I’ve written six full-length novels, two novellas, and two short stories, and one thing I can tell you is that I agonize over the first page of anything. It’s not easy to find a “hook,” something that might interest a reader. Looking back on my first few paragraphs in the Saint Maggie series, I must confess that sometimes I succeeded in writing what I considered to be a “good hook.” Other times not so much.
So let’s take a look at the openings of some of the full-length novels’ openings.
Maggie is a woman who writes a journal. Originally, the first book was told in first person. When an author friend advised me to take it out of first person, I actually put the novel away for a number of years. Why? I didn’t want to lose Maggie’s voice. When I went back to the novel, I realized that, since Maggie was an 1800s Methodist, she might have kept a journal, like so many women of her time did. Brilliant! I realized that if I used her journal, then I could keep her voice, even though the majority of the novel would be written in third person.
The opening of the Saint Maggie is below. Her journal entry raises questions. What changes were there for Maggie? What is the thing that she never “would have dared” to imagine? What hard lessons did she learn?
(*Sigh* Scribd is malfunctioning again, so I must resort to dividers and different type again...)
Saint Maggie Intro
The changes that have occurred over the past year for my country and my family have been great. In the spring of 1860, I would not have been able, nor would have dared, to imagine that which has transpired.
I was so delighted when the Presiding Elder came to me and asked if my boarding house could find a room for the new minister. At last, I thought, perhaps the people of Blaineton will afford me and my establishment some respect. This past year has taught me some hard lessons, indeed.
The questions Maggie's comments raised are not answered in that first page. But they are as the reader dives into the book. What starts as a story about a boarding house owner who welcomes the new minister to her establishment eventually turns into a mystery, one which Maggie, with the help of Eli and some of her boarders, try to solve.
As for the second novel, Walk by Faith, I absolutely love the way it starts - with a bang, or more correctly with a fire. The book has a faster pace than the first and reads a bit more like a movie, rather than a novel because of its short scenes and quick cuts.
Walk by Faith Intro
She stood watching the flames lick upward. The air outside was bitterly cold as snow fell thick from a starless sky. And yet the heat coming from the house was strong – strong enough to make her sweat even though she was in the middle of the square.
Maggie Smith clutched her adopted son, Bob as if she was afraid the fire would shoot out and snatch him from her arms.
How did this horrible thing happen? Bewildered and strangely numb, she could only stand and watch as the Second Street Boarding House was swallowed up.
The fire is only a start to a journey that leads Maggie and family to Gettysburg and the battle. The stress puts a wedge between Maggie and Eli, and calls the other members to action and courage.
I’m not as thrilled with the intro to the third book, A Time to Heal. I opened with Maggie’s journal, which sought to bring readers up to date with what they were about to encounter. And, honestly, now that I look at it, I did the same thing with Seeing the Elephant. Consider it my author growing pains. I'm not going to bother putting them up here. Or at least not today!
But I do really like the second scene in Seeing the Elephant. It is Eli’s nightmare, and I feel this is what should have kicked the novel off for a number of reasons. For one, it is just plain weird. Secondly, it makes sense because Seeing the Elephant is primarily the story of Eli’s struggle with PTSD.
Readers may enjoy writers' blogs because it gives them insight into how authors go about their craft and what the writing life is like. But I'm finding that blogs are helpful to Janet the Author as well. Writing this piece allowed me to be critical of my own work. And I’m now thinking of returning to Seeing the Elephant in the near future and switching the scene below with Maggie’s journal entry.
Eli Smith was inside the house. It had been eerily quiet until someone or something began to keen. He frowned. That had never happened before. Who or what would make a noise like that? And why? He went down the hall and as he did, his heart began to pound, and his breath came short.
He’d been there before. He knew what he would see. But he opened the front door anyway.
Outside was a horrifying sight. People, horses, and wrecked wagons were strewn everywhere. Knees shaking, Eli stepped onto the porch. He hated this place. Even though it resembled his old family home in Gettysburg, it was completely alien at the same time. It was his fear made manifest and palpable.
I don’t want to look, he thought, squeezing his eyes shut. Don’t make me look.
But he knew he had to. He had to see it.
Finally, here’s a sneak peek at the new novel’s introduction. The Good Community’s start has more in common with Walk by Faith than with the other books. It has a definite hook that might make readers wonder just what is going on. Was there another fire? Why? What’s with the crowd? Why are they angry? And what is Maggie about to say? When did she become a public speaker?
A Good Community Intro
The air was still acrid with the smell of smoke. It stung Maggie’s nose as she tried to take deep breaths to calm her racing heart. But calm was difficult to find when a never-ending reverberation of angry voices was pounding her body. Its sound bounced off the walls of the old courthouse, echoing back to the crowd and encouraging them to shout all the more.
Back and forth. Back and forth. It felt as if it would never end.
Fighting panic, Maggie wondered: What am I doing here?
\Nonsense, her practical side argued, you know precisely what you’re doing here. You’re going to stop this madness before it goes any further.
Mouth dry, she straightened her shoulders.
I must speak, she thought. Lord, give me the words.
Taking a deep breath, she began…
On Monday, let’s have some fun and look at how the Saint Maggie characters propose marriage or suggest a relationship. As you’ll see, Eli is really pretty inept, while the other male characters' proposals vary Reminder: proposing marriage was a man’s job in the 1860s. Also, marriage was perceived as being between a man and a woman. But there were other relationships in the 1800s, just as there are now. And one of the characters in Saint Maggie is gay and may be on the edge of a relationship. (Another character is transgender – Bill from The Enlistment. But we’ll talk about Bill another day.)
Enjoy your weekend!
Image from FreeImages.com, https://www.freeimages.com/photo/laundry-oldtime-1217900
I’m working on A Good Community and have just finished Revision #3 (aka Draft 4). So I’d like to share a bit with you.
When I wrote The Enlistment, I thoroughly enjoyed creating the character of Rosa Hamilton. She is a young black woman who is Frankie’s age, and she is every bit as feisty, smart, and strong as Frankie. The two become friends in 1862 and then part ways when Rosa leaves as a laundress with the New Jersey Fifteenth Volunteers and Frankie returns home to Blaineton. (This laundress thing should explain the image of old-time undies on a line. I was desperate for an image, Rosa was a laundress, so…)
I like Rosa so much that it just felt right to bring her back in A Good Community, which takes place two years after she and Frankie part. Here’s Rosa's first appearance. It happens in Chapter 4. And I must say that her entrance is even more dramatic than Frankie’s first appearance in Saint Maggie (stomping into the kitchen and shouting, “I hate corsets and crinolines!”)
Edward Caldwell was taking a short break from his duties as telegrapher. He always liked to have a cup of tea with Andy the receptionist. This enabled the two young men to exchange stories about Eli’s foibles. They respected his knowledge and acumen as an editor, but the portly man also provided them with a consistent source of humor.
They currently were chuckling over how Eli was willing to babysit little Faith. It struck them as funny that as manly and rough-edged as Eli appeared, he could be tender and loving with the baby.
“Yeah,” Andy was saying, “but he made Danny bury a shitty diaper out back and I nearly split my sides watching him. The poor kid kept gagging as he dug the hole.”
Edward swallowed his tea in a big gulp. “You need to stop saying things like that when I’m drinking. This tea almost came out my nose.”
The front door bell jangled.
The two looked up to find a thin young woman standing in the entry. She was shorter than Frankie, who was fairly short. Her skin was brown, a shade lighter than Edward’s. She wore a tired straw hat and a faded dress. One hand clutched a carpet bag, the other was holding a piece of paper.
Edward, who had been slouching by the desk, immediately straightened up. “May I help you, Miss?”
“I…” she said.
He frowned slightly behind his wire-rim glasses. “Yes?”
Her eyes rolled back, and she fell to the floor.
Alarmed, Edward rushed to her side, plopped down beside her, and began patting her face. “Miss? Miss!”
He noticed the slip of paper in her hand and took it up. His eyes widened as he read it. “I think you’d better get Mr. Smith, Andy. And quick!”
Andy pounded out of the room.
Edward got to his feet and fetched the pitcher of water from the reception desk. Returning to the unconscious girl, he sat down beside her once more, pulled a handkerchief from his jacket pocket, dipped it into the pitcher, and began to bathe her overly-warm forehead.
“Edward?” It was Eli’s voice. “What the hell’s going on out here?”
“This young lady came in and swooned.”
Eli stood over the prone figure. “Funny. She doesn’t look like the swooning type.”
“Why do you say that?” Edward gave Eli an accusing glare. “Just because she’s colored, doesn’t mean – ”
Eli held up a hand. “Hold it. I didn’t mean it’s because she’s colored. I mean that any woman might take to fainting if they lived a pampered life. But this young lady hasn’t done that. Take a gander at her hands. They’re rough. That means she’s a worker. And I’ve noticed that workers have neither the time nor the luxury to swoon.”
As Eli looked more closely at the young stranger, a frown creased his forehead. “You know, she looks familiar. But I can’t place her.”
Edward held the paper up. “Perhaps this will jog your memory.”
Eli took the slip from his telegrapher and read the words written on it. His eyebrows arched. “Huh. Don’t that beat all.”
The young woman moaned.
Edward returned his attention to her. “It’s all right, miss. You swooned.”
She grimaced. “I never swoon…”
“Told you,” Eli said.
The young man ignored his boss in favor of the pretty girl, whose head he was cradling on his lap. “I’m sorry to say, miss, but you did faint.” He put the back of a hand to her cheek. “And you’re terribly warm. Are you ill?”
“No. It’s hot out.” She struggled to a sitting position and focused her eyes on Eli. “Hey… I think I know you.”
“Do you, young lady? Well, you definitely know my wife.” He held the slip of paper out. “This is her handwriting and her name.”
Why did Rosa suddenly leave the laundresses? What is she doing in Blaineton and why is she holding a piece of paper with Maggie’s name on it?
No spoilers. You’ll just have to wait until the novel is published.
CC0 image from Pixabay
Last week, I wrote two blogs about reading materials for evangelical Protestant children in the 1800s. I know the stories – or perhaps more correctly the values found in these stories – influenced Maggie and her daughters. However, I suspect they absorbed the values more from what the adults around them said and did, than from reading material.
In my own career, as someone who works with families in a congregation, I have come to believe that parents and other significant adults are the ones who truly teach values to children. Those are the people with whom children live and/or see the most. Children watch, absorb, and then practice what they see from the adults around them.
Walk by Faith contains one example of how Maggie ignored the “edifying fare” preferred by her childhood governess. Maggie comes from a wealthy family, experienced the usual trappings of a child in such circumstances, and ended up on the other end of the socio-economic scale because she dared to elope with the son of her father’s business competitor. However, during her early life, Maggie’s family was part of the Methodist Episcopal Church and had embraced some basic Christian tenets, including financial generosity toward the poor and needy and giving of one’s self. Both of these things are rooted in the concept that God loves all people and bestows grace to all (grace being God’s love and favor). Therefore, Maggie learned from her family that to be good followers of Jesus mean being generous and caring. The slip up came when her father and brother turned their backs on her for committing the apparently unforgivable sin of marrying the wrong man.
As for edifying reading, we learn of Maggie’s childhood (and adult) preferences in this excerpt from Walk by Faith:
Maggie’s Reading Preferences When Young
As a child, Maggie had loved to peruse the titles and then choose one that struck her fancy. Her favorites had been James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking series, Walter Scott’s adventures, and Jane Austen’s novels. However, when caught reading such material – which happened frequently – her pious governess would cluck her tongue disapprovingly, remove the offending book from Maggie’s hands, and replace it with more edifying fare, such as John Bunyon’s Pilgrim’s Progress, John Milton’s Paradise Lost, or even a tome of Jonathan Edwards’ sermons.
Obviously, Bunyon, Milton, and Edwards were not reading for a child with a lively imagination. (However, I have read Johnathon Edward’s sermons as a graduate student and I’m here to tell you that the only one like “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” is… well… “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” The rest of his sermons are not fire and brimstone.)
As for how Maggie taught her own children about faith and values, she did it through personal example, as well as praising the girls when they did something generous and kind and reminding them when they were being selfish and petulant. In this scene from The Dundee Cake, Maggie is getting Lydia (10) and Frankie (6) ready for bed. They discuss a problem Emily Johnson has, come up with a way to be kind to her, and then Maggie settles them down by reading a Bible story and praying with her daughters.
The Girls Have a Suggestion
“Today Mrs. Johnson told me something very sad.”
“What is it, Mama?” Hair braided for the night and dressed in her nightgown, Lydia was sitting on the other side of the bed.
“She told me that she and Mr. Johnson were going to have a baby, but it came too early and died.”
Lydia frowned. “Why does that happen, Mama?”
“I don’t know, Liddy.”
Her eldest was quiet for a moment. Then she blurted, “I wish all babies could live, Mama, and their mothers, too. It’s not right!”
“I agree.” Maggie sighed. “This happened to Mrs. Johnson about three months ago and she is still very sad.”
“But it’s almost Christmas,” Frankie said. “How can anyone be sad at Christmastime?”
The question nearly broke her mother’s heart. How? Tragedy and grief were no respecters of human celebrations. Maggie began to braid her daughter’s hair. “Sometimes people are sad at Christmas, Frankie, even though it is a happy season. Sad things happen, and they can’t see the joy for their sadness. Grieving takes time.”
