post is supposed to be about books and music. In Laura’s books Pa was the musical one with his fiddle. Your stories are about Ma’s mother and grandmother. Was that side of the family musical, too?
I had no textual evidence, but I certainly imagined they were! Music was such an important part of the Scots heritage. A lot of the songs Pa plays are Scottish airs—he too had Scots ancestry—and I had great fun incorporating early versions of some of those songs into the Martha books.
Thanks, Karla! It’s been an honor!
Thank you again, Melissa, for being my guest for this week’s post!