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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Can You Feel It? Writing Scene Sequels

The book was originally known as The Vampire's Wife. I'm glad I went with Her Dear & Loving Husband.

Originally known as The Vampire’s Wife. I’m glad I went with Her Dear & Loving Husband.

This post is in honor of Laurin Wittig, the nice lady with a keen eye for critique who helped me get Her Dear & Loving Husband on track back in 2010.

When I began writing Her Dear & Loving Husband in 2009, I saw the internal and external conflicts for James and Sarah so clearly in my mind, but I was having trouble articulating it on paper. It was the first time I had ever used two points of view in the same story, and it was also the first time I had a nonlinear plot since Her Dear & Loving Husband moves back and forth between the Salem Witch Trials in 1692 and present day Salem. For some reason, the narrative flow didn’t come easily for me as I plodded through draft after draft. I was lucky enough to find Laurin through an Internet search, and when she critiqued the book she shared the scene sequel with me as a way to slow down and allow the character, and the reader, to think through what is happening. The scene sequel takes place in four steps.

Step 1: Emotion

This is where the character is reacting to what has happened. In that moment when something happens, we feel it first. Before rationality, before logic, there is emotion.

Step 2: Thought

When the emotion of the moment fades away we begin to think about what has happened. Sometimes logically. Sometimes not. But the intention is to make sense of whatever is going on. What does this really mean? What is the right thing to do? For me, the thought stage is where the character questions what has happened, what should have happened, what might happen. If I do A, will B, C, or Z result?

Step 3: Decision

After the thinking is done, what will you do? Will Sarah run screaming from James when she discovers his secret? Will James tell Sarah what the secret is? This is the moment when the character forms a judgment based on his or her thoughts, making a decision one way or another.

Step 4: Action

This is the result of the decision. Once the decision is made, then the character has to do something about it. As Laurin said, sometimes the decision is to deal with it later. But there should be some kind of culmination to the thinking and the decision.

I have become a huge fan of the scene sequel. Laurin told me she kept the formula on a sticky note on her computer for years, and now I do the same. The sequel is relatively simple, just four steps, yet it allows us to understand the characters on a deeper level. I think part of the reason the formula works so well is because it mimics our real-life process of dealing with whatever it is we have to deal with. First we react in an emotional way, then we think about it, then we decide what to do, and then we do it (or we decide to do nothing, which, as Laurin pointed out, is also a decision).

A scene sequel isn’t the kind of thing you want to use at every little event. But whenever something important is happening, it’s helpful to slow down and allow your characters to feel, think, decide, and do. This will create a richer, fuller story for both your characters and your readers.

Laurin not only turns out a handy-dandy critique–she’s also an award-winning historical romance novelist. If you’d like to check out her books, you can do so here.

Her Dear & Loving Husband is Now on Tour…with Giveaways!

Her-Dear-Loving-Husband-Banner

Her Dear & Loving Husband, Book One in the Loving Husband Trilogy, is now on tour through BestChickLit. Below are the tour dates and links to the websites. Please stop by and say hello! There are also some great prizes to win.

If you’re in the Massachusetts area, or you’ll be traveling there, check out the giveaway for dinner for two at Adriatic Restaurant and Bar, in Salem, MA. If you’re interested in the Salem Witch Trials and want to read more, you can win a paperback copy of Marilynne K. Roach’s book The Salem Witch Trials: A Day by Day Chronicles of a Community Under Siege. This book was a tremendous help while I was researching the Salem Witch Trials. You can also win e-copies of Her Dear & Loving Husband. Scroll down for more information about the giveaways.

August 12th – BestChickLit

http://www.bestchicklit.com

August 13th – The Gutter Girls

http://www.guttergirlsbookreviews.com/?zx=a3fc560b4c0b9daa

August 14th – Book Junkie: Not-So-Anonymous

http://ashleythebookjunkie.blogspot.co.uk

August 16th – Make My Day Books

http://makemydaybooks.blogspot.co.uk

August 19th  – Old Victorian Quill

http://oldvictorianquill.wordpress.com

August 21st – Sheli Reads

http://shelireads.wordpress.com

August 23rd – A Reading Nurse

http://areadingnurse.blogspot.co.uk

August 26th – Blue Harvest Creative

https://blueharvestcreative.wordpress.com

August 27th – Cosmochicklitan

https://cosmochicklitan.wordpress.com

Giveaways:

Giveaway 1:

Salem Witch Trials Roach

Paperback copy of the nonfiction book The Salem Witch Trials: A Day by Day Chronicles of a Community Under Siege by Marilynne K. Roach–an important book for my research about the Salem Witch Trials.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Giveaway 2:

Adriatic

Dinner for 2 people at Adriatic Restaurant and Bar, Salem, MA–the setting for the Loving Husband Trilogy and a wonderful place to visit. It’s a lovely seaside town with a lot of American history places of interest.

You can click on the links of the hosts on the day of my tour stop to enter the giveaways, or you can click here for the Rafflecopter links on BestChickLit.com. Good luck!