Since many of you will be joining us for the WU Un-conference in Salem this next week, and because I’ll be co-teaching a seminar called “Place as Character” with Liz Michalski, I thought I’d share the character chart for Salem that I created for my upcoming novel.
Salem, where I’m fortunate enough to live, has been a major character in all three of my novels, but the city’s character chart has changed from book to book. The first chart bears little resemblance to this new one. Either I’ve gotten to know the place better in the almost twenty years I’ve been back, or it has grown and changed as any character should. In a city where history casts such a long shadow, it’s refreshing to see change. I’ve watched Salem grow from aging historical/industrial, to tourist mecca, to real estate goldmine for escaping young Bostonians.
Before I begin a new novel, I write detailed biographies for my main characters, sometimes up to 30 pages. But in my first book, beyond mentioning that one character had red hair, the physical descriptions of characters were almost non- existent. This was due, in part, to the first person POV, the protagonist was so deeply burdened by her past that she barely noticed the world around her and spent little time interacting with other people, much less noticing how they looked. For that book, evading physical descriptions made sense. What was interesting in retrospect was that my readers weren’t aware of the omission. I visited a number of book clubs with that first book, and, since everyone knew that the film rights had been optioned, the clubs always got around to casting the movie. Arguments ensued, with physical descriptions that were so wildly opposing that it was difficult to believe the club members were all reading the same book. This repeated experience taught me a great deal about the collaborative process between writer and reader, and just how big a role the imagination of the reader can play.
For this third book, which takes place in three distinct time periods, not only was backstory extremely important, but so was physical description. My editor helped me put together a new chart, which, as you can see, still has some blank spaces I haven’t been able to fill. Most of the details in the chart do not appear in the novel, but they are still important for me to understand. The three most important questions are the final ones. I’ve asked them of each book, and, though I am writing about the same place, they always elicit different answers. This surprises me every time, but it shouldn’t. If place really is character, then that character should change and arc the same way any other would.
For those of you coming to Salem next week, let this serve as a quirky travel guide. For the rest, here’s my introduction to:
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