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 mining my own psychological reality, as I was going through some life-changing events at the time. The series isn’t autobiographical, but some of its themes and parts of the characters come from my own emotional experiences. The series is the most challenging work I’ve written so far. You can read more about the evolution of the series here.
I chose to alter the series’ contemporary setting for several reasons. While there are many ideas that speak to our modern times, I felt the story of the Alderdices, the family in the series, belonged in the past. So many issues they face arise from a particular period in history (more about that below). Vivian especially lives in the spaces that were unexplored for women of her time, both emotionally, psychologically, spiritually, and, later, literally. On a more personal level, putting the series in the past allowed me to distance myself from some of the more difficult emotional and psychological conflicts the characters face. As a writer, I knew this kind of distance would be essential to helping readers relate to the characters in a meaningful way.
The novel written in three narrative morphed into four books that share the same location, time frame, and similar themes. All four books also have one central character (Vivian) who, though not always the main character, helps readers see the impact of the other characters’ stories. Other characters may return in several books, though not all appear in every one. The central theme of the series is how the past affects the present in ways we may not realize and, unless we have the courage to face our specters from the past, they will haunt our future and future generations.
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 19th century America, where much of the town activity took place on one single main street and everybody had known everybody else for generations. Waxwood’s hub is a small stretch of 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 1850’s 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 late 19th century. 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 for 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 1890’s. The Gilded Age is the ideal context for the Alderdice family, who are significant players in the aristocratic sector of San Francisco society. They embody the kind of 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 20th 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, the daughter of the Alderdice family. She’s the protagonist of the series because her experiences and perceptions appear in every book and, out of all the characters, she is the one whose journey we follow the most carefully. 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 expected of women, according to the philosophy of the separate spheres. In fact, when she reaches the age of eighteen and comes out as a debutante into San Francisco society (which you can read all about if you sign up for my newsletter below), social and family expectations rule her life. At the same time, she has always had a sense of wanting to “do something” with her life beyond becoming the belle of every San Francisco ball. These two conflicting personas battle within her throughout much of the series.
Her personality is such that she doesn’t shy away from unpleasantness. She’s the only one in the family willing to face hidden truths and lies, probing open the Pandora’s box of woes no matter what the cost. When she was a child, her mother nicknamed her Dagger Girl because of this. Since Vivian isn’t afraid to walk into other people’s dark rooms, she unearths these revelations as they affect not only her life, but the lives of others in the series. Sometimes she forgets that a dagger is a weapon that can hurt the very person using it.
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.
Larissa Alderdice, the matriarch of the Alderdice family. Her intelligence rises above many of her more conservative and ornamental Gilded Age contemporaries. She has a commanding personality and an intimidating composure in the face of adversity. Her daughter has often commented upon how, had she been living in another era where women’s wiliness and strength were honored, she could have become something extraordinary. But, as it is, her main purpose in life is to succeed in the narrow sliver of society that is Washington Street and insure her children live up to the expectations set by this society. Her fear of the past makes her evasive to Vivian’s probing questions, but when faced with pain and devastation throughout the series, she handles it with the grace and courage expected of a “true Alderdice.”
Jake Alderdice, Vivian’s brother and the heir to the Alderdice fortune. 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 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.
Penelope Alderdice, Vivian and Jake’s grandmother. Though she is deceased when Book 1 opens, her life and experiences are the driving force behind the Alderdice family relationships. Letters written when Penelope was a young woman in the 1850’s uncover a different side to Penelope that leads Vivian on her path to family truth and self-fulfillment throughout the series. Unlike her granddaughter, Penelope was willing to play the part of the social butterfly and charming wife of a successful and wealthy man during her lifetime.
To learn more about Penelope Alderdice, check out this blog post.
Malcolm Alderdice, Vivian and Jake’s grandfather. A stoic, overpowering man, he walks with a cane and uses it to pound into the ground to make his points. In Book 1, we get a glimpse of him as a young man who was perhaps not so severe and imposing, driven by desire to make something of his life and his love for a woman. Since Jake’s father died when he was very young, Malcolm was the only father figure he knew and, in Book 2, Malcolm’s death becomes the catalyst for Jake’s self-discovery.
Harland Stevens, a guest of the hotel 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 in Book 4.
To learn more about Book 1, The Specter, and purchase your copy, go here.
You can learn more about Book 2 of the series, False Fathers, here.
Book 3 is out now and you can get the information and buy links here.
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