Do Authors Write About What They Know? Lea Wait’s 19th Century Childhood

            No matter how old I may feel on some days, I was definitely born in the mid-twentieth century. But readers of my books (both contemporary mysteries and historical novels) often ask why I incorporate historical details in all of my work.

The answer is simple. In many ways, I’m more comfortable with the past than the present.

I’ve never lived in a house or apartment (I’ve lived in Boston, New York City, New York State, New Jersey, and Maine) built after World War I. Uninsulated plaster walls (usually clam shell plaster,) solid wooden doors, and fireplaces in many rooms feel normal to me. The house I live in now, which I’ve used in several of my books and which my family has owned for seventy years, was built in 1774 on a Maine island, and then moved to the mainland in about 1832. (New Englanders were the original re-cyclers. People still move houses rather than tearing them down.)

But, perhaps even more important than lying in bed at night and imagining who else slept in the room, and what they were like, and what their days were filled with, I also grew up in a family that valued the past.

Our bookcases were filled with nineteenth-century novels that I read and loved.

My father was a nationally known numismatist (collector of paper money) and wrote several books on the subject. My sister collected the wood engravings and cartoons of Thomas Nast (now donated to a museum) and was an expert on his life and work.

In the early twentieth century my great-grandfather, who I knew as “the upstairs Papa” when he was in his nineties, had a shop on Beacon Hill in Boston where he sold imported Irish and Scots linens, lace, and crystal. His oldest daughter, my grandmother, was an antique doll and toy dealer. When I was a child she took me with her to visit other dealers, to help set up her antique show booths, and to attend auctions. (I made my first auction purchase when I was ten: I paid $1 for a first edition of the Encyclopedia Americana.) When I was in my twenties I became an antique print dealer, with the help of my mother. Since (like almost all antique dealers) I also had a day job, my mother was able to attend auctions and shows when I couldn’t. We sold antique prints for over thirty years.

(Note: Maggie Summer, the protagonist of my first mystery series, the Shadows Antique Print Mystery series, is also an antique print dealer, and I include information on antique prints throughout the eight books in that series.)

So when I began writing the Mainely Needlepoint series, it seemed logical – if not essential – that I include an antique dealer (Sarah Byrne) in my cast of characters, and that my Mainely Needlepointers not only create custom needlepoint, but identify and restore antique needlepoint. And that I include quotations from samplers and early needlepoint at the beginning of each chapter.

In the latest in my series, THREAD HERRINGS, published last week, Sarah takes my protagonist, Angie Curtis, to her first auction. She explains how auctions work, the differences between dealers bidding and people attending to buy for their collections or homes, and why it’s important to recognize the differences. And, of course, Angie is tempted, and bids on a worn eighteenth century needlepointed coat of arms.

When she takes removes her purchase from its frame she finds a mysterious paper hidden behind the stitching. And, of course, she has to investigate it. And, of course, her investigation leads to a murder …

Was I born in the nineteenth century? No. But I think I’d feel comfortable there.

 

 

BIO:  USA Today best-selling author Lea Wait lives on the coast of Maine where she writes three mystery series (the Shadows Antique Mystery series, the Mainely Needlepoint series, and, under the name Cornelia Kidd, the Maine Murder series.) She has also written seven historical novels set in 18th and 19th century Maine for ages 8 and up, the most recent of which is Contrary Winds, a YA mystery, and a book of essays, Living and Writing on the Coast of Maine. She invites you to check her website, http://www.leawait.com, which includes free links to prequels of many of her books, and to friend her on Facebook.         

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