Playing around with a new cover. If you think authors don't experience peer pressure - this might be a result of my author chums messing around with their covers. "But, Mom, all the other authors are doing it!" Mom: "And if all the other authors jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge, would you do it, too?" So we'll see if I really mean this or not. Haha.
I apologize for the late posting. I have been working like mad to finish a draft of A Good Community so I can give it to my beta readers. My plans were thrown off mightily by a pile of events in late April: Holy Week and a series of activities at the church where I serve as (for lack of a simpler term because I actually have three titles) assistant minister. There was a family faction sandwiched in there, as you probably have noticed. And then I was knocked off the rails when I learned my dear old dog Tippy had a recurrence of cancer. She slid downhill quickly and on May 1, I had her put down to relieve her of further pain and suffering.
So… yeah… getting back to the book, not to mention something resembling a post-dog life has been challenging.
One of the things I did today was add the Introduction section to A Good Community. I copied it from the previous book and then gave it a tweaking because it’s a good introduction for those who might pick up the new book but know nothing about the series itself.
Then it dawned on me that I might as well post it today for people new to Squeaking Blog.
So here we go. Welcome to “Saint Maggie 101.”
If you’ve never read one of the books before, let me give you a little background on the “Saint Maggie universe” or as I like to call it the “Maggie-verse.”
The original story is rooted in research I did while working on my Ph.D. in North American Religion and Culture. I took a tutorial focused on scandals in Methodist ministry. For the required research paper, I found a sad, tragic story about a talented, charismatic young minister named Jacob Harden who lived in Warren County, NJ during the 1850s. Harden ended up in a shotgun marriage, a result of his own love for the ladies and some devious plotting on the part of his future mother-in-law. Predictably, the marriage was not a happy one. However, Harden’s response to the miserable situation was far from what one would expect of a nineteenth-century clergyman. And that’s putting it mildly.
The story stayed with me long after the paper had been turned in and graded. In the years directly after grad school, I found myself wondering how the story might be fictionalized into a novel. And during 1999-2000, I tried my hand at telling the Harden’s story as fiction.
The result was a character-driven tale set in 1860-61. I called it Saint Maggie, after the novel’s good-hearted Methodist widow, Maggie Blaine. She runs a boarding house and one day receives the new minister, Jeremiah Madison, as her newest boarder. The other people living in the house are a group of societal outcasts: an aging, failed writer named Chester Carson; Jim “Grandpa” O’Reilly, an old Irish immigrant of no fixed job; a broke, struggling young lawyer by the name of Edgar Lape; and the undertaker’s apprentice, Patrick McCoy. In addition, the 39-year-old Maggie two teenage daughters: Lydia, the sensible one with a knack for nursing, and the younger one, outspoken, opinionated Frances (nicknamed Frankie).
Also residing in the house are Emily and Nate Johnson. Emily is Maggie’s closest friend and the boarding house’s cook. Nate is a carpenter. But because the Johnsons are black and Maggie is white, Maggie and Emily’s close friendship does not sit well with the town folk. To make it worse, the boarding house sits prominently on the town square, so its inhabitants and their activities are clearly visible to everyone.
Living in Maggie’s outbuilding is have Elijah Smith. When the story begins, he is the editor of a penny weekly called the Gazette. A former Quaker and self-proclaimed free-thinker, Eli also is sweet on Maggie. The story of their romance and eventual marriage is told in the novel
Just to complicate matters, Maggie and her entire household have abolitionist beliefs. Emily and Nate have been running a station on the Underground Railroad for a while and eventually invite Maggie and Eli into this act of civil disobedience. So they have a secret that they keep from the rest of the town. If it is discovered and reported, they all would face a hefty fine and a jail sentence.
Maggie works to keep the Underground Railroad secret and runs a boarding house with nearly broke boarders. At the same time she is starting to court the local free thinker. She hopes adding a minister to the mix will give her boarding house (an her) a touch more respectability. Little does she know!
After years of pulling the story out, revising it, having friends read it, and putting it away, I finally self-published the book in 2011. I released Saint Maggie through my micro-publishing company, Squeaking Pips Press, Inc.
At the time of the book’s publication, I never imagined that I would end up writing a series. However, as I visited books clubs, one little question came up several times and this changed everything. That question was: “What happens next?” Apparently, readers loved the characters and wanted to hear more about them and their adventures.
The series is getting quite large now. So is the cast of characters. Some come and go for one book, while others are recur. As a result, I have taken to including a characters list and sometimes maps for readers’ reference.
The list below shows where A Good Community falls in chronologically with the other Saint Maggie stories.
“The Dundee Cake” (short story) 1852
Saint Maggie (novel) 1860-61
The Enlistment (novella) 1862
Walk by Faith (novel) 1863
“The Christmas Eve Visitor” (short story) 1863
A Time to Heal (novel) 1863
Seeing the Elephant (novel) 1864
The Great Central Fair (novella) 1864
A Good Community (novel) 1864
So now you know. Or have had a refresher course.
Next week I'm plan a couple of blogs about the difference between 19th century evangelicals and their 20th (and 21st) century counterparts. You might be surprised at the difference between an “evangelical” and an “Evangelical.”
Until then… Have a great weekend.
Image from Pxhere.com, CC0 Public Domain
I always find it difficult to start a novel. I don't know any authors who find it easy. In fact, nothing about writing is particularly easy. Along with writing a story, we have to ask ourselves a bunch of questions. What will intrigue a reader? What will entice a reader? As far as my own reading habits go, an interesting character, a good description, or a teaser will pull me in. So I tend to write that way.
The Saint Maggie stories have started a variety of ways. Sometimes I use excerpts from Maggie’s journals. In Saint Maggie, the first paragraphs are a journal entry set in April of 1861 that lets us know changes have occurred during the course of the year that previously would have been unimaginable for Maggie.
Maggie’s Journal, 16 April 1861
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.
Those who know history know that the conflict as the Civil War broke out in 1861, which explains Maggie’s reference to changes happening in her country. But what happened to her family? It seems to be connected to the arrival of a new boarder, the Methodist minister.
Suddenly, we are in April of 1860, a year earlier, and find Maggie and her household preparing for the arrival of the Rev. Jeremiah Madison. Abuzz with activity and character introductions, the scene seems perfectly normal, but we are starting the journey toward the great, unthinkable changes that will happen over the year.
I have begun other novels with a bang. In the case of Walk by Faith, that bang happens to be a major fire.
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 disaster sets in motion a series of decisions leading Maggie to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, Eli’s hometown. And, of course, we all know what happened there.
But now I’m on the fifth book in the series. After messing around quite a bit, I decided on a teaser that starts with a rather a scary scene in 1 August 1864 and then flashes back to 14 June 1864.
The paragraphs at the start of the book get repeated toward its conclusion. Having it start the book might make the reader wonder what on earth is going on in Blaineton. Why is Maggie smelling smoke? Has there been another fire? What’s with the angry voices? Is she going to be burned at the stake? (Don’t be silly. She hasn’t been transported to Salem, Massachusetts in 1692.) Why does Maggie feel that she must speak? What is she going to say?.
Then we shift to a day in June of the same year. Eli is off to visit his employer, Tryphena Moore, publisher of The Register, Blaineton’s newspaper. He wants to start putting ads in the paper and hopes to pitch the idea to Josiah Norton, owner of the new Norton Arms Hotel.
Meanwhile, at Greybeal House, Emily Johnson has gone into labor – something which has taken Lydia and Birgit out of play in the kitchen right at dinner time. Maggie suddenly has found herself short-handed with only Moira Brennan and her youngest daughter Frankie as help. Frankie, as you may or may not know, is decidedly non-domestic by nature. She’s so bad in fact that she enlists Nate Johnson to snap beans for her. In a way, it makes sense, since Nate is sitting nervously at the kitchen table as he waits for his wife to give birth to their second child. Frankie decides she might as well give him something to do.
As I have noted before, my full-length novels have a pattern. They’re kind of like an unattended pressure cooker.
(Image from ClipArtLibrary.com. Personal Use License.)
I put the veggies and meat in, add water or broth and shut the lid. Steam slowly starts to build until eventually it explodes all over the place. This novel follows the pattern. We start with Maggie’s household. People are doing different things. It's a busy and congenial place. Then I add a new ingredient: the arrival of two young girls, Mary and Addie Brooks, who happen to be African American. The pressure starts building until – boom!
You’ll have to read the book when it comes out to get the full effect. But just know that I put the teaser in at the beginning as a hint of what is to come.
See you on Friday! Have no idea what I'll be writing about, so it'll be a surprise for me, as well.
(Image from ClipArt Library. Personal Use License)
The main plot of A Good Community, my work in progress, has to do with school segregation. In the 1800s, schools in New Jersey might be segregated (black children attended one school, white children attended another) or integrated (all children attended the same school). We have laws now in New Jersey against segregated schools – they cannot be purposely segregated.
When I was growing up in the 1960s, I heard a great deal of talk about certain towns that discouraged people of color from moving into upscale (or even middle-class) housing developments. “White flight,” or people of European heritage fleeing cities for the suburbs was common. Those African Americans who tried to move out of congested, decaying, and dangerous urban areas were met with resistance when they sought to make new homes in suburbia. Although it now is illegal to discourage potential home buyers of color, my state still has towns and locations that are primarily white and primarily black. And that means some schools still are primarily black or primarily white. So school segregation does exist in New Jersey but it is de facto segregation (segregation created by the concentration of one group of people) rather than de jure segregation (segregation established by law). So, we're still struggling with the issue.
In my novel, Maggie is surprised to learn that the Blaineton School will no longer accept children of color as its students. She is baffled by this because only a year earlier, in 1863, young Chloe Strong was among the school’s students. Chloe was the daughter of self-emancipator Matilda Strong, who sojourned in Maggie’s boarding house for a while. When Maggie and family were chased out of Blaineton by an arson fire in early 1863, Eli made arrangements to move everyone to his family home. However, his family home is located in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania and they are there for the battle in July of 1863, and this is the story of Walk by Faith.
But now it is the summer of 1864. Maggie and family returned to Blaineton, New Jersey in January and taken up residence in the old Greybeal House. Eli works as editor-in-chief for The Register, the newspaper owned by Tryphena Moore. Nate Johnson has re-established his carpentry business. And for once, Maggie’s odd little household of people who don’t seem to fit in elsewhere are doing well financially.
Enter two young teens who have found their way to Greybeal House. They are African American and orphaned, and Emily and Nate Johnson take them into their family. But when Emily and Maggie go to enroll the girls in the Blaineton School, they learn that children of color are no longer welcome by recent decree of the town’s School Board.
Worse yet, there had been a school for black children in town, but due to the sharp decrease in the Water Street population (where most of the black citizens lived), the School Board decided that it no longer could afford to pay a teacher and keep a building for a handful of children. When Maggie and friends investigate, they find an appalling situation – one that they attempt to remedy. And because they dare to stand up to the status quo, tempers grow hot and things get dangerous.
The idea of a “good community” has its roots in a class I took while attending the Theological School at Drew University. It was taught by the late Dr. David Graybeal. And, yes, I honored him by stealing his last name and switching the “a” out for an “e” for the name of Maggie’s new house in Blaineton. The course was called “The Search for the Good Community, and search we did, reading books, having discussions, and even taking a couple of field trips to planned communities. We wondered what made a community “good"? What did it look like? Who was in it? How did people interact? So many questions. Truthfully, I don’t think we came up with any real answers. But isn’t that just like life? We want facts, we want truth, we want solid substance, but usually things end up fuzzy, gray, and out of reach.
Living as she does in the midst of Civil War era America, Maggie is well-familiar with the fuzzy, gray, and out of reach. Yet, she still wants her beloved town to be “a good community.” Will that ever happen? And how? This part of her story will be continued in the final two books in the series – unless Eli forces me to write more books, that is. But I think by then it will be time to move on to stories that focus on Maggie’s daughters.
On Writing Wednesday, I’ll have another sample from A Good Community.
Photo by J.R. Stafford. Phineas, our intrepid (and excellent) ghost tour guide.
You don't have to be a history buff to enjoy a ghost tour. But if you go on a ghost tour, you will get history! It's a fun thing to do, and not only will give you local lore (spooky and otherwise), but also a good dose of history.
I happen to belong to a family that has had some weird experiences (myself included). We therefore like to hear ghost stories about the places we visit. It might be that we're just trying to assure ourselves that we aren't a little... shall we say... oh... crazy. (We are but... shhh... don't tell anyone.) Nevertheless, we enjoy touring the spooky places in a town. And so, while in Gettysburg, all of us (except Dan) trekked out to go on a ghost tour one evening.
As you probably have surmised, Gettysburg has a lot of ghost lore – but not all of it is related to the battle of July 1863.
We took our tour with Gettysburg Ghost Tours – but there are other ghost tours available in the town, just to be fair. Our guide was a man called Phineas. I don’t know if that was his real name or his ghost tour name, but he was amazing. He related stories about hauntings related to the battle, and told us stories that had their roots in other eras, too.
Our first stop was on a road directly behind Steinwehr Avenue that reputedly has paranormal activity. It had been the location of Weinbrenner (or Winebrenner) Run, a stream that is still there but now is below the road, probably running through a large conduit. According to the story, after the battle had ended, wounded soldiers were brought out of the field hospitals in people’s homes and laid beside the run so they would have access to water and enjoy the fresh air.
Photo by J.R. Stafford. Phineas talking about the Weinbrenner Run. Grandsons standing taking it all in.
Suddenly, a thunderstorm arose. It produced a downpour so great that the run could not contain the rain and overran its banks. The men, many of whom could not move on their own, were swept away in the flood. Nw, downstream was a waterwheel and in front of it was a grate that allowed water through but blocked flotsam from reaching and possibly damaging the wheel. The soldiers’ bodies were pushed by the water right into the grate, and there they stayed until after the waters receded.
Another couple of stories involve the Dobbin House. It was built in 1776 and was home to the Rev. Alexander Dobbin, proud father 19 (count ‘em, 19) children. He and his wife must have experienced a lot of cold winters! Anyway, Rev. Dobbin used the second floor of his stone house as a dormitory for his brood. The fireplace was downstairs, but the chimney ran up through the second floor. Reportedly, Rev, Dobbin would get up several times in the night all winter just to stir up the embers and throw extra wood on the fire so his children would stay warm throughout the night.
Photo by J. R. Stafford. The Dobbin House's front door.
Flash forward to the 1980s. The old house was being restored and converted into a restaurant. The construction crew uncovered the old fireplace and dutifully blocked the chimney to prevent visits from birds and various critters. That night, once the workers went home, the fire alarm went off in the building. The fire department arrived, ready to battle flames or at the very least smoke. But there was nothing. Everything was fine. Confused, they left and reported the incident to the owner. The next night (or a few nights later, I can’t remember the sequence), the alarm went off again. And once again, the fire department arrived only to find that nothing was wrong. The third time the alarm triggered and nothing was wrong, the fire department had a chat with the owner. Eventually it came out that the chimney had been blocked. Knowing the story about Rev. Dobbin, the fire chief told them to unblock the chimney. The owners thought it was a weird request but did as they were told. And the fire alarm never went off again without reason.
Is Rev. Dobbin still seeking to keep his children warm and did not the chimney blocked up? Maybe.
