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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Sneak Peek: Prologue, Down Salem Way

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20 December 1691

My life has only just begun. Is that not odd? I am nine-and-twenty years old and did not know who or what or why I was until I met my Elizabeth.

How did I know she was the one for me? In truth, I cannot say, but knew I did from the instant I saw her. Twas but three months ago, over the supper table where we were gathered with friends from the Village where Elizabeth and her father and sister had recently arrived from England. I noticed her the moments I walked in I saw her floating gracefully about the simple wooden cabin, making sure everyone’s mugs and bellies were full, caring for her younger sister, tending to her father. And then our eyes met and my life on earth made sense to me. I wanted to know Elizabeth, and when I discovered that she wanted to know me, I knew why I was brought forth on this earth—to love and cherish this woman.

I am not a religious man. I believe in God, I believe in His mercy, but I do not believe our lives are predestined, mapped out for us before we are born. I do not believe we have to forgo earthly joys in pursuit of some unknown Paradise in a mysterious afterworld. I believe we make our own fortunes through our work, our families, our friends, and elsewhere. I can devote my heart and soul to my wife and still do good and be good to those I love on earth and those I love in heaven. I listen to Reverend Noyes in the meeting house on a Sunday and his brimstone and hellfire sermons do not prompt my piety. There is a lot of brimstone and hellfire here in Salem, but I let it pass over me. If this is what others believe, that is all and well, but I believe in a God of compassion.

I’m certain I sound like an old married man though I have been married but this week past. Though my father is one of the wealthiest men in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, my wife is a farmer’s daughter, and she decided that our wedding would be a simple affair with family and a few friends. My wife, beautiful no matter her clothing, looked ethereal in the brown silk that matched the brown silk of the wisps of her hair that fell from her coif and the brown silk of her soft eyes. My father presented us with the best food and drink money could buy—spiced hard cider, fish chowder, stewed oysters, parsley-flavored mussels, roasted game birds, red pickled eggs, succotash stew, bearberry jelly, rye bread, maple syrup candy, nutmeats, my wife’s bride cake, and my father’s favorite, the Indian pudding with dried plums and West Indian molasses.

For myself I was all of nerves, trembling and stumbling, not from fear but from disbelief that Elizabeth Jones was about to become my wife. I forgot to tidy my hair or my clothing prior to the wedding, and I’m sure I looked like a rumpled roll of bedding tossed from the last ship to dock from England. I had to run to my own wedding, smiling, happy, impatient to create a life with the woman I love. It has been cold this December, but Elizabeth decided we would be married after the harvest months so that my father-in-law, a farmer, and our other friends from the Village could join in our joy. The magistrate recited the vows. My wife and I exchanged rings. My father bought us the rings, for, though rings are unpopular here where any earthly adornment is considered vain, he says that the thin bands represent eternity, which is as long as I shall love my wife.

“I shall never leave you ever,” I said to my blushing bride, and she promised me the same. My father brought us to our new two-story, two-gable house, one of the larger homes in Salem Town, his wedding present to us. When Elizabeth and I were finally alone, I was tongue tied. I had been dreaming of this moment from the very first time I saw her, but there I was in the great room staring into the kitchen where she appeared to be examining the larger cauldron hanging from the center of the hearth. I thought if she spoke first then she might alleviate the awkwardness. Finally, I laughed, and she laughed, and I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that this is where I’m supposed to be, in my beautiful home with my beautiful wife, and there was nowhere else in the world for me.

As I sit here looking through the diamond panes into the fading daylight I see my Elizabeth sitting in her chair by the heat of the hearth, her feet up on the tapestry-covered stool, a book in her lap, the flickering flames illuminating her peach-like complexion, her lips parted as if she had bitten into berries that stained her full mouth red, her dark curls falling down her back, her hair loose since it is just we two in the privacy of our home, her thin linen shift covered by a shawl to protect her from the cold that still filtered between the diamond panes of the windows. She looks from her book to me and smiles, and I know that all is well in the world. As I write this she stands, places her book on the chair she had been sitting on, and walks to me. She is placing her warm hands on my shoulders, and with the knuckles of her thumbs and forefingers presses the tight muscles of my neck and shoulders into submission. I exhale and lean back into her kneading hands, allowing the relief they bring me body and soul.

I thank God every night for this woman. Who am I to have such good fortune? Tonight, I, James Wentworth, am a content man, a joyous man, a grateful man with my loving, radiant wife beside me.

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Watching the Witch Trials: The Crucible and Three Sovereigns for Sarah

To get into the flow of life in the Massachusetts Bay Colony while I’m writing Down Salem Way, I just rewatched The Crucible, which is a story I love. When I was teaching American literature, one of my favorite lessons was when we read and watched Miller’s work because there’s such depth to the story and it provided much for us to think and talk about. When I rewatched The Crucible, it was helpful seeing the period costumes, the wooden houses, the horse-drawn carriages, and the farming because it helps me visualize what I’m writing about.

It’s important to remember that Miller’s play is an allegory where the witch hunts represent the finger-pointing madness of McCarthyism where no one was safe from accusations of Communism. For anyone familiar with the events of the Salem Witch Trials, it’s easy to say that The Crucible is more fiction than fact. However, the point of the play is not to illuminate the real-life events of the witch hunts but to make a point about how easily we turn against each other when it suits our purposes. The names of those involved in the witch hunts are true and the general events are based on fact; the specifics of the play, however, not so much. Abigail Williams was 11, John Proctor in his 60s, and I feel  confident saying that he looked nothing like Daniel Day-Lewis. To know about the Salem Witch Trials and allow for the way it’s presented in The Crucible, you have to accept Miller’s story for what it is—a parable about how vulnerable we are to our own weaknesses. Miller was a master at dialogue—there is not one word out of place—and Proctor’s speech at the end (where he cannot sign a false confession) sums up perfectly why so many of those convicted of witchcraft wouldn’t falsely confess despite the fact that confession would save their lives.

If you use Amazon , you’re familiar with those lists of “If you like this, you’ll like this…” Sometimes I find those lists annoying, but the day I watched The Crucible another title popped onto my TV screen—Three Sovereigns for Sarah. I wasn’t familiar with this movie starring Vanessa Redgrave, but in a way the 1985 film is the perfect companion piece to The Crucible since Three Sovereigns for Sarah is also about the Salem Witch Trials. The main difference is that Three Sovereigns is based more on factual accounts; in fact, much of the dialogue in the film comes directly from transcripts from the trials in 1692. Three Sovereigns is about three sisters caught up in the horror of the witch hunts—Rebecca Nurse, Mary Easty, and Sarah Cloyse (played by Redgrave). Rebecca and Mary are hung after their witchcraft convictions, while Sarah survives, barely, because she was jailed away from the others due to the prisons in Salem and Boston overflowing with suspected and convicted witches. Twenty years later, seeking to clear her sisters’ names, Sarah is given three sovereigns, one for each sister, meant to appease her loss under such tragic circumstances.

Watching the film version of The Crucible does give a sense of life in Salem in 1692, but really I watch The Crucible for the pinpoint perfect dialogue and the message within the story (and, yes, for Daniel Day-Lewis). Watching Three Sovereigns for Sarah gives a more accurate account of what really happened during the witch hunts. As someone currently writing about the Salem Witch Trials, both The Crucible and Three Sovereigns have played a role in helping me bring Salem in 1692 to life.

On the literary side, I’ve downloaded The Scarlet Letter, the classic from Nathaniel
Hawthorne (a descendant of Salem Witch Trial magistrate John Hathorne, Nathaniel having added the w to the spelling of his surname to avoid a direct connection to his decidedly unsympathetic ancestor). The Scarlet Letter is not about the witch hunts, but it is about life in Puritanical Massachusetts, which will also help me get a feel for the time. I’ve also discovered a documentary about the Salem Witch Trials from the History Channel, and I’m looking forward to the new perspective that will bring.

I look at it this way: I get to watch TV and read classic literature and call it work.

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