Local author Kerrin Willis sets novel in Taunton by Taunton Daily Gazette
“Do you ever get the feeling the world has turned over onto its head, and you no longer know which way is up and which is down?”
Those words might feel like they were spoken in 2022, but they weren’t.
They’re fictional, first of all, and in a new book set in 1675-76.
But the similarities between people past and present who are trying to navigate a changing world is one of the many themes that local author Kerrin Willis explores in her new novel.
“Iron & Fire,” out April 5, explores the Taunton of the 17th century, seen through the eyes of a young woman named Verity Parker, who is ahead of her time in many ways.
Verity grew up in London, raised by a Quaker father, and after his death, she, her mother Ann and her sister Hannah end up in Puritan New England. Ann has married Obadiah Elston, and though Verity fits in well with his children and the rest of their blended family, she butts heads with the pious Obadiah, who does not like that the young woman has strong opinions of her own. Especially since they clash with the way he sees the world.
Struggling to find a place in her new world, Verity meets a kindred spirit in Kit Harwell, an ironworker who runs into some trouble with the local religious authorities. Obadiah forbids Verity to see him.
Of course, Verity and Kit fall in love anyway, but a tragedy in Verity’s family could be the thing that tears them apart.
Amid all of the personal drama, there is real, historical conflict: this story takes place during King Philip’s War.
Willis grew up in Taunton, and wanted to set her novel in a familiar place.
“I like being able to picture the geography in my head when I’m writing. I’m a strong believer that land holds history, and I always knew that Taunton had seen history unfold,” Willis told the Taunton Daily Gazette.
She did extensive research about what Taunton and other Massachusetts communities were like during the 17th century, turning to local sources like the Taunton Public Library and William Hanna’s book, “A History of Taunton Massachusetts.”
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“As soon as I learned about the conflicts between the original Puritan settlers and the less pious ironworkers, I knew there was a story there.”
When she needed a protagonist for her story, Verity was right there.
“As a feminist, I couldn’t help but wonder how a bright, independent, opinionated woman would have fared in the seventeenth century when my hometown was founded,” Willis said. “Then Verity popped into my head, nearly fully formed, and she took it from there.”
Willis also visited the Saugus Ironworks, to get the feel for what the Taunton Ironworks must have been like. She stopped by the White Horse Tavern in Newport and even attended an open-hearth cooking class at the Lafayette-Durfee house in Fall River.
“I love finding out obscure facts about history, facts about people’s everyday lives, and then incorporating those details into my writing,” Willis said.
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“I’ve always been interested in history, but I’ve almost always learned about it through fiction. I was a big fan of the original American Girl books when I was a kid in the 80s, and I wanted to soak up all the details of each time period.”
Willis had to find time to research and write whenever and wherever she could. She’s a busy mother of two daughters — they’ve also got a dog named Austen to take care of — and she’s a high school English teacher. Willis has a BA in English from Stonehill College, an MA in English from Simmons College, and is currently working on her MFA in fiction from Southern New Hampshire University. So writing had to be squeezed into her busy schedule.
“My writing process is a bit of a disaster because I never have any time. I’m a single parent of two very busy little girls, as well as a full-time high school English teacher,” Willis said.
“Basically, I try to write whenever I have a few minutes of free time. …. I have a cloud-based writing software that I use so that I can open any device and jot down a few words and ideas whenever I can. ‘Iron & Fire’ was written in the bleachers at gymnastics practice, in my car in the school pickup line, during my lunch breaks, in the middle of the night, and in line at the grocery store.”
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She did get the chance to have a little more time to edit the novel, when she attended a writer’s residency program in Tennessee in summer 2021.
The characters in the book aren’t as remote as the time period would suggest. In addition to great attention to detail throughout the story, Willis also infuses her characters with relatability and complexity. No one is wholly good or bad; they are allowed to be complicated human beings.
“I write historical fiction, but I try my best to write relatable characters,” Willis said. “It’s so easy to fall into the trap of believing that people in the past were somehow different from us because their world was different. However, people themselves have changed very little over the years. …. People in the past may have worn different pants, but they still put them on one leg at a time.”
Willis’ next work will also be historical fiction.
“Right now I’m working on a novel that takes place in Taunton during WWII, and has to do with the Italian soldiers who were held at Camp Myles Standish until the end of the war. I hope to finish that by the end of the summer.”
Willis will be holding talks and book signings at the following locations after the release of "Iron & Fire":
Ames Free Library (Easton): April 14 at 6:30 p.m.
Taunton Public Library: April 21 at 5:30 p.m.
Wareham Library: May 4 at 7 p.m.
Old Colony History Museum: May 7 at 2 p.m.
Lakeville Library: May 9 at 7 p.m.
Published by Willis, “Iron & Fire” is available for pre-order and is out on April 5 at Readmore Books, 330 Winthrop St., in Taunton, as well as An Unlikely Story in Plainville. The book is also available as an ebook from Amazon and Barnes and Noble, and as an audiobook from Audible, Libro.fm and iTunes.
Herald News/Taunton Daily Gazette copy editor and digital producer Kristina Fontes can be reached at email@example.com. Support local journalism by purchasing a digital or print subscription to The Herald News and Taunton Daily Gazette today.
This article originally appeared on The Taunton Daily Gazette: New novel 'Iron & Fire' by Taunton's Kerrin Willis out April 5