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Why historical fiction is important

When I was a master’s student in history many years ago, I did what many graduate students do: I took myself too seriously.


I wanted to be a good historian. I wanted to be somebody who seeks the truth in the historical record. I wanted to be capable of synthesizing scant pieces of information in order to make it make sense. I never progressed beyond a master’s level study of history, but it wasn’t because of a lack of seriousness. In any case, much of what I learned about being a good historian has stuck with me. And I remain in awe of historians who are capable of stitching together details of the past to provide lucid and meaningful answers about why it’s important today.


As a serious grad student, I scoffed at historical fiction. The idea that anyone would use conjecture when addressing the past—potentially making things up as they go—seemed ridiculous, if not dangerous, to me. Shouldn’t we just stick to what we know is true?


Yet, as the great novelist, E. L. Doctorow, once said, “the historian will tell you what happened. The novelist will tell you what it felt like.”


For an event that occurred over three hundred years ago in a relatively primitive colonial backwater, the Salem witch trials are fairly well documented. Yet, as any good historian will tell you, much of the primary source material (such as the transcripts of the examinations of the accused written mostly by Reverend Samuel Parris, for example) are potentially biased. Still, this primary source documentation gives us a pretty good sense of the who, what, when, where, and how of the witch crisis. We generally know, for example, who was arrested and when, who made the accusations against them, what occurred during their trials, whether they were executed or not, and even much of what was taking place politically behind the scenes as well. But what we do not know in any meaningful way is perhaps the most critical component for understanding what the Salem witch crisis was all about.


What were the people involved thinking and feeling as it was happening?


That is the question that drew me to writing a historical fiction novel about the Putnam family during the Salem witch crisis. Afterall, this family—my own relatives—where at the very center of it all, making dozens of accusations that helped to propel the events forward at a frenetic pace.


When Ann Putnam, Jr. began acting strangely that cold winter in early 1692, claiming to see the specters of her neighbors who poked and prodded her, what did her father Thomas think? When Ann and the other so-called “afflicted” girls suffered “fits” that caused them to contort their bodies into impossible positions, make strange vocalizations, and claim to see devilish visions, how did that make the people of Salem feel?


Ultimately, how they felt about these highly unusual happenings and, more importantly, how those emotions caused them to react, is essential to understanding the “why” of the Salem witch crisis. Simple explanations about lying aren’t enough. Yes, there were undoubtably liars involved in the Salem witch crisis, but it is not credible to pin the entire tragedy on their actions. More than anything else, it was the human emotion of fear generated by this collection of odd occurrences that drove the crisis forward. Yet how are historians supposed to quantify such things?


This is where historical fiction comes it. Novelists have the freedom to credibly explore these important human emotions in ways that historians simply cannot. Most of the details in The Putnams of Salem are factual (with one notable exception) but I focused on exploring the emotional decent that Thomas and Ann made as they got deeper into the crisis. After all, they were human beings, with a full range of human emotion. And there’s little doubt that those emotions were getting a serious workout in 1692.


While historians are often at a loss when asked to quantify how human emotions such as fear, anger, jealousy and the like impact events, historical fiction thrives at it. And because of this, reading historical fiction can often provide a more complete picture of how these critical human feelings can be a driving force behind a historical event.     

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