Lea Wait, here, wishing everyone a Happy Holiday! In my house, it’s a Merry Christmas. And it’s celebrated, first and foremost, by my unpacking some of my collection of Santas, hand-crafted, antique, or just fun, that I’ve collected over the years. The small Christmas tree (actually, the top of an artificial tree I used in a Christmas safety movie I made decades ago) decorated with small ornaments. The “jingle bells” on the front door. My grandfather’s velvet-covered copy of “The Night Before Christmas.” Wreaths. Candles. And ... but, come on in. See for yourself!
Historical research is done by librarians, historians, genealogists, doctoral candidates, homeowners wondering about the history of their homes, and grade school students reluctantly fulfilling classroom assignments.
I’ve always loved the idea of “place” influencing the people who lived in it, so my goal is to show, in a series of stand-alone books, how people in a small Maine village lived during different time periods.
Why Wiscasset? Because Wiscasset “had it all,” in terms of history. Abenaki lands, early European settlers, citizens taking part in every war Maine has been involved in, a deep-water harbor surrounded by farmlands and lumbering. Mills. Fires. Inns. Wiscasset was on the Boston Post line. The railroad came to Wiscasset.
Stopping to Home (set in 1806) and Seaward Born (1805-1807) show Wiscasset when it was the largest port east of Boston. Wintering Well (1819-1820) is set against a background of new statehood. Finest Kind (1838) shows the result of the Panic of 1837. And Uncertain Glory (1861) takes place during the first two weeks of the Civil War.
My major characters are fictional, but the minor characters are the real people who lived in Wiscasset.
I search the Wiscasset Library archives files on “doctors” and “lawyers” and “houses,” and read through newspapers, files on Wiscasset families, and letters. I don’t just collect names; I collect lives. The Lincoln County Courthouse has records of who was in jail when and for what offense. They also have customs records of ships arriving, homes built and changing hands, and legal cases in Lincoln County. Wiscasset’s graveyards help with dates, and raise new questions. (Why would a man be buried next to only his first wife, when he was married three times?)
In Uncertain Glory my protagonist is an actual teenager who published Wiscasset’s newspaper in the mid-nineteenth century. His diary is at the Maine Historical Society archives in Portland. The newspapers he published are in the Wiscasset Library. Files on his family helped me place him in town, and write historical notes about what happened after the book was finished.
Other research? I read extensively in political, military, religious, and philosophical analyses of what was happening in the United States during the year(s) I’m writing about. I choose year-and-place appropriate names for fictional characters. I search dictionaries published in New England during the year(s) I’m writing about, to ensure I use words authentically. I study maps. I collect old medical books, books of old recipes, lists of kitchen utensils, weapons, tools, and laws. I read studies of the ways in which women, children, minorities, and the handicapped were treated, through both laws and practices.
All these pieces of research become fodder for the background of my books; sometimes even the basis for specific scenes. But the most important research I do is on my protagonists and their family; how they fit into the community, how they would react to events around them, and what decisions they would make.
Because I write stories. Historically accurate stories, I hope. Stories set in a real town. But, most important, stories of what happens when my major character’s life is changed, and he or she must decide what he or she will do next to survive. That’s the heart of all my books.
Maine author Lea Wait has written five books set in 19th century Wiscasset in addition to two contemporary mystery series, the Shadows Antique Print series and the Mainely Needlepoint series. For more information about Lea and her books, see www.leawait.com, and friend her on Facebook and Goodreads.
Lea Wait, here, feeling overwhelmed by the history of things.
I know people are more valuable than possessions. My heart aches for those who lose everything they own, in fires or floods or wars.
But I cherish many possessions, and cling to them as connections to family, love, and home.
You see, I live in a house built in 1774. My family has only lived here since the mid-1950s, but I’m a fourth generation antiques dealer, and those who came before me not only brought family furniture, china, toys, kitchen and workshop tools … in short, household furnishings … that they had bought or inherited but, in many cases, the things in the house came with stories.
I loved those stories, of the tea kettle my great-great grandmother had used in Edinburgh, and the trunks my great-grandparents took with them on their annual train trip to the Rose Bowl. Over a hundred years ago. The labels are still there.
But I know in my head, if not in my heart, what so many men and women in my generation know: that my children don’t value these things in the same way. Antiques mean little to them. Silver? It has to be cleaned. Mahogany? It’s heavy. And who uses real linen and lace tablecloths anymore (even I don’t), or values a set of their grandmother’s wedding china that can’t be put in the dishwasher or …
The story goes on. So my house is full of things I love, and that were loved before me. At auctions I see the treasures of other families sold for a tiny percentage of their value as those older than I am “deaccession.” I see stories and heritage and a sense of where families came from being lost.
