I love historical fiction, so when I learned that author Laura Quinn’s novel Thicker Than Water took place around 1916 in Cape May, I had to get my hands on it. The novel focuses on two main families, one that lives in Philadelphia and vacations in Cape May for the summer, and one that lives full time in Cape May. The book depicts a struggle with class as well as a love story. One character goes away to fight in World War I, and another is in the Navy at the Cape May Section Base Number 9. The book has many twists and turns. Each chapter is narrated in first person by one of the characters (I kept changing my favorite).
Thicker Than Water is a page turner. I found myself caught up in the story, desperate to know what would happen next—all the way to the twist ending. We had a chance to talk with author Laura Quinn about her debut novel, what inspired her to write it, her research process, and some of her favorite places in Cape May.
Content warnings for the novel: attempted rape, murder, child abuse, Flu, war, near drowning
What inspired you to write this book?
A South Jersey resident myself, I grew up going down the Shore every summer for as far back as I can remember. The idea came to me shortly after becoming a parent myself. My oldest (now 12) was a terrible sleeper, and the story of one of the pairings, Jennie and Danny, was one I’d tell myself in my head while rocking him at night. It grew from there and is, essentially, my love letter to the region.
Did you work on the book while you were here in Cape May? Have you worked on any other books while you were here?
In terms of research, yes. I’ve always been a history buff, and took advantage of some of the many tours offered by Cape May MAC. I’d keep a running Google document on my phone for note taking. Other times, I’d photograph locations then compare their current locations to how they looked according to my historical data.
Thicker Than Water is my debut novel.
How long did it take you to write the book once you came up with the idea?
Danny’s tale was one that just begged to be told. In 2018, I wrote a short story about him. Immediately thereafter, I knew I had more to say, but wanted to ensure I had my facts straight first with regard to historical accuracy. Two years were then spent researching before I ever put pen-to-paper again. Drafting and revisions took another two, although some of that time entailed coordinating my schedule with that of my editing team at LTS Editorial (now Intrepid Literary).
How long did it take you to write the book once you came up with the idea?
I gleaned as much as possible from my own experiences. Where I couldn’t, I’m grateful to the staff at the Wildwood and Greater Cape May Historical Societies for helping to fill in the blanks. For further reading, I recommend the following nonfiction:
Remarkable Women of the New Jersey Shore, Clam Shuckers, Social Reformers and Summer Sojourners by Karen Schnitzspahn
Prohibition in Cape May County Wetter than the Atlantic by Raymond Rebmann
The First Resort (Fun, Sun, Fire & War in Cape May, America’s Original Seaside Town) by Ben Miller
US Coast Guard Training Center at Cape May by Joan Berkey and Joseph E. Salvatore, MD
A History of Submarine Warfare along the Jersey Coast by Joseph G. Bilby and Harry Ziegler
Remembering South Cape May by Joseph Burcher
Did the historic events in the book actually take place?
Many did. A frequent feature on #SharkWeek, most readers are likely already familiar with the 1916 shark attacks. Lesser known is the cruise of German U-boat 161. The submarine sank a total of seven vessels off the NJ coast and Delaware Bay on June 2, 1918, subsequently referred to as “Black Sunday”.
In addition, explosions at the Eddystone Munitions Plant, Black Tom Island, and Wissahickon Barracks, sadly, did occur as described. While sabotage was suspected (and confirmed) in the first two bombings, it was ultimately ruled out with regard to the 1918 fire in Cape May.
Finally, and with the highest impact across the region, was Philadelphia’s Liberty Loan Parade. Taking place on September 28, 1918, the event resulted in a catastrophic outbreak of the Spanish Flu.
Do you have a playlist/type of music you listened to while writing?
I prefer to write in silence. That said, I do find music beneficial if I need to mentally prepare myself for a particular scene. It helps me set the tone. With Thicker Than Water being told in multiple point of view, I took the liberty of creating a playlist for each of my main characters. Readers are welcome to listen to the soundtracks.
Tell us about your writing process. Do you plot everything in advance, or do your stories evolve organically?
I’m definitely a plotter. I prefer to hand write my outline using bullet points, keeping the topic brief. “Charity ball at Iron Pier,” for instance. Thereafter, the narrative tends to develop organically, especially where dialogue is concerned. Sometimes the characters surprise me and take on a life of their own. This happened with Hugh Callaway, who was originally slated to appear in only the first few chapters as a side character. He’s now part of what I like to call the “core four.”
What is your favorite Cape May location mentioned in the book?
The Cape May lighthouse. It’s such an iconic structure. I also love the trails at Cape May Point State Park.
Do you personally vacation in Cape May? Where do you stay?
Our family loves Congress Hall. My wedding anniversary is in late November, and we’ve stayed there many times. The kids adore the Winter Wonderland, while my husband and I enjoy the cozy atmosphere the Brown Room has to offer.
Who is your favorite fictional character and why?
Jo March, of Little Women. I’ve always loved her strength and determination, even in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Alcott gave her some very humanizing qualities, too. Her temper and stubbornness, for example, which remain relatable to today’s readers.
You hit on a few tough subjects. What made you want to touch on those in the book?
I’m a survivor of Adverse Childhood Experiences. Thicker Than Water is the cathartic culmination of (some of) those traumas. While a work of fiction, my placing of the Culligan siblings in a violent, alcoholic environment is tantamount to the final steps in my own healing journey.
Which house would you say Jennie and her family stayed while in Cape May?
The architecture and interiors that inspired the fictional Juniper Grove are loosely based on those of the Weightman Cottage. Readers know it better as the Angel of the Sea Bed and Breakfast. It was my grandmother’s favorite place to stay, and we’d always take her there for her birthday.
Where in Cape May do you imagine that Danny and Shannon’s house was located?
The Culligans reside in South Cape May. Our very Atlantis, the sleepy town was ravaged by storms and swept away. Currently, it is a world renowned birding habitat. As to their tiny shanty, that house was actually inspired by[LQ1] [LQ2] the Judge’s Shack on Island Beach State Park to our north.
What was the boarding house that Shannon lived in?
Though many boarding houses existed on the cape during era I write about (1916 to 1919), this location is a mix of my own imagination and vintage photographs I reviewed in Remembering South Cape May and The First Resort.
Was writing about the Flu outbreak hard due to Covid-19? How did the pandemic affect your writing?
It was. My research and outline for Thicker Than Water were completed prior to the Covid-19 lockdowns in 2020. Watching the current pandemic unfold that March was terrifying. There were times in the last two years where I strongly considered changing these chapters (or eliminating them completely from a reader-sensitivity standpoint). My only hope is that I did justice to those lives impacted in both outbreaks.
If a movie was made of this book, who would you cast as Danny, Shannon, Jennie, and Hugh?
This is such a fun question!
Danny Culligan: Tanner Buchanan (Designated Survivor, Cobra Kai)
Shannon Culligan: Sydney Sweeney (Euphoria, The White Lotus)
Jennie Martin: Kiernan Shipka (Mad Men, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina)
Hugh Callaway: Tom Holland (Marvel, Uncharted)
With a John Williams soundtrack, of course.
How did you come up with the character Mr. Joseph York?
While not a full-on Roman à clef, York was written to mirror those who walk through life unscathed despite wreaking havoc all around them. Some of his dialogue and actions are unconscionable, and, frankly, were uncomfortable to draft. I started with what I refer to as “the dastardly list,” and jotted down negative qualities and mindsets I wanted to address head on; abuse of privilege, xenophobia, and racism (to name a few). My editing team is fantastic and helped me flesh him out during revisions so he didn’t read as a caricature.
Jennie loves fudge. Are you a fan of it as well?
I’m a total chocoholic. No nuts, though.
You mention Iron Pier where the characters eat lunch. Where is your favorite place to eat?
I love the Ugly Mug, on Washington Street. Our family has also had great experiences at the Rusty Nail, on Ocean. For a date night, my husband and I appreciate the ambiance and delectable menu at the Washington Inn.
Can you talk about how class differences affected the plot?
Thicker Than Water offers readers two very different romantic pairings. One couple are childhood sweethearts, the other is a slow burn friends-to-lovers trope. Both, however, are largely impacted as the characters come from different walks of life.
Given their traumatic childhood, the Culligans carry a level of toxic shame common to those poverty stricken. Every day for them is a struggle, which leads to some miscommunication.
The grass isn’t always greener, though. “Cottagers” Jennie and Hugh face their own set of difficulties including an arranged marriage and unhealthy choices to cope with the stress of rigid, oftentimes overwhelming, family expectations.
Why did Frank want to hide paying the hospital bill?
Frank Hilton is one of my “real life” characters, and hails from Anglesea, NJ, where his family owned a fishery on Ottens Harbor (in Wildwood). He was also a criminal mastermind who operated a rum ring valued in excess of $5 million dollars. According to my source material, that equates to over $85 million (circa 2020), and was larger, in fact, than that of even Al Capone at the time it collapsed in October 1931.
In all my research, I could not find a single photograph of this man. While names like Capone, Luciano, and Atlantic City’s Nucky Johnson (of Boardwalk Empire fame) are synonymous with organized crime, Frank Hilton flew completely under the radar. It made sense to me that he’d want to keep his personal life to himself.
Shannon seems to break gender roles of her time. Was she based off a historic figure?
Shannon is mostly an entity of my imagination. There was a female bootlegger, Lou Booth, who utilized Ottens, however her stint was during the latter part of Prohibition (outside of the period I write about in Book 1).
The trip back and forth from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to Cape May, New Jersey takes place a few times. Based on your research, would you say the time it took them to come to the shore is about the same amount of time now?
It was longer, though not by much. While automobiles existed, most people- my characters included- traveled by rail. This is mostly due to infrastructure, or lack thereof. The Delaware River Bridge (now the Ben Franklin) wasn’t built until 1926. Prior to that, passengers took a ferry ride from Philadelphia to Camden, where they then boarded trains to the various shore points.
Are there any parts that you’ve edited out that you wish you’d kept in the book?
Yes, there was a scene between Jennie and her young cousin, Samuel, where they had a flour fight while baking cookies. It was a tender moment, but really didn’t serve a purpose plot-wise. Other edits have made their way into Books 2 and 3.
Do you ever use real people as the basis for your characters?
Yes, however, aside from Frank Hilton, they are limited to side characters. References include two NJ women whom I greatly admire, Dr. Margaret Mace and Joy Bright Hancock, both of Wildwood. Mace ran a hospital for years, while Bright Hancock has a storied history of service in the U.S. Navy. John Wanamaker (credited with helping to found Sea Grove/ Cape May Point) is also mentioned several times.
The “core four” are all of my own creation, although Jennie’s early plotline was inspired by the life of Consuelo Vanderbilt and her mother, Alva Belmont.
Are you currently working on any other books?
I am. Book 2 is halfway written and I hope to release it in Summer 2023. Book 3 is outlined and I have some ideas for both a prequel and separate standalone novel which will also be set in Cape May.