The Waxwood Series began in 2002 as a long and rambling contemporary novel in three narrative voices. I wrote it at a particularly difficult time in my life. It was only later I realized why I struggled so much with that novel and why I couldn’t let it go. I was going through some life-changing events at the time that included a sort of adult version of a coming-of-age through discovering things about my childhood and my family that weren’t so pleasant. This is exactly the journey Vivian Alderdice, the protagonist of the series, and, to a smaller extent, her younger brother Jake, take.
The original novel was written in three narratives but I created a series of four books. Three of the books follow Vivian through her maturation during the last decade of the 19th century while one book focuses more on her brother Jake and his coming of age as a man in the Gilded Age.
Here are a few more things to know about the series:
The series takes place in the fictional town of Waxwood, California, while other locations in the San Francisco Bay Area (real and fictional) make a cameo appearance. Waxwood is a small coastal town somewhere between San Francisco and Monterey. It began as a quaint little place, typical of small towns in nineteenth-century America, where much of the town activity took place on one single main street and everybody knew everybody else through the generations. Waxwood’s hub is a small stretch of the bay that feeds into the ocean and the town’s two piers. The town was named after the strange forest on the other side of the bay, trees as tall and imposing as redwoods, with bark that is slick and sticky like wax. Also across the bay lies Brandywine, an artist colony that was thriving in the 1850s but gradually abandoned and used for more insidious purposes.
In the Gilded Age, small towns like Waxwood experienced a rise in commercialism and consumerism. Similarly, Waxwood is transformed into a resort town with elaborate hotels dotting the rim where the bay spills into the sea. It caters to the resort life favored by the growing upper classes of the Gilded Age. As a result, Waxwood becomes a two-sided town — the exclusive side across the bay and the seedier side with its broken-down pier, train station, and one-road commercial district.
Much of the action in Books 2, 3, and 4 takes place at The Waxwoodian, one of the more exclusive hotels in town. Absurdly massive and ornate in typical Gilded Age style, the place gives an air of pomp and fuss that aristocratic families such as the Alderdices would have expected. The series ends at the dawn of the new century when hotels such as The Waxwoodian begin to go out of style as a symbol of the ridiculous excesses Americans would come to reject in the age of progressive reforms and, later, World War I. For the Alderdices and other characters in the series, The Waxwoodian becomes more than a place to see and be seen and enjoy the idle summer leisure activities they feel they have a right to. Its elaborate beauty and huge size become fertile ground for family revelations, which some characters are ready to face and some are not.
To read more about the location of Waxwood and its inspirations, see this blog post.
The Time Period
When I decided to transform the narratives of the original book into historical fiction, I chose to set the series in the 1890s. The Gilded Age is the ideal era for the Alderdice family, members of the Nob Hill elite in San Francisco. They embody the self-importance and privilege enjoyed by the very rich during this time. Their lifestyle fits the extravagances and excesses that marked the end of the nineteenth century in America. The last book of the series takes place at the dawn of the new age, because the turn of the twentieth century brought on the Progressive Era and with it, reforms and social awareness that ended the good life Gilded Agers had called their own, especially those privileged enough to pay for it.
The Main Players
Vivian Alderdice. She’s the protagonist of the series because the series is about her struggling with the conflict between the expectations set upon her as a wealthy debutante by her social circle and her family and her wish to live a life of purpose and meaning. As a child, she had an obstinate streak that became somewhat tempered as she grew older by more acceptable feminine social behavior becoming to Gilded Age belles and expectations of women, according to the philosophy of the separate spheres. When she reaches the age of eighteen and comes out as a debutante into San Francisco society, social and family expectations rule her life. At the same time, she has always had a sense of wanting to “do something” beyond becoming the belle of every San Francisco ball. These two conflicting personas battle within her throughout much of the series.
To read more about Vivian, check out this guest blog post I wrote for author/blogger Lisa Lickel’s Living Our Faith Out Loud blog.
Jake Alderdice, Vivian’s younger brother. Unlike many wealthy Gilded Age young men who lead hedonistic lives until they come of age and “buckle down” to a lucrative career and family, he is artistic, contemplative, and studious. He was taught by his grandmother to draw and paint at an early age, but until he turns nineteen, the idea of developing an artistic career never really occurs to him. As the protagonist of Book 2, his own coming of age leads him to reassess the father figures in his life and explore his past against the changing ideals of Gilded Age masculinity.
Harland Stevens, a guest of the Waxwoodian who becomes a father figure to Jake in Book 2. He is a middle-aged man with a quiet, mild nature, but there is an underlying danger about him. He uses his charm to manipulate others, and his intentions aren’t always transparent. He is a cool, dignified man but with a troubled side to him that stems from his own relationship with his father. Those demons come back to haunt him and he becomes part of Vivian’s journey in Book 4.
To learn more about the books and get your copy of Book 1, The Specter, which is free, see this page.