Maine author Lea Wait loves history, especially local history. “I love research, I love finding out information, I love old things,” she told a group of seventh and eighth grade students participating in Lincoln Academy’s Books and Brunch program on May 20. The special program, organized by LA librarian Cathi Howell and jointly sponsored by the Maine Humanities Council and Lincoln Academy, gave a copy of Wait’s newest book, Uncertain Glory to more than 60 participants, including middle and high school students and community members, who read the young adult novel in anticipation of meeting the author.
Wait has published 14 books, five of which are written for young adults, and many of which have some connection to Wiscasset. She often bases her books on local Maine history, and started her presentation explaining why.
“Students often ask me why I chose Wiscasset as the setting for many of my books,” said Wait. “I am fascinated by place. I love the fact that people come and go, but places remain essentially the same for long periods of time. Buildings, monuments, stones, even old trees have been here longer than any living person has. I love to think that 100 years ago a kid, maybe your age, climbed the same tree that you might climb today. Think what a different life that person had! Those are the stories I like to write: about different lives have happened in the same place.”
Uncertain Glory is the story of two young boys who run a printing press in Wiscasset, Maine, on the eve of the Civil War. The two boys, Joe Wood and his best friend Charlie, are real historical figures: the Wiscasset newspaper was indeed printed by two young boys for a year in the 1850s. In order to make the story more compelling (and, she says, more marketable), Wait changed the year to 1861 to be a little closer to the Civil War. “That wasn’t easy for me, to change the story at first,” said Wait. “I really like to be historically accurate when I can, but sometimes I have to change certain things to make a story work as a novel. My editor reminds me, ‘Lea, you are writing fiction, after all!’” Changing the date by two years allowed the story to involve other historical events, including slavery and the recruiting of soldiers for the Union Army.
The students who participated in the special Books and Brunch program came from AOS 93: Great Salt Bay, South Bristol, Nobleboro, Bristol, and Jefferson Village Schools. They sat mesmerized as Wait told stories about local history and her writing process. She passed around a stack of Winslow Homer prints from the 1860s and 70s. Before he became a well-known oil painter, Wait explained, Homer worked as a newspaper illustrator for more than 20 years, making news etchings for Harper’s Weekly. “There was some photography in those days,” explained Wait, “but the subjects had to stay very still to be photographed. Photos from that time are of people standing totally still, or of dead bodies on the battlefield. If you wanted to portray any action in a picture, it had to be done through illustration, not photography.” Images etched by Homer included a series on women’s work of the time, and reporters carrying a telegraph machine onto a Civil War battlefield so they could report the most current news of the day.
Wait also shared Civil-War era artifacts with the students, including books, tools, kitchen implements, and glass bottles. Students got to pass around the prints and artifacts as she talked.
“This was the perfect book for this program,” said Cathi Howell. “It spanned all the grade levels involved, it combined history, the local piece, and it is such a fun story. Having the right book was an important piece of the success of this program. But Lea’s presentation was so hands-on that it took it to another level for the students. They were completely involved.”
When students had a chance to ask questions, many wanted to know more about Wait’s experience as a writer. She told them that she wanted to be a writer since she was in second grade, and that she did technical writing and journalism for years before she started writing fiction.
Wait described her novel writing process in three parts. “First I do the research. For Uncertain Glory, and other books about midcoast Maine, I have spent a lot of time in the Wiscasset archives. Most of the research I do can’t be done online, since I am using old documents (letters, legal records, telegrams, etc.) that have never been put online. I love the research and planning part of a book. Next comes the hardest part, when I have to put my rear end in a chair and actually write the book. That takes me three to four months of just writing. Then I get to edit it, and that part is fun. I do my editing in several phases, including printing out the manuscript and reading the whole book. At that point I see things I haven’t seen on the screen. After that I read the whole book out loud to myself, and then I hear things that I didn’t hear before. After that, my editors work on it, and they suggest many more changes. I really like the editing process: it feels like sculpting the book.”
“This program was awesome,” commented Nobleboro Central School librarian Kris Harriman. “She (Lea Wait) just confirmed everything we try to teach our kids about writing.”
Cathi Howell was delighted with how the event turned out. “As a librarian I loved it that Lea talked about the importance of reading, and reading anything at all. It was great to see the younger students so excited about the program.”
Will there be another Books in Brunch for AOS 93 again next year? “This is absolutely something I will pursue again next spring. The real trick will be finding the right next book, and figuring out if we can find another author who can come, or whether we can do some other enrichment activity related to a book. The program was a big success, and one we plan to repeat!”