I Create a Series!
Image from: http://clipart-library.com/clipart/349647.htm; Clipart Library, Gettysburg Cliparts #118463 (License: Personal Use)
After people suggested that I write a follow up to SAINT MAGGIE, I wondered what on earth I could write about next. I really shouldn’t have worried, since the question answered itself. The first novel begins in 1860 and ends in the spring of 1861. Additionally, Maggie writes about changes in the opening lines of the first novel.
From 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.
Maggie might be referring to the upheaval in her boarding house and in the town of Blaineton. But, given that it is 1861 and the Civil War has just begun, she might be referring to broader changes.
The threat of a war between the states permeates the novel. Witness a conversation among the principal characters that occurs in the first chapter, (Note: Eli’s comment about “visitors” refers to self-emancipators traveling to freedom on the Underground Railroad who sojourn in a hidden room at Maggie’s boarding house.)
[Eli] glanced toward the hallway, and then lowered his voice. “Have our visitors left?”
“Mm, hm,” Emily replied as her husband Nate, arms loaded with wood for the stove, came in the back door. “We sent them off to the next stop this morning,”
“Two brothers,” Maggie added. “Do you know that one of them had his wife and children sold off? He doesn’t even know where they are. It breaks my heart no matter how many times I hear stories like that. What’s the world coming to?”
Eli sighed. “War, I’m afraid.”
“There’s got to be another way to resolve this.”
“I don’t think there is. The situation is too far gone. It’s been too far gone for years. It’s just a matter of time now. If Mr. Lincoln gets elected, it’s clear that the South will secede. And if the South secedes, there’s going to be a war.”
Nate dusted his hands. “Well, if there’s a war, I’m joining up. If they’ll let me.”
“Think that’s a good idea?” Eli asked. “What if you end up getting taken prisoner? You could lose your freedom.”
“I’d risk it.” His black eyes were fierce. “Those folk down South are my brothers and sisters. My heart won’t let me stay out of this fight.”
When I began thinking about a second Saint Maggie novel, it was 2012 and I was aware that 2013 would mark the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. So, it seemed logical to me to jump right into the American Civil War.
Since I live in New Jersey, taking a couple of trips to Gettysburg was not a major undertaking. Dan and I went there a couple of times to get a sense of the town’s ambience and history. I also began doing deeper research on the battle.
The first question before me was, “How do I get Maggie and family to Gettysburg?”
Part of the answer was obvious. Eli hails from Pennsylvania. His family are Quakers (Society of Friends). He grew up in Gettysburg, where his father owned a dry goods store. After his father died, his family kept the old house and used it as a station on the Underground Railroad.
But how could I get Maggie and family out there?
Once again, the first book gave me clues. The people of Blaineton look down their noses at Maggie for taking in men who barely can pay their rent, for having defended a clergyman who had committed a heinous crime, and for treating two people of color (Emily and Nate) as friends and as co-workers. I also knew that while New Jersey sided with the Union, there was a strong anti-war presence in the form of the Copperheads. When rumors about Maggie’s participation in the Underground Railroad circulate, it leads a certain group of young men to take things into their own hands and burn down both the boarding house and Eli’s print shop.
And that provided the reason to move the boarding house family to Gettysburg, where about four and half months later they will experience the battle.
At this point in the story, the family is not intact. Only Maggie and six-year-old adopted son Bob, her daughters Lydia and Frankie, Emily, Nate, Grandpa O’Reilly, and Matilda Strong and her daughter Chloe remain in Blaineton. Patrick McCoy (Frankie’s beau) and Edgar Lape (Lydia’s husband) are away, having enlisted in the New Jersey Fifteenth Volunteers regiment. And Maggie’s husband Eli and his friend Chester Carson are following the New Jersey Fifteenth as war correspondents.
The war and the dislocation challenge Maggie and Eli’s marriage. Eli’s desire to cover the war causes tension and leads to Maggie feeling abandoned.
One last note! When I got to the part about the Battle of Gettysburg, I quickly realized that every minute of the battle has been documented. I needed to make sure people were where they were supposed to be according to their location. I had to track what was happening to the NJ Fifteenth, the family at the old Smith house on West Street, the other part of the family staying with Eli’s sister near Middletown (now called Biglerville), and Frankie who is off to the east near Spangler’s Spring. This indeed was one of the most challenging aspects of writing the novel!
So, there you are. That is how I started writing the series and how I began to incorporate historical themes into each novel.
Next blog: I’ll look at the thematic elements in A TIME TO HEAL.
Peace and love, everyone!
Janet R. Stafford
What I Learned This Weekend
Image from Clipart Library, http://clipart-library.com/clipart/954248.htm, Stand Up Cliparts #2462820, (License: Personal Use)
After the shootings in Buffalo, NY and in Laguna Woods, CA this past weekend, it’s tempting to feel depressed and hopeless. And, indeed, to see violence and hate so proudly on parade is incredibly distressing.
So, I am grateful that two other events this weekend worked in opposition to the acts of two profoundly disturbed, hate-filled individuals.
On Friday, I was at New Dover United Methodist Church in Edison (NJ) at the WAGE International Event. I had been invited to be a vendor and sell the books from the Saint Maggie series there.
WAGE is short for Women and Girls’ Education. Its stated mission is:
Many organizations are doing excellent work by empowering through education and helping women and girls overcome violence.
WAGE International seeks to work with such organizations in local and global communities, and support educational initiatives. (http://wageinternational.org/?fbclid=IwAR0GeVswSK5WjmrRYkHvizB8aWkWzSZjpYCiXjUutjnfmyb4PBBwcjnx0FU)
In short, it is a group devoted to doing good in the world.
We vendors were a diverse little group, selling coffee, artwork, books, and even tickets to a comedy club. But each of us also drew attention to the need for change in our world and nation. One was in support of our veterans, another to emphasize the human need for humor and relaxation, yet another to stress the need to reform the systems working with addicted people and the incarcerated… and then there was little ol’ me. I was there with the Saint Maggie series and its focus on issues and problems that have beset us and remained unresolved for the last 150+ years.
I found it to be a great evening of learning about the many ways people strive to heal and help and hope. And many thanks to Heather Mistretta for inviting me to attend WAGE’s event! I love and respect what WAGE is working to do and will happily help out any way I can.
Then, on Saturday, I was at First United Methodist Church in Somerville (NJ), where I am Assistant Pastor, Christian Education Director, and Director of Communications. Yes, I have not one, but three titles.
The backstory to that event goes back several years to when First UMC started doing an event called “The Church Has Left the Building.” We’d pick one Sunday, hold a short worship service, and then scatter to do everything from helping clean up the town, to taking veterans at the local VA Hospital to lunch, to receiving used bikes for Pedals for Progress, to volunteering at an animal shelter, and to offering free rummage to our neighbors.
Of course, that all came to a screeching halt when the pandemic hit. Now, some two years later, we finally are back at it. This time we held it on Saturday and focused only on our Free Rummage Event. We turned our Fellowship Hall downstairs into a store. The preceding days had been rainy, so we set up a canopy tent outside. Then Rev. Ben Lee and various helpers dispensed information and pointed people toward the main event in our basement. Our goal was to offer things that our neighbors with lower incomes might need but would think twice about buying. Knowing that, we offered everything free. We even had popcorn to snack on and, at lunchtime, hot dogs to eat – all for free.
To me, the Rummage Event felt a bit like the feeding of the 5,000, where a little boy gave Jesus two fish and five loaves of bread, and Jesus was able to feed a bunch of folks with it AND have leftovers at the end. In our case, our call to our congregation for new or gently used rummage grew from a few things last week to more than enough items by Saturday.
There even was a wedding dress on one of the racks. After a while, a young woman walked in, discovered it, decided it was perfect and the right size for her cousin, and happily walked away with it.
All in all, kids got toys (including a bicycle), and adults found clothing and other items. It was a beautiful day.
And… we have leftovers! So, guess what we’ll going to do this fall? Yep. The Free Rummage Event will be coming back.
To sum up, the awful events in Buffalo and Laguna Woods clearly showed us the evil and violence that lurks under the surface and is more than capable of breaking out with terrible violence.
But I believe we can stand up to this. Hate is powerful, no doubt about it. But we can stand up. We can stand up by helping wherever and whenever we can. We can be patient. We can listen. We can stand for justice and equality. We can be brave. We can stand up to hatred and evil, because these things don’t build up, they only destroy. We can be more like Maggie. We can love others and do good.
None of this is easy, but it is necessary.
I’ll be back soon with another blog that will continue diving into the thematic material in the Saint Maggie series.
Janet R. Stafford
P.S Check out the photos below!
How I Came to Write SAINT MAGGIE
Image: Andersontown, NJ, where Jacob Harden rented a room (and where he poisoned his wife).
Image from: Murder by Gaslight, published 23 September 2017
Earlier this year I wrote quite a bit about scenes and other information in the latest Saint Maggie book, A BALM IN GILEAD. So, I am decided to move on and write a different blog. This one is about how I started on my journey with Maggie.
