25th Birthday Bash Day 5: History & Katherine Howe interview!

 I’m a huge history nerd. I watch The History Channel like it’s my job and am always the one that is actually excited about going to historical sites and museums. I cried when I saw the ruins in Rome. My stepdad, when  I was a child, instilled this love for history in me as he is a huge history buff. He even does the reenactment of Washington’s Crossing every Christmas! I don’t even discriminate about time periods as I am  enthralled with everything in history. I do have to say that I am really intrigued by early American history, particularly the Salem Witch Trials. 

The Physick Book of Deliverance DaneI am really excited for today’s birthday events and seeing as today is my actual birthday I thought history is quite fitting for the theme as I feel like birthdays just remind me of the fact that with each day and year I’m adding to this comprehensive book of history. I wanted to do something different for today and I thought an interview with an author whose books I loved would be a good way to celebrate. The first historical fiction book that I read was The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, a historical fiction novel set during The Salem Witch Trials,  and I have to tell you how much it made me love historical fiction–a genre I had never really explored before. I knew I need to have Katherine Howe be a part of my birthday celebration and she was willing to do so! So, thank you Katherine!
1. Aside from living near Salem and having a family connection, what drew you to the stories of those involved in the Salem Witch Trials?

Bewitched: The Complete First SeasonI am actually trained as a historian, believe it or not. I am finishing up a PhD in American and New England Studies at Boston University, and started working on the novel as a way of distracting myself from my PhD oral exams. I was very intrigued by the intense difference between our current popular culture conception of what a witch is – pointy hat, black cat, “Bewitched,” et cetera, and the ideas that the colonists actually had about witches. That difference becomes much more acute given that I happen to live in a part of the world where people believed for generations that witches were real.

2. I liked that you focused on Deliverance Dane, a relatively unknown figure in the Salem Witch Trials, rather than some of the more well known figures. I felt like she was such a compelling character and she really came alive to me. Considering little was known about her, where did your inspiration come from in creating a personality and a story for her?

I was very attracted to Deliverance Dane first of all because her name is so evocative of a particular place and moment in time. Also, given that the story in Physick Book is not straight historical fiction,but also indulges in some more fantastical storytelling, I felt like writing about a lesser known figure would allow greater freedom to imagine. I hasten to add that I take broad liberties with Deliverance’s life; I change her age, her town of residence, and her fictional trial moves very differently from her real one. But I wanted very much to create a personality for the character that was true to what history would tell us about a woman in her position, of her religion, social rank, talents and shortcomings. One way to do that, for me, was to research the lives of women in colonial era New England.

3.It’s obvious that a lot of research went into this novel and reading some other interviews with you confirms that fact. What is one of the most interesting things you learned about the time period throughout your research? 

Most surprising for me was to learn the extent to which even strictly religious people like the Puritans maintained some of their more esoteric folk beliefs in magic and the supernatural. A great book about the relationship between magic and religion during this time period is “Religion and the Decline of Magic,” by historian Keith Thomas. I learned quite a lot about the cunning folk tradition while researching the book, and wanted to weave that set of thoughts and beliefs into the Salem story in a new way.

4. What do you think is one misconception/myth concering the Salem Witch Trials?

I think there are several. People often ask me about the hypothesis that the afflicted little girls during the Salem panic were behaving strangely because of ergotism, a hallucinatory effect that results from eating moldy rye. That theory has largely been set aside by historians; we now think the behavior was psychologically rooted, rather than based on a physical ailment. The second question I am often asked is whether or not anyone as actually practicing witchcraft. Evidence suggests that there was no actual practice of witchcraft at that time; people accused of witchcraft did not *do* anything wrong. In the 1690s, accused witches were Christians who just didn’t fit in.

5. How hard is it, as a historical fictional writer, to be true to the area of history that you are writing about? What is one piece of advice for those who want to write historical fiction?

For me, the challenge with historical fiction is to make sure that the historical setting isn’t just window dressing. The idea is to tell a story that *must* take place in a specific moment in time, which is not the present. The best way to craft an authentic story, I think, is to do your homework ahead of time. People at different points in history didn’t think the way we do; they had different assumptions about the world, different hangups, different strengths and shortcomings. For writers of historical fiction, the reading of good secondary and primary sources is the most important part of writing.

6. Do you read historical fiction? If so, what are one or two of your favorite novels?

The Dante Club: A NovelI greatly admire Matthew Pearl, another Boston based historical fiction writer best known for his novel The Dante Club. Anyone who enjoyed Physick Book should definitely check his books out.

