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!
I write fiction – to date eleven novels in the Jeri Howard series, two in the California Zephyr series, and one standalone. I have two works-in-progress.
I make this stuff up. But when it comes to details, I like to sound as though I know what I’m talking about. So I research a variety of subjects, depending on the plot, setting and characters that feature in my books. Sometimes this involves a lot of reading but other times it involves getting out of my office. The research takes me down twisty paths and I find out things I didn’t know, information that makes its way into my writing.
As a longtime fan of Dick Francis, I always wanted to write a horseracing novel, but when I started A Killing at the Track, the ninth Jeri Howard novel, it quickly became clear how much I didn’t know about the Sport of Kings. Watching the Kentucky Derby on TV is one thing. So is watching live racing from the grandstand. Writing about the day-to-day life on the backside of a racetrack is another.
How to solve my research dilemma? A friend of a friend knew someone who trained racehorses. Which is how I found myself at Bay Meadows racetrack in the early hours one morning, for a day of following a trainer around the backside. I met jockeys, a vet, a jockey’s agent, and the Clerk of the Scales, who gave me a tour of the jockeys’ locker room. The last was unexpected, and it made its way into the book.
When I was researching Death Rides the Zephyr, the first book in the California Zephyr series, I took a special excursion train up the Feather River Canyon, the route of the old California Zephyr, not the Amtrak version. That gave me the experience of traveling on a Pullman car. I also rode Amtrak’s Zephyr several times back and forth to Colorado, during the winter, seeing the frozen and isolated landscape of the Colorado Rockies, and getting a sense for what my characters would see out the window of the train, because that’s where much of the action takes place.
I visited the Western Pacific Railroad Museum, where I drove a locomotive under the watchful and patient tutelage of one of the museum volunteers. My main character in the Zephyr books is a train employee called a Zephyrette. I was fortunate to interview two women who had worked as Zephyrettes and the information they gave me was invaluable in writing the books.
Right now I’m working on the twelfth installment of Jeri Howard’s adventures, a book titled Water Signs. Jeri’s back on her familiar Oakland, California turf and the research involves looking at the city’s waterfront and the development that’s going on now. Who knows where it will lead me? Maybe out on the estuary, in a boat!
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!
This is Lea Wait, taking a few deep breaths. I just got home from what was close to two weeks on the road. Yes: a family wedding was included. (A family wedding in Phoenix, I might add. I live in Maine.) But most of the days I was away from home I was talking about my books — at a children’s book festival in Albany, New York, as part of a live variety radio production in New Hampshire, at a mystery bookstore in Scottsdale, Arizona … and at other places along the road, where I smiled, handed out bookmarks, and answered questions.
One of the questions authors are asked most often is, “Where do you get your ideas?”
And, yes, I’m sure we’re all tempted to say, “I google for them” or “One whole plot came to me in a dream,” or “Didn’t you know Macy’s had an ‘idea section’?”
Of course, no author I know would say any of those things. But it’s hard to explain where ideas come from, because … they’re everywhere. (Who knows when a wedding in Phoenix might end up in one of my books?) At least for me, yes, some ideas come from my life. I probably wouldn’t have set books in Maine or New Jersey if I hadn’t lived in those places. Or invented a protagonist who was an antique print dealer if I hadn’t grown up in a family of antique dealers and collectors. Maggie Summer, my protagonist in the Shadows Antique Print Mystery series, probably wouldn’t have thought of becoming a single adoptive parent if I hadn’t adopted my four daughters.
But Maggie is also a college professor. I’ve never taught. Angie Curtis, the protagonist in my Mainely Needlepoint series debuting in January with TWISTED THREADS, has a license to carry and rarely reads. Not me, in either case.
Often an idea comes from a sentence fragment, or a newspaper clipping. If the idea sticks around, I start to dig. Research. Ask more questions. I’ve written about AIDS (SHADOWS AT THE FAIR) and Alzheimer’s (SHADOWS ON A MAINE CHRISTMAS.) I’ve written about amputation (WINTERING WELL) and rape (SHADOWS OF A DOWN EAST SUMMER.) I haven’t experienced any of those things first hand.
Right now I’m writing about the politics of lobstering and the embroidery of Mary, Queen of Scots. My information in both cases comes second or third hand — although I have been out on lobster boats.
So – where do my ideas come from? From life. Mine, others’, or from research. Always, they come from digging into a thought … and molding it into a piece of a plot.
Making trouble for my characters. Making an idea a story.
Filed under: Lea Wait, Uncategorized | Tagged: Albany, Lea Wait, Mainely Needlepoint, Phoenix, Shadows at the Fair, Shadows of a Down East Summer, Shadows on a Maine Christmas, Twisted Threads, Wintering Well | Leave a comment »
I spent the past weekend in New Jersey with former classmates, celebrating the 50th (yes — unbelievably – 50th) anniversary of our graduating from Glen Ridge High School. One of the highlights of my weekend — and there were many — was speaking at the library which had been my refuge and inspiration during the years I was growing up.
I first discovered the library when I was about ten, and saw their collection of Walter Farley books (yes, I was one of those girls who loved horses) and marveled at their shelf and a half of Doctor Doolittle books — I’d thought there was only one. After that I cajoled my mother or grandmother to take me to the library often, since although it was only about seven blocks from our home, those blocks included a major intersection. My grandfather, who loved mysteries and always had a stack on the table behind his pipe and next to the Morris chair where he spent hours each day, was often included in the expedition.
When I was in sixth grade I was thrilled when my mother and the mothers of two of my friends decided together that the three of us were — yes! finally! — old enough to make the library trip on our own. We walked there every Saturday morning, taking out as many books as we could carry. By then I was reading Betty Cavanna and Lois Duncan and other “books for teenage girls.” (I’m thrilled that Lois Duncan is now one of my Facebook friends ….)
In seventh grade we began attending the school across the street from the library, and I began finding excuses to go to the library after school. There was always a subject to be researched in the encyclopedia collection there, or checked in magazines in the stacks. I discovered the Dewey Decimal system, and read every book on writing … since some day that’s what I would do. Secretly, I dreamed of someday seeing a book I’d written on one of the shelves. I discovered The Writer Magazine. I knew when it arrived at the library each month (it couldn’t be checked out,) and would curl up in a special window seat and read it, cover to cover. I learned about manuscript submission guidelines and agents and rejection slips and how to write dialogue. I studied the market place information, pretending I was going to submit something I’d written. I even got brave enough to send a few poems to magazines, and was proud of the rejection slips that resulted. They made me feel like a real writer. I planned to save enough slips to cover a wastebasket with them, but never did.
When I was a sophomore in high school I started working at the library as a page. I shelved books after school and weekend for fifty cents an hour. After I’d shelved the day’s books I started working my way around the shelves, checking that all the books were shelved correctly. (A lot weren’t, but the librarians never had time to do what I was doing.) It took me most of the school year to check the children’s room, where I also discovered other wonderful authors that were, theoretically, too young for me — but whom I loved.
In my junior year I was moved to the adult department, where I repeated my verification of book locations.
In the summers, in Maine, I became a frequent patron of the Wiscasset Library (where I now do a lot of research for the books I write.)
But the Glen Ridge Public Library wasn’t finished helping me, When I was working on my masters thesis at New York University I lived in New York City, where my libraries of choice were the Jefferson Market Library in Greenwich Village near my home, and the Donnell Library on 53rd Street, which was their version of a children’s room. Librarians in New York were able to find many of the books written for teenagers in the 1950s and 60s that I based my thesis on, but New Yorkers are tough on books. I bothered my mother to represent me back in Glen Ridge, and the library there put in inter-library loans, searching New Jersey libraries for many of the books I was looking for. And finding them,
I hadn’t been back to the Glen Ridge Public Library in decades. But I was thrilled when several of my classmates asked if I’d do a book signing during our reunion, and the library I’d loved invited me to speak there. I felt the way I had when my undergraduate college asked me to come back to speak and gave me a lifetime achievement award. I felt as though I was truly going home.
The Glen Ridge Library today is, I am pleased to report, still wonderful, and, despite the major budget cuts that have affected so many of our nation’s libraries, it has expanded. Its addition has added a special room just for YA books, handicapped accessibility, and more space for books, computers, and research of all kinds .. including a meeting room, where I spoke Saturday. I was also thrilled to see that the parents of one of those two girls who walked to the library with me every Saturday were among the major donors who’d helped the library expand.
Today visitors to my home often joke that it’s like a library. Floor to ceiling bookcases are in every room and most hallways. To me, home and walls of books are synonymous. They are comfort and company and escape; they have stayed the course during the ups and downs of my life.
Books represent home. And last week’s visit to the Glen Ridge Library was, in many ways, even more a homecoming for me than seeing my former classmates. That library was where I grew up.