Sample Sunday, Home On The Range

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the cut-and-don’t-paste technique of improving one’s writing. As a case in point, I referred to “Home on the Range”, a story I wrote for the Southern Indiana Writers Group’s anthology IT’S ALWAYS SOMETHING. It gots a cow in it. When we went to Nashville, Indiana some years after the anthology came out, Joanna Foreman pointed this post card out to me with a picture (produced by American Geographics, photo by Darryl Jones, Marion County) that would have been a perfect illustration, if we could have acquired the right to use it.

Here is the beginning of that story as it stands. If I had it to do over, I would cut almost all of this and just leave enough to set things up–just a couple of lines. I might even cut all of it, and just drop a word or a line into the good stuff later. Okay, here it is:

No, here it isn’t. I can’t do it. It’s THREE FREAKIN’ SINGLE-SPACED PAGES of don’t-need-it. Oh, okay, here’s the first part of it:

My life was so simple, before I got my heart’s desire.

I had always wanted to live in the country. Nobody I knew lived there, but my elementary school readers were full of pictures of Dick and Jane and Sally and Spot and Puff wandering around unsupervised under a round yellow sun. According to them, carrots and spinach were good in the country. Since I had to eat the damned stuff anyway, it seemed natural to dream about living where veggies actually tasted like something edible.

Granny Babs, who watched me while Mom and Dad worked, had been through the Depression and World War II rationing. With me to help her, she had most of her big back yard put out in vegetables. Her property butted up to the Forestry, where she took me hunting for wild mushrooms, blackberries, fiddlehead ferns, watercress, and all that wilderness fodder.

The kids at school called me “Wilder”, after Laura Ingalls Wilder of “Little House on the Prairie”. It was certainly better than my given name–which was Mamie Jane Nael–and it even sounded cool, during my rebellious teens.

In my junior and senior years of high school, I worked at Cloverburg’s Health Blossom Food Cooperative. I worked there during the summers while I was in college getting my Health and Nutrition degree … and for seven years after that, when a Health and Nutrition degree didn’t translate into any other job.

By that time, I had turned into a vegetarian. Not just a vegetarian, but a vegan, which is not an alien race from outer space, but a person who eats only plants–no meat, no eggs, no dairy. Granny Babs and Mom had taught me to cook, and the urge to convert the family to my diet drove me to construct vegan meals they couldn’t resist.

That led to my first cookbook, VEGAN FOR MEAT-LOVERS, written under the name of M. J. Wilder. It had very respectable sales–for a vegan cookbook. The second, M. J. Wilder’s VEGAN AND LOVING IT, did even better. The third, M. J. Wilder’s MEATLESS LOAF AGAIN?, was the best yet. I didn’t make enough to retire on, but my needs were simple and I was single–I had a nice little umbrella for a rainy day.

Then Mom and Dad retired to Florida, Granny Babs passed away, her house burned to the ground, and an insurance check came addressed to me, her beneficiary. The day after I deposited the check, a customer came into Health Blossom–where I was still clerking–saying she and her husband were moving to California, and they needed to sell their place in the country–five acres on the other side of the Forestry from Granny Babs’ old house. It would take me fifteen minutes to drive to work from there, less time than it took through traffic from my apartment.

Dream come true.

The house had been modernized, but didn’t look it. There was a summer kitchen at the other end of a covered boardwalk, in good repair but in no way modernized, with a big old wood-burning cast-iron range for canning. Attached to the summer kitchen was a creekstone spring house, also in good repair. There was a barn, which the folks I bought the place from used as a garage, and there was a hen-house, which they had scrubbed and whitewashed and used to dry herbs. There was a rummaged-up area about half the size of a basketball court, surrounded by rabbit wire, that they called a garden, but was more like a place they tossed seeds and hoped for the best.

“We bought this place and fixed it up,” my customer said, “and spent a month or so out here in the summers. We thought we might move to the country full-time, but we both work in the city and the commute would have been brutal in the winter, so the place has really hardly been used since we restored it. There’s just one thing. There’s a wild cow in the woods.”

Her husband groaned. “You had to tell her that.” He gave a little laugh. “It’s some story everybody around there tells. About three years ago, one of the farmers lost a cow through a gap in his fence. He never found it. It was taken by a carnivore, if you ask me–a two-legged carnivore. But ever since then, there’ve been all these ‘wild cow’ sightings in the Forestry. Of course, nobody’s seen it except for people who know the story, but that doesn’t stop the legend, does it?”

If I had it to do over, I might start out with “We bought this place and fixed it up,” but not go through the convolution of making the people customers at the store. Or I might just begin where the excerpt I posted at the Southern Indiana Writers web site begins.

What do you think? How much don’t-need-it are you willing to wade through to get to the actual story?

WRITING PROMPT: Where is the heart of a story you love? Going backwards, where does the writer first engage you in that point?



I was born in Louisville, Kentucky, but now live in the woods in southern Indiana. Though I only write fiction, I love to read non-fiction. The more I learn about this world, the more fantastic I see it is.

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One thought on “Sample Sunday, Home On The Range

  1. Joanna Forema

    February 13, 2011 at 10:49am

    I am your number one fan as you know as far as this story is concerned. I am willing to wade through a whole bunch of stuff to get to the story where the cow smokes a joint, bakes a pie, and drink’s cows milk, for heaven’s sakes. BUT, yes the first part was rather sludgy (is that a word?) and you could’ve started the story differently, but then again we got to know the girl and her family history and that’s always a positive thing. We grew to care about her and her humble beginnings, and we watched her “grow up” when she befriended the bovine. We watched her grow, get the courage to eat animal byproducts without guilt, and become successful. I LOVE this story. But you know that. That’s why the postcard jumped out at me when we were in Brown County!

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    • Author

      Marian Allen

      February 14, 2011 at 3:51pm

      Joanna, sludgy IS a word, especially when it comes to this beginning. I do know you love Bossy–that’s why I’d like to have gotten to her quicker. 😉

      Leslie and Mary, I think I could have worked in the details I needed with at least a page of sludge cut out. Thank you for your kind words about the details. 🙂

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  2. Leslie R. Lee

    February 13, 2011 at 5:45pm

    I like the detail you add to the tapestry of the story. It’s too difficult for me to know what is “extraneous” and what adds that level of detail that brings a story and the characters to life.

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