In the Shadow of Salem

Please Welcome Donna Gawell, history buff who’s not only the author of her novel set in 1600’s New England, but also a direct descendant of its heroine, Mehitabel Braybrooke. Yes, the name is a mouthful, but many names of that era were.

In the Shadow of Salem: For Mehitabel Braybrooke, life in Puritan New England moves from bad to worse when her orphan cousin arrives to live with her family. Jealousy and lies result in Mehitabel’s being “sent out” as a servant in a neighbor’s home. Foolishness and bad judgment further unravel her life until the unspeakable happens: Mehitabel is accused of crimes that warrant a death sentence, not once, but twice−the first time for arson, the second for witchcraft.

What sparked your idea for In the Shadow of Salem?

Mehitabel’s story has been told piecemeal by historians, and her historical records are anything but complimentary. It was clear from the neighbors’ testimony during a court trial that her stepmother despised her. I thought it intriguing to consider how Mehitabel must have felt being raised by a woman who hated her, one who could never have any children of her own. Mehitabel was the only child of a wealthy Puritan man who was instructed by the town court to raise her.

As I examined the facts from her historical records, I tried to consider what lead up to each event. For example: what background and story lead up to her being found in the mud with the pigs tearing at her clothing, and the rescuers declaring she was drunk? I ended up with an intriguing story about a very emotionally complex woman who lived through some horrible times.

Did anything interesting happen to you during your research?

I developed a great appreciation for the Puritans and their beliefs. They have a pretty bad reputation in today’s culture, but I admire their passion, focus, and dedication. They certainly weren’t Sunday-only Christians. On the other hand, they lost focus of God’s guiding principles during the Salem witchcraft trials, which are also part of my story.

What did you find the most challenging about writing In the Shadow of Salem?

The research essential in historical fiction is a perfect fit for my personality. I love that part of writing and blending in this interesting information, but I had no idea of how much time I would spend uncovering details. For example, it took hours to find the name of a real lawyer in 1670 in that area of Massachusetts. And I want to make my New England historian friends proud!

What details or choices of material in this story required special research.

I spent three years actively searching through New England archives, old town records, and information about the Salem witchcraft trials and life in Puritan New England. One of my favorite experiences was a trip to Ipswich, MA where I met with archivist and renowned historian, Richard Trask at the Danvers Institute. He sent me some newly uncovered details about the accusation of witchcraft Mehitabel endured..

What do you hope readers will gain from reading In the Shadow of Salem?

I wrote it as a story of redemption. Mehitabel started out in life as the “bastard” child of an indentured servant and had a nightmare childhood. She continued to struggle through much of her adult life but didn’t understand what God wanted of her.

How did you first come to realize you wanted to write this novel?

Although I have written various professional and travel articles and taught my students to write, I never thought much about fiction writing. Until I discovered my 9th great grandmother, Mehitabel Braybrooke. Before I began genealogy in 2012, I had almost no knowledge of my ancestors who came before my grandparents.

As my search wandered back to the 1700’s, a direct ancestor named “Mehitabel Braybrooke came into view.”  My first thought was “Wow, Mehitabel is an ugly name!” Then I noticed clues with the words “witchcraft” and “witch” in them. I discovered many records from the town and court records about Mehitabel and began to put together the facts of her life. I told her story to everyone I knew and then decided someone needed to write her story. That someone ended up being me! I felt God had given me the gift of discovering so many ancestors all the way back to the 1600’s and that Mehitabel was a special assignment.

Any future novel readers can look forward to?

I am currently researching and writing a novel set in a small village in Poland during WWII. My grandparents’ village has an amazing story.

The Nazis occupied it during the first days of the war. The Germans destroyed the villagers’ homes and forced the people into what we would consider slave labor. This village became the site of the largest SS training camp outside of Germany. Hitler also moved his top-secret V1 and V2 research facility to the area. My family who still live in this village are thrilled that someone is finally interested in the story. Many Polish Americans and people in Poland have provided me with incredible details and stories.

What is a typical day like for you?

I wake up at about 6 AM, do my morning devotions (Charles Spurgeon) and email, and then begin writing about 8:00. I write or research until about 8:00 PM,  but sometimes unchain myself from the computer to volunteer, cook, eat, clean, and visit with friends.

What advice would you offer to writers just getting started?

Write about something that is a personal passion, and ask God to provide you with people who will support and encourage you.

More About the Author:

Genealogist, historian, and author of several nonfiction books and journal articles, Donna Gawell is also a presenter on genealogy and family history writing for school, community organizations, and church groups. Donna holds volunteer leadership roles with Samaritan’s Purse as a Relay Center Coordinator for Operation Christmas Child. She is also Church Coordinator for International Friendships, Inc., a Christian outreach to international students at Ohio State University.

