Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Interview with LESLIE WHEELER

You’ve published both fiction and non-fiction. Which do you prefer writing—and why?

I prefer writing fiction because it enables me to play God and make up the story myself. When I wrote non-fiction, there would always be moments when I’d think to myself, what if something else had happened instead? But I couldn’t go there, because I had to stick to the facts. It’s those “what if” moments that make writing fiction fun. I often begin with a real life situation then take off from there. For example, in my first mystery novel, MURDER AT PLIMOTH PLANTATION, I started with a real-life trip to Plimoth Plantation I made when my sister and her family were visiting from California. My eight-year-old niece complained the whole way up the path to the Pilgrim village. But as soon as we went into one of the houses, and a Pilgrim woman spoke to us in the wonderful seventeenth-century English they use, she stopped complaining and listened with interest. My imagination kicked in and this is what I got: What if my niece became so enchanted by Plimoth Plantation that years later, she returns as an interpreter, and what if while she’s there, a murder occurs. Of course, this part never really happened.

In addition to being a writer, you’ve worked as an editor. Tell us how your stint as an editor affected your fiction writing.

When I worked as an American history textbook editor, I tried to wrestle other writers’ manuscripts into better shape, which often involved a fair amount of rewriting. This helped my own writing to a certain extent, but not as much as I would have liked. In my experience, it’s always easier to fix problems in someone else’s work than your own. That’s why being in a writers’ critique group is very important to me. The group members pick up on things I don’t see, and vice versa.

Does the fact that you can trace your ancestors back to the Mayflower have anything to do with your love of history?

I credit my paternal grandfather for giving me my love of history rather than my Mayflower ancestry. My grandfather, Burton K. Wheeler, was a U.S. Senator from Montana from the 1920s to right after World War II. He was a colorful, larger-than-life figure, and a wonderful raconteur. All he had to do was walk into a room and start talking to become the center of attention. In his early years in the Senate, he helped expose the Teapot Dome scandal during the Harding administration, and the movie, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, is based on his battle against corruption. Later in his career, he fought Roosevelt when FDR tri
ed to pack the Supreme Court. I grew up listening to his stories, and since he lived until he was almost ninety-three, I was able to spend lots of time with him. Because of him, I took many American history courses in college, even though officially, I was an English major, specializing in medieval literature. My Mayflower connection stems from my grandfather Wheeler, but it wasn’t a big deal to me for a long time. I even forgot about it until reminded by my sister on the above-mentioned visit to Plimoth Plantation, when she and my brother-in-law raced around trying to find the interpreters who portrayed our ancestors, Susannah White and Edward Winslow.

Tell us about your “living history” mysteries.

I call my series “living history” mysteries, because, although they take place in the present-day, they are set at historic sites, which enables me to weave in a lot of history. I get to have it both ways: I don’t have to worry about getting all the period details right, but I can still include a fair amount of history in my books. All three of my books feature reenactors: the interpreters in MURDER AT PLIMOTH PLANTATION, Confederate reenactors in MURDER AT GETTYSBURG, and the demonstration squad staff at Mystic Seaport in my new book, MURDER AT SPOUTERS POINT, which takes place at a fictionalized version of the Seaport. These folks appeal to me, because they try to make history come alive for their audiences, just as I tried to do for the readers of my American history books.

What advice can you give to new writers?

Don’t give up! I’m a poster girl for determination. Although I published my non-fiction early on and with relative ease, I had to travel a long, difficult road before my fiction was published. I spent nearly ten years writing then marketing my first novel without success, and another year writing part of a second novel before I came up with the idea of my “living history” series. Even then, it took me about five years to finish the first book in the series, another two years to find an agent, and so on. A second piece of advice is: Don’t aim for perfection the first time around. I’ve seen too many writers develop severe cases of writers’ block as a result. They write the first chapter over and over again, and never get beyond it. My early drafts are so awful sometimes, it’s embarrassing. They read like bad translations from Sanskrit into Polish, then English. But I know that eventually I’ll be able to turn out polished prose. I’ve also learned to trust my imagination to help me find my way around the inevitable roadblocks that crop up in writing fiction.

Two of your mysteries, MURDER AT PLIMOTH PLANTATION, and MURDER AT SPOUTERS POINT feature Native American characters and history. How did you become interested in Native peoples?

My interest in Native peoples goes back to the summer vacations I spent in Montana at the family cabins in Glacier National Park. My grandfather Wheeler was responsible for legislation that was favorable to the Indians, so members of the Blackfoot nation would come to visit him in Glacier, sometimes bringing gifts, including a spectacular headdress which used to hang on the wall in the main cabin. My grandfather arranged for my cousins and I to be “adopted” into the Blackfoot tribe. There was a ceremony at which we were given Indian names (mine was Morning Girl) and beautiful beaded necklaces. (I still have mine.) Later, in my work on American history textbooks, I often wrote the “Closing the Frontier” chapter, which, among other things, deals with the Indian wars in the West toward the end of the nineteenth-century. But it wasn’t until I started researching my first mystery,

MURDER AT PLIMOTH PLANTATION, that I discovered how much more complicated and troubled the relations between the eastern tribes and the early settlers were. In grade school, I’d learned about friendly Squanto who showed the Pilgrims how to plant corn and kept them from starving, and how the Pilgrims were so grateful that they invited the Indians to a harvest feast, which evolved into Thanksgiving. What I didn’t know was that there was a darker side to this history: that while we’re stuffing ourselves with turkey, the Native peoples are holding a “National Day of Mourning.” I continue to explore this theme in MURDER AT SPOUTERS POINT, where I deal with the Mashantucket Pequots (called the Dottagucks in the novel), who were practically exterminated in the early 1600s, but managed to hold onto a small parcel of land, enabling them to qualify for Federal recognition, then start a successful gambling casino complex.

What are the addresses of your website, blog, and other online presences?

I’m on both Facebook( and Twitter (@Leslie_Wheeler). But only because my tech-savvy teenage son got me on!



  1. Leslie O'Grady10/13/2010 7:01 PM

    As a resident of southeastern Connecticut who's been to Mystic Seaport countless times, I can't wait to read MURDER AT SPOUTERS POINT. Loved Leslie's other books with backgrounds of living history museums, and I'm sure this one will be no exception.

  2. I've learned a lot more about you in this interview. You have some wonderful experiences in your life and I'm hoping some of them will show up in future novels.

    We at the now closed Larcom Press loved your first book, as you know, and I'm not surprised that you continue to find a loyal audience.

  3. I learned a lot about you in this interview, and I hope some of these stories show up in future novels. You've had some wonderful experiences.

    As you know, we at The Larcom Press loved your first book, and we knew you'd have a loyal and growing audience.

  4. Morning Girl? Who knew? Very cool. Now I'll have to read your books, just to see how you weave in the Native American contributions. Rosemary Lonergan would be proud.

  5. Thanks, Leslie, Anita, and Susan for your comments. Always nice to hear from you, Leslie O, as one of the Lethal Ladies of Larcom Press--isn't that what we called ourselves way back when? And our editor, Susan. So you see, Susan, your comment did get posted--twice actually! And Anita, my old friend from high school, yes, now you will have to real "Morning Girl's" books!

  6. I like Leslie Wheeler's advice for new writers. It is both realistic in terms of the difficulty first-time fiction writers experience when attempting to publish, yet also encouraging. Keen determination often is required for a number of years. Avoiding a standard of perfection and trusting one's imagination also are extremely valuable suggestions.

    Her writing about the complexities of Native peoples adapting to the culture of American immigrants who settled in the eastern United States displays understanding rarely seen in writing today. She embraces diversity and acceptance of ethnic minorities. I admire Ms. Wheeler for that.

    I was delighted to read about the influence of her grandfather, Sen. Burton K. Wheeler, of Montana, on her love of history, and her early introduction to Native peoples. Sen. Wheeler was a significant figure in our country's history, and his influence on her personally and in her writing shows clearly in Ms. Faulkner's interview.

    I can't wait to read Ms. Wheeler's latest novel, MURDER AT SPOUTERS POINT.

  7. Thanks for your comments, Leslie, Susan, and Anita. Always nice to hear from you, Leslie O.,as one of the Lethal Ladies of Larcom Press, and from you, Susan, as our former editor. And Anita, old friend from high school. So now you will have to read "Morning Girl's" books!

