I am writing about the Saint Maggie novel, A Balm in Gilead and its relationship to what is happening today. I have been working on the novel for over a year – I think it may be pushing two years now. Things got bogged down, thanks to the pandemic. And that is both not surprising and pretty ironic, because the story is about an epidemic.
The book is in its final edit on my part, which I hope to complete by the end of next week and then give it to a group of beta readers.
In the light of our current situation, though, I want to lift up some of the stuff found in A Balm in Gilead. Basically, the town of Blaineton finds itself faced with typhoid fever, a disease that was endemic in army camps, both Confederate and Union, and one of the many diseases/epidemics that threatened people in the 19th century. It made people extremely ill and took the lives of many.
Among typhoid fever’s symptoms are fever, exhaustion, red lesions called “rose spots,” mental impairment, a distended abdomen, diarrhea or constipation, and sometimes perforation of the intestine, which led to death. The weakening of the patients’ constitution could leave them susceptible to bronchitis or pneumonia, which also could lead to death. There were no effective treatments for typhoid fever. The best doctors could do was try to make the patient comfortable until the patient recovered or died. That was it.
In this novel, my characters are living in 1864. The culprit behind typhoid fever, a bacteria called Salmonella typhii, was not identified until 1880. The challenge set before my story’s doctors (Lydia Blaine Frost, Frederick Lightner, and Patrick McCoy) is to try to find the cause of the epidemic. What did the ill people all have in common? Was it something they ate? Something they drank? Something in the air?
In 1847, English doctor William Budd did similar investigative work as he dealt with an minor outbreak of typhoid fever among the people living in Bristol on Richmond Terrace. There were 34 households, 13 of which had at least one case of typhoid fever. Budd realized that those 13 households had nothing in common except the use of a well as their water supply. All the other households used different sources for their water. Budd went on to hypothesize that the disease was spread by water. His work to uncover the cause of both typhoid fever and cholera resulted in improvements in Bristol’s water supplies. People were healthier because of him.
Another interesting thing to note about Dr. William Budd is that he promoted disinfection as a way to prevent disease spread and suggested that people use chloride of lime, the era’s most powerful disinfectant. It wasn’t until 1857-60 that Budd had papers on his findings printed in The Lancet.
In A Balm in Gilead, my characters struggle to uncover the cause of the epidemic and work to limit the spread of the fever in both the Norton Mill and in the town itself. But they are severely limited by their knowledge of the disease, although they are very much aware of Budd’s work. There is nothing they can do for the people who are already ill, except to make them as comfortable as possible. Despite this, they continue their dogged search for answers.
Now that I’ve said all that, let me add one more thing. We know what is causing our current pandemic. We also know how to prevent it. What we do not know is how to cure it.
Oh, I’ve heard all the blather that we cannot trust science or the CDC. That’s chatter, dangerous chatter. Unvaccinated people are getting very sick and/or dying, but vaccinated people are not – unless they have a breakthrough infection but they get nowhere as ill as the unvaccinated.
Vaccines are important. I know some people don’t believe that. Some believe they are dangerous. So, let me tell you about one vaccine in particular.
In the early 1960s, I was part of a mass vaccination movement and have a clear memory of getting my final dose of the polio vaccine. Polio is an entero virus that primarily effects that gut, but which can affect the neurological system and cause paralysis. My parents, sister, and I went to the elementary school. We stood outside in a long line with many other people to receive our dose. Eventually we came to a table with people who took our information and then went to another table containing little paper cups that had a sugar cubes in them. Each sugar cube had drops of the vaccine on it. We popped the sugar cube into our mouths and that was it. Painless. I liked that much better than a shot.
I know there are people who might say that we were a bunch of cattle and that we allowed ourselves to do what “the Establishment” wanted us to do and that the vaccine was dangerous. I say that’s a load of bs. The vaccine was nothing, but polio was a scary disease. I remember seeing the images in Look and Life magazines of kids lying in “iron lungs.” They had suffered the worst effects of polio and could not breathe without lying in a big machine that did the breathing for them. Other kids were in wheelchairs or had braces on their legs. And, of course, there were the kids who made a recovery. But no one wanted to bet on their kid being one of the unlucky ones. And so they got the vaccine.
