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Three Mile Bay author pens second historical novel, ‘What She Left Behind’

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Near the end of Ellen Marie Wiseman’s new book, there’s an emotional passage that left her in tears after she went back to reread what she had just written.

But she wondered if they were tears of joy. Maybe, she worried, the tap to her tears was turned on because she was almost finished with the novel, “What She Left Behind,” which was released on Dec. 31.

So she went back and read the section again. More tears flowed, allaying fears that the response was simply about finishing the book.

It was mission accomplished for the Three Mile Bay author.

“I love to have happy endings,” Mrs. Wiseman said. “I love to have surprise endings.”

Mrs. Wiseman could be called a surprise herself after Kensington Publishing Corp. released her debut novel, “The Plum Tree” in December 2012. The book, which followed a young German woman through the chaos of World War II and its aftermath, received stellar reviews from such sources as Publisher’s Weekly and the New York Journal of Books. It was one of the best-selling historical novels of 2013.

Mrs. Wiseman has no formal training as a writer. The 1979 graduate of Lyme Central School didn’t attend college. She began to write seriously in 2005 after the last of her two children graduated from high school. The first draft of “The Plum Tree” was written down on a legal pad in three days.

“What She Left Behind” centers on the now-shuttered Willard Asylum for the Insane in Ovid, near Seneca Lake. The asylum later became known as Willard State Hospital and Willard Psychiatric Center.

Like her first novel, “What She Left Behind” concerns a teenage girl. The girl’s foster parents enlist her help in cataloging items from the state asylum. That’s when she discovers the parallel story that’s also told in the novel of a young woman, who in 1928 was sent to the asylum against her will because she refused to agree to a marriage arranged by her father. The suspenseful tale is a love story and a mystery, as the lives of the teenager and former patient intersect.

Mrs. Wiseman’s new book is on its way to topping her debut novel. Among the millions of books on amazon.com, it debuted at number 589, beating “The Plum Tree’s” first-day rankings by the thousands. Both books are marketed as adult fiction, although they have crossed over into young adult fiction.

Mrs. Wiseman, daughter of Sigrid and Ted Utess of Three Mile Bay and wife of William E. Wiseman, was inspired to write “What She Left Behind” after she read “The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases From a State Hospital Attic” by Darby Penney and Peter Stastny, published in 2009.

Willard Asylum for the Insane opened in 1869. New York state handed the site over to state prison officials in 1995 for use as a drug treatment center. That’s when the 400 suitcases were discovered.

In 2004, an exhibition at the New York State Museum in Albany opened that focused on 12 of the suitcases recovered at the asylum. The exhibit, which featured contents of the suitcases and information on the lives of their owners, gave a human dimension to a group of people who were hidden and forgotten.

“What She Left Behind” was part of a two-book deal Mrs. Wiseman signed with Kensington Publishing in 2011. “The Plum Tree” is loosely based on childhood tales told by Mrs. Wiseman’s mother, a native of Germany who lived through World War II and moved to the United States nearly a decade after the war ended.

Mrs. Wiseman said she thinks people who read her new book will be surprised to discover how society treated those with mental illness in the 1800s and early 1900s. Her storyline also reflects the fact that one didn’t have to be labeled insane to be put in a mental institution during that time. For many men, sending their wives to Willard was a convenient way to get a divorce.

“There were four times as many women put into Willard as men,” Mrs. Wiseman said. “Over half of the patients died there. One woman I read about spent 75 years there and died there.”

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Over tea at Watertown’s Starbucks three days after her new book’s release, Mrs. Wiseman said she wondered if she could repeat the success of her first book.

“I thought, ‘Can I do it again and make up the whole thing?’” she said. “I made up ‘The Plum Tree’ also, but it’s a lot of family stories to back it up.”

It became apparent a day after the release of “What She Left Behind” that it would be successful. Gabriel Constans, in a review in the New York Journal of Books, said it “screams with authenticity, depth, and understanding of human behavior and what can and has been done to others to maintain control.”

Writing in USA Today, Serena Chase called Mrs. Wiseman’s new novel “stunning” as its author “merges the past and present into a haunting story about the nature of love and loyalty — and the lengths we will go to protect those who need us most.”

Mrs. Wiseman paused to find the right words when asked to describe her life now compared to three years ago.

“I’m a little bit — I don’t know — awestruck,” she said.

Writing, she said, has become easier for her now that she’s doing more of it.

“I can write a lot faster now than I could when I first started,” she said. “Writing is like any muscle. It gets easier the more you do it.”

Her writing days begin after she finishes her housework.

“I’m one of those people who has to have their houses all in order,” she said. “I do all my chores and then I sit down, check my emails to make sure there’s nothing important, and then I try to write for the rest of the day.”

She said that at times, what she plans to write “changes all by itself” after one of her characters speaks to her.

“Sometimes the character will take you someplace else you haven’t thought of,” she said. “So that’s kind of fun.”

Despite the vivid descriptions of the interior of the Willard Asylum in her book, Mrs. Wiseman said she never visited it. She relied on research through books and the Internet.

On Barnes & Noble blog (NOOK Blog), Mrs. Wiseman earlier this month wrote that she takes “page after page” of notes when researching time periods and that her reference books are studded with dozens of sticky tabs.

“Not only is my research necessary to build a credible fictional world, but it helps me understand what my characters’ lives might be like,” she wrote in the blog.

The most exciting part of her research, Mrs. Wiseman wrote, is when her research leads to conflict and trouble for her characters.

“I realize that might sound cruel, but who wants to read about happy people living content lives. I want to see characters triumph (or not) in difficult situations.”

Writers often ask Mrs. Wiseman for advice. Her common response: “Don’t give up.”

Not wanting to self-publish, Mrs. Wiseman was greeted with 72 rejection letters from literary agents she asked to represent her before Michael Carr, her current agent, requested the first three chapters of “The Plum Tree.” He eventually requested the whole book and went on to get the author signed with Kensington Publishing.

Mrs. Wiseman recommends the website agentquery.com for authors looking for an agent. Many publishers won’t consider a manuscript unless it’s recommended by an agent.

“It teaches you a lot about the publishing industry, how to get an agent and why you need an agent,” Mrs. Wiseman said of agentquery.com.

But with agents and publishers, there are deadlines to meet. Mrs. Wiseman is facing a new deadline of Feb. 1, 2015, after she signed another two-book deal with Kensington.

“They really wanted me and made it worth my while to sign another two-book deal,” Mrs. Wiseman said. “Before they made the offer, they wanted to know what my idea was.”

Ideas are something Mrs. Wiseman has no shortage of. The book she plans to write for her 2015 deadline involves breaker boys — children who were hired in the coal mines from the 1860s until the 1920s.

“It’s about a young girl who does battle with strikers and corrupt mine bosses in the coal mining towns of Pennsylvania and to bring justice to the young coal workers,” she said.

Mrs. Wiseman will go into that project not as daunted as before, after her editor told her that few revisions were needed to “What She Left Behind.”

“So, I have a little tiny bit more confidence now,” she said, laughing.

The details
“What She Left Behind” by Ellen Marie Wiseman of Three Mile Bay (Kensington Publishing Corp., 336 pages, paperback, $15).
In addition to online bookstores, the novel is available at Walmart in Evans Mills and Sam’s Club in Watertown.
Mrs. Wiseman is scheduling signings/presentations. One is from 1 to 3 p.m. Friday at the Evans Mills Walmart, 25737 Route 11. Others are at 10 a.m. Saturday, Jan. 25, at Hay Memorial Library, 105 S. Broad St., Sackets Harbor, and at 11 a.m. Saturday, Feb. 1, at Cape Vincent Community Library, 157 Real St.
Check Mrs. Wiseman’s website — www.ellenmariewiseman.com — and her Facebook page — http://wdt.me/PHqVhM — for updates on additional signings.
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