Character Inspiration: Sarah Alexander and Elizabeth Wentworth

Fans of the Loving Husband Trilogy are familiar with Elizabeth, the greatest love of James Wentworth’s life. She is the woman he sees across the dining room table in Salem Village in 1692, and her beauty and warmth capture his heart forever. But where did the idea for Elizabeth come from? And who came first, Elizabeth or James’ future love, Sarah Alexander?

To answer the second question first, trying to figure out who came first, Elizabeth or Sarah, is like a chicken and the egg question. On the one hand, you think the chicken had to come first because how can you have an egg without a chicken to lay it, but then you think it had to be the egg because where would a chicken come from if there wasn’t an egg to hatch from? You can’t have Sarah without Elizabeth. They’re too intertwined. Chronologically, Elizabeth was first since she married James in 1691, and James and Sarah married in 2011.

Writing the novel was more complex than following the chronology. My initial concept for Her Dear & Loving Husband was for it to be a completely modern novel. In my mind, Sarah came first. The bigger story that includes the Salem Witch Trials didn’t come to me until I decided where to set the novel. Once I decided to set the story in Salem and include the witch trials, then Elizabeth appeared. Are Sarah and Elizabeth exactly the same? Not quite. Obviously, they share similarities, but Elizabeth lives in the late 17th century; Sarah lives during our times. The differences between them are the differences you might expect from people who live in different centuries.

Sarah was easier to conceptualize since she’s a modern woman. I can’t say that there was any one major inspiration for Sarah. For most of the characters I write, I imagine a favorite actor in the “role” of the character, which gives me a sense of mannerisms and speech cadence. For example, for John Wentworth, James’ father, I imagined one of my all-time favorite actors, Sir Patrick Stewart, as John, which gave me a very clear vision of how John would sound as he spoke, what he looked like, and how he acted. I didn’t have a particular actress in mind for either Sarah or Elizabeth. They were completely figments of my imagination, which can work as well since I can allow my imagination to run wild. While we’re on the subject, I didn’t have a specific actor in mind for James. Every other character in Her Dear & Loving Husband had a well-known actor in the “roles.” Call it my Loving Husband dream team. But the three leads—James, Sarah, and Elizabeth—were all from my own imaginings.

Elizabeth is more of a mystery in Her Dear & Loving Husband. We see her in snippets throughout the novel, and we have some sense of her personality, and we see how close she and James are so that we undertand why James was so devastated by her loss during the witch hunts. But we don’t learn a lot about her. She’s there in the background, a shadow that haunts both James and Sarah, but by the end she’s relegated to her role as a memory. My inspiration for writing Down Salem Way came from the fact that I felt like there was more to explore about James and Elizabeth’s experiences in Salem in 1692. I wanted to know Elizabeth better. I wanted to see more of James and Elizabeth together, happy, content in their lives together, and I wanted to examine how it all fell apart, through no fault of their own.

Character inspiration can come from anywhere. It can come from books, movies, TV shows, music, people you know, favorite actors, or your imagination. My imagination was my main tool for creating both Elizabeth and Sarah. What I’ve learned from this experience is that you can go home again—at least when you’re writing fiction. I wanted to explore Elizabeth a little more, and now I’m able to do that through writing Down Salem Way.

You can see the first sneak peek of Down Salem Way here. It’s written diary-style from James’ point of view. I’m enjoying writing as James. It’s time he had his chance to share his side of what happened in 1692.

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Salem Before, During, and After the Witch Trials

James’s House (Sorry…the John Ward House)

I loved visiting Salem, Massachusetts while I was writing Her Loving Husband’s Curse, the second book in the Loving Husband Trilogy. Imagine my surprise when, behind the Peabody-Essex Museum, I encountered the John Ward House, which was built in 1684. Long, brown wooden slats. Diamond-paned casement windows. Steep, pitched gabled roof. Is anyone else thinking what I’m thinking?

This is James’s house!

I felt like Sarah when she sees James’s house for the first time: I knew this house though I had never seen it before except in my dreams. This was one of those strange life-imitating-fiction moments I encountered a number of times while visiting Salem. And, like Sarah, I had to touch the scratchy wood for it to sink in that the house was really there. I took picture after picture so I could prove to myself later that James’s house was real and I had stood in front of it. I half-expected to see Sarah walk through the front door.

Pickering Wharf

From there I walked to Pickering Wharf, which also plays an important role in Her Dear & Loving Husband since that’s where Olivia’s shop, The Witches Lair, is located. The Witches Lair is the type of shop you see occasionally with psychic readings, tarot cards, amulets, crystals, and books of spells. While Olivia and her shop are fictional, there are many psychic shops in Salem, and there is at least one psychic with her own shop in Pickering Wharf alongside the boutiques and restaurants. Located at the edge of the bay, the gray-blue and beige-toned buildings look out into the stretch of water, and there’s the Friendship, the three-masted ship—just the way I described it, thank goodness. I ate lunch at Capn’s, wandered around the shops, watched others eating at the tables outside taking advantage of the sunny summer day, took pictures of the Salem Maritime National Historic Site. Pickering Wharf is peaceful, calm, and beautiful.

The garden at the House of the Seven Gables

I hung around Pickering Wharf for a while, then walked down the block (everything in Salem seems to be down the block from everything else) to the House of the Seven Gables, made famous by the novel from Salem’s favorite son, Nathaniel Hawthorne. From his cousin, Hawthorne learned the story of the old house, and from there came the inspiration for his story. The house is every bit as grand as you would expect. Larger than James’s house (excuse me, the John Ward House), the house has seen a lot of history since it’s one of the oldest buildings in the Salem area. Passed from one family to another, made bigger, rooms and gables added, along with that secret passage made famous in the novel, the house was turned from a personal residence into a museum. I felt myself pulled back in time as I toured the rooms and looked at the furniture, the wall hangings, and the clothing. Outside the house is the garden, a burst of pinks and purples, and as I admired the flowers I saw the sea stretching out to the horizon, one of the most scenic sights in Salem. I even met two friendly cats wandering about greeting visitors. There are other buildings on the grounds, too, including the red house where Hawthorne was born. Hawthorne was born a few blocks away, and the house was moved to its current location in the 1950s. It’s a humble house since the Hathornes (the original spelling) were not a wealthy family.

The cat at the House of the Seven Gables

I described the museum in Her Dear & Loving Husband. It’s an important moment for James and Sarah. They’re still tentative in their relationship at this point though they want to know each other better. On Halloween, James takes Sarah to see the house, and they see the gables, the garden, the Hawthorne House. He shares his knowledge (and James knows a lot about Salem in days gone by). They become more attracted and attached as they stand there together. I am glad I was able to stand there as well. Of all the sights I saw in Salem, I think the House of the Seven Gables was my favorite.

Salem State University

In Her Dear & Loving Husband, James Wentworth has inserted himself into the human world as much as he can. If he wants to seem human, I decided, then he would have a job. What job? English literature is the only subject I can discuss with any intelligence, so James became an English professor. An odd job for someone of James’s paranormal disposition, but, as James himself says, any job besides Grim Reaper would seem odd for him. I wanted his love interest, Sarah, to work at the college, too, since it’s easy for them to run into each other if they work together. She became a college librarian. I did a search for colleges in the area, and there was Salem State College.

While on the campus I stood in front of Meier Hall, the School of Arts and Sciences, where Sarah spies on James while he’s teaching his Romantic Poets class. It’s one of my favorite scenes in the novel. The university is larger than I imagined, or at least more spread out. It’s a beautiful campus, fresh-looking, clean, and the green of the grass and the new trees make it an inviting place to be. Of course, I wasn’t taking or teaching any classes, which may have led to the fact that I found the campus peaceful. The summer school students may not have found it as inviting as I did.

A settler’s house from 1630s Salem (then Naumkeag) in Pioneer Village

Right across Lafayette and down the block, in the state park near the bay, is Pioneer Village. More than any place in Salem, walking onto the grounds of Pioneer Village is like falling into a time warp to the 17th century. The Salem Witch Museum and the Witch Dungeon Museum were interesting, but I didn’t feel the pull of the 1600s in the museums. I felt like a 21st century tourist looking at scenes from the 17th century. At Pioneer Village, you walk into meadow-like grounds of overgrown grass, weeds, trees, front yard gardens, and historically accurate replicas of the homes of the earliest settlers to the area. The costumed docents walk you around, explaining everything, answering questions. Pioneer Village was the closest to a complete immersion into the past I found in Salem.

I visited Boston too. I didn’t have a lot of time there, but I walked the Freedom Trail, led by a knowledgeable, costumed guide with a great sense of humor and more than a passing resemblance to George Washington. I ate lunch at Faneuil Hall and saw what was perhaps the highlight of my trip—the hotel where Charles Dickens stayed during his trip to Boston in 1842. I also snapped a picture of the building that housed Dickens’s U.S. publisher. Maybe not as exciting to non-Dickens fans, but I thought it was pretty cool.

How much did visiting Salem add to the Loving Husband Trilogy? Everything. It wasn’t necessary for me to visit since I wrote Her Dear & Loving Husband without setting foot in Massachusetts, but there was so much more depth in the descriptions of Salem in the last two books in the series because of my visit there.

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Historical Fiction Inspiration—Her Dear and Loving Husband

It’s always exciting to me that Her Dear & Loving Husband continues to find new fans. It currently has 148,000 reads on Wattpad, and it’s gaining more reads and likes every day. That, plus the book has been bought or downloaded over 250,000 times—no small potatoes as far as I’m concerned. Thank you to all of James and Sarah’s amazing fans.

One of the main questions I get asked about Her Dear & Loving Husband is where I came up with the idea for the story. I talked in this post about how Her Dear & Loving Husband has a lot in common with Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander. I’ve only just read Outlander so that didn’t play a role in inspiring Her Dear & Loving Husband. Still, there were other books and TV shows that helped to inspire James and Sarah’s eternal love.

The story begins in 2007, when I was teaching middle school American history. When I was in the school hallways I’d see the girls walking around holding these black books and I didn’t recognize the book. Finally, I asked one of my students who was reading it what the book was, and she said, “Oh, Ms. Allard, it’s Twilight. Don’t you know Twilight?” I didn’t, and I asked her to tell me about it. As soon as she mentioned vampires I tuned out because I wasn’t into vampires, which I associated with horror stories, and I’m not into the horror genre. But then a few fellow teachers raved about the book, giggling over it like our teenage students. A few weeks later another student tossed Twilight onto my desk. “Ms. Allard,” she said, “I’ve read that book too many times and I have to find something else to read. You can read it.” I appreciated the gesture, and I didn’t want to hurt her feelings, so I figured I’d take it home, skim through it enough to get some character names, and then say how much I loved the the story when I returned the book to its rightful owner.

As I skimmed through the book (okay, here’s a Bella…there’s an Edward…) I thought some parts looked interesting enough so I ended up reading the whole thing. Even though Twilight is meant for young adult readers, I found the story endearing enough to decide that maybe vampires weren’t all bad. Yes, in case you’re wondering, I did end up reading the whole Twilight series. If I hadn’t read the Twilight books I never would have watched True Blood on HBO, and it’s more accurate to say Her Dear & Loving Husband was inspired by True Blood. 

There’s an episode early in the first season of True Blood (I think it’s episode four, but don’t quote me) where vampire Bill is giving a talk at Sookie’s grandmother’s church. Someone shows Bill a picture of his family from his human days before the American Civil War, and Bill becomes so emotional at the remembrance of them. That’s what clicked my brain into gear. Here’s this vampire who has everything humans only dream of—extraordinary strength, immortal life—and yet he becomes so emotional at the sight of the ones he loved as a human.  After that episode, I wondered…what happens to a vampire who lives forever? Obviously, the humans he loved would have died somewhere along the way. Would he forget about them and go on? Would he have trouble moving on? What if he fell in love again? What would that look like, and who would he fall in love with? If he was so in love with his wife, could he ever love anyone else?

I didn’t have any immediate sense that there was something tangible like a novel in those oddball daydreams. I like to tell stories, and I’m always kicking scenarios around this empty head of mine, most of which come to nothing. When I was still thinking of this vampire idea six months later, I decided to see if there was anything to it. Between watching True Blood, reading Charlaine Harris, Anne Rice, Bram Stoker, and the Twilight books, believe me, I had a brain full of vampire waiting to get out. Luckily for me, that vampire turned out to be James Wentworth.

The exact date I began writing was April 15, 2009. It was a Wednesday. I remember the date because I was off for Spring Break that week. I had just come back from a few days in my hometown, Los Angeles, to spend some time by the beach and visit my favorite coffee/tea joint—Urth Café. Back home in Vegas, I woke up that Wednesday morning and the crazy vampire idea was distracting me again. I made myself eggs, toast, and coffee, sat down at the computer, and started typing out whatever I knew about this vampire and the woman he loved. The story even had a working title—The Vampire’s Wife. In case you were wondering, James’s official birthday is April 19 because that was the day he found his name. When it comes to character names, I feel like the name is inherent in the character; in other words, they already know their names, but they leave it to me to guess. I feel like the miller’s daughter scrambling to guess Rumplestiltskin’s name. Is it Bob? Is it Herbert? Is it Randolph or George or Ichabod? At some point I do guess correctly, and that’s without the help of a messenger spying on the One-To-Be-Named. I can’t write about a character until I know his or her name, so that’s always my first step when I write a new story.

After I had my main characters’ names—James and Sarah, and of course Elizabeth—it became a matter of deciding where the story was going to take place. At this time I had no sense that this story would move back and forth between the past and the present. In my initial conception of the story, it was going to be a present-day love story between a vampire and the woman he loves. It turns out that choosing the setting was the most important decision I made while writing Her Dear & Loving Husband. And this is where the element of historical fiction came in.

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