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–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.