My partner Dan is older than I am and remembers a time when mothers were terrified of public swimming pools because polio spread through water infected by fecal matter. And nearly everyone swallows some pool water, especially kids. (By the way, the reason we use chlorine in our pools dates back to 1946, when chlorine was found to inactivate the polio virus.) Dan also remembers that when fall came each year, he would see some kids returning to school on crutches and wearing braces to help them stand and walk.
On a personal level, one of my sister’s friends was probably part of the last group of kids to contract polio. This girl wore braces on her legs and used crutches to get around. That was real. I knew her, too.
But we don’t see people suffering the effects of polio these days. Know why? Because we have the vaccine.
So, please, get the COVID vaccine. There is no reason that I can think of for us to to live in 1864. Just do it. You just might save your life or save someone else's life.
Janet R. Stafford
Cooper, Craig, “Global Vaccine Mobilization Is Not New,” Genesis Today, 18 February 2021.
Linn, Alexandra, “Polio and Swimming Pools: Historical Connections,” The History of Vaccines, An Educational Resource by the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, 12 June 2012.
Moorhead, Robert, “William Budd and typhoid fever,” Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine (Vol. 95), November 2002, 561-564.
Image by Lee Davis (Lins is on the left, Patti is on the right). See the PPS section of this blog post for more information.
A weird thing happened to me last week as I was reviewing the spec script Dan Bush and I had written for my novel Heart Soul & Rock’n’Roll. I suddenly I realized that I’m more like my protagonist Lins Mitchell than I ever thought.
Of course, I have always been more than a little aware that Lins is the character closest to who I really am. People have said to me, “Oh, but you’re Maggie!” (from the Saint Maggie series). Let’s be truthful, though. Maggie is way too good of a person, even if we do share a few things in common. Also, if I’m going to be completely honest, Eli has more than a little of me in him, as scary as that might seem!
Anyway, it’s not unusual for characters and settings in a novel to echo their creators. Of course, characters also can be giant billboards with arrows that point to their author and scream, “Look! We’re that person!”
When I wrote Heart Soul, Lins was close to me by design. She is an assistant minister at the Church of the Epiphany in a fictional Central New Jersey town called Cuylerville.
I also am an assistant minister at a United Methodist Church in Central New Jersey. If you want an idea of what a pre-COVID Sunday morning was like for me, just read the first few pages of the novel. The way Lins runs from thing to thing is very much like what I did. As for the coffee urn scenes… well, that is totally real. I have a very bad relationship with the dreaded urn at First UMC. We haven’t gone back to having a coffee hour after worship yet, but when we do, I just know people are going to ask where that thing is and how to make it perk.
The Church of the Epiphany actually is a love letter to a congregation with whom I have been for nearly 13 years. And, believe me, I have never been anywhere for 13 whole years. First UMC’s congregation is special to me and will always remain so. Likewise, our pastor – who will be retiring in less than a couple weeks – has been a kind, understanding, and caring human being. He also has been the brother I never asked for, but got – and for whom I eternally will be grateful.
In Heart Soul, Lins has turned 40 and hits mid-life crisis. She questions what she is doing and where she might go next, if indeed she goes anywhere at all. But college memories of playing in a band called the Poison Pen Society just won’t leave her alone. Clearly she misses those days. She moans to friends Patti and Sue, “I just want to rock out one more time before I die.”
As for me, I am nowhere near 40 anymore, but I do find myself wondering about growing my author-life both now and post-retirement. I am desiring more time to focus on writing. I knew that, and yet, as I ran through the spec script this time, one thing I hadn’t seen before suddenly hit me right upside the head.
That thing is this: even though Lins is feeling the urge to make changes, she is hesitant to go through with them.
Patti drags her off to a vacation at Point Pleasant Beach, where Lins ends up singing karaoke with her and then singing with a guy named Neil who just happens to have a band and is looking for a new singer. Abruptly, all sorts of doors just be might be opening for Lins. She might play in a band again. She might enter into a relationship with an interesting, although chronically broke guy. She might make new friends. She might find a new life.
But Lins drags her feet. In fact, in the script, Sue has had enough and gives her a little lecture that ends with the words, “Why don’t you just dive in for once?”
This time, those words hit home for me, too. I realized that I was hesitating to commit myself more fully to being an author. I was avoiding promotion and marketing because 1) it’s difficult to do and can be expensive; and 2) I’m scared to put myself out there
I was letting fear hold me back. I was afraid that putting more effort into promoting my work might not reap anything in the end. I also was afraid of receiving negative criticism. But negative criticism happens to every author – and sometimes it can be helpful. That’s life. It’s not all happy-happy, joy-joy. Bad or difficult stuff happens. Stuff that hurts or makes you sad. And that stuff happens to Lins, too, when she dives in. But this time I received a message for me. My fears should not stop me, either, not when I feel so strongly called to write stories.