  8. Thanks,John, for your comments. I'm glad you like my advice for new writers. It certainly comes from experience, and even after all the years I've been writing, I have to remind myself not to expect perfection right away, and also to trust my imagination. As for dealing with the complicated and often troubled relations between Native peoples and white settlers, I hope I've done justice to that theme, and will try to continue to do so. Lastly, thanks for your kind words about my grandfather. You know from our time at Stanford together how important he was to me!

  9. Hi, Leslie,

    Like you said: Never give up. I finally got to your interview and consider it well worth the effort. Your mysteries sound especially interesting. Wishing you every success.

  10. I enjoyed reading your interview (especially your comments about your grandfather, Burton K. Wheeler, and his colorful political career) ... and learning, Morning Girl, of your induction into the Blackfoot tribe.
    I am looking forward to reading "Murder at Spouters Point". What about Shakespeare & Co., Lenox, as a future setting? Not a reenactment site in the sense you have explored, but the atmosphere there resembles that of an historic site: the teenage/young adult actors/actors-in-training approach their summer-long programs (& internships) with fervor. Lots of dramatic potential there.

  11. Thanks for your comment, Jacqueline. Five Star authors are such a supportive group, you especially!

    Interesting that you should mention Shakespeare @ Co., as a future setting, Susan Faith, because one of the things that draws me to reenactors is the theatrical aspect of their work. And I've always loved reading "theater" mysteries, where the characters have dual identities--who they are in real life and who they're portraying.

    Thanks for interviewing me on your blog, Linda.
    You asked good questions and I enjoyed writing the answers. Also, it's been fun to hear from friends and colleagues, new and old!

  12. Leslie,

    I've enjoyed reading your previous mysteries, and non-mysteries, and I look forward to reading Murder at Spouters point. I did not realize where your interest in Native American tribes came from, it must have been very interesting ("cool") to have been adopted by an American Tribe as a kid. I believe you advice to fiction writers applies to all writing endevors, even scientific ones: first put down what you want to say, then polish it make it as clear and elegant as you wish.

  13. Thanks for your comments, Anonymous. Glad to hear you enjoyed both my previous mysteries and non-mysteries. It was "cool" to be adopted by a tribe as a kid, but now it's also sort of embarrassing,because it's the kind of thing Indian nations today would never do. You are right on the mark when you say that my advice to fiction writers applies to all kinds of writing, including scientific. First, get something down, then you can always go back and edit and polish. Thanks for stopping by.

  14. Hi Leslie: I read your post with interest, and it was fun reading where your ideas started. Murder at Spouters Point sounds like something I'd like to read. I love historicals, and with your background in history, I bet I'd learn a thing or two, which I always hope to do when reading historical fiction. Thanks for sharing a bit about your journey to publication.

  15. I'm embarrassed to have known you as friend and author for so many years and not to have asked the questions that evoked these revealing answers about you as author, historian, and person. (When do we get to see you in that headdress?) All the more understandable why your empathy and historic sensibilities and make your novels so personal.

  16. Dear Joyce, Thanks for your comment. Yes, the nice thing about historical novels is that one can learn something about the past, while enjoying a good story.

    Hi Ben, Thanks also for your comment. Unfortunately, you won't be able to see me in the headdress, because it was stolen from the cabin in Glacier years ago. But as I said in the post, I still have the necklace, which I do wear from time to time, and I'll try to wear it the next time I see you and Jacqueline.

  17. Don't usually look up this stuff but since I love your books, I poked around til I found it. What a history. Loved the story of going to Plimoty Plantation with your family. My first thought was that you never go to those things except to show visiting family. Then your grandfathere sounds like quite a wonderful person. I can see a fictionalized version of him in a short story or several.

    Got me thinking about what drew me to write history when my degree is in psychology. It was my two grandmothers who were both full of family history.
    KB Inglee

  18. Thanks for your comments, KB. It's so true that one rarely visits local attractions unless with visitors. I grew up in the Los Angeles area, and didn't see the La Brea tar pits in which dinosaurs were trapped until after I'd moved to the East and returned to CA on a visit.

    My grandfather Wheeler was an amazing person, and I have thought of using him in a short story, or even a novel, but at the moment am working on a novel with a connection of sorts to my mother and her family.

    Hearing about your grandmothers and how they got you interested in history makes me realize how important it is to pass on family stories to our children and grandchildren.