While enrolled in a Ph.D. program in North American Religion and Culture, I took a tutorial. Tutorials are a one-on-one with a professor, who presents the student with subject matter and then guides the student through the research and writing process.
In this case, the tutorial was about scandal in ministry, and two of us had enrolled. The professor was Leigh Eric Schmidt, currently the Edward C. Mallinckrodt Distinguished University Professor in the Humanities at Washington University in St. Louis. After a brief introductory meeting, Dr. Schmidt turned us loose to go forth and do historical research about our scandal of choice.
Little did I know, but the research I was about to do would set me on an unexpected journey.
While I was nosing around the archives and other materials, I happened upon information about a young, charismatic, talented Methodist Episcopal Church minister by the name of Jacob Harden who had been appointed to a congregation that had lost membership. The congregation was on “mission status,” which was a polite way of saying the church was on the edge of dying.
Fortunately, Harden was a handsome young man and an engaging speaker, and the little church began to grow again. In fact, the congregation doubled in population during the young pastor’s first year.
Did I mention that Jacob Harden was single? He was and so he also became the object of ambitious mothers who thought that he would make the perfect husband for their daughters.
As the story goes, one mother, a Mrs. Dorland, invited Harden to celebrate New Year’s Eve with her family. During the evening, the entire household abruptly left and went upstairs to go to bed, leaving Harden and the daughter, Louisa, all alone in the parlor, which in the 1850s, was a big no-no. After all, because no one was around, they did not know what went on between the couple. Anything could have happened! After more "alone time," Harden and Louisa were forced into a shotgun wedding.
Predictably, the marriage was not a happy one. Harden wanted out and Louisa was miserable - but divorce was out of the question. Harden eventually decided to dissolve the relationship in a manner that only was illegal, but shocking. To be blunt, he poisoned her. He then was put on trial for murder, the jury found him guilty, and sentenced him to death.
If you wish, you may read the original research paper by clicking on https://www.squeakingpips.com/the-story-behind-saint-maggie.html But, be aware that the paper looks at the way in which the newspapers of the era covered the story. It’s grad school geekery on full display!
After grad school, the story stayed with me. I began to wonder how I might go about fictionalizing it.
Around 1999 or 2000, I started writing and making changes in the fictionalized version. For instance, although Harden rented a room from a member of the congregation, the setting felt claustrophobic in the fictionalized story. I ended up creating a boarding house run by a good-hearted widow with two teenage girls.
I also felt that the pastor in the story should not be devious or amoral. Rather, he should be confused, desperate, and perhaps even misled.
The original event is still shot throughout the story. In SAINT MAGGIE, the Rev. Jeremiah Madison is handsome, charismatic, and an inspiring preacher, just like his real-life counterpart. In fact, Maggie’s daughters (especially Frankie) develop a crush on Jeremiah. But he has eyes instead for Leah Beatty, Maggie’s niece, a relationship that is encouraged by Maggie's brother Samuel.
However, the novel deviates from the historical event and becomes a bit of a mystery. When a scandal involving Jeremiah shakes the town, Maggie begins to sense that something has gone terribly wrong and looks to uncover the truth.
My studies in religion and culture allowed me to create Maggie as a credible historical character. A widow, she is a faithful Methodist who is serious about Jesus’ command to love others. I also dove into 1860s life, describing Sunday worship services, camp meetings, funerals, and even wash days.
To balance Maggie’s religiosity, I added Eli Smith, a boarder who both lives and publishes his penny weekly newspaper in the old caretaker’s house on her property. A former Quaker, Eli is a religious skeptic and a bit impulsive. From the beginning of the novel, though, he and Maggie clearly are sweet on each other and eventually marry.
To add to the drama of the era, Maggie’s property has a Underground Railroad station hidden on it. A Black couple, Emily and Nate Johnson, are Maggie’s closest friends and have invited her to participate in the illegal activity. Ex-Quaker Eli, true to his roots, also takes part in managing their station and the people traveling through it.
At the time of SAINT MAGGIE’S publication in 2011, I thought I would move on to different subject matter in my second novel.
I was wrong.
That story continues in the next blog.
In the meantime, practice love and peace.
Janet R. Stafford
Image if of the full cover. We chose to wrap the image around the book, and I think it looks amazing.
To remedy the lack of educational opportunity for Black children, Maggie, her sister Abigail, and friends Emily and Rosa start a school. Some of Blaineton’s citizens are bothered by the fact that a school has been opened to accommodate children of color, as well as the children of an Irish family who live outside town.
