Standing Over My Character's Grave & Thoughts ON the Moon
I recently had the chance to visit the grave site of the main character of my book, "Lies." Here's some thoughts.
20 days ago, I stood on the literal grave of one of my characters. My book of just over a year is a fictional retelling of the Salem Witch Trials from the perspective of Ann Putnam Jr. Ann was twelve years old at the time of the trials and was one of the leading accusers.
Prior to writing the book (for NaNoWriMo 2012) I did extensive research across the web on the Salem Witch Trials, trying to find a character that would be interesting to write and read about. I decided on Ann. (A difficult decision, mind you. A 4 year old girl was tried for witchcraft. One of the accusers, Abigail Williams in The Crucible, later practiced prostitution. Tituba, after all the trouble she caused, and despite her status as a replicable slave, wasn't hung and was actually sold to another owner. The Salem Witch Trials are full of interesting people is what I'm saying.)
After deciding on Ann, I continued my research more specifically about her, her family, her deeds, her story after the trials and so on. I discovered that this twelve year old girl became the oldest of 10 children, and that both her parents passed away not long after the trials, leaving her to take care of those 9 younger siblings. Her father had a scoop of political power with a side of feuding with another powerful family. I learned Ann was the only girl of those who did the majority of the accusing to publicly and formally apologize for her actions. (As if her story wasn't tragically interesting enough!)
So, when my family began to plan a trip through Boston, I knew Salem & Ann's grave were things I needed to see.
Salem ended up being the first thing on our 16 day itinerary. Our plane landed in the Boston Airport, and from there we rode a shuttle to a nearby hotel that housed the car rental company we went through. Upon arrival, we were informed that the vehicle we reserved was not even at this car rental place, and that we'd have to find somewhere else to rent a car. (Serious shame on BookingGroup.com) It felt like a punch in the face--this evening was the only time I would have to spend in Salem, and now that time had been shortened by a poorly managed company.
Frustrated, we rode the shuttle back to the airport and then to another car rental place. With daylight burning, we waited in line and got another car. We loaded it up and then headed to Salem.
The drive was lush and thick with trees, a pleasant contrast from the cement jumble that is the airport portion of Boston. Cute rows of old houses lined the streets on the way. (Along with an absolutely stunning amount of Dunkin' Donuts). It became pleasantly overcast, and the perfect amount of cool.
Having researched the location of Ann's grave beforehand, we put the address into a phone GPS and drove on. (A quick drive, actually. Only about 20-30 minutes). Findagrave.com cited a groundskeeper that the forum editor encountered who said that Ann was buried with her parents in an unmarked grave. The page showed a picture of a small hill next to a younger tree. That and the address were all I had to go off of in finding where Ann, my beloved character, was buried.
We found the address location, seeing only a path leading into the woods. We (perhaps illegally?) parked in the police station next to said path. We got out, ready for a walk through Massachusetts wilderness. Much to our pleasant surprise, the path was only 20-30 feet long... But ended in a closed gate. Likely to keep cars out, we told ourselves. We hopped around the fence and found ourselves in the Putnam Family Cemetery. Coming from Idaho, where there aren't very many old graveyards, this was a cool experience just by seeing the 1700-1800 birth years on some of the gravestones.
I was almost expecting this cemetery to be a huge hilly field with dozens of younger trees, but much to my relief, it was only the size of a large back yard. With one hill, and one young tree by that hill.
I made my way over slowly. It thankfully looked very much like the 2012 photo on findagrave.com. This was it. I was standing on the grave of my character.
Not my character. A real person, of course. Someone who breathed and lived a life worth making a story about, during a trying and terrifying time. But I had made her mine, in some ways. (Not to the extent of naming her Ruth instead of Ann and making her an only child... Ahem, Arthur Miller.)
I knew the facts, of course. But in writing this story, I put a lot of me in her. (Yeah, there's not really a better way to put that.) A part of my personality shines through in her. My thought process if I had been in her shoes is written as thoughts of her own.
So here I am, standing above the body of someone I tried so hard to see thoughts of. Someone I tried to mentally become, someone I made more like me. Someone who experienced firsthand the rough plot of my story. Someone who knew well the faces of other characters I wrote about. Someone who both I and history have put through hell.
I wasn't able to spend a great deal of time there, but I'm not sure what else I would have done if I had. I took several obligatory pictures, and wondered what she would think of "Lies."
What was so significant about seeing Ann's grave? What kind of satisfaction comes from being so close to the remains of someone so... Cool? And why does that satisfaction exist?
Later in our trip, we visited the graves of people like Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, JFK, and more. We walked in Lincoln's final steps at Ford's theatre, and saw the bed George Washington died in. (Along with 2 houses he lived in.) Why is it so cool to stand where these people stood?
A part of me says it's cool because I like to think I can breathe in their air and absorb their amazingness. But really, we're not meeting these people. Just following their steps. And it is cool to see the same things they saw--to duck under the same doorways they walked through, to touch the same walls they touched. Perhaps only to say that we have.
Another thing I've always found interesting is that you don't have to travel across the nation or world to see the things that (almost) any famous person has seen. (Historical or otherwise) You can look at the moon. George Washington has looked at the same moon you have. And it's not just George Washington, of course. If a person's in a textbook, chances are they've seen the same moon you have. (Hellen Keller being one exception that comes to mind. Is that bad?)
It's interesting, though, that we can go out of our way to "see the things they saw," when looking at the moon can be one of those "things."
"But everybody sees the moon. Monticello is cooler cause that's something that not everybody has seen, and that Thomas Jefferson was likely more familiar with than the moon."
Totally true. The moon is still pretty darn cool, though.
Would I rather look at the moon than visit my character's grave? No. Of course there's going to be something more personal about the latter. (Plus, it's harder to write a blog post about looking at the moon.)
I guess my point is this: whether looking at the sky, or standing in a historic location, history happened. The stories we tell about the past happened. Real people went through it. And while we can (and do) change these people and their circumstances somewhat to make up for what we don't know, and to admittedly make a more complete story, these people and what they went through existed and happened. On the same planet you and I live on, looking at the same moon. And being so close to one of these people that I have grown close to in writing her story made me appreciate that all the more.