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A lasting mark on the heart, blossoming into a book

"The boy in the story didn't follow me while I was writing the story; I followed the boy and wrote about the adventures that he had." -- Willis Thoen, Author (Contributed photo)1 / 2
The Planter is available online at as well as at numerous local bookstores. Willis will be signing books at Book World on September 8th from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. (Contributed photo)2 / 2

For Alexandria's Willis Thoen, most of his writing career has been spur-of-the-moment, and this is no different for his latest book, The Planter.

"I just like to write down things that happen or that pass through my mind," Thoen noted. "And this book was the same. I woke up one morning at 3 o'clock and decided I wanted to write it. The ideas started and they just kept coming."

Picking up writing at a young age, he has kept a pen and small book in his shirt pocket all his life and written about anything from appointments to his general thoughts.

But after writing his extensive autobiography and being semi-retired, he decided he wanted to write something for his 10 grandchildren to remember him by.

Waking up at 3 a.m. one morning, he began work on The Planter, a fictional novel about a boy named Peter growing up on a Louisiana plantation in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Though Peter faced many hardships as an African American in the South, he was still full of life and curiosity. He enjoyed playing with his peers, the beauty of the European architecture and the setting of the plantation along a lazy winding river.

But most of all, he was overwhelmed by the plants and animals all around him and his yearning to learn about the genetics of them.

Years later, this yearning paid off after his research and experimentation in genetics and pollination earned him a windfall that paid his way to study at a prestigious New York University and in Bordeaux, France.

"I always tell people that the boy in the story didn't follow me while I was writing, I followed the boy and wrote about the adventures that he had," Thoen said. "It was just as surprising and exciting for me to see what happened next as it is for the reader."

Though the book is fiction, many of the book's concepts stem from the author's personal life.

"I started to write about a young boy who grew up on a plantation, and he just became a person with some of my own traits as I followed him along, so it was very easy to write about him," he said.

Like Peter, agriculture has always been a large part of Thoen's life and he has never lost touch with it.

"I grew up on a farm near Kensington and owned another one in my 20's," he said. "Farming, agriculture, genetics - they are all deep passions of mine."

While he pulled those parts of the story from his life while he was writing, the crux of the story he thought of many years before.

In 1984 he and his wife spent a year at Saint Croix, Virgin Islands volunteering as teachers in a church school.

It was here, living near a sugar cane plantation with an old mansion that was still standing, that Thoen became inspired.

"Walking around on those grounds gave me a lot of history to imagine and think what it might have been like to be a young boy growing up in such a lifestyle," he recalled.

In addition to this, he spent some time in St. Marten and the islands surrounding it, one of which was where slaves were bred and raised as a commodity.

The experience left an indelible mark on his heart that eventually blossomed into his muse for the book.

"I loved writing about Peter, and even though I got stumped thousands of times, I eventually found what happened next," he said.

These epiphanies usually came to Thoen at about 3 o'clock in the morning.

"If I didn't write them down fast enough when I thought of things, there was a good chance I would forget them by the time I got to writing," he said.

Lucky for Thoen though, he never forgot a word and Peter's story was finished in four short years.

"This book would have never been finished without the Gopher Prairie Writers Group from Sauk Centre for keeping me on track during the past 10 years of writing," he noted. "I also want to acknowledge and thank my wife, Rosalie, as my chief motivator. She always pulls a lot of adventures and inspiration out of me."

With his first book out of the way, Thoen is working on plans for another book.

"I just have to think of something inspirational. I think I might write a sequel to this book," he said.

No matter what the future holds for Thoen, he is just happy that he was able to follow Peter throughout his journey, and see his fantasies come to life.

You can find "The Planter" on at as well as at numerous local bookstores. Willis will be signing books at Book World on September 8th from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.