Image: 19th century women caring for an ill patient. Proposed cover image for A Balm in Gilead, purchased from i.stock.com.
I thought I’d be finished with A Balm in Gilead by now, but I’m still polishing it. I haven’t quite reached the stage where I’m so sick of the story that I want to throw it out a window. Once I hit that point, though, I’ll send it to my beta readers. And I’ll be sure to send it to them via email or snail mail, and not by heaving it out a window.
Part of the difficulty working in today’s world of COVID is that I work at home. Our church stopped in-person meetings a year ago. We meet for weekly worship on Zoom. We hold meetings, study groups, and other groups like confirmation on Zoom, as well. We’re a Zoom-y congregation. We love to schmooze.
Although I try to keep my hours for church work limited to the morning, and try to reserve the afternoon or evening for writing, I have found that it’s not as easy as it sounds. For instance, some meetings and groups are in the evening. Some things, such as posting information about worship or writing the newsletter, show up on my so-called days off.
Long story short, dealing with our new, rather fluid work style sometimes pushes writing to the side.
However, I am making progress. And today I’d like to tell you a bit about what’s going on in the new book.
First of all, as I’ve said before, the idea to write about an epidemic was part of a storyline that had emerged long before COVID decided to show up. And yet, telling the story of a typhoid fever epidemic in Blaineton in late August of 1864 while living in the pandemic of 2020-21 was a weirdly-placed coincidence.
In the new story, Blaineton is rebuilding or refurbishing homes destroyed in the Great Fire of 1 August 1864. Then an epidemic shows up. Isn’t that the way things work? We would prefer to have a rest after a traumatic experience, but sometimes what we expect and what actually happens are not the same.
The storyline regarding typhoid fever primarily focuses on the doctors as they attempt to discern what has caused the outbreak. Where did it come from? Is anyone or anything to blame? How will they care the patients? There is no a cure, so they must resort to palliative methods. How will they keep typhoid fever from spreading?
The other main storyline involves Maggie's growing political leadership in the town. She registers to run for Town Council, since nothing in the town’s founding documents says whether one must be male in order to run for office, although it does spell out that only males may vote. Maggie also gets her feet wet making a couple of speeches. In addition, she takes responsibility for reporting to the Council on the rebuilding after the Great Fire as well as on the fight to address the epidemic. She even learns to stand up for herself, although she despises confrontation. The blessing of it all is that Maggie is surrounded by supportive friends and family who keep her on course.
As mentioned in my previous blog, Frankie and Patrick will get married in this book. With the Civil War starting to wind down, Mower General Hospital is receiving fewer injured soldiers – and so, toward the end of the book, Patrick is mustered out of the army. That means he and Frankie are now free to go ahead with a new life.
As for Lydia… well… she reveals that she is expecting. Apparently that quick honeymoon with husband Capt. Philip Frost created more than good memories for the newlyweds. How Lydia balances her calling as a doctor with being a wife and a mother will be an ongoing challenge for her. The good news is that Maggie, her mother and advisor, has been juggling multiple callings most of her life.
Finally, Carson moves out of Greybeal House. Don’t worry, he’s just taking up residence on Main Street in Blaineton, where he is opening a photography gallery. However, Shelby Garrison, a traveling musician, moves into Greybeal House. Will Shelby become a new guy-pal for Eli? Let’s be honest. No one can replace Carson for Eli, just as no one can replace Nate Johnson’s friendship. So, this may not be exchanging one friend for another, but more a case of Eli expanding his buddy group.
Here’s a taste of the book, taken from the moment when the town’s doctors (Lydia and Dr. Lightner) and Capt. Philip Frost (on a short leave from Mower Hospital) realize that Norton Mill has a problem:
Western New Jersey Hospital
Philip was accompanying Lydia on her rounds as she saw people who had sustained injuries, checked on a few who were recovering from surgery, and visited a couple of new mothers whose deliveries had been complicated.
They had just stepped into the hallway when they saw Dr. Lightner entering the wing.
“Fred!” Lydia called. “How did the examinations go?”
He strode over and said in a quiet voice, “Please come with me.”
Lydia and Philip followed him into his office. Lightner shut the door behind them and then turned. “It’s typhoid fever.”
Lydia took a breath. “Are you sure?”
“Yes. And it’s ten people not five. Two of the men even have the rose spots. All are experiencing diarrhea, fever, body aches, no appetite, and exhaustion to one degree or the other.”
Lydia asked, “What do you think brought it on? Impure water?”
Lightner shook his head. “I don’t know. But it doesn’t take a genius to see that the dormitories are filthy, in bad repair, and odorous. In fact, the conditions are positively miasmatic.”
Phil frowned. “So, do you suspect miasma rather than polluted water?”
“I honestly don’t know,” was Lightner’s reply. “Right now, we know comparatively little about the causes of typhoid fever. It could be miasmic, yes, but Dr. William Budd’s article a few years back clearly connected contaminated water supplies with typhoid fever.” 
Phil added, “I know that typhoid fever is rampant in the army camps. Saw it first-hand in them, as well as in the Washington hospital I was stationed in. My guess is that the disease there was likely caused by a combination of contaminated water and food. And yet, at times it seemed that it spread merely by one man touching another, as if it could pass from hand to hand. Of course, camps are scarcely places of great cleanliness. As for the hospital… well, it was overcrowded.”
Lightner paused a moment to consider Phil’s observation. Then he said, “All right, here’s what we’ll do. Let’s check the water supply at the mill first. We’ll need to know if the well is located near the necessaries. If they seem to be where the contamination is coming from, then they must be moved to another, safer location. Also, if the well's water supply comes from the river, then we need to ascertain what factories or businesses are throwing their refuse into it.”
“We'll need to discover what that refuse is, too,” Lydia added. “And it all needs to be done immediately. In addition, we must separate the ill workers from the healthy ones, and living quarters should be scoured top to bottom, sheets and blankets washed, and more.”
Will they be able to do all that? What roadblocks will they hit? How will they get extra help if things go downhill? What if the outbreak in the Mill spreads to the town?
We'll find out.
Until next blog: stay well, stay strong, and have hope.
Janet R. Stafford
 A rose-colored rash.
 Budd was an English physician, who in 1859 published an article in the Lancet describing his experiences with a typhoid fever outbreak and suggesting that it was caused by polluted water and person-to-person transmission.
Image from http://clipart-library.com/
One of the things about writing historical fiction is… well, the history. Over the years, I have learned that I cannot make assumptions about anything. It’s a real challenge. For instance, I have researched 1860s everything from underwear to the preferred manner of murder (arsenic) to travel, food, hotels, the battle of Gettysburg, and so much more. Often it seems that I cannot get to the end of a sentence without having to look something up.
A Balm in Gilead has been no exception.
Let me give you an example. I am very close to finishing the manuscript, but abruptly realized that I needed to do one last piece of research.
The backstory to this is that I will be spinning Frankie (and Patrick) off to go on their own adventures in their own series. My initial challenge was to decide where they would be going. Fortunately, I already had that in mind. Patrick will be taking a job as a doctor in a small town called Rocky Creek, which is located in the Colorado Territory.
But I had a historical problem. When Pat and Frankie reveal the news to the family, they also must produce some other information, like how were they plan to get to Rocky Creek. That is what drove me into a quick bit of research today. I needed to know how far the railways went in 1864 and when construction on the Transcontinental Railroad began. Once I had ascertained that many railways stopped in Independence, Missouri and when I saw the westward bound trails that jumped off there, I had a clearer picture of how Frankie and Pat would get to Colorado. I even made a decision about which trail their wagon train would take. The end result is that they now can give a coherent, historically correct answer to their loved ones about their journey.
That is why I chose the image at the top of this blog. The couple sitting in the Conestoga wagon looks kind of clueless, an expression that aptly seems to sum up my own westward bound couple.
But why did I choose Colorado? Why not somewhere else?
Simply put, I’m more familiar with the state than with the other western states, with the exception of California, where I lived for a few years before accepting the fact that I’m a Jersey girl and returned to the northeast.
In addition, I have visited Colorado a few times. In my position as an educator in a church, I have had the opportunity to attend conferences throughout the USA. If my memory is correct, I have been to Colorado Springs twice, and to the YMCA of the Rockies twice. It was at the YMCA of the Rockies that I became fascinated with elk. Don’t judge me. They’re big, beautiful, and everywhere during rutting season. Coming from New Jersey, I’m used to white-tailed deer, which are considerably smaller than elk. That realization immediately caused my brain to do this: hmm... if a Jersey deer can do a job on your car by crashing into it, just imagine the damage an elk can do. Yikes! Give those babies the right of way.
Nearly three years ago, I made another trip to Colorado when my family visited Breckenridge. No, we did not go skiing. It was August. Why, you might ask, would anyone go to a ski town in the summer? Because none of us ski! We also like warmer weather and it’s a bit cheaper. So there you are.
Anyway, the trip to Breckenridge inspired me and gave me the idea of where Frankie would go after she becomes an adult. (Notice that an idea can plant itself years before an author actually starts to write something.) And should be no surprise that Rocky Creek will have some things in common with Breckenridge and other mining towns in the area.
Aside from having fun with my family, I thoroughly enjoyed learning about the history of mining towns and the region itself. I know. I’m a geek. I’m so geeky that I’m actually looking forward to doing more research about the European types who wandered into the Rockies, and about the Native people who had been in the area for centuries.
When things settle down COVID-wise, I hope to return to Breckenridge for more research and ambiance – things that are sure to provide me with storylines for Frankie and Pat.
Until next time: Stay well. Stay positive. Be kind.
Janet R. Stafford
Image from http://clipart-library.com/clip-art/pan-transparent-10.htm
In A Time to Heal, Frankie is now 17 years old and the family is still in Pennsylvania. However, her mother and stepfather, with Nate and Emily Johnson, move north to Middletown (now known as Biglerville) and into Hollingsworth House. Maggie and Emily both have suffered trauma stemming from the Gettysburg battle, and their husbands want to get them away so they can heal.
Frankie and Lydia stay behind in Gettysburg and continue to tending to the wounded soldiers in the old Smith house. But even though Frankie treats the USA and CSA soldiers equally, she takes no guff from them. Case in point is an encounter between Frankie and CSA soldier, Major Shay, who had owned enslaved people and who has insulted young Chloe Strong. (Chloe and her mother Matilda are freedom seekers who have escaped to the North.)
“Now you listen to me,” [Frankie] said, voice level but full of anger. “I don’t care how many slaves you owned back wherever you came from. Everyone is free here, especially in this house. That means under this roof everyone is to be treated with respect and dignity. Oh, I shall treat you kindly even though I find your way of life and your views nauseatingly loathsome. And, since you are our guest until your wounds heal, I suggest that you keep your wretched opinions to yourself.” She straightened her lithe frame and folded her arms across her chest. “Have I made myself clear?”
One Frankie’s storylines in A Time to Heal revolves around Patrick receiving a leg wound from a nervous Union private who mistakes him for a Confederate soldier (“You dad-blamed nincompoop, you shot me! What the hell were you doing? Can’t you see I’m Union?”). Although Patrick winds up in a field hospital near Beaver Creek, Maryland, he soon is sent to Mower General Hospital in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
What follows is pure Frankie. When a telegram arrives at the old Smith house, Maggie’s second daughter fears that Patrick has been killed. Thankfully, the telegram reads as follows:
Shot in leg by idiot picket guard. Wound not very serious. Do not worry. Am now at Mower U.S. Army General Hospital, Chestnut Hill, Philadelphia. Love, Patrick.
So, Frankie wires him back, saying that if he can get a furlough, she will meet him at Mower and escort him home.
Long story short, she runs off again, this time to be with her beau and bring him back to Gettysburg. She also leaves a note for Lydia. Of course, the news nearly throws Lydia into a panic. “What shall we do?” she asks Matilda and Chloe Strong. “Papa is coming today. He won’t be happy when he learns about this.”
Lydia is right. Eli’s response to the news is predictable: “What?? Philadelphia?? Damn! Damn! Damn!”
When Lydia further tells him that Frankie and Patrick may not be back for a few days, he breaks into “a paroxysm of profanity.” Chester Carson, Eli's friend and co-worker, manages to calm him down so he won’t do anything he'll regret later.
Patrick and Frankie, meanwhile, catch a train for home and it stops in York, Pennsylvania for the night. When Frankie sees how uncomfortable Patrick is sitting on a wooden bench in the lobby, she asks the night telegrapher if he knows of any guest houses. They are taken to a place run by the telegrapher’s mother, who mistakes them for a married couple and gives them a room with only one bed.
I could have gone two ways with the situation, but I know my characters. Patrick is an honorable young man and Frankie has absorbed her mother’s values. So, they spend the night full clothed and lying side by side in the bed.
However, none of that stops Eli from fearing the worst. Carson fortunately talks him down. This time.
However, Frankie is headstrong, impulsive, and naïve, which gets her into situations that look far from innocent. Example: falling asleep in the barn on the hay with Patrick, and being discovered the next morning by Eli. No wonder Maggie begs her daughter to “…learn to think before you act.”
Although Frankie does learn from her experiences, she remains spunky, compassionate, and a bit impulsive. In Seeing the Elephant, for instance, she takes a job at the new Western New Jersey Hospital for the Insane and, in the process of protecting the inmates in her charge from rioters, ends up getting held hostage.
In A Good Community, she is much the same – compassionate, concerned with justice and mercy, and spunky. My favorite moment with her occurs when a group of men threaten Greybeal House, where the family now lives. The men are preparing for a fight, while the women decide to take the children and hide in the woods behind the house. Well… not all the women. Determined to do otherwise, Lydia, Frankie, and Rosa (from “The Enlistment” and has joined the family after her brother’s death) suddenly appear and start to push past Maggie. When Maggie – always the mother – demands to know where they think they’re going, they give her their answers. Frankie’s is my favorite one.
Maggie stopped Frankie next. Before she could ask the question, her daughter simply showed her the enormous frying pan she was gripping in one hand.
“And just what do you intend to do with that?”
“Hurt someone,” the petite redhead replied. Dodging her mother’s attempts to block her, Frankie trotted across the hall and down the stairs.
As for my work-in-progress, Frankie (now 18 years old) and Patrick finally get married and prepare to go off on a new adventure. Yes. I’m spinning Frankie off, much to the delight of some Frankie fans. More on that later.
Thanks for your patience while I got this blog written and posted!
Stay well. Be kind. Love one another.
Janet R. Stafford
Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder