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Happy Halloween! Love, Salem

Ghoul in Salem web [1]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:


Born: 1626. Named after Jerusalem, meaning “perfect peace.” Settled by the British, though much earlier by the Naumkeag tribe. Naumkeag means “the fishing place.”

Parents: Mother England and city founder Roger Conant who left a failed settlement at Gloucester, moving all the settlers south to Salem where there was a protected bay and a milder climate. Conant was peacefully replaced by Governor Endicott just a few years later but received 200 acres of land in compensation for not making a fuss.

Sex: In my novels, Salem is definitely female, not so much because of the witch trials which were decidedly anti-female, but for the history that followed. Salem’s shipping industry made her the richest port in the new world, and, because of this, the men were often at sea. The women left on their own were strong and independent: abolitionists, suffragettes, and (as with the Peabody sisters) the early champions of accessible education for all.

Physical Description:  Salem varies greatly by neighborhood, with four distinct  historic districts and one of largest groups of Federal houses in America. Mansions stand next to museums, witch kitsch shops, and haunted houses.

Early Childhood: Great Migration of Puritans 1620-30. Fear-based witch trials of 1692. Incredibly harsh winter leading up to the hysteria. Fear that the devil had been raised in Salem. Could be in the form of witches. Could also be Native Americans, Catholics, or Quakers.

Adolescence: The first blood of the Revolution was shed in Salem. During Leslie’s Retreat, Salemites drove the British troops back to Boston.

Maturity: Privateers and tax evasion. Pepper trade made Salem the richest port in the new world. Then the British embargo and the War of 1812 killed the riches, leaving ships docked and rotting at the town wharves. Eventually turned toward manufacturing. Mills were down by the harbor and leather factories on Boston Street in a district that was once a rendering area during Salem’s earlier whaling days. It was here that the Great Salem fire started in 1914. Burned 253 acres, 1,376 buildings, and left 20,000 of the 48,000 population homeless.

Old Age: Tourism rules. The Halloween Capital of the World. Every October, the city of 45,000 grows by 300,000. Another Great Migration, this time Pagan. There were no witches in Salem in 1692, but they thrive here in great numbers now.

Favorite pastime:  ?

Favorite food: Not lobster, fried clams, or “chowdah.” For a long time, it was roast beef sandwiches, which are still popular. Contemporary Salem has more sophisticated tastes. It’s a foodie city, with numerous restaurants winning best of Boston and North Shore awards.

Drink: Coffee, tea, rum, any brown whiskey. Bourbon is very popular in the historic districts.

Candy: That’s easy. The Gibraltar. The first candy store in America was in Salem, and their famous candy, the Gibraltar, made from molasses, was ballast on the ships that went out from Salem. So popular it was used as a bribe in foreign ports to receive best trading position.

Firsts in America: First candy store, first millionaire, first brick home, first (drunken) elephant. (If you come to the Un-conference, I’ll tell you that story).

Sport: ?

Rival: Beverly (across the bridge) Once part of Salem as were most of the local towns: Marblehead, Beverly, Ipswich, Danvers (the final outpost bordering what was still wilderness and known as Salem Village during the Witch Trials).

Environmental Influence: The sea. Then: mostly water, with several rivers merging to create a waterway leading to the harbor and the shipping wharves. Salem was a bigger port than Boston until larger-hulled ships required deeper waters. Now: Salem is redoing the harbor, reclaiming the big ships. First cruise ship arrived last weekend.

Vice: Too many to name.

Quirk:  Being quirky might be the favorite pastime. Anything goes in Salem.

Religion: Puritan roots still influence, but all are welcome.

Secret: Sewing circles. Women were not allowed to gather in groups after the witch trials. Today, several groups still meet in secret.

First love: Mother England.

Lasting Love: Independence.

Love/Hate: Halloween

Culture: Salem is the cultural center of Boston’s North Shore. Libraries and world class museums.

Sense of humor: Very strong. You have to have a sense of humor to live here, especially in October. My Chinese translator once asked why people here were so sarcastic. If you are polite to Salemites, they will be polite in return. But when they really like you, they begin to tease you unmercifully. That’s how you know you’ve made it.

Cats or Dogs: Both, now. But back in Puritan times, both dogs and cats were feared as familiars. Local shelter will not bring black cats to Salem for adoption during October.

What is Salem’s biggest fear? History repeating.

What does Salem want? Forgiveness for the hysteria, the sin passed down through the generations.

What’s keeping her from getting it: The execution of 19 innocent people still fuels the tourist economy.

As I mentioned earlier, these last three questions are the most important for me to understand before starting a new story. But the others are helpful, too.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on the subject of place as character. Are places characters to you? What questions do you ask of your characters?

About Brunonia Barry [2]

Brunonia Barry [3] is the New York Times and internationally bestselling author of The Lace Reader, The Map of True Places, and The Fifth Petal, chosen #1 of Strand Magazine’s Top 25 Books of 2017. Her work has been translated into more than thirty languages and has been an Amazon Best of the Month and a People Magazine Pick. Barry was the first American author to win the International Women’s Fiction Festival’s Baccante Award and was a past recipient of Ragdale Artists’ Colony’s Strnad Invitational Fellowship as well as the winner of New England Book Festival’s award for Best Fiction. Her reviews and articles on writing have appeared in The London Times, The Washington Post, and The Huffington Post. Brunonia served as chairperson of the Salem Athenaeum’s Writers’ Committee, as Executive Director of the Salem Literary Festival, and as a member of Grub Street’s Development Committee. She lives in Salem, Massachusetts with her husband, Gary Ward, and their dog, Angel.