So, I have given myself a firm talking-to and am going to become more assertive. The idea of self-promotion makes me cringe and the very real possibility of negative criticism still terrifies me. But I need to take a running start and dive off the board and into the water – being careful, of course, not to hit all the other authors swimming in the extremely small pool of the publishing industry.
At the moment, I have no idea exactly how I will “jump in,” but I believe that I will figure it out.
So, there you are. As weird as it may seem, that is how this author learned from a character of her own creation.
All I’ve got to say is, “Thanks, Lins!”
As for you, dear readers: You be brave, too. Take a deep breath and jump in.
Janet R. Stafford
PS: You may find Heart Soul & Rock 'n' Roll right here at Squeakingpips.com.
You also may find it at Amazon (HEART SOUL & ROCK 'N' ROLL: Stafford, Janet R.: 9780990835523: Amazon.com: Books) and other online book sellers.
PPS: The image at the top of this blog post came from a three-page collaborative graph novel wannabe between myself and artist Lee Davis. It came into being when Stephanie Hopkins of Layered Pages Media (https://layeredpages.com) suggested the idea to us. Thank you for shaping such a fun project, Stephanie!
And Lee, although you usually lean toward horror stories and accompanying imagery, you dared to illustrate a few scenes from a contemporary romance novel. Brave man! You may find Lee’s work at https://amazon.com/leedavis/e/B007J5CZ3O.
Love you both!
All images and information in this blog are from: “Levi and Catharine Coffin State Historic Site; Underground Railroad Station,” Midwest Wanderer, 28 February 2018. Website:
The image above is of a hiding place in the Levi and Catharine Coffin house, located in Newport (now Fountain City), Indiana. The Coffins were Quakers and originally lived in North Carolina, but moved north to an anti-slavery state in 1826 because of their pro-abolition position. Once up north, they became part of the Underground Railroad.
As is the case with Maggie and her boarding house, the Coffins’ activity on the Underground Railroad was secret. The only other people who know for certain that Maggie harbors freedom seekers are some people who live on Water Street, the street in Blaineton that is home to most of its Black population.
Levi Coffin was involved in various economic activities: he owned a dry goods store and a bank, had an interest meat packing, and approved mortgages as a director at a bank in another town. Unlike Maggie, Coffin was well-respected. Even those who knew of his activities would never think of reporting him (harboring people escaping from slavery was an illegal activity). And while Levi was out and about in the community being a good citizen (which he was), Catharine was at home caring for their visitors by providing food, clothing, and other comfort.
In 1839, the Coffins moved from living above the dry goods store and into a house of that Levi had designed. The place was designed to hid freedom seekers. One room had five doors in it. Should “slave catchers” arrive at the house, the self-emancipators were able scatter in five directions. Down in the basement was a full kitchen, where meals could be prepared in secret for the Coffins’ guests. The basement also contained a spring well which, when they had extra people inside the house, hid the fact that the Coffins were using more water than normal.
Finally, the Coffin house had a fifteen-foot-long closet in an upstairs bedroom. The entrance to the closet easily was hidden by putting a piece of furniture in front of it. The image of the closet from the Coffin house was what gave me the inspiration to include a closet in the Old Caretaker’s House on Maggie’s property.
Now, on to my story.
The final installment of “The Newcomer” answers Eli’s question about the cellar (I think the answer, given my blog above, should be obvious). As it turns out, that answer is something with which he is quite familiar.
Although "The Newcomer" involves the Old Caretaker's House on Maggie Blaine's property, the image above is just a stand-in. It really is a photo of Meade's Headquarters that I took on a visit to Gettysburg, PA. But the structure is a small building with, if memory serves me correctly, one room on the first floor, and there appears to be something of a second floor or an attic above. So it does the trick!
As for the second section of "The Newcomer," we find Eli making deals with Maggie to rent the Old Caretaker's House. He also meets the other residents of the main boarding house, and works on how to build and/or pay someone to build a flatbed press so he can start a newspaper.
The only thing Eli cannot do is find out why that cellar door is locked. How frustrating!
Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder