As a writer of historical mysteries, I try to remain loyal to the details of the historical period I’m portraying. I use real settings with real characters, then insert fictitious characters with fictitious events to create the mystery.
Staying true to the facts of the historical period is fairly straightforward . . . until those facts change. You may wonder how historical facts can change. After all, they happened in the past and they’ve been documented. But historical facts can be altered based on new research and evidence.
So, what’s a writer to do? Case in point. My novel, Pure Lies, begins with a prologue in 1692, Salem, Massachusetts, where several witches are about to be hung. It was initially believed that they were hung from a tree atop Gallows Hill. In the last few weeks, we’ve come to learn that the hangings took place, not at the top of the hill, but at the bottom, on something called Proctor’s Ledge. Oh well, you think. Top, bottom, so what? Proctor’s Ledge is now the site of a Walgreens pharmacy. (Methinks there’s marketing opportunity here at Halloween!)
Interestingly enough, this actual site was pinpointed nearly a century ago, but research was lost to time and replaced by legends and misconceptions. Eventually the top of Gallows Hill became the “factual place of the hangings.” If I had known, might I have written the hangings onto the Ledge? Maybe. The location is not nearly as romantic as the hanging tree at the top of Gallows Hill.
There have been other examples of history changing over time. For centuries we believed Pluto to be our outermost planet. Now it’s been downgraded to a dwarf planet and is one of 40 other dwarf planets. A bit of a disappointment for Planet 9.
One transformation that particularly bothered me was the reclassification of the most iconic of dinosaurs, the Brontosaurus, or “thunder lizard.” Since 1903, the scientific community has believed that the genus Brontosaurus was really the Apatosaurus. Now, after serious research, paleontologists provide conclusive evidence that the Brontosaurus is distinct from the Apatosaurus and has been reinstated as its own unique genus. Yippee!
And then there’s the case of the 15th century king, Richard III, whose portrayal in both English history and English literature has created ongoing debate. It was long thought that he died in ignominy and was buried in a crude grave in an unknown location. However, in 2012, archaeologists discovered his remains under a parking lot (not a Walgreens) and through forensic analysis learned that he suffered 11 injuries at or near the time of his death, indicating he died in battle. More to come, no doubt, as further analysis is done.
History is a dynamic and ever-changing discipline. As a novelist, fortunately, I can invoke artistic license and save myself the trouble of re-writing my books to conform to changing history. Whew.
Last week’s blog introduced the prologue to Pure Lies, and gave you a sampling of the historical section of the book. This week in Chapter 1, I begin the modern story line. In both instances I introduce the key characters, the backdrop and settings, and a smidgen of the mystery to come. You’ll easily see the connection between past and present and, hopefully, will be tempted by that connection to turn the page. However, how do tragic events in 1692 place people in jeopardy in 2006? You’ll have to read on.
As always, ideas welcome.
Washington, D.C., December 15, 2006
Professor Ernie Parks gulped down the last dregs of tepid coffee and grimaced. He turned back to the pile of books and papers on his desk and the opened tome before him, Witchcraft in Salem Village, by Winfield Nevins, 1892. He’d had a hell of a time getting the copy. A friend who owned a used bookshop managed to snag this classic somehow. . . for a steep price. But, Parks thought, it was worth every penny. Fascinating. A Victorian view of sorcery in the colonies. From prudes to Puritans. Ha.
He leaned back in his beat-up swivel chair and gazed without seeing at the jumble of books and journals stuffed into old wooden bookcases, more stacks of the same rising in every corner of the room like crooked skyscrapers. Not an inch of wall space remained to display his degrees or articles of acclaim. The sole ornamentation in the office sat on his desk: a photograph of his wife and young son. His son. Jesse. Now two years dead. Whenever his thoughts drifted in that direction he spurred himself to action. Anything but dwell on Jesse. He strode over to the window and looked out at the campus square. Snow had begun to fall and the flakes twisted and spun in a whirlwind of white. The ground was already covered, so much prettier than the brown grass and gray concrete six stories below.
Those righteous Puritan pricks, he mused. Oh, they were clever. But he was on to them. More than three hundred years later, the truth would come to light. And Ernie Parks, history professor ordinaire, would be famous. An academic star featured at conferences and colloquia around the world. A poor black kid from the slums of the District would change history. Yes.
