Historical Fiction Inspiration–The Salem Witch Trials

A book on witchcraft from the Jonathan Corwin home in Salem, Massachusetts. Corwin was one of the magistrates during the witch trials.

Understanding the basic premise of Her Dear & Loving Husband was the easy part, and I thought this novel would be a simple love story between a vampire and the human woman he loved. I didn’t have any expectations for the book beyond that, but then things grew complicated, as they tend to do. I had my characters’ names –James Wentworth and Sarah Alexander–and I had a basic premise of who they were. But I still needed a setting. While wondering where to place the story, I stumbled onto an historical background that surprised even me.

I was looking over a map of the United States trying to decide where to set the story, and nothing was popping out at me. I deliberately stayed away from the Pacific Northwest and Louisiana since other well-known literary vampires live there. Transylvania–probably not going to work for me. I thought of my hometown Los Angeles, and then I thought of where I live now in Las Vegas, but neither of those felt right. Too bright, I think. Yes, Las Vegas is the nightlife capital of the world, perhaps a good thing for a vampire, but the Vegas nightlife scene would have added an extra element to the story that didn’t feel right to me. What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, right? Then I decided that if I wasn’t going to set the story in the Northwestern United States, how about the Northeast? I pulled my U.S. map a little closer, looked at the Northeastern seaboard states, saw Massachusetts, and I thought hmmm… I love American history, and there is plenty of that in Massachusetts. Could there be some history in this love story? James has lived over three centuries, after all. While I was looking at the map I saw that there, in a little dot near Boston, was Salem. My history-loving brain immediately thought of the Salem Witch Trials, and I was sold to both the setting and the historical background.

The town square in Salem, Massachusetts near the Witch Trial museum.

When I watch the news these days (or try to avoid the news, more like), I’m surprised by the constant references to witch trials or witch hunts. This is the worst witch hunt you’ve ever seen, as some people like to say. But I know better. I know what the Salem Witch Trials were. They were not a joke. When I decided to use the Salem Witch Trials as the historical background for Her Dear & Loving Husband, I felt as though I had a duty to share the witch trials as they really were, with all of the ugliness–the terror, the accusations, the madness–and real people with real families with real lives died as a result. Since I wanted the historical period of the witch trials to echo what was happening to James and Sarah in the present day, I needed to make sure that the historical background coincided with the present-day story. To a degree, you could say the history informed the story; in other words, once I decided on the historical period, that helped me shape the plot.

The Salem Witch Trial Museum.

Leave it to me to write a novel set in a New England town I had never been to. I was born in New York, but we moved to the West Coast when I was seven and I consider Los Angeles my hometown. I never visited Salem when I wrote Her Dear & Loving Husband. Thank goodness for the Internet, websites about Salem, and Google Earth. I did finally visit Salem while I was writing Book Two in the Loving Husband series, Her Loving Husband’s Curse, and I loved the town. In fact, I wanted to move there. Luckily, everything in Salem was where I thought it should be.

It was a surreal feeling when I first arrived, and it had to sink in that I was actually in Salem. Hey, I might see Sarah walking these streets! Not James, of course. It was daytime and he was sleeping. Yes, I know James and Sarah are fictional characters, but they’re my fictional characters, which makes them real to me (and hopefully to anyone who reads the novel). The first thing I did was take the red trolley car around town. Salem is an easy town to walk through,  but the red trolley is nice because the tour guides are knowledgeable and give extra insights—a Salem FYI. Did you know that Salem’s name was Naumkeag, after the original natives, when it was first settled in 1626? Or that Salem is probably a shortened version of Jerusalem, Hebrew for city of peace or dwelling of peace? City of peace is a good name for that town because I did feel peaceful there.

The Friendship in Salem Harbor

There’s a quietness, a calm in Salem that I can’t associate with any other place I’ve been. It might be a New England thing, or a Massachusetts thing. But people are different there. They smile at you. Say hello. I think the seaside has something to do with it. The coastline along the bay is beautiful, scenic, the bay stretching out into the expanse of the Atlantic Ocean, the trees along the coast adding green to the blue of the water. There are the little boats chugging and bobbing in the waves, caught in the mud at low tide, and there are people wandering along, some sightseeing. The beaches are popular and families with moms and dads and children and grandparents splash in the waves and sit in the sun. I have always found something serene about the ocean, the peace of going home, if you will, and Salem has the tranquility of the bay every day, rain or shine.

After the trolley, my next stop was the Salem Witch Museum, across from Salem Commons. I looked first at the statue of Roger Conant, who helped to settle Salem (then Naumkeag) in 1626, and he looked every bit as imposing and unforgiving as I thought he would. Raised several feet off the ground in the center of the road, Roger stares across the town like a disapproving headmaster over a roomful of unruly boys. At the Salem Witch Museum, I breathed a sigh of relief when I saw that it looks just as I described—a large brick building, a former church, in fact. From my research for Her Dear & Loving Husband, I was already well-versed in the details of the witch trials, but I was interested in how the Salem Witch Museum portrayed those horrible days in that very place over three hundred years before. I liked how the various scenes showed the progression of the tragedy. How does one turn against a neighbor? A friend? A wife? All these years later and we still don’t know the answer, and that’s what makes the Salem Witch Trials still a frightening time, perhaps because we realize it could happen again under the right circumstances.

The Salem Witch Trials are much on my mind these days while I’m writing Down Salem Way, which again places James and Sarah in harm’s way in 1692. I think setting Her Dear & Loving Husband during the Salem Witch Trials added a depth to James and Sarah’s love story that wouldn’t have existed without the historical background. Which is one of the many reasons I love writing historical fiction.

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