Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Authorsday: Leslie Wheeler

My guest today is Leslie Wheeler.  See what she has to say.

Q: When did you know you wanted to be a writer?A: I’ve known I wanted to be a writer since I was in elementary school. Before that, I toyed with the idea of becoming a ballerina, but gave up because I was just too clumsy. Writing, on the other hand, is something that has always come easily to me, and that I enjoy doing.

Q: How did you pick the genre you write in?

A: I picked the mystery genre because I felt I needed the discipline involved in writing a mystery. The first novel I ever wrote was an 800-page historical novel that was long on incident but short on plot. As a result the book didn’t hold together very well, and I was never able to find a publisher. This experience made me realize I should try a genre where there’s a distinct beginning, middle and end, and where the writer must plant clues and build to a climax. Having this kind of framework has helped keep me more or less on course during for the long haul of a novel.

Q: Do you plot or do you write by the seat of your pants?

A. At the risk of contradicting what I’ve just said about my need for discipline, I admit I’m more of a seat-of-the-pants writer. I start with a general idea of the story’s beginning and end. I also decide who the hero, the victim, and the villain will be—in that order. But beyond that, I don’t have a clear sense of how my story’s going to play out, scene by scene, chapter by chapter. Nor do I know who all the other characters will be. As Joan Didion once said, “I write to find out what I’m thinking.” I’m the same way, and this is what makes fiction writing fun for me. I love it when a character simply appears on the page, or something happens that I didn’t expect. I enjoy being surprised, just as I hope my readers will be surprised. That’s the upside of what I call the “discovery process.” The downside is that when a character or scene comes to me toward the end of the book, I have to backfill.

Q: What drew you to the subject of MURDER AT SPOUTERS POINT?

A: The first book in my series, MURDER AT PLIMOTH PLANTATION, deals with the dark side of Pilgrim history, particularly the Pilgrims’ relations with the Native peoples. These relations turned out to be much more complicated and conflicted than the stories I’d learned in school about helpful Squanto and the happy Thanksgiving feast the Pilgrims enjoyed with the Indians. In MURDER AT SPOUTERS POINT, I continue to explore this theme of the often troubled relations between the white settlers and Native peoples. This time, I focus on the Mashantucket Pequots of Connecticut (called the Dottagucks in the novel), a tribe that was all but exterminated in the seventeenth century, but managed to achieve remarkable success some 300 years later with the establishment of the Foxwoods casino complex.

Q: What’s your writing schedule?

A: I try to get started as early in the morning as possible, because this is when I do my best work. Why? Because I’ve just woken up and am still close to the dream world of my unconscious. My mind is also relatively free of the worries and concerns of the day ahead, so I’m better able to engage with my characters. I’ll work for a couple of hours, then take a break. Or if I’m really on a roll, I’ll work most of the day until my brain feels like it’s stuffed with cotton, my body is twisted in knots, and I know it’s time to get some fresh air and exercise.

Q: Who is your greatest cheerleader?

A. My biggest fan is my son. My first mystery novel was published when he was in fifth grade, and he sometimes accompanied me when I did weekend events. He also made a point of taking the book along on a weekend retreat sponsored by our church and displaying it prominently. Later, when he was a bit older, he started going on research trips with me—to a reenactment of the Gettysburg Battle for the second book, and to Mystic Seaport, the Mashantucket Pequot Museum, Foxwoods, and the Mashantucket Pequot-sponsored powwow, Schmetizum, for the current book. For his first book report in eighth grade, he chose to write about my novel, MURDER AT GETTYBURG. Needless to say, he gave it a glowing review. He tells everyone, including me, what a wonderful writer I am, and often asks how my writing’s going. He loves it when I share my ideas for the new book I’ve started.

Q: What’s your favorite food?

A. My favorite food is the artichoke. In part, this has to do with the fact that I grew up in California where artichokes are plentiful and inexpensive. It may also have something to do with the amount of the mayonnaise I consume. But a big reason is the eating experience itself, which is somewhat like reading a mystery. You start with the tough outer leaves (opening chapters, usually involving a murder), move on to the delicate inner ones (the investigation), and finally you reach the choke (the climax). Once that difficult, prickly part has been taken care of, you reach the succulent heart (conclusion), your reward for all the hard work of peeling away the various layers.

Q: Where do you write?

A: I do most of my writing in my third-story study, a former attic that has been converted into one large room. I think of it as my eyrie, because it has floor-to-ceiling windows that face south and look out onto a yard with a large maple tree. Beyond the yard is a quiet side street of older houses that look like they belong to an earlier century. The room has wall-to-wall carpeting, which blocks out the sound from below, and when I close the door, I feel I’m in my own private world. After years of being an “itinerant” writer, moving from room to room, as the demands of the household dictated, I’m grateful to have this “room of my own.”

Q: What was the hardest scene of MURDER AT SPOUTERS POINT to write?

A: The hardest scene–or rather scenes–were the climatic ones, which take place on a sailboat in the midst of a storm. In these scenes, my heroine, Miranda, and her friend not only have to deal with the storm, but with two villainous characters. I find action scenes in general difficult to write, but these scenes were especially difficult because they include several important revelations in the form of dialogue or internal monologue. So I had to figure out ways for bits of dialogue to occur while a lot of other things were going on—in other words, find relatively quiet spaces for my characters to talk in the midst of a howling storm.

Q: What was your favorite scene to write?