As if in a blink daylight faded. He returned to his desk and switched on the small lamp. A glance at the wall clock near the door told him he had wasted twenty minutes daydreaming — it was already five o’clock. Doris wouldn’t be expecting him for at least an hour. Right now she’d be sailing through the front door of their tiny house, tossing legal briefs on the hall table and hustling up some dinner without changing out of her courtroom suit. The professor smiled as he thought of his wife of ten years. Parks still wondered how such a beauty could end up with a homely guy like him. Doris always said he had panache. He grinned. She’d be proud of him now.
Without warning, his eyes began to blur and he realized suddenly how tired he felt. Not just a normal tired from teaching and research all day, but bone-weary tired. His fingers felt numb. So did his toes. He stretched his arms and shook his hands, thinking they’d fallen asleep. But the tingle started to crawl through his body, up his calves to his thighs, which tensed in spasms, then up his spine. Parks pushed himself to his feet but his legs wouldn’t support him.
“What the hell?” he murmured, as his body sank back into the chair with a will of its own.
His eyes began to close and at that moment he knew. He watched his hand reach for the coffee mug as if in time-lapse images, stutter-motion. The mug tipped over and a small rivulet of grainy liquid pooled on the desk. Parks lowered his head on his arms as the world went black.
The door to the office opened with a tiny squeak, the only sound in the building. The intruder knew that every year at this time, faculty and staff of the Georgetown University History Department got together to celebrate the holidays. No one would return to the campus that day.
The intruder hesitated a moment then closed the door softly and turned off the light. Professor Parks’ office appeared dark to the outside world, just like the other offices in the History and Economics Building.
But wispy moonlight filtered into the room providing enough light for the mission. Snow –fell heavily beyond the window and the visitor unlatched and raised it. Cold air whistled in. He slapped Parks’ face and it brought no response. Good, oblivion. He propped the professor up in his chair and swung it over to the computer. Using gloved fingers, he cleared the screen and opened a new Word document. Then, manipulating Parks’ fingers to press the keys, he typed the message.
Doris – I’m sorry, but I miss him too much.
The intruder nodded at the words. He left Parks slumped in his chair while he grabbed the coffee mug off the desk and wiped the spill with a handkerchief. Tucking both the cloth and mug in his overcoat pocket, he looked around to see what might have been missed.
Satisfied, he took hold of Parks’ arm and hoisted him out of the chair. Hugging Parks around the waist, he half dragged, half carried the unconscious man to the window. He leaned him against the windowsill and took one last look outside. The Quad was devoid of life and the newly fallen snow smothered sound like thick fur earmuffs.
The intruder clutched the professor’s shoulders and turned him. Facing Parks’ back, he shoved the man out the window to the pavement six stories below. The body seemed to float in slow motion. Even when it slammed into the ground, the effect seemed softly surreal.
For a moment the intruder felt panic, a burning in his throat, an ache in his gut. Too late now. But nothing stirred and an eerie silence filled the void. How could someone die so violently and the world not notice? He stared as the body bled out onto the silvery fleece. Its position, arms and legs outstretched at odd angles, reminded him of a child’s angel in the snow. A bloody black angel.
The killer spun around abruptly, rushed to the bathroom and spewed up his last meal.
Maggie Thornhill pressed the elevator button for the tenth time. She eyed the door to the staircase but had no intention of walking up six flights to the top floor. The lift arrived and Maggie entered, pressed six, and tapped her foot in agitation. Finally, the doors opened and as she stepped out, a man flew into her, knocking her bag off her shoulder. Contents went careening across the tile floor.
“Shit,” she muttered and dropped to her knees.
She looked up. “Frank?”
“Damn, I’m sorry.” He knelt to help her collect. “Lotta crap in here.” He handed her a squeezy ball that looked like the planet Earth.
“Yeah, well hello to you too.”
They both stood.
“What are you doing here?” she said.
“You mean, what’s a philistine like me doing in the history building of Georgetown?”
She scrunched her face, then turned to the commotion down the hall. Her heart lurched at the sight of yellow tape and a swarm of crime team investigators. She knew the sight well since she often worked with the police as a digital analyst.
“What’s going on?” she said. “God, that’s not Phillip Ambrose’s office, is it?”
He narrowed his eyes. “You know Ambrose?”
“I have an appointment with him,” she glanced at her watch, “in two minutes.”
“No, that’s not his office.” Lieutenant Frank Mead pointed to another door down the hall. “That is.”
“Whose office is that?”
“Dr. Ernest Parks.”