7. If you could go back in time and live in any time period, what would it be and why?

I think most historians would agree that the best time period to live in is right now. There are plenty of time periods that I would enjoy being able to see, maybe from a safe vantage point: Revolutionary era Boston, for example. But life in the past for most people was brutal, filthy, violent, wracked with physical and emotional pain, and over very quickly. If I were a middle class woman in Revolutionary era Boston I would have bedbugs and fleas in all my sheets, a face scarred by pox, rotting teeth, a few children who probably did not survive infancy, and I might have already lost my husband to an accident. I wouldn’t be able to vote, I wouldn’t be as educated as I am today, my every day would be a rough slog of household labor and worry about the future. I’ll take antibiotics, instant brownie mix, and the vote, thank you!

8. I have this fascination with reading about relatively obscure people from the past who did extraordinary things. Do you have any favorite obscure historical figures?

A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812One of the best history books I have ever read is called “A Midwife’s Tale,” by the historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. The book is about Martha Ballard, a Maine midwife in the 1700s, reconstructed from a daily diary that she kept about her household work. She is a perfect example of someone we might not normally consider to be important – she wasn’t involved in the Revolution. She wasn’t political. She just lived her life, day to day. But in her own way she was a courageous and remarkable person. I think a lot of women’s history is about uncovering these kinds of stories, about valuing all different aspects of historical experience, not just the big important men attending the Continental Congress.

9. Do you have any books in the works? If so, and only if you can share, give us one sentence describing what we can expect!

I am hard at work on a new book, which will be the same genre as Physick Book, so historical fiction with an imaginative twist. However, it will look at a different family in a different moment in time. The Scrying Glass (its tentative title) will visit a Boston Brahmin family who loses someone on the Titanic and then gets caught up in the world of spiritualism and seances, and will ask if you can see what the future holds for you and the people you love, is it a blessing, or a curse? News and updates about that project will appear on the Facebook page, on Twitter (@katherinebhowe) and on www.katherinehowe.com

Thanks so much for celebrating with me, Katherine. I will be eagerly anticipating your next book!

Thank you, Jamie! 
For today’s giveaway I’m going with the Salem theme!
Adult Historical Fiction Prize: Win a SIGNED copy of The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane (provided by Katherine Howe! Thank you!)

Fill out this FORM.  This one is US only. Ends 10/22.

Tell me your favorite period in history! Why that period?

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About Jamie

Jamie is a 30 year old married lady who is in denial that she’s actually that old. When she’s not reading you can find her doing Pilates followed by eating ice cream, listening to music with oversized headphones and having adventures with her husband and dog.


  1. Happy Birthday Jamie!!! Great interview. My favorite period in time was Tudor England. I love all of the history in that time, and can't get enough. Henry the VIII fascinates me, along with all of his wives. I'm a HUGE history buff too, and love a good historical book. This is a great giveaway =)

  2. StephTheBookworm says:

    Happy birthday to you!

  3. Heather R. says:

    Happy Birthday! This is a great interview. I have had The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane on my wishlist for awhile now. I enjoy history but don't read too much historical fiction unless it's about the Holocaust or the Salem Witch Trials. I think I need to branch out more!

  4. Happy actual birthday!

    The Salem Witch Trials have always been extremely interesting to me. I read The Crucible in school, and loved it!

    Overall, my favorite time period in history was the ancient Egyptian, Minoan, Mycenaean, Grecian, and Roman times. I absolutely love studying the art, culture, and people of those times. Fascinating!

  5. Jessica M says:

    Happy birthday Jamie! I just started reading your blog recently and I have to say that I love it, and get so many ideas for great books from it (not that my to-be-read pile needs to get any larger than it already is, but oh well). Since you're talking historical fiction, which is my favorite, I thought I'd finally comment.

    I have a few favorite periods — I love books about Tudor England and the French Revolution, although those are of course easier to come by nowadays since there seem to be so many good ones. My other favorite periods are early American history and WWII. But really I'm a big history nerd in general, so I will read/love good historical books from pretty much any time period.

  6. Happy birthday, Jamie! These giveaways are awesome!

    My favorite time period is the same as Jana's. I particularly love Ancient Greece. I've taken a bunch of college classes on that time period for fun (art, history, mythology, and even architecture). I also own a few mythology books, a few classic texts (Odyssey, Iliad, Metamorphosis) and a couple historical fiction books from that time.

  7. My favorite time in history is the 1920's… the dresses, the scandal, the secret gambling/drinking rooms… the decadence!

  8. By the way, happy birthday Jamie!!

  9. Great interview!

    Picking a favorite era is hard, although I love early American history, and Victorian England. And WWII-era… I'm all over the place 🙂

  10. Hmm, I like the 50s and the 60s. But if I think about it too much there are probably more.

  11. Happy Birthday Jamie!!!
    My favorite time period is probably the 60s or 70s, because of the freedom movement. I love when America began to arise from the Pleasantville life. I was also slightly obsessed with the JFK assassination for much of my life so far.
    I also love reading about Shakespeare's time. And I actually loved Western Civ, the rise and fall of the Roman Empire is totally intriguing to me.
    And the titanic (1912) is another historical event i randomly became obsessed with.
    Ok anyway. I love history too, and love historical fiction. 🙂

  12. Happy Birthday! Great interview, I love the History Channel too! Hope you had a blast during your birthday bash giveaway, I loved reading your posts, we seem to have lots in common 😀
    I can't seem to make up my mind in regards to favorite period in time, but I do love reading about King Henry and all his wives. I seem to personally know them now 🙂 and I like seeing History Channel specials on the dark ages and American History. Loved America: The Story of Us!

  13. Civil War Era & Roman Empire… : ) Very different, I know, but lots of lovely (not in real life, but in fiction world lovely) social unrest for sure! : )

  14. I have two: first, the Middle Ages. I can't really say why; I think it has something to do with all the cathedrals they built then. Spend 200 years building such a massive creation? Whoa.

    And second, the 1800s. I had the Kirsten American Girl doll when I was a kid, and from that I fell in love with the whole pioneer thing. I even had a set of McGuffy readers!

  15. Happy Birthday!

    I second you on your love of history. I even went as far as to get my Bachelor's degree in it! Even though I'm only 24 I feel as if my life and passion embodies it each and every day, not only with my love for American history (Civil War & WWII to be more specific) but my goal is to ultimately preserve it and pass the lessons of our past on to the youngsters out there. 🙂

  16. Mollie Katie says:

    Happy Birthday!

    My history obsession is Aaron Burr. He was so crazypants. The duel with Alexander Hamilton, and Hamilton fires into the air, but Burr shoots him in the chest anyway? Before Dick Cheney, Burr was the only sitting Vice President to shoot someone! And then he goes on trial for treason for trying to make New England plus New York into its own nation? You can't make that stuff up!

    It also doesn't hurt that Aaron Burr was a hottie.

    Oh and check out the Alexander Hamilton Mixtape on YouTube if you haven't already:


  17. Anonymous says:

    I tweeted, my Twitter name is Carolee888.
    I have several favorite periods that I like to read about, the time of the Mayflower because my father had an ancester on the ship(a character!), the Salem witch trials, WWI & WWII and the 1970s. One of my relatives lived in Salem at the time of the trials, still researching him, if he played a part, it must have been a very minor part.



  18. I love the time of Sir Francis Drake… ahhhh, Privateers!

  19. Sheltiemama says:

    I'm a history buff, so it's hard to pick just one. Tudor England is one of the top ones, though.

    I follow you and I retweeted your tweet about the contest.

    I greedily checked both of these books!

  20. My two favorite time periods are the 1920's in the United States and the Elizabethan era in England. I think my love of historical fiction started with the American Girl dolls and the Dear America diaries.

  21. Kayla + Cyna says:

    Cool interview. I'm generally not all that in to historical fiction, but Deliverance Dane actually sounded really interesting to me. Then again, I'm a sucker for the Trials, so that might be it.

    Anyway, I love what Katherine said about now being the best time to live. I agree! So many people get all starry-eyed about eras gone by, because Hollywood and fictional works make them seem glamorous and fun, but the daily reality of life in most popular historical periods was far from it. Especially for women! I'm very glad I live in this era, and while it would be fun to do as Katherine said and visit an age (akin to travels with the Doctor, lol), I definitely wouldn't want to live in any time but this, either.

    That being said, I'd love to visit feudal-era japan, and see the real samurai. 😀

  22. KatieCan86 says:

    This is a really great interview!

    My favorite time period is the 1800's. 🙂

  23. teaandliterature says:

    I really love the regency and victorian era in history. Primarily because people's motives and cunning personalities always seemed to come out more and there was less of a mask to hide behind without all the technology in the world today.

  24. JessiKay89 says:

    I think my favorite time period in history has to be the Civil War era. I love going to Gettysburg! I've always been so obsessed with the Civil War–my dad's a big history buff 🙂