Another story about the Dobbin House is rather grisly. Do you see the door in the photograph? It's painted red. During the battle in 1863, the Dobbin House like many other homes served as a hospital for the wounded. It is said that the door was removed by the army and used as an operating table. Predictably, it was stained by all the blood. Once the soldiers were gone, the owner found the door and saw that it was still in good shape. So, he painted it red and remounted it. And, yes, that's the original door in the photo.
Now for a non-ghostly thing about Dobbin House. Something odd happens once the sun goes down and the lights come on. Check out the photo below. Does the shadow on the wall above the window look at all familiar?
It looks rather like Abraham Lincoln, don't you think? He, of course, delivered the Gettysburg Address at the dedication of the National Cemetery (not far from the Dobbin House). A fun trick of lights and the human tendency to make sense out of images.
I have one more ghost story from the tour to tell you. Phineas related that during a recent tour, a teenage girl took a photo of the hotel pictured below after he had told the crowd that an apparition had been seen there. A few seconds later, Phineas heard all this commotion and discovered that the girl's friends had gathered around her and were exclaiming excitedly about something. When he went over to them, he saw that she had captured the image of a full-body apparition: a young woman reading a book was walking the second floor walkway of the motel. Phineas claimed the image was clear as day and, if he didn't know better, he would have thought she was a re-enactor.
As you can see from my photo below, I did not catch her in action.
Nope. I just got a motel and some cars.
However, I did catch something strange when Kristina, the boys, and I decided to wander around on Cemetery Ridge not far from the Bryan (Brian) House. We walked along a path from the parking lot as the sun went down and then over to the Bryan House, where we peered in the windows and took photographs.
We could heard an odd popping noise off and on that sounded suspiciously like rifle fire - until I realized the sound was coming from across the street and behind a store. The shouting we heard were very young voices (I'd guess middle schoolers). So, no, it was not ghostly rifle fire and the sound of battle. It was kids throwing poppers around.
By now, the sun had set by. As we walked back toward the the parking lot, I took a photo of a big tree. Beside it were two posts with a chain attached to them. Attached to the chain was a white sign. For some reason, I decided to take another photo of the location. I don’t know why I took the other one. I just felt that I should. I've posted them below. The first is time stamped 8:30 p.m. and the other 8:31 p.m. They’re very dark, but if you look closely, you’ll see that something is different in the second image.
I know they're hard to see, but look closely. In the first you'll see a monument to the far left (it looks like it has a head and shoulders on it, but it's really brass plaques), the path leading up to the plaque, the tree in the center, and the rectangular sign. Now look at the second image. What do you see? Well, for one, there's that mysterious light in the background, which might be explained away as a light from a house or a car in the distance. But... there are now two rectangular white things. Huh?
When we got home I adjusted the color in the images, so things looked clearer.
The one on the right shows the path, the monument, the tree, and the sign. The one on the left shows all that plus two figures: one on the path and one by the tree. After talking to Kristina and my oldest grandson, we realize the figure on the left is my youngest grandson. He was wearing a red jacket that night and the figure has a red jacket.
But no one will admit to standing in the spot on the right. So… is that a ghost? The figure is standing with legs together and arms at the sides, as if at attention. The legs however appear to be covered in light material. When I brought this up to Dan, he said that while Union soldiers of that era did have standard uniforms (more or less), their uniforms would wear out. It would not be unusual to replace it with something that was less than standard. Also, during the early years of the war, Union soldiers' uniforms, blankets, etc. were provided by family and their hometowns. The battle of Gettysburg happened mid-war, so it is possible soldiers were still doing this.
However, I believe the evidence is inconclusive. For one, I’m still not sure the image is not my older grandson, even though he claims to have been elsewhere. At the same time, he was the one who played with my photos after I sent copies to him and was most interested in the figure. The night we returned to NJ, he sent me his color adjusted version after I had sent him a copy of my original image. That evening, we texted back and forth trying to figure out who was where when. Later, I took the photos from my camera, used the color adjust feature on them, and got the same results.
It's interesting, though. Kind of spooky too.
Sleep well tonight, my friends! If you can... mwahahaha!!
Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder