Wednesday, October 20, 2010

On Living History

I met Leslie Wheeler when we were both first time novelists published by Larcom Press, a small, New England publisher. Since then, Leslie, an award-winning author of books about American history and biographies, has gone on to write two more murder mysteries in her "living history" series. She's also written numerous short stories published in four anthologies by Level Best Books and has become a contributing editor. Her latest short story will appear in the forthcoming anthology, Thin Ice.

Please welcome Leslie to Jungle Red.

JAN: Since you always set your mysteries in historical locations, tell me a little about Spouters Point and why you chose this setting for your mystery?

LESLIE: Spouters Point is a fictionalized version of Mystic Seaport in Connecticut. I chose it because I’ve long been fascinated by the history of whaling that is presented at the museum. I’d visited the Seaport years ago, but during my second visit in 2003, I really fell in love with the place, especially with the Charles W. Morgan, which is the world’s oldest surviving wooden whaling ship.

Mystic Seaport was also attractive to me, because of its proximity to Foxwoods, the Mashantucket-Pequot-owned gambling casino complex. These two sites allowed me to further explore a theme I’d dealt with in Murder at Plimoth Plantation: the often troubled relations between the white settlers and the Native peoples.

JAN: Tell us a little bit about your protagonist Miranda Lewis, the workaholic history book writer, and more importantly, how she evolved from your first book Murder at Plimoth Plantation.

LESLIE: When we first meet Miranda in Murder at Plimoth, she’s completely absorbed in her work, but in the course of the novel, she changes from armchair historian to a woman of action. She solves a murder and, as the novel closes, begins a relationship with Nate Barnes. In the second book, Murder at Gettysburg, she continues to get more involved in the real world rather than simply living vicariously through her writing. She solves another murder, but in the process is disillusioned to discover that a man she’s worshipped for years is not the person she thought he was. She returns to Nate, in part because she cares about him, but also because she knows him for who he really is, warts and all.

JAN: Every mystery protagonist has his/her special skills. What is it that makes Miranda such a good sleuth?

LESLIE: I think she’s a good sleuth because she’s observant and curious, always wondering what’s going on beneath the surface of the people around her. She’s also incredibly stubborn. She’ll pursue a possible suspect even though everyone, including Nate, warns her against it.

JAN: Speaking of Nate, I was immediately intrigued by him. He seems fresh and authentic. Maybe I'm just tired of sensitive new age guy/fictional characters, but when Miranda has to cool him down from an episode of road rage, I immediately wanted to know more about him. Tell us where he came from (idea wise) and why you chose him (and if he's not new to this book, just tell us about how he's grown or changed across the series).

LESLIE: I’m so glad you asked about Nate, Jan, also that you like him, because someone else, who read the book pre-publication, was really put off by him, and I found myself defending him. Nate is modeled after a friend’s volatile, Italian-American husband, who couldn’t be more different than his reserved WASP wife. I chose him because I wanted to write about a relationship between two people from very different worlds, who have a lot of issues to work out. There’s also a bit of my adopted son, who is part Native American, in Nate. I imagined Nate as looking much as Nick would thirty-some years down the road.

The odd thing is that as Nick has grown older, he’s become more like Nate in terms of his personality. Hmmm.

JAN: Hmmm is right. Are we mothers just in love with our sons?? (I know I am) Or is this just life imitating art?? Hmmm.....

Anyway, in this book you interweave two fascinating cultures. The seafaring and the Native American. Tell me about your on-site research. Did you spent a lot of time in the casino? And learning about modern day Native American gambling culture?

LESLIE: I confess that because of a deep-seated aversion to gambling, which, I suppose, goes back to my Puritan ancestry. I didn’t spend much time in the casino. I went in, looked around, and that was it. Where I spent the most time was the Mashantucket-Pequot Museum, which is adjacent to Foxwoods. There, I learned a great deal about how a tribe that was all but extinguished in the 1600s was able to make a remarkable comeback by qualifying for Federal recognition and then opening a successful casino complex.

I also attended the Mashantucket-Pequot-sponsored powwow, Schmetizum, which takes place over several days at the end of August every year, and is the largest and richest (in terms of prize money) powwow east of the Mississippi.

JAN: That's pretty cool. A real powwow...

LESLIE: It was a fascinating experience, which taught me about another important aspect of Native American culture. But back to gambling: Like my protagonist, Miranda, I do have a fondness for the race track, though I haven’t indulged it in a while.

JAN: What was your biggest personal challenge in writing this book? The hardest obstacle to overcome?

LESLIE: My biggest challenge was writing a climatic scene where Miranda almost kills another character. True, she’s fighting for her life, but the scene was still hard to write, because Miranda is an extension of me, and I don’t like to think that even if I were up against it, as she is, that’s what I’d do. Miranda is horrified by what she almost did. As she later says, “The worst part was that she [the other person] stopped being a human and became an object I needed to destroy.” The scene is meant to counter the racist stereotype of Indians as savages and white people as civilized beings.

Even Miranda wonders at times if there’s any truth to the stereotype. So I had to put her in a situation where she behaves like a savage herself.

JAN: To find out more or read the excerpt, check out Leslie's website at


  1. Writing climatic scenes like the one you describe is hard because imagining and actually being in that type of situation isn't the same. I just had a scary experience and I made a mental note about adrenaline. You either act or you don't, but the thinking time is quick and then your body races on instinct and chemicals. Me writing about it here will, hopefully, make that stick in my mind.

  2. Leslie, welcome to Jungle Red and congratulations on the new book in your series! It's so interesting to read about how writers struggle to make a character, acting in extreme circumstances, ring true. Someone, maybe Ruth Rendell, said that everyone has the potential to kill another person, in the right situation. And I guess I'd agree...

  3. Great interview ladies! and congratulations on the book Leslie! Is this the one that required some research in sailing from you or am I behind a book?

  4. Savage is part of human -- a part that makes great reading.

  5. Hey, Leslie! one of the hardest working women in show biz. See you at your one for me.

  6. E.B., you are right about the difference between imagining and being in that situation, and it's good you made a note of how you felt in a scary situation. It's those kind of memories I try to draw on when I'm writing. I also drew on a description in BLINK by Malcom Gladwell, where he talks about what happens to cops in high speed chases and other really tense situations: the rational part of their brain shuts down, and the primitive part takes over, which often results in their overreacting with lethal consequences.
    I think I also agree with Ruth Rendell, Hallie, about everyone having the potential to kill someone else. And yes, Austin, savage is a part of being human, though I think it's hard for some people to acknowledge they have that capacity within themselves--it's always the other person who's the savage.
    Yes, Roberta, this is the book that required some research about sailing, and your friend, Bill Littell was very helpful in that regard when he took me out on his boat--so much that I include him in the acknowledgments. The climatic scene in which Miranda almost kills another person takes place on a sailboat in the mist of a storm--not the conditions I experienced the day I went out with Bill, though he gave me lots of good details about what can happen in a storm.

  7. I'm so glad you made Nate different from the acceptable. Being in the same car as my son-in-law means learning new swear words and wondering whether any other driver should be allowed on the road but he's very considerate with my daughter and his kids.

    It's great that your protagonist learned how far she'd go to defend herself. What's a person to do--preserve her civilized status and submit to death. What about defending a loved one?

    Congratulations of your new book. I look forward to reading it.

  8. Pauline,your son-in-law sounds like my son, when he's in the car with me, whether he's driving or just a passenger. Sometimes, I think it may be a good thing he doesn't have his license yet, just his permit, but he's a nice guy in other ways.
    What is it about getting behind the wheel that brings out the worst in some people?
    And yes, defending loved ones is as important as defending oneself. I took a self-defense course once where we had to slam our fists into boards, and hopefully, break them, while shouting, "No!" What gave me the strength to break the board (I still have the pieces) was thinking that I had to stop someone from hurting my son.

  9. My brother is the calmest, most even tempered human being I know -- but you should hear him talking to the other drivers -- its his one form of verbal aggression.

    Sometimes I think badmouthing other drivers is just an outlet for the frustration we feel at the little obstacles we encounter every day.

    I LOVED that Nate was so human on the first pages.

  10. Interesting point about badmouthing other drivers as an outlet for frustration over daily annoyances, Jan. Confess that I've been known to bang my fist on the steering wheel when the car in front of me doesn't move forward when the light changes.
    But I'd be too afraid of provoking an ugly confrontation with the other driver if I rolled down the window and yelled at him. Wonder if it's a gender thing.
    Once again, I'm glad you like Nate as he appears on those first pages, road rage and all.

  11. I love the "living history" concept because it gives us a real problem or crime to solve with the immediacy of the present as well as a chance to see echos in the past.

    I think it's particularly apt in Spouters Point where we see Mystic Seaport, Foxwoods and the Mashantucket-Pequot Museum in such close proximity. There's a time travel aspect to the whole reading experience.

  12. I think putting "echoes of the past" into a book is important, Barb, whether it's the historical past or a character's own past. As my father used to say, "You can't escape the past." Much as we and our fictional creations would like to at times! For example, in your new book,THE DEATH OF AN AMBITIOUS WOMAN, I love it when you have a childhood friend of Tracy Kendall's, the ambitious woman in the title, move in next door. Of course, this friend who knew her way back when is the last person Tracy wants to see now that she's successfully reinvented herself.

  13. Your depiction of Miranda and Nate is realistic, genuine, and sensitive. They both grace the pages as human, with good intentions -- and flaws. They are complex, and with their differing ethnic origins, make a compelling and appealing pair. I want to read more!

  14. Thanks, John! I'm glad that both Nate and Miranda resonated with you.