“Then maybe we should do something kind for Mr. and Mrs. Johnson,” Lydia suggested. “Maybe it would cheer them up a little.”
“Why, that is an excellent idea!” Maggie took the piece of rag sitting beside her and tied it to the end of Frankie’s braid. “What do you think we should do?”
Frankie bit her lip in thought. “We could bake something.”
“Molasses cookies,” Lydia exclaimed.
“And gingerbread! Everybody loves gingerbread!”
“Wonderful. I’ll see what we have in our stores and tomorrow we’ll make their gift.” Maggie scooted back on the mattress and lay back on the pillows. She opened her arms. “Come here, my kind-hearted darlings! I love you both so very much.” They snuggled with her and she held them tight. “I’m proud of you for thinking of others. And your father would be proud of you, too.”
After a moment, Frankie asked, “Are you still sad about Papa and Gideon, Mama?”
“Yes, I am,” Maggie said quietly.
“And Aunt Letty?”
“Yes. I’m sad about her, too.”
Lydia sat up at looked down on her mother. “I didn’t know that, Mama. Are you sad all the time?”
“No, not all the time. I find joy every time I see your faces. However, I don’t want you two to worry. I am strong, and I’ll be just fine. Now why don’t I read a story from the Bible? Then we’ll have our prayers and put out the lamps.”
Judging by how the girls grow up and behave in the Saint Maggie series, and how Maggie herself behaves, my opinion is that pious and earnest writings of authors such as Sarah Maria Fry may have had an impact on their young minds. However, it is highly likely that the far greater impact came from the parents and other adults with whom they associated while growing up.
In addition, my experience as “Director of Christian Education” at six churches had formed my understanding – which obviously has found its way into my stories. Familial and other significant adults have a tremendous influence on how children absorb values.
Also, if it sounds kind of weird that I don't know things about my characters, it is because they tend to reveal things in their own good time. As an author, I find that I learn things about them the more I write about them. When I start, I only have an outline of what a character is like and then we start on a journey. As situations arise, they will respond one way or another. It's a very weird process. And yet I've heard other authors say about the same thing with regard to character development. So there you are.
Front page image from The Golden Mushroom by the Late Sarah Maria Fry (London: Religious Tract Society, date uncertain; reprint possibly 1870s or 1880s).
Believe it or not, some 25 years later, I still cannot find much in the way of information on Sarah Maria Fry’s life. She’s relatively obscure, although she published numerous books for children through Sunday school and other religious companies.
At the time I did my research, however, I managed to locate a little bit about Fry’s life in a book attributed to her called Isabel or, Influence for Good, revised in 1851 by Daniel P. Kidder. The book has a very short story about Isabel, a girl who, by singing hymns, unknowingly touches other people's lives. It is typical of stories written for evangelical Protestant children and goes generally goes like this: something a pious child says or does has an impact on someone else and changes that person’s life.
The object of such writing was to impress upon children that they, by living as good little Christians, could change other people’s lives. So, I was not surprised to find that the majority of the Isabel text is devoted to a discourse on how to influence others through Christian living. In other words, the story is saying, “look at what this little girl did just by singing hymns. Now, kids, this is how you can do the same thing.” Today, this may sound like a creepy exercise in brainwashing children of the faithful, but it was normative in children’s fiction written for nineteenth-century evangelicals.
Among all that information, Daniel Kidder refers to Fry as “the late Mrs. Fry.” Kidder goes on to say that Fry kept a journal. She also had several daughters and one of them wrote a biography about their mother. Sarah Fry also kept a journal and appears to have been a pious individual aware of her responsibility to encourage people to love one another and to do good works (Fry, Isabel, 43, 97, 118-119). When Fry lived is a question for me. She might have been writing as early as the 1790s and as late as the 1850s. Her books were reprinted several times throughout the 1800s. When she lived, died, and worked is still uncertain. I’d love to find that alleged biography and/or journal, but internet searches have yielded nothing so far. I also need to hit an archives, so I can sit down and read her work, although I was able to download one through Google Books and can purchase hard copies through booksellers. It might be that I will find more information about her life there.
The audience for whom Fry was writing appears to be middle-to-upper class English children. When describing the poor she clearly attempts to move and inform her well-off readers that "...there are thousands of children living in the streets, and lanes, and alleys of our great cities, quite much neglected, quite as untaught and as ignorant as poor Bob and Patty” (Fry, The Little Orange Sellers, 18). Or, I might add, as untaught and ignorant any many other unfortunate children in her books.