The cauldron of anger aroused by the school comes to a boil one night, and the members of Greybeal House are awakened by the sound of shouting outside. Having seen this behavior before, they know it is sign that trouble is afoot
The Greybeal House family are quick to act. Maggie, Emily, and the children seek shelter in the woods, while Eli and Nate lead a party made up of Carson, Grandpa O’Reilly, Edward, Lydia, Frankie, and Rosa to meet the intruders.
Their household is quite unconventional for the time. Maggie, Eli, Frankie, Lydia, and Carson are white. Grandpa O’Reilly, although white, is Irish (another hated group). And Nate, Emily, Edward, and Rosa are Black.
So… think about it. It’s 1864. What should you do with a group of troublemakers screaming outside and threatening to burn down your house?
Fighting tip: don’t forget to bring a couple of heavy, iron frying pans They're great weapons!
“May we help you?” Eli asked.
The masked strangers hooted. Their voices were young, as if they weren’t quite men yet.
“Yeah. You can clean this house up to start.”
Eli hissed with irritation. “By ‘clean up,’ I assume you mean that you want me to get rid of the people of color who live here.”
“What else? This amalgamation is just plain unnatural!”
Eli smirked. “Not as unnatural as showing up at our house in the middle of the night and shouting insults. I never heard of such a thing.” He turned to the others. “Have you?”
His friends responded with a series of negative responses.
Returning his gaze to the intruders, Eli said, “We’re not gonna change the way we live for you or anyone else. So, it looks like you need to leave.”
“Don’t think so. We ain’t going nowhere.”
“Not ‘til you get rid of the n****rs.”
Rosa’s eyes narrowed. Her hand tightened around the handle of the frying pan she was holding and she took a step forward. But Frankie’s free arm blocked her path.
“Let me pass,” she hissed. “I’m gonna knock some heads.”
“No, you aren’t,” her friend replied. “Hold it in. We don’t want to start anything.”
“What I want is to kill those no-good –”
“No, you don’t,” Frankie calmly interrupted. “You just want to beat the tar out of them.” She grinned saucily. “So do I, for that matter. But we’re going to let Papa handle things. We don’t know if they’ve got any weapons.” She returned her eyes to the masked men. “We’ve faced people like this before when they burned down the boarding house.”
Rosa frowned. “This has happened before?”
“Yep. It’s getting predictable and boring.”
“In that case, maybe I would’ve been safer in the war.”
“There’s a war at home, too,” Frankie replied. “No matter where you go, it’ll be there. But let’s wait and see if Papa can convince them to leave.”
“You see, fellas,” Eli was saying, “trying to push us around won’t change our minds, nor will it change the way we live. We believe white and Black can – and should – live together.”
“Oh, yeah?” One of the intruders held up a stick, the top of which was wound with cloth. “Well, we say kick ‘em out or we burn the barn down.”
Eli remained calm. “Oh, I wouldn’t advise that.”
One of the others struck a match and, with a flourish, touched it to the brand. The spark caught and a flame swallowed the kerosene-soaked cloth.
The four let out a celebratory whoop and started hollering insults again. But their cries abruptly ended when two dark figures flew out of the shadows and tackled them, bringing two of the young men down with a jaw-jarring thud.
Brandishing pistols, Grandpa and Carson suddenly rushed toward the two standing men. Frankie and Rosa followed, frying pans held high and screaming like banshees. The men cowered, looking desperately around for an escape route.
Before a full-fledged fight could break out, the sound of horse hooves thundered down the lane.
“Help!” the rider was yelling. “Help!”
All parties froze. After a pause, the fellow holding the torch dropped it onto the grass and ran off, followed closely by the other male. Both sprinted past the galloping horse and disappeared into the dark.
Edward and Nate quickly captured the two fallen intruders and hauled them to their feet. After thumping his way to the torch, Eli began stomping out the flames to prevent the grass from catching fire.
The rider pulled his horse to a stop. “Mr. Schmit!”
The voice belonged to Josef Larsen, The Register’s rotary press operator. He leapt from the horse’s back. “Mr. Schmit! They’re burning down the town!”
If you want to know what happens next, I’m afraid you’ll need to read the book. It only costs $0.99 on Kindle, but it’s also available as a paperback on Amazon. Just click here.
Favorite scenes from one more book to go! I'll look at the newest one, A Balm in Gilead, in my next blog.
Take care and stay well.
Janet R. Stafford
Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder