Joan Druett was born in Nelson, and raised in Palmerston North, moving to New Zealand's capital city, Wellington, when she was 16. She gained her Bachelor of Arts in English literature from the Victoria University of Wellington, and then worked as a teacher of biology and English literature for many years before publishing her first full-length book when she was 40. She travelled extensively in her 20s - including to Canada, where she lived for a while, Britain and the Middle East.
She went to America as a Fulbright Scholar in 1986, and returned there in 1992 as historian/writer for a museum exhibit, "The Sailing Circle: Seafaring Women of New York," living in Orient, Long Island, where she and her husband, Ron, a maritime artist, were artists in residence at the William Steeple Davis Trust house and studio. While Ron painted and exhibited at galleries such as Mystic Seaport Gallery, she researched and wrote historical novels and books on maritime history. Late 1996 she and Ron returned to New Zealand, and set up house in Wellington in 1997. In 2001 she was the John David Stout Fellow at the Stout Research Centre for New Zealand Studies, Victoria University, and is still an associate.
She is married to Ron Druett and has two sons. Ron is a well-regarded maritime artist and has illustrated many of her histories.
While her first novel wasn't published until she was 40 years old, Druett always wanted to write and had written professionally from her teen years. She wrote science fiction stories for American magazines, and stories for a M?ori magazine using the pseudonym Jo Friday. She also did some freelance travel-writing.
Her first book, Exotic Intruders, was the result of a publisher's request for a book about the introduction to New Zealand of plants and animals by sailing ships. Since then she has written extensively in maritime history - particularly looking at wives at sea - and also historical and maritime novels.
In her later career, she has become best known for her Wiki novels, historical mysteries with a half-Maori seaman protagonist named Wiki Coffin. The Wiki character grew out of her research into real people, including descriptions of a Maori sailor in a midshipman's journal from the first half of the nineteenth century. In addition to the novels, Druett has also published several short stories featuring Wiki Coffin in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine.