I was born and raised in sunny Southern California, "land of the laid-back," in the words of my series main character, Miranda Lewis. I spent a lot of time swimming in the family pool, baking in the sun (I'm paying for it now!), and listening to rock music on my transistor radio. I also read a lot of Nancy Drew. My seventh grade English teacher told me she didn't understand how I could write so well when that was all I read. But obviously, I learned something.
For reasons I can't fully explain (unless it was the pull of my "dark" New England roots, including ancestors who came over on The Mayflower), after earning a bachelor's degree in English and history from Stanford University and a master's in English from UC/Berkeley, I kept moving further and further east. I've lived in New York City and the Berkshires (where I still have a weekend and summer house), and now make my home in the Boston area.
I've always wanted to be a writer, except for a brief period in elementary school when I wanted to be a ballerina. A general lack of coordination discouraged me from pursuing that goal. Writing, on the other hand, was something I enjoyed and was good at. But it was a while before I felt ready to proclaim myself a professional writer. My first real job was as a teacher of adult education at a vocational training school, teaching such exciting subjects as "refrigeration" English and electrical math. Later, I worked as an editor and writer for Barron's Educational Series (not to be confused with the financial publication), editing their college guide and writing in-depth profiles of colleges, for which I visited schools from Montana to Maine. From there, I turned to freelance writing, with specialties in history and biography for both the trade and school markets.
LOVING WARRIORS, my biography in letters of the nineteenth-century American feminist and abolitionist, Lucy Stone, and her husband, Henry B. Blackwell, won the English Speaking Union's Ambassador of Honor Award as an "outstanding interpreter of American life and culture." I've written young adult biographies of Jane Addams and Rachel Carson, and an adult biography of former President Jimmy Carter (a man I greatly admire), dashed off at breakneck speed during the 1976 campaign. I've also done a lot of work on American history textbooks, including co-authoring a widely used eighth grade text, AMERICA: THE PEOPLE AND THE DREAM.
But, as a character in MURDER AT GETTYSBURG says of Miranda, " . . . behind the earnest history textbook author there lurks an aspiring fiction writer." Fiction appeals to me because it gives me a change to play god-to make up the story myself. When I wrote biographies and history books, I often found myself wondering: what if things had happened differently?
My first foray into fiction was a very long, as yet unpublished, historical novel, SISTERS OF THE HEART, about three young women who meet at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary (before it was a college) in the 1840s and who then go off in different directions (one becomes an abolitionist, another a doctor, and the third, a missionary) only to have their lives intersect years later. This novel could be subtitled "Leslie Wheeler's favorite moments in American history," because that's what went into it-California during the Gold Rush days, the Civil War, and finally the Great Chicago Fire of 1893. The result: a "big, baggy monster" of a book that was long on description but short on plot. You can read "The Proposal," a short story adapted from a chapter of the novel, at Books and Stories. The story was published in the New England Writers Network Magazine (NEWN). You can read my interview in NEWN here.
I then decided to try my hand at writing mysteries because I've always enjoyed reading them, and also because I wanted the discipline of writing a tightly plotted book with a beginning, a middle, and an end, in which clues must be planted and the action must build to a climax. Instead of writing a straight historical mystery, I came up with the idea of a "living history" mystery series—books set in the present-day at historic sites with history interwoven into the story. My series focuses on reenactors—people who try to make history come alive for twenty-first century audiences-just as I tried to do in my textbook and other writing.
I've really enjoyed researching my "living history" mysteries. For MURDER AT PLIMOTH PLANTATION, I spent countless hours at the recreated Pilgrim village in Plymouth, Massachusetts, engaging with the interpreters—the people who portray the Pilgrims—taking notes, and snapping photos. For MURDER AT GETTYSBURG, I attended the 137th Anniversary of the Gettysburg Battle with my husband and son. Watching men shoot at each other in the hot sun was not their idea of fun but, as you can see from the photo, I had a wonderful time!
For MURDER AT SPOUTERS POINT, I spent a lot of time at Mystic Seaport (of which the Spouters Point Maritime Museum is a fictionalized version), watching demonstrations of whaling and other seafaring activities, accompanied by the tuneful sea shanties I use as epigraphs in the book. I also visited Foxwoods (called Clambanks in the novel), the nearby Mashantucket-Pequot Museum, where I learned the fascinating history of this tribe as well as aspects of Native American folklore that appear in the novel, and attended Schmetizum, the tribally-sponsored powwow that is held in late August every year. Like the reenactment of the Gettysburg Battle, the powwow was very, very hot, but my son and I still managed to enjoy ourselves!
My main character is a history textbook writer because this is a world I know, but also because historians have a lot in common with detectives. As Miranda muses in MURDER AT PLIMOTH PLANTATION: "My job as a historian was to sift through the myths, half-truths, and outright lies until I arrived at the truth-or at least a close approximation of it. This involved raising numerous questions and scouring primary sources for answers. Even so, the truth often proved elusive."
In what other ways are my sleuth and I alike? We're both transplanted Californians who attended the same university and who now live in the Boston area. However, there are important differences between us: She's divorced and childless, I’m now a widow with a teenage son, but also a wonderful new man in my life; she has a bossy older brother, I have an older sister—I won't say whether she's bossy or not—she adopts a cat with great reluctance, I love my feisty feline companion; she drives a ratty old Peugeot, I used to drive a ratty old Saab (until I started doing book events and realized I needed a more comfortable and reliable car). She's also taller, thinner, and has redder hair than I do. In certain respects, she's an idealized version of myself. But lest she seem too perfect, I've given her some of my undesirable traits—she's a clutterbug with a messy car and apartment, and has a tendency to blunder into situations. She's also a workaholic. But when she does tear herself away from her desk, she has adventures I've never had. And there, her stubbornness—a trait she shares with her creator—gets her into trouble but also helps her stay the course.
What's next for Miranda? Miranda is still recovering from her recent adventures in MURDER AT SPOUTERS POINT, though she has been making noises about appearing in another book, the setting for which has yet to be determined.
I’ve also recently completed a romantic suspense novel, RATTLESNAKE HILL, and am seeking a publisher for it. RATTLESNAKE HILL is the story of a woman who’s determined to avoid the “crazy” love that runs in her blood, but who falls for a backwoods charmer and possible murderer when she goes to the Berkshires to find out the truth behind an old family secret. This book started out as a sequel to MURDER AT PLIMOTH PLANTATION, but 100 pages into it, I realized it wasn't Miranda's story, but that of an entirely different character.
For me, writing fiction is a process of discovery. That's what makes it fun and keeps it interesting.