But I foresee the same happening to those things I treasure, not for their monetary value (although some have that, too,) but for what they meant in good and bad times to those who came before me.
I’ve done some downsizing already; sold some things; given things to children I was certain would value them. Some day I may even have to sell this house that I love, and that my family has loved for four generations.
And all that hurts. Better for me to find new homes for these things than to leave them all to my children, who won’t value them, I think.
But still I hold on. Hold on to the memories. The stories. The feeling that when these things go, as they will someday, somehow, they will take with them history and heritage and stories that can never be replaced.
And that makes me very sad.
Ever pick up a book you’d never heard of and immediately know you’d love it? I suspect most of us have. Without even thinking about it, we know what we love to read about. Maybe it’s romantic love. Or cats. Or family conflicts. Or serial killers. (Probably not all of the above in the same book.)
I’m attracted to old houses, preferably large, and possibly deserted. Mysteries from the past that affect people today. Antiques. Small towns where everyone thinks they know everyone else … but don’t know everyone’s secrets. And the coast of Maine, a place I’ve loved since I was a child, and where I’m lucky enough to live now.
So my THREADS OF EVIDENCE, the second (after TWISTED THREADS) in my Mainely Needlepoint mystery series, includes all my favorites.
In 1970 a seventeen-year-old girl died suspiciously at a large party in her family’s large Victorian “cottage” (as summer homes of the wealthy were, and sometimes still are, called in Maine). mother never believed the girl’s death was an accident, so for years she sat alone in the large house and tried to figure out what might have happened, and why. And while she sat, she did needlepoint. Cushions of all sorts. And, most dramatically, a series of large panels picturing her home and the town of Haven Harbor, Maine.
The house, named “Aurora,” has now been deserted for years. Many people in Haven Harbor think it should be torn down. Ghost stories about it abound.
Then, to everyone’s surprise, famous Hollywood actress Skye West and her handsome son buy the old estate, complete with broken windows, valuable and not-so-valuable furnishing, and all that needlepoint. They ask Angie Curtis, head of Mainely Needlepoint, and her fellow needlepointer and antiques dealer Sarah Byrne, to appraise everything in the house, hold a sale to get rid of anything they don’t put in dumpsters … and restore those needlepoint panels
They soon learn Skye has a personal interest in the history of the old house. And when her glass is poisoned during the house sale, it’s clear someone in Haven Harbor doesn’t want her asking questions about what happened in 1970.
Skye hires Angie to help her investigate and examine the past and talk to everyone who was at the fatal party in 1970. And the then Mainely Needlepointers restoring the panels find they contain strange clues to the past.
Love those old house mysteries! Hope my readers do, too!
Yes, it was published when I was only ten, back in 1956, but I certainly heard about it then, and afterward. After all — it was a scandalous bestseller. I read Lady Chatterly’s Lover when I was twelve (my grandmother’s paperback copy, clearly and excitingly printed “Banned in Boston”! on the front), so, if anything, it’s reputation would have made it more enticing. But somehow my family (and local library) considered it “trash.” Not worth reading. I don’t remember seeing copies, despite its notoriety.
A few years later the movie version of Peyton Place was filmed in Camden, Maine, just up the coast from where I live. I didn’t see the movie, either. I don’t remember missing it.
But recently I saw a reference to Peyton Place in a book on writing. It was cited as having excellent pacing and plot, and characters who were believable New Englanders. I decided only sixty years after it was published, that I had to read it.
And – yes. I liked it. It wasn’t trash. Those horrible descriptive sex scenes I somehow thought were in the book? Not a one. Although a peak through a window gives us a glimpse of the rape and incest one teenaged girl must endure. Honestly – pretty tame stuff by today’s standards. Yes, there are awakenings, and domestic violence. Secrets behind middle-class doors. But, rather than being shocking, the plot seemed to me very realistic. All families have secrets. And in a small town … people know some of them.
Peyton Place is a long book, but a “fast read.” The sort book groups gather to dissect.
It is almost a sociological study of a small town and the relationships of the classes within that town.
Peyton Place.Worth a read. And a visit.
Lea Wait, here, at home in Maine. A state I’ve always loved, and where I’m constantly amazed that I really am living full-time. And I have been for almost seventeen years now. (Before that I was a “summer complaint,” “from away,” as Mainers would say.)
People vacation in Maine — in the summers and fall and, if they ski, even in the winter. .
Before I left corporate life (what some might call retiring,) I’d dreamed of taking one month a year, renting an apartment somewhere in the world, and really absorbing that place. England. Scotland, Spain, France. Maybe Japan, or Australia? Even another part of North America would be fun. I love New York City, where I lived years ago. Washington, D.C. Santa Fe. San Francisco.
I have daughters who were born in India and Korea and Thailand and Hong Kong … maybe I’d visit there.
But – life (and dreams) change. I inherited a wonderful home built in 1774 which needed many, many repairs and updates … I’ve now got a heavy mortgage, and the house needs to be painted again, and there are still several rooms with 19th century wallpaper (literally) hanging off the walls. I’m married, and my husband needs to be in his studio. I have book contracts …something I’ll never complain about, but that require me to be at my computer almost every day. (Three books due in 2015, not counting a couple I’m working on without contracts.) All reasons to stay home.
In the first years my husband and I were married we traveled a bit. Our major trip was to Beirut, Lebanon, where he graduated from high school, followed by a week in Paris, staying with friends . We went to mystery conferences in Las Vegas and El Paso and Santa Fe and Maryland and Florida and Pittsburgh. Working vacations, where we visited friends and family along the way. We spent New Year’s Eve in Quebec.
But we’re a bit older now, and our savings a bit depleted. Like other couples, we have bills to pay, and obligations to meet.
When I worked for a corporation and was raising my children and caring for my mother, I imagined this time of my life I’d be alone, my days full of time. I’d read; write; run my antique print business. I was afraid I’d be lonely.
Instead, I am married to the guy I’d loved for years. I have readers waiting for my books. No; I don’t travel much. But a glass of wine on a porch overlooking the river tastes as good as one sipped in Paris. Especially when it’s shared with someone you love.
Travel? That would be lovely. But, at least for now, I’ll happily do my traveling through the pages of the books I read. And write.
Lea Wait, here. And although I can’t officially claim to be a Mainer (I was born in Boston, and have only lived here ‘year round for 17 years) I do live there. I live in a house built in 1774 on an island in the Sheepscot River, one of Maine’s many tidal rivers, about twelve miles from the official “ocean.” The North Atlantic.
This winter has been an especially challenging one for those of us who choose to call Maine our home. Normally, we have 25-40 inches of snow by this time in the area where I live, along the coast. This winter we’ve had almost 80 inches … in the past month. And as I write this … and as you read it … the snow is falling again. The next storm is due in a couple of days. And – did I mention? For the past month the temperatures have been in single digits or below at night, and, some warm days, they’ve risen to the teens during the day.
But, considering it all, few people really complain. After all, we chose to live here. And this is an unusually snowy and cold winter.
Plus – let’s not forget. This is 2015. Most people have some form of central heat. Storm windows. Insulation. Grocery stores. Running water. Stoves. Silk or thermal underwear. Fleece. Flannel. Wool. Plows. Salt and sand. And heated cars or trucks to get us from one heated place to another on plowed roads.
For hundreds – perhaps thousands – of years people survived here without most of those things.
I’m not an expert on the ways Abenakis and Micmacs survived winters.
But I do know a little about how Europeans lived here when my home was built. When the river wasn’t just patchworked with ice floes. It was frozen so hard people use it for sleigh races.
People prepared all year for winter. In snowy months men took sledges into the woods and lumbered. Wood was chopped in summer so it would be dry for winter fireplaces. Fires were kept burning all day and night. On the coldest days, warmly dressed people slept 2-4 to a bed or pallet near the fire. Pine boughs were woven together in fall and piled around a house’s foundation. Snow would fill the holes, helping insulate the building. Snow was melted for water, for occasional washing, and for the soups and stews that, with bread, were sustenance. Fish, meat, vegetables and fruit were harvested in summer and dried, to be resurrected in winter stews. Clothes weren’t washed for months. Even infant’s clouts (diapers) were hung to dry in kitchens without rinsing.
In Maine, small workrooms (the ell) connected houses to their barns, so animals could be fed without going outside. Privies were often located in the far corner of the barn. Roads were not plowed. Sleighs pulled heavy pieces of wood to push deep snow down so horses and sleighs didn’t sink in it.
But most people stayed home for the winter. “Winter well!” was a common farewell in fall. Those who didn’t live in town might not see neighbors until spring. Babies would be born, people would die, and no one outside the family would know for months. Sometimes a whole family would die, of disease or hunger or cold or fire or depression that led to violence, and no one would know until late spring, when muddy roads dried and were again passable.
I think of those people in winters like this one. I wonder how they felt. What they thought. How glorious spring must have seemed.
And I thank them. They, and others like them in other parts of our country, were survivors. And so our country survived.
A little snow? Just part of life.