Donna earned her master’s degree in Speech Pathology and worked in the field of education for over thirty years. She lives in Westerville, Ohio with her husband Mark when not traveling to research her ancestral homelands in Europe and New England. Her website allows her to reach out to readers with similar passions and interests.

From In the Shadow of Salem, Chapter One:

September 21, 1692

 The lock on the door of the Ipswich prison clanged, and the bar raised to open it. No good news ever came when we heard those creaking hinges. Unwelcomed breezes stirred the poisonous stench of dung from the corners of our cell, as one solitary prisoner was delivered to our group of women. The dark shadows at sunset did not allow me to recognize the woman immediately, but old Goody Vinson could see her. “Mehitabel,” she whispered, “you will not believe who has come to join us!”

Joan Penney’s voice raged throughout the dungeon as she was hurtled down the stairs by the two night guards. They showed little respect for the elderly woman, and she stumbled on the last step. In disgust, the guards allowed her to fall onto the filthy straw floor. Her eyes were downcast as she hobbled over to sit with the older women.

A heavy silence fell over us, until Rachel Clinton spoke, “Joan, we have been waiting for you. Soon all of the townswomen will be here to replace those already hung in the gallows. Look, even your own daughter is here. Are your eyes so weak you don’t see her face?”

Rachel’s loathsome manner was unwelcomed by all. “Mehitabel, go to your mother,” she commanded me. “Share your warm blanket with her.”


A Father’s Day Mystery …

Father’s Day is only two days away, and it first occurred to me today that I never considered the pain Jill might have experienced on that day each year. The heroine in my novel series longed to know her birth father–even made up stories about him in her head–but she didn’t know his name or anything about him.

What was it like for her when she saw other little girls with their fathers? Or Father’s Day rolled around? I know how deeply she felt when she met her father in the pages of Her Deadly Reunion. But not much in the years before. It’s a Father’s Day mystery …

Would you fill in this blank place in Jill’s life for me? Venture a guess? Share an experience?

It’s Official! Second Novel Scheduled for Release

You asked, so I’m happy to announce: It’s official. Her Deadly Reunion, the novel you’ve been waiting for, releases November 15.

And thank you so much for your words of encouragement. They kept me going as I worked long and hard on the sequel to Her Deadly Inheritance. Your words like:

  • I plan on watching for whatever Beth offers to us in the future!
  • An author whose works I will read promptly after release.
  • Looking forward to reading more from this talented author.
  • I’m hooked. Hurry up with that second book.
  • Hope these characters return in another book!
  • Hope another book by Beth is on the way.
  • Looking forward to the next book!
  • Can’t wait for her next book.
  • Can’t wait for the sequels!
  • Cannot wait for the next novel !!!!!!
  • When is your next novel coming out, Ms. Ziarnik? I want it!!!
  • Loved the book and wish there were more by Beth.
  • This debut novel knocked my socks off. I look forward to her next book.
  • Hope there will be another story with Jill and Clay. Theirs is an adventure I would love to follow.

To answer some of your comments: Yes, you will see two more books about Jill and Clay. While preparing for Her Deadly Reunion‘s launch, I’ll be writing Her Deadly Vows. In the meantime …

Where is Her Deadly Reunion in its preparations for release? The interior design elements (what the pages and type face look like) are in place.

The book cover design team at Lighthouse Publishing of the Carolinas have the novel’s back cover copy (story blurb), the new author photo, and a document of details they will consider as they work. By the end of summer, we should have a beautiful new cover for the second book.

I can’t wait to see it. And when I do, you will, too!

Until then …Thank you for accompanying me on this writer’s journey. You make it all worthwhile.

Memorial Day: Let’s Not Forget!

In honor of Memorial Day, I wore this red, white, and blue necklace. My sister Shelly made it for Mom, wife of a WWII vet. Among Mom’s belongings when she died, the necklace might not have seemed important, but to me it symbolized her love for our country.

Growing up in her house, I learned to be proud of our country, love its flag, and honor those who served and fought for our freedom. Even today, the moment our national anthem  starts, I can’t help but stand — at home alone or in a crowd — to sing along with my hand over my heart. A heart that almost bursts with pride for our United States of America — our land of the free and home of the brave..

So many memories spring to life on Memorial Day!

