The Waxwood Series began in 2002 as a long, 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 the novel and why, even after 16 years, I couldn’t let it go. I was mining my own psychological reality as I went through some deep family issues. The series isn’t autobiographical but some of its psychological themes became a turning point in understanding of my own past. The series has been the most emotionally challenging piece I’ve written so far.
This is one reason why I chose to alter the series’ contemporary setting. While I felt the story of the Alderdices, the central characters of the series, belonged more in a historical setting, putting the series in the past also allowed me to distance myself from some of the more difficult emotional and psychological conflicts facing the Alderdices and other characters featured in the series. As a writer, I knew this kind of distance was essential to insure I was writing the stories and the characters readers would enjoy and identify with.
The three narrative voices of the original novel have now become four different stories sharing the same location, same time frame, and similar psychological realities. Certain characters return in all three books, though not all will appear in every book and off-shoot book of the series. The series’ underlying theme is how the past injects itself into the present and unless we have the courage to face those demons, they will have consequences for future generations.
The series takes place in the fictional town of Waxwood, California, with other locations in the San Francisco Bay Area (real and fictional) making a cameo appearance. Waxwood is a small seaside town somewhere between San Francisco and Sacramento. It began as a quiet and quant fishing town with the hub of activity centered around the small stretch of bay and the town’s train station. As America approaches The Gilded Age and small towns in the Bay Area start to get in on the literal and psychological richness of the era, Waxwood transforms itself into a resort town with flashy hotels and inns dotting the rim of the bay and catering to the resort life favored by the growing nouveau riche (as portrayed beautifully in Charles Dudley Warner’s Their Pilgrimage). As a result, Waxwood became a two-sided town — the exclusive side across the bay and the seedier side with its broken-down pier, the train station and single-road commercial district most Waxwood residents prefer to ignore.
Much of the action in all four books of the series 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 the air of pomp and fuss aristocratic families such as the Alderdices would have approved. The series ends at the dawn of the new century, when hotels such as The Waxwoodian begin to go out of style, a symbol of the ridiculous excesses Americans would come to reject in the age of Progressive reforms and World War I. For the Alderdices and other characters in the series, The Waxwoodian becomes more than a fashionable resort. The elaborate beauty and massive size of the place gives room for revelations of family lies and secrets some are ready to face while some are not.
The Time Period
When transforming the stories into historical fiction, I decided to set the series in the 1890’s. The Gilded Age is an ideal context for the Alderdices who are not only wealthy but significant, players in San Francisco society. They embody the kind of self-importance and privilege the aristocracy enjoyed during this time. Their lifestyle fits perfectly the extravagances and excesses that marked the end of the nineteenth century in America. Book 1 of the series takes place in 1893 (with references to 40 years before). Book 2 takes place in the summer of 1897, Book 3 in 1898, and the last book of the series in 1899 right at the edge of the new century. I chose specifically those years before the turn of the 20th century when Progressive Era reforms and social awareness would bring the good life Gilded Agers had called their own, especially those privileged enough to pay for it, to a screeching halt.
The Main Players
Larissa Alderdice, the matriarch of the Alderdice family. Her intelligence rises above many of her more conservative Gilded Age society friends. She has a subtle, controlling way with others, especially her children. She keeps a tight rein on them, crippling them psychologically, emotionally, and financially. At the same time, like all mothers, she has great plans for their future, none of which they have carried out as adults to her satisfaction, stagnated as they are by the past. Their failure to fulfill her expectations of them has made her bitter and cold. At times her temper can get quite volatile like a bomb constantly on the verge of exploding. However, sometimes she shows them tiny glimmers of tenderness because, despite her disappointments in her, not all feeling has petered out of her heart.
Vivian Alderdice, Larissa’s daughter. She’s the unofficial protagonist of the series but more specifically she is the focus of Book 1 and Book 4. She has always had a rebellious streak, though her mother usually manages to temper it in social situations. She is careful in choosing her battles based on how much she knows Larissa will tolerate. In this way, she pushes the boundaries but avoids going beyond them. Unlike hr brother Jake, Vivian doesn’t retreat when faced with the threat of her mother’s rage and condemnation. Thus, she’s the only one in the family willing to face hidden truths and lies, probing into the Pandora’s box no matter what the cost to her peace of mind and to others. When she was a child, Larissa nicknamed her Dagger Girl because of this. Ironically, because Vivian isn’t afraid to pry open emotionally locked doors, Larissa develops an odd respect for her. But it’s her own respect for herself and what she is capable of that becomes her turning point.
Jake Alderdice, Larissa’s son and the heir to the Alderdice fortune and protagonist of Book 2. He is sensitive and quiet, keeping to himself most of the time, though he can become stubborn and sarcastic when rattled beyond endurance. Larissa’s contempt for his “monstrous” father who left her for a younger woman is one reason why she loathes him so much. Unlike Vivian, he tries to meet Larissa’s expectations and when he can’t, he stays out of her way so as not to provoke her fury. Because of his conditioned passivity, he is apprehensive about moving on until circumstances in Book 1 force him to confront his own weaknesses.
Gena Flax, the protagonist of Book 3. She has intelligence and insight but her claustrophobic relationship with her aunt creates a psychological glass cage, making apprehensive about letting others into her life. She is patient but distant, especially with her Aunt Helen, whose attempts to absorb her in a symbiotic relationship leave her stifling and despaired. She is in desperate need of her own identity.
Harland Stevens, a guest of the hotel who befriends Jake in Book 2 and becomes one of the protagonists of Book 4. He is twenty years older than Jake and has a quiet nature but there is an underlying danger about him. He pictures himself as a leader and uses his charm to manipulate others, though his intentions are less transparent than Larissa’s. He is a cool, dignified man but also has an empathetic side to him. These two aspects of his nature fight it out to extremes without a clear picture of which one will win until it’s nearly too late.
To learn more about The Specter, Book 1 of the series coming out on June 13, 2019, go here.
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