A Reader’s Road Trip to Orchard House

Touring Orchard House, however, was at once familiar and filled with contrasts. Stepping into the parlor felt like walking into the opening pages of Little Women, where the teenaged March girls prepare for a modest Christmas during the Civil War.

houghton_fhm_ms_am_2242_-_louisa_may_alcott
(Photo credit: Unknown. Printed in a collection published privately, 1915. Source: Frederick Hill Meserve’s Historical Portraits [MS Am 2242], Houghton Library, Harvard University, via Wikimedia Commons. Public domain in the U.S.)

A recent trip I took to Boston to visit with family and friends included a side trip to nearby Concord, Massachusetts. Concord is a charming rural town known widely for its role in the Revolutionary War.[*] It also possesses the quirky distinction of being the birthplace of the Concord grape. Specifically to my reading interests, though, several famous authors made their homes in Concord, among them Louisa May Alcott. Long before I learned of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, or Nathaniel Hawthorne (all Concord residents), I read Louisa May Alcott’s novel Little Women and loved it. She was one of the first authors whose works I sought out and binge read everything I could then find: the remaining novels about the March women (Little Men and Jo’s Boys), followed by Eight Cousins and its sequel Rose in Bloom. Discovering her connection to Concord guaranteed my visit there.

A Place to (Finally) Call Home

Orchard House wasn’t Alcott’s childhood home—or even the family’s first home in Concord—but it is, as I noted in a different post, the one she employed as the setting for Little Women and the place where she lived the longest. Unlike the genteelly poor Marches, the Alcotts suffered dire poverty. Although many of her father Bronson Alcott’s ideas to reform children’s education are common now, they were revolutionary then and soon left him unemployed, as did favoring his principles and dreams above self-interest. Abigail May Alcott, her mother and an early social worker, managed their household with very little—inspiring  Louisa to become the family breadwinner. The publication of Little Women, the book Louisa wrote reluctantly at her publisher’s suggestion, would achieve this goal.

Orchard House in Concord, MA
Orchard House served as the setting for Little Women but Alcotts only lived here as an adult. (Photograph by Rita E. Gould.)

Touring Orchard House, however, was at once familiar[†] and filled with contrasts. Stepping into the parlor felt like walking into the opening pages of Little Women, where the teenaged March girls prepare for a modest Christmas during the Civil War. Yet Lizzie Alcott (model for Beth March) never lived at Orchard House, and older sister Anna (Meg March) wed soon after the house was purchased; she would not truly reside there until after she became a widow and moved in with her two sons. Louisa’s youngest sister, May (Amy March), however, literally left her mark on Orchard House. May’s parents permitted her to draw directly on the walls of her bedroom and throughout the house.[‡] In Louisa’s room, her writing desk is exactly as described in the novel. Unlike her fictional counterpart, though, she served as a nurse in the Civil War until illness forced her to return home with her health irreparably damaged. Also unlike Jo, she preferred literary spinsterhood to matrimonial dependence.

Social Circles and Movements

Replica of Thoreau's cottage and statue of Thoreau near Walden Pond.
Someone thought Thoreau’s statue at Walden Pond needed a snack and fittingly chose an apple. (Photo by Rita E. Gould.)

In addition to Louisa’s own personal history and writing career, a visit to Orchard House illuminates the interconnected literary and social circle of the Transcendentalists. Emerson was both friend and financial supporter of the family. Thoreau, who tutored the Alcott children during a previous stint in Concord, remained an admired friend who helped Bronson make Orchard House habitable. Hawthorne, neither a Transcendentalist or friendly with the Alcott family (unlike his son, Julian), lived next door at The Wayside, a former Alcott homestead. Of interest, Hawthorne and Abigail May Alcott shared something in common besides real estate: both were descended from different judges who preside over the Salem witch trials.[§] Samuel Sewall, the Alcott ancestor whose portrait is displayed at Orchard House, was the repenting judge whose other mitigating claim to fame was being an early proponent for abolishing slavery, a stance his Alcott descendants shared. Abigail and Bronson, also firm abolitionists, hosted at least one fugitive slave during their time at The Wayside. The Alcotts were deeply involved with the significant social movements of their time, something which the guide was careful to note was part of the value in preserving this home.[**]

Pondering

After leaving Orchard House, I headed to Walden Pond. One could imagine a young Louisa and other students traipsing after Thoreau there, listening as he pointed to the small and often missed marvels of nature. Thinking on that younger Louisa, you could easily argue that Little Women seems to be a happy reimagination of her deeply impoverished youth, with hunger replaced with longing for “nice things” and constant uprooting for permanency. Yet, Alcott’s novel continues to inspire because of its inclusion of an ambitious, unconventional young women and its unpatronizing view of women’s lives. Having caught a glimpse of “the real Jo”, it seems like a fitting legacy.

NOTES:

[*] Minute Man National Park preserves several sites associated with the Battle of Concord.

[†] Orchard House contains around 80% of the Alcott’s original furnishings, undoubtedly aiding the sense of familiarity.

[‡] May left home in 1870 to study art in Paris and embarked on what appeared to be a very successful artistic career cut short by her early death.

[§] Nathaniel Hawthorne likely added the “w” in his surname to distance himself from the association with his infamous ancestor, William Hathorne.

[**] The credit for preserving Orchard House and The Wayside belongs to another woman writer, as it happens. Harriett Lothrop, better known by her pen name Margaret Sidney to fans of The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew, saw the value of saving these old homes. And as it happens, I read her novel, too, as a child.

