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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Researching Historical Fiction—The Victorian Era

Victorian England

I have an odd habit of choosing to write historical fiction set in eras I know little to nothing about. I came up with story ideas about the Salem Witch Trials, the Trail of Tears, Biblical Jerusalem, New York City and Washington, D.C. during the woman’s suffrage movement, and the American Civil War, and for those stories I had to learn about the history to write the novel. I don’t mind when it happens that way, though. I’ve always been fascinated with history, and I enjoy learning about the past. I often get ideas for the plot from my research, so the research helps to make my novel even richer than it might have been without the historical background.

Writing When It Rained at Hembry Castle was different. I was already familiar with the era because of my love for Dickens. This time, it was more about reminding myself what I already knew (it had been 20 years since grad school by then) and figuring out how to use that knowledge in this story I had been kicking around for two decades. I realized early in the process that now I wanted to include aspects of my favorite TV show—Downton Abbey. The aspiring young writer Edward Ellis was still the focal point of the story, but now I wanted to include upstairs/downstairs elements as well.

To begin my research, I started with the author I know best—Dickens. Of course I’ve read all his novels, many more than once, so I started with the one I knew had the most in common with the story I had in mind for Hembry—Our Mutual Friend. From there, I went back to a few favorite books about the Victorian Era—What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew by Daniel Pool and The Victorian City: Everyday Life in Dickens’ London and Inside the Victorian Home: A Portrait of Domestic Life in Victorian England by Judith Flanders. I had read both of those books previously but reread them for a refresher course. While reading about the Victorian Era, I discovered a new favorite historian, Ruth Goodman, who impressed me with the fact that she doesn’t just talk about Victorian clothing, she makes it and wears it. She’s tried out many elements of living in the Victorian era, which gives her work that much more authority. Her book, How To Be a Victorian: A Dusk-to-Dawn Guide to Victorian Life, is a must read for anyone interested in life during the Victorian period. I also read The Writer’s Guide to Everyday Life in Regency and Victorian England From 1811-1901 by Kristine Hughes. Edward Ellis is loosely based on a young Charles Dickens, but I didn’t need to read anything specifically for that since I’ve read pretty much every biography about Dickens. It was nice to be able to use information I had in my head for a change.

Victorian England 2

After my refresher course on Victorian England, I realized that I needed to learn more about what the upstairs/downstairs world looked like in the 1870s. To my surprise, it wasn’t so different from the way it’s portrayed in Downton Abbey, which begins in 1912 during the Edwardian era. While I picked up a lot about manor house living from watching Downton, as many fans of the show have, I felt I needed more specifics so I read Up and Down Stairs: The History of the Country House Servant by Jeremy Musson. I gleaned some great information from that book, and it provided good background for me so I could see how the country house servant evolved over the years. The upstairs/downstairs world isn’t part of our culture in America the way it is in England, and I wonder if that accounts for Americans’ fascination with Downton Abbey—it’s a glimpse into a lifestyle we weren’t familiar with.

The way I research historical fiction has changed a lot over the years. I used to do months of research before I ever started writing. Now I do a few weeks worth of preliminary research to get a feel for the era, and then I start writing. As I write, I get a sense of what information I need so I know exactly what to look for. As I was writing, I realized that if Edward was a political journalist then he would know politics. I needed to figure out the political climate of the time, but it wasn’t too hard since I knew what I was looking for—events in British politics in 1870. I remember learning about Gladstone and Disraeli in a class I took years ago, and it was nice being able to put that knowledge to use as well.

Through the writing process I realized that I needed information about Victorian etiquette. There were such specific rules for every aspect of life, and since part of Daphne’s struggle is to learn to live in this upstairs/downstairs world, she had to learn those rules. I found The Essential Handbook of Victorian Etiquette by Thomas E. Hill, which was written for Americans during the Victorian era, but after a little digging I discovered that the rules were the same in Britain so I used that book as my primary reference. The etiquette seems so antiquated now. I had a lot of fun writing those scenes because Daphne is rather amused by her grandmother’s nitpicking about how her manners aren’t refined enough for English society.

I was lucky enough to be able to visit England twice prior to writing When It Rained at Hembry Castle. Most of the London locations in the story were chosen because they were places I’ve visited myself so I had seen what I was describing. I stood on the Victoria Embankment near the Houses of Parliament watching the Thames roll as Edward is wont to do. I’ve taken a couple of Edward’s walks through the city. Many of the buildings are different (I’m pretty sure the The Gherkin wasn’t around in 1870), yet some of the buildings are the same, which is amazing to me. Here in Las Vegas buildings are imploded if they’re more than 20 years old.

In many ways, researching When It Rained at Hembry Castle was the easiest work I’ve done so far for a historical novel since I was already familiar with the time. It’s always magical to me when I start to see how I can take this knowledge of history and weave it into the story I have in mind. What is even more amazing is when the history leads the story in directions I had never considered before. That, for me, is the joy of writing historical fiction.

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Writing Historical Fiction Part 7

7.  Immerse yourself in the period.

Research doesn’t have to be only about going through stacks of books and taking endless notes. Make this time fun for yourself. Visit local historical sites that are reminiscent of the period. Read books and listen to music from that time or place. Watch movies set in the period or documentaries about the era.  I discovered the wonderful film Gettysburg while I was writing my American Civil War story, My Brother’s Battle. Watching the soldiers march and hearing the battle calls helped me to visualize the battle scenes while I was writing. I also bought several CDs of music from the era which I listened to while I was writing. I must have listened to the soundtrack to Ken Burns’ Civil War documentary a hundred times or more during the two years it took to write the book. I even bought a children’s paper doll book with Civil War uniforms and, yes, I had fun folding the clothes over the soldiers. As I was writing the novel I had no trouble describing the uniforms–or the garments under the uniforms. When I was writing my women suffrage novel, Victory Garden, which takes place from 1917-1922, I enjoyed watching silent films and listening to ragtime piano music since those were the entertainments people enjoyed then. The more you, the writer, feel as if you have traveled back to your time, and the more you enjoy your visit there, the more your reader will believe the journey.

Some final thoughts about writing historical fiction…

Whether or not we are historians by trade, writers of historical fiction are historians by choice, and we must take that seriously. This leads us to the question: How much leeway can the writer of historical fiction take with the facts? That’s the one question I’m asked most frequently, and that’s the one answer I don’t have. It’s up to authors to decide how they’re going to intertwine facts of the era with the characters and story they’ve created.

For writers who feel they need to change the facts for whatever reason, I won’t argue that it’s wrong to do; however, the former history teacher in me suggests adding a note about it in an Author’s Notes at the end of the novel. This way your readers (who are often familiar with your historical era) know that you know that you fudged some of the facts. I don’t think we should make massive changes to the history, but a tweak here and there can be forgiven if the story and characters are strong enough. Perhaps the task of the historical storyteller is to make the history interesting enough for readers so they’ll become curious and want to read some nonfiction about the era. That’s what Downton Abbey did for me. After I fell in love with the show, I began reading everything I could find about early 20th century England.

The primary job of the historical storyteller is to educate readers with facts about the past while entertaining them with well-written plots and engaging characters. The more joy we find in the process of writing our history-based stories, the more joy we’ll find as we share our stories.  And that is why we write historical fiction after all.

This concludes Writing Historical Fiction 101, at least until I can think of some other advice I’ve shared with my writing seminar students.