A: My favorite scene to write was a phone conversation between my main character, Miranda, and her love interest, Nate. In this conversation, both characters have things they don’t want the other to know: Nate, that he fell asleep behind the wheel and was nearly killed; Miranda that she got whacked on the head pursuing a homeless woman Nate has told her to leave alone. Because they know each other well, each picks up on the fact that the other is hiding something, and gets the other to ’fess up. After a brief and humorous exchange about their respective war wounds, Nate repeats his advice to leave homeless woman alone. “Are you telling me what to do?” Miranda quips. “It’s good advice,” he says. “Mine wasn’t?” she counters. I liked writing this back-and-forth, because while it’s about serious matters, it also has its light-hearted moments, and shows the genuine affection these two characters have for each other despite their very real differences.

Author Bio: An award-winning author of books about American history and biographies, Leslie Wheeler now writes the Miranda Lewis “living history” mystery series. Titles include: MURDER AT PLIMOTH PLANTATION, MURDER AT GETTYSBURG, and most recently, MURDER AT SPOUTERS POINT. She is a member of Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime, serving as Speakers Bureau coordinator for the New England chapter. She has also begun a new career as a contributing editor of Level Best Books, which publishes annual anthologies of short crime fiction by New England authors. Leslie divides her time between Cambridge, Massachusetts and the Berkshires.

Book Blurb: In MURDER AT SPOUTERS POINT, the grisly murder of a yachtsman, allegedly by a local Indian, rocks a seacoast town. It also severely tests the loyalties of a white woman, Miranda Lewis, and her Native lover, because the victim is the fiancé of Miranda’s good friend, and the prime suspect is a close friend of her lover’s. Miranda’s quest for the truth not only puts her at odds with Nate and her own friends, but plunges her deep into the victim’s past—a web of secrets, lies and betrayals—and ultimately to a life-and-death struggle with a crazed killer.


Ruth McCarty said...

Leslie, I've always enjoyed reading about Miranda and I'm so looking forward to reading Murder at Spouters Point. Did you have to go to Foxwoods for researsh? Your writing space sounds ideal.

Leslie Wheeler said...

Ruth, Thanks for your comment. Glad you enjoy my protagonist, Miranda.
I like her myself! I better after all the time I've spent with her. Yes, I did go to Foxwoods for research, but confess I spent more time at the Mashantucket Pequot Museum nearby, than at the casino. I'm just not a gambler, though I know people (you, I think) who've won big.
I really appreciate having the writing space I do--so important to have a room of one's own!

John Achterkirchen said...

I am intrigued by your writing schedule comments. Particularly the connection you cite between writing first thing in the morning and your being close to the dream world of your unconscious. Your mind is clear then, and you are more in touch with the core of your being. It intuitively makes sense! Keep up the good work!

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, Leslie,

I write best in the early morning myself! I love historical mysteries. Yours sound like great reading.

Jacqueline Seewald

Clea Simon said...

Leslie - I was interested to hear that you chose to write mysteries because of the discipline of the genre. Now that you've mastered it, are you ever tempted to go back to that historical? (Or any other genre, for that matter?)

Leslie Wheeler said...

Yes, early morning is the best time for me. Used to be late at night, but now that I'm older, I'm more likely to fall asleep than write through the night. And I honestly believe I'm closer to the world of my unconscious in the AM.

Leslie Wheeler said...

Interesting to hear about another writer who writes best in the AM, though I confess I'm not much good too early. Could never get up at 4 AM, and write for a couple of hours before going to work, as some people I know have done.

Leslie Wheeler said...

I've just finished a romantic suspense novel that I'm shopping, though of course, romantic suspense is still classified as mystery. What many people don't realize is that there's a lot of variety within the genre from suspense to horror to capers to paranormal and more. So I find there are plenty of sub genres to work in.
I do think from time to time about going back to the historical, but this time I might turn it into a historical mystery, possibly YA.

PatRemick said...

Leslie, I loved that said your son is your biggest cheerleader! That, alone, is a great impetus for a mother to keep writing. You are so fortunate --and would be the envy of many WriterMoms! Can't wait to read Murder at Spouters Point!

Leslie Wheeler said...

Thanks for your comment, Pat. I guess it still kind of surprises me my son is such a fan, but he is and I
LOVE IT! What can I say, WriterMoms Rock!

Leslie Wheeler said...

Leslie, Thanks for sending me this interview. I enjoyed it and responded to the blog. Joan Didion's quote, "I write to find out what I'm thinking" is a wonderful way to express how some of us write. I think that is me, even though I never knew it.

I'm posting this on behalf of mystery author, Janet Morgan, whose comment somehow didn't make it on the blog.

Leslie Wheeler said...

I'm glad you appreciated the Joan Didion comment. I first learned about it way back when, but it has been meaningful to me over the years, as I mull over what it is that drives me writing.

And finally, as the another day approaches, thanks, Chris, for having me as a guest on your blog today!

AliasMo said...

Hi Leslie -

I love that feeling of discovery, too, when a character comes alive or a situation arises naturally from earlier events when I was just feeling my way. I'm working now on the "backfill." Not so much fun. Congratulations on "Murder at Spouter's Point"!

Leslie Wheeler said...

Mo,thanks for your comment. Yes, the feeling of discovery when a character suddenly springs to life on the page is truly wonderful. Good luck on your "backfill," though!

Leslie Wheeler said...

Thanks, Chris, for doing an interview of me on your blog. I enjoyed the experience!

Chris Redding said...

Thanks for being my guest Leslie.

Electronic Smokeless Cigarette said...

Leslie..I really enjoyed reading books as well as novels..I especially like the mysteries which you involved in your books...