By Will Broaddus
---- — Eerie Evenings, a Halloween event that used to be held at the Peabody Essex Museum, was so popular that people would scalp their tickets.
“It was crazy, they used to get 10,000 people over six nights,” said Donna Thorland, a Salem resident who managed architecture and interpretation at the museum from 1996 to 2003.
Part of her job at PEM was “translating curator into English” in gallery guides and wall labels that explained exhibits, but she also wrote the ghost stories that made Eerie Evenings such a big draw.
“My boss suggested I go to film school,” Thorland said.
She already had degrees in classics and art history from Yale, but Thorland took her boss’s advice and attended the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts, which led to script-writing jobs for television shows such as “Cupid” on ABC and “Tron: Uprising” for Disney XD.
But she also applied her storytelling skills to write her first novel, “The Turncoat,” which will be published March 5 by New American Library.
Set in Philadelphia during the American Revolution, “Turncoat” follows a female spy for the Continental Army who must balance her dedication to the colonists’ cause with her Quaker values and her romantic feelings for an enemy officer.
The heroine, Kate Gray, is based on a historical figure, Lydia Barrington Darragh, who in 1777 overheard a British officer discussing plans for an ambush on Washington’s forces at Whitemarsh, Pa.
“It’s a fascinating story, because her daughter told her story, how she walked 12 miles in freezing weather to warn Washington’s army,” Thorland said. “But historians in the 19th century said, there’s no way a woman can do this. Then a British officer’s diary surfaced in 1909 confirming her story.”
Paying tribute to women in the revolution sets the record straight, but also gives some spark to this period in American history, which is missing from many accounts, Thorland said.
“The American Revolution has a reputation for being dusty,” she said. “The movies and books are pious. It was important to write something that felt vivid. I wanted to be able to connect directly with audience.”
Thorland splits her time between Salem and Los Angeles and continues to work on scripts while also writing the sequel to “The Turncoat.”
These two worlds combined in a trailer she created for “The Turncoat” that can be found at her website, which uses an “all Screen Actors Guild cast” and was shot at the Shirley Eustis House in Roxbury, “the only Colonial governor’s mansion still standing in America.”
“It was posted yesterday, and it’s already been played 1,000 times,” she said.