Leave it to me to decide to write a novel set in a New England town I had never been to. I have had the odd habit throughout my life of doing things backwards, and this trip to Salem, Massachusetts was no exception.
I’ve told the story before about how I decided to set Her Dear & Loving Husband in Salem. If you’re interested, in this interview I talk about how James and Sarah ended up residing in Massachusetts. I wrote Her Dear & Loving Husband without ever having set foot in that little seaside town which is itself (at least to me) a major character in the story. All I can say is God bless the Internet. I couldn’t have described Salem as well as I did without it.
Flash forward to about three weeks ago. I was at home on my computer, back in virtual Salem for another look around while I’m writing book two in the series. As I’m pulling up photos on the Internet, I’m thinking how pretty Salem is and how I would really like to be there to see it for myself. I’m a teacher off for the summer so I have some time on my hands. I looked up airfare, motels, and rental cars, and I decided, you know what? I think I can swing this trip. Last week, after living with Salem, Massachusetts in my head for two years, I finally walked its streets, and I’m glad I did.
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. It’s a small, walkable place, but the 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.
There is 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, or a seaside thing. But people are different there. They smile at you. Say hello. There isn’t the mad-rush pace you see in larger cities (except for their driving). 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, others enjoying the light and the heat of late July. 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 of the year.
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.
In my next post I’ll talk a bit about stepping onto Pickering Wharf for the first time and touring the House of the Seven Gables. I hope you’ll join me.