Spend a little time in early 1800’s Wiscasset, Maine, fifty miles north of Portland. Beautifully painted in words and details, Lea Wait captures the reader in a time and place that becomes as real as our own. Engaging all of our senses, Lea writes about the strong history of this town in four different books, published in this order: Stopping to Home, Seaward Born, Wintering Well, and Finest Kind. Her historical research creates a world that is easy to slip into and hard to leave.
Question: Which came first? The stories or the locale?
Answer: The locale. I’ve always wanted to describe the way the land and seas and skies stay the same, but different people, in different times, live in that same place in different ways. I chose Wiscasset, Maine, because it had characteristics typical of a northern New England village.
Question: Why do you write about this period in history, from 1800 to 1840?
Answer: I’ve actually written a book set in 1777, during the Revolution, and am working on one set in 1861, on the brink of the Civil War, but those books haven’t been published yet. I set Stopping to Home in 1806 because that year Wiscasset was the largest port east of Boston and I wanted to capture that moment. Seaward Born captured slavery at the end of the rice plantations in the south. Wintering Well was set the year Maine separated from Massachusetts. Finest Kind dealt with financial stresses facing the new country. But the most important issues each book deals with are more personal: growing up through difficulties, choosing a path, and struggling to find your place in the world.
Question: Which do you do more enthusiastically, the research or the writing?
Answer: I lose myself in the research! When I find myself thinking, “I know all of this,” then I know it’s time to write. I need to know my characters, my time, and my place well enough so I can be inside my characters’ heads, and see through their eyes.
Question: Several of your books have overlapping characters. Did those characters take hold of your imagination and tell you they had more to say or do?
Answer: Although my major protagonists are fictional, most of my minor characters (doctors, lawyers, jailers, inmates at the jail, tradesmen) are real people who lived and worked in Wiscasset, so occasionally they appear in more than one book, because their lives and roles overlap my stories. Of the major characters, Abbie and Seth’s friend Noah in Stopping to Home needed to tell his own story, so Seaward Born became its own book, and Abbie and Seth found their place in it.
Question: When you research a building or person or food of the period, do you have a file of interesting things you’ve come across and you tuck them into your stories? Or do your stories require authenticity that sends you looking for details?
Answer: Usually the stories come to me through my research. Many of the details in my books are from history. The smallpox epidemic in Wiscasset, the orphaned moose calf in Stopping to Home, the graveyard scene in Wintering Well, and the fire at the jail in Finest Kind are all events that I found in letters and diaries and newspapers of those years. I just made sure my characters were part of them. When I need a specific detail—for example, what kind of an axe Will would be using in chapter one of Wintering Well—I would do the research necessary to find out.
Question: In each of your books, the main characters have lost their parents in one way or another. Is this a conscious construction on your part?
Answer: Death was much more a part of life in the early 19th century than it is today. In two of my books my characters are orphaned. In Wintering Well and Finest Kind all four parents are alive, but the children do not live with them all of the time. This would not have been uncommon at that time. Young men and women ages 12-14 would most likely have completed their schooling and be apprenticed, or helping out at home, or in another business. They would be contributing to their families, and making their futures, as my characters are.
Question: Finest Kind has many parallels to America in the year 2010. From the Panic of 1837 and the closing of banks to Granny McPherson’s taunting for being a witch to the adjustments families must make when their financial circumstances change, this is a book that would bring perspective to many of today’s readers. When you write about history, do you notice the synchronicity between past and present?
Answer: Absolutely. I intentionally choose issues that may be sensitive, but can perhaps be best discussed when they are held at arms’ length, as an issue of the past. Other subjects I’ve written about include physical and intellectual disabilities, alcoholism in the family, social roles in the community, and class structure.
Question: Seaward Born begins in the South. Did you travel to Charleston to get a feel for the city? Were you able to do research on location that you wouldn’t have been able to do from your home?
Answer: I was inspired to write Seaward Born by seeing an 1871 wood engraving of a young African American boy leaning on a mop looking out from the steeple of St. Michael’s Church in Charleston. I had never been to Charleston. I spent about a year studying the history of the city, the culture of rice and then cotton, the way slavery was practiced there, the culture of the Gambians who built the city, and so forth. Then I spent two weeks in Charleston, walking the streets, visiting homes, talking with Black historians, reading 18th century Charleston newspapers, inhaling the air, watching birds, looking at plants, and seeing how differently from in New England the sea and land met. After I’d written the book, an historian from the Charleston Library read the sections of Seaward Born that were set there, to check my accuracy. I couldn’t have written the book without having seen the seaport—and then the seaports of Boston and Wiscasset—through Noah’s eyes.
Question: Did the notion of writing about slavery occur to you from source material you found for your earlier book, Stopping to Home?
Answer: I’d had the print of Charleston for some years; I just hadn’t had the right story. The book that helped me bring it all together was Black Jacks, a wonderful history of how Black Americans had a major role in the maritime trades in early America. I knew I wanted to share that story.
Question: In Finest Kind, Jake’s tense training in finding food to keep his family going through the winter is filled with special knowledge of the woods, farming, and making do. It seems as though you, the writer, have lived Jake’s experiences. How is it that you can write so convincingly about the hardscrabble life of those times?
Answer: I’m lucky not to have had to live as Jake and his friend Nabby do! But I’ve read so much about what it must have been like, that pulling all the details together felt very real to me. I live in a house that was built in 1774 and, although I know those who lived here had life much better than Jake and Nabby did, they also coped with many of the same issues. (Sally Clough, one of the characters in Stopping to Home, lived in my house.) So I sit in my study in February and feel the winds blow through the walls and hear the chimney howl and I have a little sense of what it was like in the early 19th century, even though my home now has a furnace as well as fireplaces.
Question: Jake’s work in the jail is heartbreaking. To know that not only criminals but mentally ill, diseased, and homeless people were put into jail is hard for the modern reader to accept. Samuel Holbrook, the jailer, is a very special teacher for Jake to encounter. What motivated you to include a jail in Finest Kind as the place for Jake to find work?
Answer: I visited that jail for the first time when I was eight years old. I never forgot it. When I was doing research about Wiscasset and read about the fire at the jail, and that students had rescued the prisoners, I knew I had to write about it. I want to write about real, average people, living daily lives in the past. Women, children, the poor, the disadvantaged, those who perhaps had disabilities or were homeless, are the ones who are of interest to me. My books are not about the wealthy families in town. They are about the families whose lives, together, make up a community.
Question: Wintering Well deals with the very tough subject of a child accidentally losing a leg. Will’s despair is palpable. How did this story come to you?
Answer: I am very lucky to have adopted four children who came home to me when they were in elementary school, from different Asian countries. At the same time, one of my friends also adopted two children. Her two children had had polio in India. Our six children grew up in a sort of extended family, celebrating birthdays and holidays together. I watched her two grow up disabled, in an abled culture. (By the way, they are doing wonderfully now—one is an occupational therapist and one a teacher!) I wanted to show what possibilities there might have been for someone disabled in the 19th century. And I’m very pleased that Wintering Well has meant a great deal to many people. I’ve never spoken to a group in which at least 20% of the students have not known at least one person who’s had a limb amputated. We hide disabilities today. But they exist. Wintering Well gives students a chance to talk about something many of them want to know more about.
Question: Will’s sister Cassie is the vehicle for his road to recovery and yet she finds interests of her own in Wiscasset. How do you check yourself on making your characters fully developed rather than serving as a plot element?
Answer: Cassie was fun to write—and a challenge. About half the book reviewers thought the book was about her; not about Will, which I found fascinating. Cassie’s job is the same as Will’s—to grow up, and to find her own place in the world. His problem is that his first choice—to be a farmer—is closed to him because he has lost a leg. Cassie’s problem is that she does not know she has a choice. Then, when she starts to wonder about possibilities, roads are cut off. This was difficult to write. I wanted Cassie to choose to be a doctor, as she might have done 40 years later. But in 1820 such a choice would have been unheard of, and to be true to my time and place, I could not do that. A doctor who read the manuscript for medical accuracy was also conscious of that. “Don’t let Cassie dream too much,” she said. “Keep it realistic.” She was right. But girls ask me all of the time why Cassie doesn’t become a doctor. Historical fiction must be true to its time. Writers lie if they impose today’s truths on yesterday.
