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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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 the school 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. Even a few fellow teachers had 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, there’s an Edward…here’s a Bella…) 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 interesting 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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Beginning The Artist’s Way

Last week I started participating in Julia Cameron’s 12 week course The Artist’s Way. It might seem odd that I would start such a course at this stage of my writing life. I’ve been writing since I was a teenager, I’ve had short stories and articles published since 2000, and my novels have been published since 2011. I was doing all right, right? I was writing, publishing, and finding successes where I could.

I wrote last week about how suddenly, after writing and publishing for years, I hit the wall of Resistance pretty hard, leaving me with bruised extremities and a soft-boiled ego. What happened? You name it, and it was probably right–I was lazy, I was afraid of failing, I was afraid of dreaming too big, I was tired of battling between what I wanted to write and what I thought I should write.

I’ve always believed that you will find what you need if you open yourself up to receive it. On a whim, I pulled The Artist’s Way off my bookshelf (it was one of the few paperbacks I kept after I embraced the minimalist movement and started donating books and other things I no longer used). I skimmed through the pages and recognized it as a 12 week course that needs to be worked through rather than read cover to cover. I made the decision to take the plunge. Luckily for me, I had just reread Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg, and Goldberg’s suggestions went along perfectly with the purpose of The Artist’s Way. Here’s what I did for Week One:

  • I completed my morning pages for each of the seven days. If you’re not familiar with Cameron’s morning pages, it’s a journal that you keep every day. The only rule is you have to write at least three pages, but otherwise you can write about whatever you want. The idea is just to get the thoughts flowing. Natalie Goldberg refers to it as writing practice. I use Goldberg’s idea of using sensory detail and memories and life happenings as fuel for my writing. Here’s a sample from my morning pages from last week:

I have been to this hospital too many times to count. It is as though the hospital itself waves “Hello! Welcome back!” whenever it opens its sliding glass doors to me and I walk from the 115 degree dry desert heat into the cold, stale air of the waiting room. If I think about it, I can count the number of times I have been here: one…two…three…four…five…six…seven… My mother calls this hospital her home away from home, and it is. The hospital is located at the north end of Tenaya Way, the medical district with doctors’ offices, physical therapists’ offices, blood-draw offices, and MRI offices. There’s also a post office and a pub for those in need of a pick-me-up from waiting in tight-fisted doctors’ offices or hospital waiting rooms where people are packed tighter than pencils in a box. There is the serenity of the mountains in the distance, but there’s also the freeway just a few feet away, and if you stop and listen you can hear the zoom of the car-chase type speeds as vehicles zip past, as though the drivers believe they are race-car champions. 

I won’t bore you with the rest of it, but you can see that I’ve incorporated Goldberg’s idea of including sensory details as a way of practicing the pinpoint eyesight through which I can observe the world and use in my writing.

  • I did my artist’s date. An artist’s date, according to Cameron, is a weekly chance for us to get in touch with our inner creative person. It’s a chance to do something fun and creative simply to do something fun and creative. This week I did a page in my art journal. I discovered art journaling last summer and fell in love with it, and then I didn’t touch my journal for months. It was great fun to pull out my paints and stencils again, and I’m sorry I let it go for so long. The inspiration for this page came from Mimi Bondi, a French mixed media artist living in Australia. I love Mimi because she’s all about finger painting and having fun and doing whatever you want and you can’t do it wrong, which goes right along with the intention behind the artist’s date. If you’re looking for art journaling inspiration, check out Mimi’s YouTube page.
  • I answered the questions and completed the tasks at the end of Lesson One. I wrote my responses right into my morning pages journal. I took a walk (in 115 degree nose-bleed dry desert heat, which is great commitment, I must say), and I discovered that the monster who has done the most to discourage my creativity and my writing is me. Now there’s a revelation.

It’s only been one week, but so far so good. So far I’ve read the lesson for the second week, and I’m looking forward to the discoveries ahead.

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