A Good Month for a Mystery

Leslie Wheeler is a transplanted California who has lived in the Northeast for many years and has strong New England roots. A graduate of Stanford University with a master’s in English from UC/Berkeley, Leslie has taught adult education, worked as an in-house writer and editor for Barron’s Educational Series, then as a free lance writer specializing in history and biography for both the school and trade markets.

A trip to the living history museum of Plimoth Plantation with visiting relatives from California led to Murder at Plimoth Plantation, the first book in her “living history” mystery series-books set in the present-day at historic sites, and featuring amateur sleuth and history textbook writer, Miranda Lewis, whose determination to uncover the truth often gets her into trouble. Murder at Plimoth Plantation was an Editor’s Choice Selection in the Boston Herald. A second mystery, Murder at Gettysburg, was released in May, 2005. Murder at Spouters Point will be published in October 2010.

Writing “living history” mysteries enables Leslie to combine a passion for American history, an enjoyment of the mystery genre, and a lifelong love of storytelling in all forms. Leslie lives with her family in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Read more at www.lesliewheeler.com

For me, time is just as important as place in a mystery. My books are not only set at specific places but at specific times of the year. Murder at Plimoth Plantation takes place in November, before, during, and after Thanksgiving, because that’s the holiday most closely associated with Plymouth and its Pilgrim settlers.  Murder at Gettysburg takes place over the Fourth of July Weekend, because that’s when the historic battle was fought and also when the major reenactment of the battle is held every year.  I’ve been able to use this time-specific element of my books to my advantage when doing book talks.  For example, when I do an event on a day when something important in the book happens I can tell my audiences this, and it gives my story a sense of immediacy that they appear to enjoy.  The holiday tie-in has also been helpful in getting newspaper publicity, as journalists often look for this kind of angle.

The third book in my series, Murder at Spouters Point, is set at a fictional Rhode Island seacoast town in the month of August, because an important event occurs then.  That event is Schemitzum, the Mashantucket Pequot-sponsored feast of green corn and dance, which is held near the tribally owned Foxwoods Resort Casino in Connecticut.  Schmeitzum is the largest powwow east of the Mississippi and the richest with over a million in prize money.  Why Schemitzum?  Because I decided to make a key character in the book a champion fancy dancer.  He competes at Schemitzum in the hopes of winning big bucks in prize money that will help pay for a special therapeutic program for his severely disabled son.

Schemitzum (called Sequan in the novel) takes place over four days in the latter part of August.  In New England, this is usually the time when the summer heat breaks, and the mornings and evenings are significantly cooler.  But not the year that I attended the powwow with my then eleven-year-old son.

We were overwhelmed by the intense heat of our first day at Schemitzum.  The competitive dances were held in a tented pavilion that reminded me of a gigantic sweat lodge filled with steaming bodies, which is also how I describe it in the novel.  Around us, people fanned themselves with pieces of regalia (the native word for traditional clothing worn for ceremonial occasions), used small portable fans, and sprayed themselves with water from squirt bottles. My son and I consumed enough water to fill a small wading pool.  Finally, in the late afternoon, after sitting through four hours of dance contests in different categories, we took a break and drove back to our air-conditioned motel room. While my son played video games, I collapsed on the bed.

We returned in the early evening for dinner and more dance contests. Powwow food is tasty but fattening.  Think buffalo burgers, corn dogs, various types of game and seafood breaded and deep fried, curly fries, and fry bread topped with strawberries and whipped cream.  Sated, we staggered back into the sweltering pavilion.

The last contest of the evening, the men’s fancy dance, which, as the name suggests, is characterized by both flamboyant regalia and flamboyant dancing, was the most exciting. It’s also crucial to my novel. So despite the oppressive heat and the threat of a possible thunderstorm or even a tornado, which drove away many viewers, we stayed until the very end.  I’m glad we did, because the contest was truly spectacular.  One dancer in predominately red-and-yellow regalia caught my attention. I couldn’t take my eyes off him, just as my main character, Miranda, is mesmerized by a fancy dancer in the book.

In the novel, the fancy dance contest leads to murder and mayhem.  Of course, this didn’t happen in real life.  But as we drove back to the motel, echoes of Native drumming and chanting, along with the deafening hum of millions of cicadas filling our ears, while heat lightening flashed on the horizon, I couldn’t help thinking what a perfect August night this was for a murder.

Thanks, Lelia, for having me as a guest on your blog.  I’ll be back on November 16.  Meanwhile, I hope other authors will comment on what they consider to be good months for mysteries and/or share a memorable research experience.