Tuesday, December 6, 2011
PUSHING THE (NONFICTION) ENVELOPE
The best novels in the world of fiction tend to be page turners that tell a gripping story. You can’t put them down until you finish the last page, you can’t stop thinking about them after you’re done, and you become so entangled in their various webs that you can remember entire story arcs and even small details for a very long time.
The best books in the world of nonfiction are equally fascinating. Their details are memorable and the ideas they present are truly compelling. With some notable exceptions, though, they aren’t gripping page turners like novels and their story arcs (if any) can be pretty tenuous because the real world is so messy and unpredictable. The result? Readers might put nonfiction books down for a few days without staying awake at night wondering what happens next.
So when I sat down to write my latest book, I wondered if I could combine the best of both worlds by shaping it into a gripping YA novel; every word would be true AND the book would be a page turner with a story line that you couldn’t put down. That’s exactly what I’ve tried to do with Witches! The Absolutely True Tale of Disaster in Salem. If I could pull it off, it seemed to me that this terrifying episode in America’s history had just the right ingredients for cooking up a thriller, a mystery, and a literary mind-bender all rolled into one.
After all, the things that happened during the Salem Witch Trials were too jaw-dropping to ignore. Who wouldn't wonder why a four year old girl, a heroic minister from afar, a beloved grandmother, and three dogs were demonized and accused of being witches?
And why were most people who confessed that they had committed the crime of witchcraft set free while just about everyone who proclaimed their innocence was imprisoned? Did a shadowy beast really spring up into the sky and split apart into the spirits of three different witches? Wow. Surely I could write about such goings on in a story with a beginning, middle, and end.
The more material I uncovered about this incredible 100% true story, the more curious I became (and the more curious I hoped my readers would become too). Back in 1692, the Puritans thought that the devil and his witches lurked in every nook and cranny, just waiting to afflict innocent children with a dread disease. Screaming witnesses swore they were being pinched and pricked with pins by the invisible spirits of the accused witches, who flew across the courtroom to attack them. Black hogs, gigantic dogs, and a winged creature with the head of a woman apparently urged pious Puritans to sign the devil’s book in their own blood. Unearthly phantoms supposedly claimed they were murdered by a woman who stared at them with her evil “eye beams.” And the judges believed every word. Or did they? How could such things have happened in real life?
Fine fiction often features a nuanced good-verses-evil scenario. Think of Shakespeare, whose tales portray tragedy, madness, secret scheming, and trickery. Boy, does Salem’s harrowing true story cover those areas in spades (not that I’m comparing my work to the Bard’s).
In the world of fiction, readers can read the minds of the protagonists. Since I can’t allow myself to put made-up words or thoughts into my protagonists’ heads, I did the next best thing; I searched out tons of original source material to glean the thoughts of book and letter writers who were on the scene in 1692 and I added lots of testimony from the trials themselves. Let me just say that in this case, truth is most certainly stranger than fiction. And by the way, in books of fiction, the text is not polka-dotted with footnotes that can halt the flow of a story, so I put my voluminous notes at the end of the book and cited the page numbers they came from.
To illustrate this astonishingly tragic tale (a nice extra plus for a YA novel), I designed some dramatic black, white, and red scratch-board artwork to enhance the mood and to symbolize the chilling outlook so prevalent in that faraway time and place.
Other YA authors have written long scholarly analyses of Salem’s witch trials that assume people already know the basic story. It ain’t necessarily so…at some point, the story in its entirety is brand new to young audiences (and probably to most adults). Then there’s The Crucible, a play by Arthur Miller that’s studied regularly in middle school, high school, and even in college. Excellent but totally fictionalized. Coincidentally there’s yet another new novel about Salem, but it’s fictionalized too. But it seems to me that Salem’s true story is so strong and so powerful that it can easily stand on its own two feet. So I stood it up and gave it to you straight. I hope I got it right.