“What? No. Oh no. What happened?”
“Did you know Dr. Parks?”
“You said ‘did.’”
“You said ‘did I, not do I’, past tense.”
“Yeah, that’s right,” Mead said, pulling out a roll of Tums and popping a few.
She did a spin and slapped at her leg. “God Almighty.”
“Back to my question, did you know him?”
“No, but I was going to. He was to be one of my advisors on this dissertation.”
“Finally going for the Ph.D., eh?”
She sighed, leaned against the wall. “Yeah. Coursework is all done. Just had to complete the final project.”
“Oh, Frank, it was so perfect. Howard Roth, the History Chair, finagled this for me, not an easy thing, seeing as the documents are so valuable, and he was able to pull the strings with Boston Historical Society and it was so –.”
“Perfect, yeah, right. So what’s the project?”
“I’m going to digitize all the Salem documents from 1692, you know, so they’ll be in electronic form and last forever. Preserving the past, so to speak and –”
“Salem, as in Salem witches?”
She grabbed his roll of Tums from his hand and popped a few.
“Agita?” he asked.
“And more if this project is kaput.” She pushed her fingers through her wild mop of hair. “Frank, what happened to Dr. Parks?”
He hesitated, looked around. “He was found dead, six stories beneath his window last night.”
“He jumped out of his window?”
Maggie opened her mouth, closed it. They looked at each other.
“Bingo.” Frank waved his hands. “No, hold on. We don’t know what happened yet, so don’t go making assumptions.”
“Have you talked to Dr. Ambrose yet?”
“Yup. Just leaving. You meeting him?”
“Well, he’s a bit shaken so don’t be surprised if he cancels. Said he was going to visit Mrs. Parks. Guess they’re long-time friends.”
Maggie didn’t know what to say. She picked up her bag that was sitting beside her on the floor and started moving toward Ambrose’s office. She hadn’t even met the man and she was dreading this meeting.
“Frank, would you let me know what happens?”
He chomped on his Tums. Then he nodded and headed toward the crime scene.
First I’d like to send you best wishes for a healthy, happy, and peaceful 2016.
As you know I write historical mysteries that are solved by modern technology, so, naturally, readers will find themselves immersed in both the present and in the past in each book.
I’d like to try something new in my next few blogs, if you permit me. In this blog, I am posting the entire prologue of my latest book, Pure Lies. It is short, I promise. In the next blog, I will post Chapter 1. Reading these short segments of the novel can demonstrate how I switch from the past to the present (and later back again) to tell the story and unravel the mystery.
Writers and readers, I welcome your feedback. If you would prefer my usual blogs about writing and the subject matter research of my books, as I’ve done in the past, please let me know. If you find this interesting, I can post blogs similar for each book. Thank you for your support. Now, let’s travel back to 1692 and the witch trials of Salem.
It’s now high time that ev’ry Crime
be brought to punishment:
Wrath long contain’d, and oft restrain’d,
at last must have a vent:
Justice severe cannot forbear
to plague sin any longer,
But must inflict with hand most strict
mischief upon the wronger.
The Day of Doom, Stanza 139
Michael Wigglesworth, 1662
Salem, Massachusetts, July 19, 1692
Felicity Dale came to see the hangings. Her body tensed with apprehension as she observed the townsfolk gather. Those of stature, like the parish Deacons or the Court Magistrates, claimed front row seats on the grassy knoll above the village. Behind them, the crowd was energized — a tightly wound coil of humanity eager to spring loose.
Though the day was young, heat seeped into the earth and radiated upward. A scent of lilacs hovered like heavy perfume around Felicity, and the tall grass stood straight and still in the lifeless air. Beads of sweat made their way down her neck. Tucking wisps of platinum hair neatly under a starched white cap, the sixteen-year-old wound her way through the throng, nodding at familiar faces, which meant nearly everyone in the tiny Massachusetts enclave.
The crowd hushed as a giant of a man wrestled a ladder out of a wagon and brought it to lean on the wide, sprawling branch of a massive oak. The Hanging Tree. He wore black from head to toe with nary a hint of color. Coiled over his shoulder hung a sturdy, braided noose knotted by thirteen twists of the rope for strength and ready for its purpose. The man climbed the ladder, tossed the rope over the thick limb and yanked it tight.
Felicity knew that one by one, five women would hang that day. All five known to her. Elizabeth Howe of Ipswich, Sarah Good and Rebecca Nurse of Salem Village, Susanna Martin of Amesbury and Sarah Wildes of Topsfield. Who would be first?
She gnawed on her lower lip as three sheriff’s constables ushered the women forth. Their hands were bound behind their backs as they faced the spectators who swayed rhythmically to a silent hymn. Two burley deputies prodded the first matron who was to die up the rungs of the ladder. Old Sarah Wildes. Magistrate John Hathorne stood at the base of The Hanging Tree, face somber and drawn. Attired in a formal suit of gray accented by white collar and cuffs, he held a rolled-up parchment in his hands.
In a voice throaty and stentorian, he bellowed, “Do you repent, Goody Wildes? Do you confess to practicing the art of witchery and bringing your wicked spirit upon these girls, the innocent children of Salem?”
Sarah Wildes shook her head, gray wisps of fine hair sprouting beneath her cap as tears streamed down her face. The harder she sobbed, the more the crowd hooted and jeered. Finally, unwilling to relinquish her pride, she thrust her chin out and straightened her back.
Felicity could have sworn Sarah’s eyes bore right into hers. A deep shudder set her lips trembling. Not I, Goody Wildes, she yearned to shout. I had naught to do with this. T’was the others, not I. I have not spied wolves, or one-eyed cats or yellow birds. Nay, spirits do not come to me in dreams. Still, guilt pierced Felicity like a sword at her denials. Indeed, she had much to do with this. She knew the truth but could not act on it.
At that moment she saw them, the girls responsible for this travesty. They taunted the convicted woman, mocking her with insults and curses in language unfit for the tongues of young Puritan maidens. It made Felicity ill to look upon their beaming faces, eyes sparkling, lips moist. Could no one see through their subterfuge, their dissembling? Not even God?
Drums tattooed on both sides of the scaffold as the sheriff tightened the noose around Goody Wildes’ throat. Before Felicity could blink, the giant in black kicked the ladder out from beneath the woman and her body jerked and twisted in the air for what seemed an eternity. Hanging was a slow agony; worse, it visited the most terrible indignity upon a soul, as the victim’s bladder and sphincter let loose and bodily wastes flowed to the ground. The crowd inhaled, and all that could be heard that summer morning was the gurgling sound of a witch strangling to death. Then the body stilled. But the image of Goody Wildes’ face, its wide and sightless eyes, its slack pale mouth, seared into Felicity’s brain, to be recalled in future, recurring nightmares.
A rumble rippled through the mob as the deputies brought the next victim forward. Felicity’s stomach flopped, and her meager breakfast began to rise into her throat. The ritual was repeated as the second woman hanged. Felicity tried to force her eyes onto her shoes but could not keep them from flying upward at the roaring of the crowd. By the time the fifth and final woman had been executed, Felicity felt deadened. Her limbs seemed unable to respond to her brain’s commands, thought processes slowed to a fugue-like state.
Jostled by the crowd, she finally stirred herself to action. Shouldering her way through the crush of heated bodies, she fled upward farther and farther from the hangings to the very pinnacle of Gallows Hill, the highest point in Salem. From this summit, she could see water in three directions. On one side, the hill dropped off to sheer rock, a desultory locust tree and the confluence of the Wooleston, Endicott and North Rivers. But Felicity cared nothing for the view. Her breaths came in harsh gasps, and she collapsed to the ground. The coolness of the earth on her hot cheeks felt heavenly, and as she calmed, she found herself peering down the jagged back slope to where the executed women, having been condemned as witches, would be buried. . . in the cracks and crevices of the hillside’s rocks. There would be no decent, Christian burial for them. No mercy. In her mind, Felicity could see the bodies stuffed into the stony fissures, a hand or foot sticking out like a child’s poppet. She shook off the ghastly images.
Odd sounds coming from behind a nearby cluster of boulders caught her attention. Rising to her knees, she crept around to observe. Eighteen-year-old Elizabeth Booth lay partially nude on the ground. Poised above her, naked from the waist down was Deacon Elijah Burton.
A surge of hatred rose within Felicity like a malevolent tide, deeper and more violent than any she’d ever experienced. This pious man, this pillar of the community, was forcing himself on a woman, much like he’d done on her this winter past, forever changing her world. Anger ate through her like a fire ripping through sun-dried fields.
Felicity took a step forward, fists clenched, ready to defend her friend, then paused. Elizabeth moaned softly and her head arched backward. She moved her hips off the ground as if reaching for him. The Deacon moved lower, to, to –. Surely he would not, could not. Felicity held her breath as this man of the church kissed Elizabeth’s most private parts. . . places God forbade a girl to even herself touch. Her mind could not comprehend this reality. The Deacon did not rape Elizabeth. Nay, she was a willing participant.
A choking sound erupted from Felicity’s throat. Lifting her skirts, she tripped and stumbled her way down the uneven hillside kicking up dust and stones in her path. When she finally reached bottom, she clasped her hands together, lifted her head to the sapphire sky and mouthed a prayer.
Surely the Devil had come to Salem.
One of the most difficult tasks for writers, but also one of the most important is the back (jacket) cover text. It must be brief but intriguing, succinct but riveting. For discussion sake, here is the back cover text for my latest book, Pure Lies, a mystery about the Salem Witch Trials. It is the same text I used for the ABNA (Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award) contest “pitch” and it got me through the first two rounds. Let me know what you think or share your own back cover copy.
Two women, separated by three centuries, are connected by a legacy of greed, depravity and deceit–a legacy which threatens to make them both victims of the Salem witch trials.
1692, Salem, Massachusetts Born in a time and place of fierce religious fervor, 16-year old Felicity Dale has only endless church meetings and the drudgery of chores to look forward to. When her friends begin accusing neighbors of witchcraft, she fears the devil is in Salem. By chance, however, she discovers that the accusations of her “afflicted” friends are false. What had begun as a youthful diversion has been twisted through seduction and blackmail by powerful men into a conspiracy for profit. Nineteen people will pay with their lives.
Today, Washington, D.C. Maggie Thornhill is a renowned digital photographer in Georgetown who possesses a passion for history. As her Ph.D. dissertation, Maggie takes on a project to electronically archive the original documents from the Salem witch trials. She observes discrepancies in the handwriting of the magistrate’s signature on certain land deed transfers — land that belonged to the witches. When a professor studying the documents is murdered, she begins to suspect that the trials and hangings were a result of simple mortal greed not religious superstition.
The Washington Post published the winning submissions to its yearly neologism contest, in which readers are asked to supply alternate meanings for common words. Kind of like the Fictionary game. Too darn funny. Here are the winners:
- Coffee (n.), the person upon whom one coughs.
- Flabbergasted (adj.), appalled over how much weight you have gained.
- Abdicate (v.), to give up all hope of having a flat stomach.
- Explanade (v.), to attempt an explanation while drunk.
- Willy-nilly (adj.), impotent.
- Negligent (adj.), describes a condition in which you absentmindedly answer the door in your nightgown.
- Lymph (v.), to walk with a lisp.
- Gargoyle (n.), gross olive-flavored mouthwash.
- Flatulence (n.), emergency vehicle that picks you up after you are run over by a steamroller.
- Balderdash (n.), a rapidly receding hairline.
- Rectitude (n.), the formal, dignified bearing adopted by proctologists.
- Pokemon (n.), a Rastafarian proctologist.
- Circumvent (n.), an opening in the front of boxer shorts worn by Jewish men.
- Frisbeetarianism (n.), the belief that when you die, your soul flies up onto the roof and gets stuck there.
I had to add another funny-ism here that a friend sent out on Facebook:
“When you are dead, you don’t know you are dead. It is difficult only for others.
It is the same when you are stupid.”
I received this sweet poem in a Christmas card but am having trouble finding the poet. The closest I can come is a similar poem by Helen Steiner Rice. Both poems are lovely but if anyone knows who wrote the one below, please let me know. Thanks and have a wonderful holiday!
My Christmas Card List
There is a list of folks I know
All written in a book,
And every year at Christmas time
I go and take a look.
And this is when I realize
Those names are all a part,
Not of the book they’re written in
But deep inside my heart
For each name stands for someone
Who has touched my life sometime,
And in that meeting they’ve become
A special friend of mine.
I really feel that we’re composed
Of each remembered name,
And my life is so much better
Than it was before they came.
Once you’ve known that “someone”
All the years cannot erase,
The memory of a pleasant word
Or of a friendly face.
So never think my Christmas cards are just a mere routine,
Of names upon a list that are
Forgotten in between.
For when I send a Christmas card
That is addressed to you,
It is because you’re on the list
Of folks I’m indebted to.
And whether I have known you
For many years or few,
The greatest gift that life can give
Is having friends like you.