In this episode, which is part 1 of my interview with Robynne Miller, we discuss all kinds of interesting things about the world of Little House on the Prairie and Robynne’s books. Be sure to join us next week for part 2 when we’ll discuss some important books and topics impacting our world today.
Our Guest: Robynne Miller
Robynne Elizabeth Miller holds a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Nonfiction and Fiction and a B.A. in English Literature. She is the author of ten books and countless articles, including Finding Common Ground: One Octogenarian’s Quest to Help our Nation Heal and The Three Faces of Nellie.
Along with speaking nationally, Robynne teaches writing via online and in-person events such as writers’ conferences, workshops, and retreats.
Robynne serves as the board president of Inspire as well as the Director of the Inspire Christian Writers Conference at Mount Hermon.
She’s a writing and publishing coach, editor, and mentor for both traditionally published and self-published authors. She’s passionate about helping writers bring their stories and messages into the world. Robynne is agented with Books & Such.
Books Discussed in This Episode:
Transcript with Links:
Welcome to “Books that Spark,” a podcast for parents and caregivers, celebrating books that spark imagination, emotion, questions, and discussion, leading to teachable moments with our kids. Robynne Elizabeth Miller holds a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Nonfiction and Fiction and a B.A. in English Literature. She is the author of ten books and countless articles, including Finding Common Ground: One Octogenarian’s Quest to Help our Nation Heal and The Three Faces of Nellie. Along with speaking nationally, Robynne teaches writing via online and in-person events such as writers’ conferences, workshops, and retreats. Robynne serves as the board president of Inspire as well as the Director of the Inspire Christian Writers Conference at Mount Hermon. She’s a writing and publishing coach, editor, and mentor for both traditionally published and self-published authors. She’s passionate about helping writers bring their stories and messages into the world. Robynne is agented with Books & Such. Robynne, we’re so glad you’re here today. I can’t wait to talk with you. Thank you for joining us today.
Thank you very much, Terrie. I’m so glad to be here.
I have a lot of questions, but I have to ask, first of all, because you have some really amazing books about Laura Ingalls Wilder and her life and the world she lived in. What first made you decide to research Laura Ingalls Wilder and her books?
I think for me, I was like a lot of kids who didn’t necessarily have a great childhood. So I spent a lot of time with Laura and her family through books. They were just so precious to me as a child to see what a family could and maybe should look like: a lot of love, you know, no matter what came their way. So I formed an attachment to them as a child and I re-read the whole series several times every year as an adult, I realized that a lot of the things that I’ve learned in my life and how I wanted to just conduct myself and the relationships that I would have and how my own family would kind of unfold. A lot of those thoughts and beliefs actually stemmed from those times with the Ingles family in the Little House books that kind of got me to wondering when I’d have a Ma-Ingles-ism coming out of my mouth, I would start to just think about what happened to them after the books, because the books end fairly early in Laura’s life.
Even though there are other things that are written, I started reading a lot of the different biographies and just books about different people. And I realized that there were a couple of people that I was particularly fascinated with as a kid that didn’t have anything really written about them in depth. I was curious, so it took a childhood passion of mine that turned into kind of an adult interest. And I love history. I love that period in history. We kind of just mesh all that together. And that turned into my first several books. I have kind of parallel book writing. So it’s all my Little House stuff continues, and I have another Little House book coming out in the fall. And then I have other books that I also write too. So it’s, I’m not just a Little House writer, but I think that I’m going to, as long as I have questions about the family or the people that were in the book, I’m going to continue to probably write Little House related books, but I have other things too, but that’s still going to be a passion of mine.
That’s great. All of your books about Little House–they’re written for the adult reader, more than children, really, right?
They’re not children’s books, but a middle grader would easily be able to access them. They’re not inappropriate content, and they’re not written to a level that would not be within reach of middle grade and above.
What has been the most interesting fact you’ve found in your studies?