Writing Using Your Experiences: What We Really Mean by “Write What You Know”

Writers, particularly inexperienced ones, often are exhorted to “write what you know.[*] I first heard this advice mentioned during a session for my school’s creative writing workshop. While the remark wasn’t directed to me, I nonetheless considered it. Much of what I knew as a reasonably well-behaved teenager didn’t strike me as “page turner” material. It also wasn’t the sort of fiction I wrote then; among other things, I was dabbling in horror fiction without the dubious benefit of supernatural events in my life. But no one seemed to have objections to my writing in this vein, either. It was a moment where advice left me confused instead of enlightened.

Sleepy reader on a log
The response I imagined that fiction based on my teenaged experiences would generate.

I’ve since realized the problem with this too pithy prescriptive involves how little guidance it provides. A short acquaintance with fiction demonstrates countless stories that incorporate research (eg, historical fiction) along with imagination instead of solely relying on the author’s personal history or knowledge. While we’re clearly not instructed to only write about what we know, the lack of further instruction (eg, how we should write about what we know) could be misinterpreted to imply that very limitation. We also tend to assume the “what we know” refers exclusively to our life events. The conclusion many arrive at (myself included) is that we’re told to fictionalize our lives. If what I know includes everything I know, then I certainly have permission to write about what I’ve learned from any source.[†] As a voracious reader of horror fiction, I knew quite a great deal about the genre—and that meant I already was writing what I knew though I didn’t appreciate it in that moment. But if such advice creates confusion, perhaps it’s time to reconsider what we really mean when we advise people to write what they know.

Inspiration and Information

  • Inspiration

The student in my workshop had asked for suggestions regarding what she should write about, and our mentor recommended writing about what she knew in the spirit of examining her personal experiences for topics that might work as a story. It’s the most common interpretation of “write what you know”, and I suspect it’s what most people intend when they dispense this advice. And drawing stories from our personal well of memories can be quite inspiring. Autobiographical novels such as Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women rely heavily on the incidents of the author’s life. Other authors use certain autobiographical details as a springboard for their stories, among them Amy Tan. Her novels often involve a strained mother-daughter relationship of an immigrant Chinese mother and her American-born daughter.[‡]

Orchard House, home of Louisa May Alcott and the inspiration for the March family home in Little Women
Louisa May Alcott used Orchard House (Concord, MA) as the basis for the March family home in Little Women but did not actually live there until she was 25. (Photo by R. Gould)

The crucial observation here is that these authors were inspired by their experiences. While Tan’s history as a first-generation American undoubtedly informed her novels, she chose to avoid fictionalizing actual events in favor of writing their emotional truth. And neither author felt beholden to strictly adhere to the literal truth because recreating actual events didn’t suit their stories. Alcott’s novel diverges factually from her life in several places. For example, Alcott did not grow up in a single home as a child (unlike the March girls) but moved 22 times. Faithfully replicating all those moves, however true to life they were, would have taken too much focus off the March girls’ adventures. Our experiences can be the starting place when we write fiction, but real events shouldn’t get the final word.

  • Informing the Text

If we’re rethinking “write what you know”, then it’s important to consider how else personal knowledge and experience otherwise influence our tales. Many authors use locales they know well to serve as their setting, as Alcott did when she based the March family home on her own home, Orchard House. Character development, of course, is another area where our knowledge helps us round characters by gifting them with skill sets, opinions, and interests (like hobbies) that we or others we know possess. Agatha Christie used her familiarity with her own profession when she created named Ariadne Oliver, a friend of Belgian detective Hercules Poirot, who just so happens to write mysteries featuring a foreign (not English) detective.

The response I imagined that fiction based on my teenaged experienc
Including sensory details (crunching carrot) that we know lets the readers share our character’s experiences such as eating vegetables.

The familiar often diffuses subtly throughout fiction. Our knowledge of social scenarios, for example, guides what our characters’ behavior during dialogue. Characters in a kitchen don’t stand at attention and declaim lines: they lean against counters, clear away dishes, or sip beverages, depending on the story’s set up. Our experiences also provide us with the sights, sounds, touch, and smells we include in stories. Sensory details such as the crunch of a carrot allow readers to vividly experience what the characters do. Importantly, our experiences also allow us to make imaginative leaps. Even when we haven’t faced the same terrible ordeals our characters have, we know how we’ve been hurt, lost, abandoned, and heartbroken. We can use the emotions we’ve experienced in these moments to connect ourselves as well as our readers to what our character undergoes. Knowledge of our identity, too, lets us question how people different from us may feel differently or similarly in a given situation. And yes, our experiences, when they’re lacking, signal when we need to research and fill in what we don’t know.

Writing Using Our Experiences and Knowledge

What we know and our experiences, in some ways, define where fiction begins. They inspire what we write and give narratives depth that they wouldn’t have otherwise. And that’s why using our experiences to inspire our work as well as fill in the myriad details of story is good advice.

Read More

Bret Anthony Johnston’s article “Don’t Write What You Know” in The Atlantic. I found this article after I’d written much of mine, and it provides thought-provoking nuance and insights on this topic.

NOTES:

[*] I’ve previously written about how writing advice often is presented as a set of “rules” when it should be treated as guidance that can be used or dispensed with as needed. “Write what you know” isn’t specifically discussed there, but it certainly warrants some clarification.

[†] To give a somewhat snarky example, I don’t have to experience radiation poisoning to explain why uranium can be dangerous. I can refer to what I learned in science courses.

[‡] Fiona Mitchell discusses the concept of having “one story to tell” in her article “Have You Got More than One Story?”. As she observes (and Tan illustrates), there are many ways to tell that one story.