Question: Were you always interested in history? As a child, did you read historical fiction?
Answer: Oh, yes. I loved historical fiction. In some ways I grew up in the 19th century—living in an old house in New England, with a grandmother who was a dealer in antique dolls and toys, reading 19th century novels.
Question: Are you a nonfiction reader as well?
Answer: I read all sorts of things. Although I’ll admit that since I started writing full-time my reading has been pared down. I read books for young people, because I think they’re some of the very best literature being written today. I read adult mysteries, because I also write them. I read nonfiction, as research, as ideas for new books, and for enjoyment. I also read a lot of magazines, newspapers, “literary fiction,” whatever that is, and whatever is on the table in my dentists’ office! I’m addicted to words.
Question: How much do your manuscripts change when you work on them with your editor, Emma Dryden?
Answer: Emma is a wonderful editor, who teases the best out of her writers. Some of my books have grown a little under her care; Seaward Born lost about fifty pages. But all of my books have improved. She is patient and wise in that she doesn’t tell you what to do; she tells you what needs to be done.
Question: You also write mysteries for adult readers, the Antique Print mysteries featuring Maggie Summers. She’s an antique print dealer and a professor. Did you begin writing these books before or after your children’s books?
Answer: I wrote the first one, Shadows at the Fair, before the books for children, but it was rejected by 40 agents, and I put it aside, thinking mysteries were not for me. But then a miracle happened and it was published, and was a finalist for a “best first mystery Agatha,” and I found myself writing in two genres. The fifth in the Shadows Antique Print Mystery series, Shadows of a Down East Summer, will be published in April of 2011. The plot revolves around the discovery of an 1891 diary written by a young woman who posed for Winslow Homer. Gee—19th century again!
Question: When you’re not writing, you are an antique print dealer as well. Your website, www.leawait.com, states that you’re a fourth-generation antique dealer. What do you enjoy most about working with antiques?
Answer: Antiques are cherished pieces of the past that have come to us from people in earlier periods and places, bringing with them stories and secrets and memories. If they could talk … think what each of them has witnessed, and could tell us. Working with antiques is like stepping back a little and honoring the twelve-year-old girl who created that sampler, or the woman who carried that brass kettle across the ocean from Ireland, or the man who spent his life writing invoices at that desk, through wars and diseases.
Question: Can you share the writing projects you’re working on now?
Answer: I have two historical novels on desks in New York now which I’m hoping will sell—one set in Maine and at the Battle of Saratoga in 1777, and one set in Edinburgh in 1848 about the Highland Clearances. I’m working on a “Wiscasset” book set the week the Civil War broke out, in 1861. And, as a total change of pace, I’ve almost finished with a humorous contemporary mystery for young people. Thank you for asking!
If anyone is interested in keeping up with me, please—friend me on Facebook!
Lea, thanks for providing such thoughtful answers to the Questions in a Reader’s Mind. I know I speak for many of your fans who thank you for the characters, plots, and settings you’ve woven into the rich fabric of your books. If you haven’t read all four of Lea’s historical novels, find them now and be prepared to be drawn into the world of Wiscasset, Maine.
Finest Kind. Margaret K. McElderry Books / Simon & Schuster, 2006.
Seaward Born. Margaret K. McElderry Books / Simon & Schuster, 2003.
Stopping to Home. Margaret K.McElderry Books / Simon & Schuster, 2001.
Wintering Well. Margaret K. McElderry Books / Simon & Schuster, 2004.
Learn more about Lea Wait at Children’s Literature Network.
Learn more about Wiscasset, Main as a children’s literature destination on the CLN site.