That’s kind of interesting. There’s been a lot. And I’m going to mentioned two: one, I was always fascinated with the Nellie Olsen character. And so one of my books is called The Three Faces of Nellie because that character in Laura Ingles Wilder’s books was actually a composite of three different girls that she knew in her childhood. And because I like a good redemption story, I sort of was hoping that all three of those Nellie’s grew up and dug wells in Africa and took in orphans and, you know, just turned out to be wonderful adults. Following one of the Nellie’s in particular, two of the Nellie’s were not very nice people as they grew up. One really wasn’t a Nellie. Two of them really were and kind of got worse as they got older. So they were fascinating reads just because they kind of led interesting lives. But one of the Nellie’s kind of the nastiest one, Nellie Owens, her families followed where my family was. So my family ended up–her family moved from the Dakotas to where my family is from in California, in the Humboldt County, in Northern California. And they were dairy farmers as her family was as well. So my family and her family were at Cattleman’s meetings and church and going to the grocery store all at the same time. So I found that fascinating that I had that connection to her–that my great-grandparents and great-great-grandparents were hanging out with her family for awhile. So I found that very interesting, except they weren’t nice. So they probably didn’t, I’m hoping that they didn’t, become best friends. So that was interesting.
Another thing, and this is how my mind kind of works, I was reading the book, and I can’t remember which one it was now, but it was talking about what people put in their wagons when they came West, like on the Oregon Trail and things. I was reading through the, how many pounds of salt, pork, and sugar and flour and beans and all that thing. And I came across a fact that had a per person amount of coffee. And I thought that’s a lot of coffee. That just felt like a lot of coffee for a six-month trip. I mean, I’m all for coffee, but that seemed a little excessive. So that just spurred on a little bit. I’m going to do a little more research and discover that man, woman and child– they averaged six cups of coffee per day. I mean, your four year old, your 15 year old, your 36 year old. That of course blew me away. Why are we giving little children coffee? And why do we need six cups a day? You know, I’m thinking about you have to boil water when you’re on the trail and you know, all those kinds of things, but you don’t necessarily need to put coffee in it. So that led me down just this big coffee research kind of curiosity trail. And I discovered that even on the trail that people coming across in wagons, without any real sanitation, used to clarify their coffee so that it wasn’t cloudy, which I thought was just funny, like a little nicety on the trail that they still want, you know, cared about clear coffee. And of course that led me down a rabbit trail of what they clarified it with. And that led into a book called Pioneer Mixology, which really it’s not about liquor. It’s about different beverages that pioneer families concocted and made do with, because they were out of touch with the store, or they were just in a new landscape that had different nuts and berries and things to offer. But that kind of process of going down that rabbit hole led me to the discovery that people used to use eggshells and a bunch of different things to clarify coffee. But one thing was basically, it was a dried part of a fish that they clarified coffee with. And my mind that’s where we ended up, well, actually that’s not where; there’s one step further because my mind is thinking of who was the first person to think my coffee is cloudy. So I’m going to, I have this dried fish part, I’m going to chuck it in there and see if it improves things. I, you know, that just didn’t make any sense to me. And I discovered that wine makers used that technique first, but again, you know, who was the first person who was walking by an open vat of wine with this dried fish part tripped, and chuck, you know, ended up with a whole bunch of it in a vat and discovered that it didn’t make the wine fishy, but it made it clear. I mean, who’s the first person who did that? I have no idea and why we would have these dry fish parts hanging around our houses.
Anyway, I don’t know, but that’s kind of how my mind works when I’m doing research. I don’t just want to know that they had six cups of coffee. I want to know why, and I want to know how they made it and what the implications were. And that’s kind of how a lot of my books end up happening. I was never intending to write a book on pioneer beverages, but it’s still one of my favorite books I’ve ever written. It’s so fun because it was just so interesting. There’s so much history. So that’s kind of the two things that in my pioneer research and about Laura, the two things that I found very interesting: one is that I had a strong family connection to one of the Nellies and the other is that I know how to clarify coffee in about 10 different ways.
Fun. My podcast is for parents and is about how we raise our kids, pass on our values, and teach our faith to them. How have the Little House books affected your home and parenting and sharing your faith with your children?
Well, for me, my first statement would be, I wasn’t raised in a Christian family. I was raised in a very dysfunctional, broken home. And these books themselves provided me with a faith background and introduction that I wouldn’t have had otherwise, which I think is kind of the power of books and literature. I realized that, and that it really informed the books that I chose to have in my house. I have four kids, and all of them were avid readers from pretty young. And I made sure that their reading material was going to point them to knowledge and God and not distract them with other things. That is one big impact. But I’ve homeschooled. My kids that have been raised half in England and half in America, and we’ve homeschooled in both places and done public school in both places. It’s kind of a mix throughout their education depending on their needs and where we were. But when I was homeschooling, I really felt very strongly about kind of what I was just talking about with my book, Pioneer Mixology. I was fascinated with something, and it led me when I allowed myself to pursue that question that I had, that natural interest of mine led me through chemistry. It led me through history. It led me through science experiments. I mean, it was just my natural curiosity led me to so many different aspects of learning from just that one initial kind of, “Hmm, why was this the case?” So I did that with my own kids. I let them choose a subject that they were interested in, and then we took it to its extreme. So we might have somebody who was interested in–there’s a series of books called Horrible Histories, and my boys loved them because they’re written and they will talk about words and other things, but they’re really, really interesting books. And they were interested in the history of the people that were being discussed or the things that were being discussed. So I let them go as far as they could, until their interest and their curiosity was exhausted. And I think that’s how the Little House books, even though not all of my kids at all the times were doing “Little Housey” kinds of things. Although we did years of Little House curriculum, that natural curiosity and letting it be individualized to the child, it has made my kids understand that not only is their curiosity great, but it can lead to a lot of information and a lot of cross knowledge that comes from their initial curiosity. I had experts in their own areas and they were passionate about the things that they were interested in. So I love how my learning and how my own progression of knowledge coming from something I was passionate about has led me to so many different areas that I would have never initially thought I would end up in. And I transferred that over to my kids.
Can you tell us just briefly a little bit about each of the books that we’ve been talking about, about Laura Ingalls Wilder that you currently have. And if you’re able, tell us a little bit about the one you’re currently working on.
The first one I wrote was called From the Mouth of Ma. I was doing my MFA in writing. And one of the things that we were talking about is dialogue and how putting words in your character’s mouth can really define them and give your reader a lot of information about them. What you have them say really does paint a picture about them. And I thought about the fact that Ma in the Little House books, most of her dialogue are Proverbs or scripture or old sayings. They’re not talking. Laura depicted her father in a very real dialogue, but Ma was always saying something, you know, “a penny saved is a penny earned” kind of stuff. So my first book, I took every single saying that Ma had said, and it’s a very simple book. It was my first writing, kind of foray into formal writing, but it just takes all of her sayings and tells where they came from kind of the history of the saying, and maybe a little bit of what Laura might’ve been trying to show in having her mom be the one to say that. That was From the Mouth of Ma.
Then I wrote Pioneer Mixology because I was doing research for another book, but I got diverted on the whole coffee thing. That’s part history. There’s recipes in it as well. But it’s really about how, what we drank was affected by history and location and the westward movement. So like I said, it’s one of my favorite books because I just find it super interesting. But of course there is actually recipes. Some of them are a little shocking. I can’t believe that some people drank some of the things that they did back in the day.
And then I moved on to what is probably the book that I am most known for in Little House and has kind of made me an expert on the Nellie’s was my book, The Three Faces of Nellie. It’s a composite character, as I mentioned of the Nellies between Stella Gilbert, Genevieve Masters, and Nellie Owens. And it’s basically like a mini biography all three of them. I love it because it again gives history, and it gives context within the book. So we’re talking about the Little House books, but we’re talking about these three very interesting women as well. That was the next book.
And then I did four mini pioneer recipe books. They’re small books, but again, in my research, I discovered there’s a real kind of movement now–the top to tail kind of idea of eating food. And back in the day, they did save everything and ate everything they possibly could from an animal. And it’s a series of four books, but there are two that are Super Simple Pioneer Recipes that have five ingredients or less one. Those books is sweet. And one of those is savory. The other two books are Slightly Strange Pioneer Recipes. There are things that you would just not necessarily think would be in a recipe, but one is savory and one is sweet. I personally think that the sweet one is a little bit funkier because you’d be surprised at what they put in sweet things, cakes and different things That has been my whole of the kind of pioneer stuff to this point.
I am working on a stand-alone biography of Nellie Owens, one of the three Nellie’s because I now live actually about 20 miles from where she is buried and her family. Very interesting to me, they were very, very interesting. Her whole family is buried in the area and they all, after leaving California, they moved up to Tillamook, Oregon. They’re all buried now in Forest Grove. So they’re a fascinating family. And I happen to be where I’m walking the ground that she walked kind of thing. And so that’s one of the things that I’m working on, but there’s another project is a real labor of love.
Another one of my favorite characters in the book that there’s almost nothing written about because he’s kind of a given a little hint there “he” is kind of an enigma. Laura wrote about him later in a lot of different things in drafts of her early manuscripts and in articles and things. There’s a lot of conflicting information and a lot of puzzles surrounding him and questions surrounding him. So this book is basically looking at that very much beloved character and trying to figure out maybe who he really was–doing a little detective work to see if we can discover who he might’ve been in real life. This has been a huge labor of love because my husband, who is British, when I first started writing, he did not want anything to do with writing at all. He did not like writing in the least, and now he’s working on his own projects, but this book, this next book, we’re actually, co-authors. Once you get in and know just the pleasure that it can bring you personally and the joy you can bring to others and information that you can bring to the world –And obviously when you’re writing about things that are important to you and, or hopefully honoring to Christ, you know, you’re bringing that into the world. And once you get hooked on that, you’re hooked. So this is a special project.
I can’t wait. That’ll be so cool.
Thank you for joining us for “Books that Spark,” a podcast, celebrating books that spark imagination, emotion, questions, and discussions as we disciple our children and help them follow Christ with their whole hearts. If you would like to join my mailing list, you can find me at TerrieHellardBrown.com. If you’ve enjoyed this episode, be sure to download it so you’ll always have access to it and help others to be able to find our podcast. If you’d like to connect with Robynne, you can reach her through her website at robynnemiller.com. Today’s interview we’ve divided into two parts because there was so much we wanted to talk about. So, this first part is about all things Little House. Next week, join us as we discuss some other books that cover some very important topics for our world today. And hear some other great pointers from Robynne as she joins us next week on “Books that Spark.”
Terrie Hellard-Brown writes and speaks to help children and adults find God’s purpose and plan for their lives. She teaches workshops and writes devotional books, children’s stories, and Christian education materials.
Her podcast, Books that Spark, reviews children’s books that spark imagination, emotion, questions, and discussion leading to teachable moments with our kids. Her podcast posts each Tuesday morning.
Her blog posts are published each Thursday and discuss living as a disciple of Christ while discipling our children. She challenges us to step out of our comfort zones to walk by faith in obedience to Christ.
For more information, visit her website at terriehellardbrown.com
Terrie uses her experiences as a mother of four (three on “the spectrum”), 37 years in ministry (15 in Taiwan), and 32 years teaching to speak to the hearts of readers.
Her motto is “Growing older is inevitable; growing up is optional” and keeps her childlike joy by writing children’s stories, delighting over pink dolphins, and frequently laughing till it hurts.
Inspire Christian Writers Conference at Mount Hermon
March 25th-29th, 2022
Mount Hermon Christian Conference Center
Felton, CA (not far from Santa Cruz)
2 thoughts on “Episode 75: Interview with Robynne Miller about All Things Little House”
Thank you Terrie and Robynne! Good to hear from you both, and I always love learning more about Laura Ingalls and family!
Good to hear from you, Heather!
I found the info Robynne shared so interesting. Next week we’ll have even more interesting information about some other topics. It was great catching up with Robynne.