It is entirely possible that Fry was a writer of Rewards, books designed as Sunday reading for middle-to-upper class children. At the very least, her books made it into Sunday School and Rewards libraries. Rewards writers usually were women whose religious and social convictions called them to be "useful." Since writing was an acceptable activity, many took up the pen (Bratton, 64), although they may have published under a pseudonym, which is something I believe Fry did.
One of the more striking things about Sarah Fry's material is her use of the working world as a backdrop, and sometimes as a plot device. The titles alone often indicate her interest. Here is as complete a list of her books as I can find.
Abel Grey: The Story of a Singing Boy
Hannah Lee, or, Rest for the Weary
Jenny, the Crochet-Worker, or, The Path of Truth
Joe Carton, or, the Lost Key
Little Jessie’s Work, and the Broken Rosebuds
Margaret Craven, or, the Beauty of the Heart
Matty Gregg, or, the Woman Who Did What She Could
Mrs. Cooper’s Story, or, the Golden Mushroom
Rose Darling, or, the Path of Truth
The Australian Babes in the Wood, a True Story Told in Rhyme for the Young
The Little Orange Sellers
The Little Water-Cress Sellers
The Yankee Enterprise, or the Two Millionaires, and Other Thrilling Tales
The Young Envelope Makers
The Young Hop-Pickers
Even when the books do not feature work as part of their titles, the workaday world is still present. In Matty Gregg, or, The Woman That Did What She Could, the heroine runs a small shop. Harry in The Lost Key becomes a gardener. Even Jessie, the subject of the story Little Jessie's Work, wonders what her vocation can be. However, this story revolves more around usefulness than actual employment.
Fry's obsession with working children and the poor mark her as part of the second wave of English Evangelicalism, "which blended a renewed religious conviction with that strong concern for human suffering which was the hallmark of right feeling in the 1840's" (Bratton, 64). She views poverty, and the ignorance and hopelessness that came with it, as demeaning. She offers Christian love and benevolence as the means through which the poor can regain their humanity.
Through it all, Fry advises her young readers how to navigate the social and spiritual minefields created by the Industrial Revolution. She is suspicious of the new technologies, as well as with the growing hunger for fame and fortune. In addition, she is of the opinion that if children and young women must work, then the most beneficial positions are those that provide the guidance of kindly, Christian patronage. Therefore, going into service is more respectable and morally safe, provided one’s employer has the right heart and spiritual makeup, than working in the impersonal and unsupervised world of, say, an envelope factory. Yet, she also is resigned to the fact that factories and other forms of employment will not be going away and concludes that if a young Christian must work in such a setting, then he or she should be prepared to suffer abuse and be able to speak up for the faith. That is the way God can use a factory girl as a positive role model and as a means to convert others. But this is not only something the poor should do. Those who are well-off also have a responsibility: they must provide the poor with guidance and the opportunity to work under honorable, Godly patronage.
My final question is: how did material written in Britain "play in the USA?" Class division was a reality in America, just as it is today. However, Americans persisted in seeing themselves as fiercely democratic and egalitarian. So, how were the "rise up, but do it through Christ" messages in Fry's work received by American readers? The answer seems to be this: families like Maggie’s, who were members of evangelical congregations (i.e., Methodists, Presbyterians, etc.), most likely would have preferred reading materials like Fry’s for their children. However, the materials would have been viewed differently by others with no apparent stake in religion and/or were uncomfortable with revivals and other methodologies stemming from the Second Great Awakening (1790s-1830s?)
For their viewpoint, I’ll leave you with an 1860 New York Times review of one of Fry’s books: “The Young Hop-Pickers, by the late SARAH MARIA FRY, is a little book published by the American Tract Society. The scene of the story opens in a hop garden, and progresses in a hop garden, finally hopping over into another country. Tracts are distributed among the young hop-pickers, and the book, of course, ends with the conversion of everybody.” It's a witty pan, but a pan nonetheless!
Obviously, then as now not everyone agrees about what constitutes “good” children’s fiction. All I can say is that Fry was merely one part of a larger movement to provide acceptable fiction for Protestant children, but was not material considered suitable by others in the culture.
Until Monday! Have a good weekend.
Bratton, J.S., The Impact of Victorian Children's Fiction (London: Croom Helm, Totowa, NJ: Barnes & Noble, 1981).
Fry, Sarah Maria, Isabel or, Influence for Good (New York: 1851).
Fry, Sarah Maria, The Little Orange Sellers (New York: 1856).
The New-York Times, “New Publications,” 10 November 1860.
Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder