I Visited My Character's Grave
The Moment My Salem Witch Trials Historical Fiction Felt More Real
What's it like to stand over the grave of a character from your historical fiction book?
[I originally posted this article to my website in 2015. I've made a few updates to it here.]
In 2015, I stood next to the literal grave of one of my characters. My book, "Lies," was published in 2014, when I was just 16 years old. It was actually my 3rd published book! Lies is a fictional retelling of the Salem Witch Trials from the perspective of Ann Putnam Jr, who, at just twelve years old, was one of the leading accusers during the trials.
Prior to writing the first draft of the book, (for NaNoWriMo in 2012) I did extensive research on the Salem Witch Trials, trying to find a character that would be interesting to write and read about. Someone with a unique perspective. I decided on Ann. (A difficult decision, mind you. There was a 4 year old girl who was tried for witchcraft, and another one of the other accusers, Abigail Williams, who later practiced prostitution. There was also an enslaved woman named Tituba, who, despite being accused of witchcraft, was never executed, while other women of social esteem were. The Salem Witch Trials are full of interesting people is what I'm saying.)
After deciding on Ann Putnam Jr., I directed my research more specifically on her, her family, her deeds, her story after the trials, and so on. I discovered that this 12 year old girl became the oldest of 10 children, and that both of her parents passed away not long after the trials, leaving her to take care of those 9 younger siblings. Her father had a hefty amount of political power and something of a feud with another powerful family in Salem. I learned Ann was the only one of her accusing peers to publicly and formally apologize for her actions.
Each of these aspects of Ann's story gave me plenty to write about. While I took plenty of creative liberty in telling her story, my intention was always that--to tell her story, not my own.
So, when my family started to plan a trip stopping in Boston, I knew Salem & Ann's grave were things I needed to see.
Salem ended up being the first stop on our 16 day itinerary. Our plane landed in the Boston Airport, and from there we rented a car and headed to Salem.
The drive was lush and thick with trees, a pleasant contrast from the excess cement that is the airport portion of Boston. Cute rows of old houses lined the streets on the way. (Along with an absolutely stunning amount of Dunkin' Donuts). It became pleasantly overcast, and the perfect amount of cool.
Having researched the location of Ann's grave beforehand, we put the address into a phone GPS and drove on. (A quick drive, actually. Only about 20-30 minutes). Findagrave.com cited a groundskeeper that the forum editor encountered who said that Ann was buried with her parents in an unmarked grave. The page showed a picture of a small hill next to a younger tree. That and the address of the cemetery were all I had to go off of in search of where Ann, my beloved character, was buried.
We found the address location, seeing only a path leading into the woods. We (perhaps illegally?) parked in the police station next door. We got out, ready for a walk through Massachusetts wilderness. Much to our pleasant surprise, the path was only 20-30 feet long... But ended in a closed gate. Likely to keep cars out, we told ourselves. We hopped around the fence and found ourselves in the Putnam Family Cemetery. Coming from Idaho, where there aren't very many old graveyards, it was a cool experience just to see birthyears in the 1700-1800s inscribed on some of the headstones.
I was almost expecting this cemetery to be a huge hilly field with dozens of younger trees, but much to my relief, it was only a few acres. With one hill, and one young tree by that hill.
I made my way over slowly. It thankfully looked very much like the 2012 photo on findagrave.com. This was it. I was standing by the grave of my character.
Not my character. A real person, of course. Someone who breathed and lived a life worth making a story about, during a trying and terrifying time. But I had made her mine, in some ways. (Not to the extent of naming her Ruth instead of Ann and making her an only child... Ahem, Arthur Miller.)
I knew the facts, of course. But in writing this story, I put a lot of me in her. (Yeah, maybe there's a better way to put that...) A part of my personality shines through in her. My thought process if I had been in her shoes is written as thoughts of her own.
So here I am, standing above the body of someone I tried so hard to see thoughts of. Someone I tried to mentally become, someone I made more like me. Someone who experienced firsthand the rough plot of my story. Someone who knew well the faces of other characters I wrote about. Someone who both I and history have put through hell.
I wasn't able to spend a great deal of time there, but I'm not sure what else I would have done if I had. I took several obligatory pictures, and wondered what she would think of "Lies."
What was so significant about seeing Ann's grave? What kind of satisfaction comes from being so close to the remains of someone so... cool? And why does that satisfaction exist?
Later in our trip, we visited the graves of people like Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, JFK, and more. We walked in Lincoln's final steps at Ford's theatre, and saw the bed George Washington died in. Why is it so cool to stand where these people stood?
It's cool to see the same things they saw--to duck under the same doorways they walked through, to touch the same walls they touched. Perhaps only to say that we have.
Another thing I've always found interesting is that you don't have to travel across the nation or world to see the things that (almost) any famous person has seen. (Historical or otherwise) You can look at the moon. George Washington and Ann Putnam Jr. and just about everyone else has looked at the same moon you have. (Hellen Keller being one exception that comes to mind. Is that bad?)
It's interesting, though, that we can go out of our way to "see the things they saw," when looking at the moon can be one of those "things."
"But everybody sees the moon. Monticello is cooler cause that's something that not everybody has seen, and that Thomas Jefferson was likely more familiar with than the moon."
Totally true. The moon is still pretty darn cool, though.
Would I rather just look at the moon than visit my character's grave? No. Of course there's going to be something more personal about the latter. (Plus, it's harder to write a blog post about looking at the moon.)
I guess my point is this: whether looking at the sky, or standing in a historic location, history happened. The stories we tell about the past happened. Real people went through it. And while we can (and do) change these people and their circumstances somewhat to make up for what we don't know, (and to admittedly make a more complete story) these people and what they went through existed and happened. On the same planet you and I live on, under the same moon. And being so close to one of these people that I have grown close to in writing her story made me appreciate that all the more.
Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed, please consider leaving a tip or purchasing a copy of my book, Lies. (Available as an eBook for $3.99 or as a paperback for $8.99.) For more info about Lies, you can also visit my website.
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About the Creator
Oliver Dahl is a published author and photographer from Boise, Idaho.
He currently studies marketing at Brigham Young University.
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