  • Family who sacrificed to serve in the U.S. Armed Forces — Dad and Jim’s dad (WWII, Army), Uncle Lee (WWII, Marines) Uncles Hank and Ed (Korean Conflict, Army) brother-in-law Larry (Vietnam, Army), and my son Rick (Navy).
  • Involvement in the American Legion Post in Kaukauna. Dad served a year as Commander, Mom as leader of the Legion Auxillary, and I as leader of the Junior Legion Auxillary.
  • Memorial Day meant Dad leaving early to blow TAPS at each cemetery as flags were placed on the graves of deceased vets. Later when the parade paused on the Lawe Street Bridge and the memorial wreath was cast into the Fox River, he played TAPS again. A solemn and beautiful moment in time.
  • One year I served as a poppy princess. Another year, as a teen, read “In Flanders Field” to the townspeople who gathered on the lawn of the VFW Hall for formal speeches.
  • The many years that my husband Jim and I took time to honor our country and its vets. Most times we joined the crowd outside the Social Services building, and every time the U.S. flag passed by, we’d place our hands over our hearts and stand at attention.

What fond memories spring to life for you on Memorial Day?



10 Benefits Awaiting Writers’ Conference First-Timers

You think you might like to write? You’re consumed with a burning idea but no clue how to take it from writing to publication? Maybe you’re sure you don’t write well enough yet.

Don’t let that stop you! Go ahead and attend a Christian writers’ conference. The benefits are astronomical. Here are just a few.

You will:

  1. Jumpstart your writing dream (You know you have one, right?)
  2. Be inspired by fantastic motivational speakers
  3. Learn from professionals how to write and get published
  4. Meet editors, publishers, and agents face-to-face. Find out what they’re looking for and discover that these brothers and sisters in Christ really want you to succeed.
  5. Receive valuable feedback about your writing skills through manuscript evaluations—maybe even an invitation to submit it for publication or suggestions regarding where to submit
  6. Make enthusiastic new friends who will validate your passion to write
  7. Begin to discover your niche as a writer and God’s plan for your coming year of writing.
  8. Spend a few days in Christian writer’s heaven on earth where people are kind, helpful, encouraging—and fun!
  9. Go home believing you can make your dream come true because you’re no longer alone. God and your new writer friends have your back.
  10. Look forward to next year’s conference to reconnect with your new writer friends, learn more, progress more, and enjoy another few days in writer’s heaven.

Don’t miss out! Sign up for a Christian Writers’conference today!

Here are a few I can personally vouch for:

Or check the Christian Writers Market Guide under “Christian Writers Conferences & Workshops” for other options near you!

Experienced conference goers, please help us out here: What favorite writers conference would you recommend to newbies considering first time attendance? And why?

Happy Mother’s Day!

Sending flowers to you all as we celebrate this Mother’s Day.

Actually, with my phone, I captured  these gorgeous tulips that grow in front of my deck each Spring. Trudging back from my shed on Thursday, I looked up and there they were.

A surprise bouquet from the Lord.

So … I had to share them with you all.

From the Lord and me …

Happy Mother’s Day!

Talk about Joy and Blessing!

Writers’ retreats are one of the highlights of the writing life. Talk about joy and blessing!

Last week ten of us bubbled over as we arrived at Green Lake Conference Center’s Christian Writing Center. Yup, that’s it. An eight-bedroom, half-timbered English mansion overlooking … ah …  you guessed it … Green Lake. (The windows under the two gables on the far right of the second floor mark the location of my room. The large window to the left on the first floor belongs to the great room. More about that later.)

After lots of hugs plus helping each other unload our cars and get settled in our rooms, we enjoyed a Sunday supper of homemade veggie soup, ham & Swiss and Reuben stuffed breads hot from the oven, cold apple salad, and delicious caramel cheesecake one husband made for our enjoyment. Not a good start for our diets, but most excellent, and we didn’t waste a bite!

We put out jigsaw puzzles, colored pencils & coloring sheets, and games. One of our favorites is “Pilgrim’s Progress.” These along with long walks outdoors in the beautiful sunshine and a fire pit by the lake in late afternoon gave us plenty of activity when taking breaks from writing.

Oh, and we can’t forget the impromptu birthday party for the 82-year-old among us. Cake, ice cream, cards, and more laughter.

But …

We all agreed that the best part of each day came in the evening when we gathered by the fireplace in the great room. Debra accompanied us with her Q-chord as we sang to the Lord. His precious presence was so near and dear. And every night He gifted each of us with personal blessings and encouragement as we prayed and were prayed over.

Then, of course, we read manuscripts and shared stories. We couldn’t help but laugh as Kathi read from her father’s memoirs of growing up during the Great Depression. She’s editing and polishing them for publication. Her dad sure had an eye for hilarious goings-on in his small, northern Wisconsin community.

(By the way, the photo above is a view of Green Lake taken by Debra from the lakeside grounds of the house.)

The Lord blessed us one last time as we departed on Friday morning. We had all packed up before the pouring rain began, and each made it home safely before the big April blizzard hit over the weekend.

YOUR TURN TO SHARE! What special event to you look forward to experiencing each year with family or friends?