Image from pixhere.com
As I’ve mentioned in an earlier blog post, I created the character Shelby Garrison on a challenge from some friends of mine, who added that he ought to be a traveling musician.
And, so – hey, presto! – Shelby was born.
What I didn’t know was that in the process of giving my new character something to do, I also gave him a love interest. Early in my WIP, Shelby agrees to play music for a gathering at Greybeal House. This would not have been unusual. People in the 1800s often made their own entertainment, and I figured that other people also would show up with other instruments and create an ad hoc band.
And that is exactly what happened. Shelby is joined by a banjo player named Paul Warner, a drummer Richard Hancock, Jr., and a woman fiddler by the name of Millie Turner. I think Millie has emerged from my enjoyment of Mean Mary James’ music blue-grass style music. Here is the first meeting between Shelby and Millie.
A short while later, Millie Turner, a waitress at the Norton Arms Hotel restaurant, strolled over. She was carrying a fiddle case. “May I join you, gentlemen?”
“You know how to play that?” Paul asked skeptically.
Without a word, she opened the case and took out the fiddle. The she began to rosin up her bow. “You tell me,” she said.
Shelby commented, “You know, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a lady fiddler before.”
“How sad,” was her reply. “But I have good news for you. You’re going to see one now,” With that, she let fly with a blistering version of “Arkansas Traveler.”
Everyone around them stopped talking. Mouths fell open when they saw who was making the music. Conversation did not resume until Millie had finished playing, and this was met by a round of loud applause.
“So…” Millie turned to Shelby and Paul. “Once again, may I join you, gentlemen?”
In case you don’t recognize the name of the song, here’s a video clip of Mean Mary playing “Arkansas Traveler.” I guarantee you’ll probably recognize the tune right off.
Shelby not only stands in awe of Millie’s musical ability, but also likes her as a person, and as a result I found myself writing fun, flirtatious moments between the couple.
In this next scene, Shelby goes to the Norton Arms Hotel’s restaurant in search of a late breakfast. He knows Millie works there as a waitress and requests that he be seated at one of her tables. They then engage in a bit of mild flirtation.
“May I help you?” a friendly voice said.
Shelby looked up.
Millie broke into a wide grin. “Mr. Garrison!”
“Good morning, Miss Turner. I thought I’d come and try out your morning tea menu.”
Her almost-black eyes crinkled teasingly at the edges. “Missed breakfast at Greybeal House, huh?”
He smiled broadly and confessed. “Yep.”
“Funny you got my table.”
“Mm, hm.” Her tone indicated she didn’t believe his words one bit. “So, what’ll you have? Our new breakfast and tea cook makes a delicious cream cheese and watercress sandwich. Or so I’ve heard.”
Shelby perused the menu. “No, thanks. I don’t care for watercress.”
Millie chuckled and made a face. “Me, either.”
In this next scene, Shelby has landed a job at the restaurant as a dish washer. Mary enters the kitchen and the two engage in more affectionate banter.
…a loud voice called, “Two orders bacon, eggs, and potatoes. Three flapjack orders with plenty of syrup.”
He knew that voice.
Shelby looked up to see Millie striding across the room toward him. She had a wide smile on her face that made him unaccountably happy. Perhaps she was smiling because of him.
“I don’t have much time,” she said hurriedly. “But I just wanted to wish you luck on the new job.”
“Thanks! So far, so good. I mean, I haven’t broken anything.” He chuckled. “Yet.”
She gave his shoulder a playful push. “The restaurant closes at 2 o’clock. That’s when the staff gets their dinner. Sit next to me.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he teased, and she gave him another little push.
Grinning, Shelby watched her go before he returned to the ever-growing pile of dishes.
And so they have dinner while sitting together. As they dine, Shelby works up the nerve to pop the question. No, not that question, but an important one, nonetheless.
…he glanced around the dining room to regain his composure. It was then that he saw Josiah Norton enter. Following him were Dr. Lightner, Lydia, and Philip. “Huh,” he said, half to himself.
“What?” Millie asked.
“Look who just came in.”
Millie turned followed his discreet finger point. Her eyes widened. “Mr. Norton? What’s he doing with Dr. Lightner?”
“The town’s doctor.” She frowned. "I don’t think I know the other two.”
“The woman is Mrs. Smith’s daughter, Lydia Frost. The fellow with her is her husband, Philip Frost. I met him last night.” His forehead creased with a slight frown. “Interesting quartet.”
“Somehow I don’t think they’re going to sing.”
Her dry wit touched his funny bone. Shelby grinned at Millie. “Me, either.” He sat back in his chair. “Well, I say, let ‘em have their chat. Let’s talk about something else.”
“Like how about spending your free day with me?”
Millie held back a smile. “Doing what?”
“Anything you want.” Shelby held his breath.
“How about a picnic?” she suggested.
Relieved, he broke into a big smile. “A picnic, it is.”
For me, I use incidental scenes like the above so my characters can play with each other. This does a couple of things: it aids in their development and it helps create side-stories.
But when I took the “Shelby challenge" from my friends, I seriously had no idea I’d be giving the guy a job and, from the looks of it, a girl friend. That said, I think Millie and Shelby make quite a cute couple, don't you?
Janet R. Stafford
Image is from http://clipart-library.com/clipart/dT48Xk9Gc.htm
Well, it IS. I’m not kidding.
Of course, “this” and “it” refer to my new work-in-progress.
A few years back, I got the hare-brained idea that Blaineton was due for an epidemic. Little did I know I’d start working on the story in the middle of our very own pandemic.
The writing life truly is weird. Sometimes authors manage to hook into important subject matter or themes that coincide with real life subject matter and themes.
Then again, some of what we do is conscious and planned. “Hmmm… our culture right now is dealing with racism, what if my characters [insert theme-based plot here]?” And that’s how a story based on a real-life issue takes off.
But sometimes authors don’t even see a connection between their work and reality until it smacks them upside the head. In my case, the storyline arose because I was wondering how mid-19th century people would deal with an epidemic. As I’ve said previously, my characters live right before embraced germ theory was embraced by doctors and scientists. They do not know there is such a thing as bacteria, that a particular bacterium called salmonella typhi is responsible for typhoid fever. So it would be challenging (not to mention interesting) for me to write about that.
That said, COVID-19 and typhoid fever of course are completely different diseases and spread in completely different ways. COVID-19 appears to be a respiratory disease transmitted through the droplets we exhale with every breath. (Note: we are still learning more about COVID-19, so information may change at any point) On the other hand, typhoid fever is a gastro-intestinal malady spread through contact with food contaminated by excrement infected with salmonella typhi.
Just the same, it feels weird to be working on a project about the spread of a disease with no known treatment in my fictional world while a similar thing is happening in my actual world. That’s part of the “it’s complicated” thing.
The other part is this: I didn’t realize how complex it can be to write a story in which typhoid fever is the bad guy. For one thing, I had to learn as much as I could about the disease, its symptoms, and progress, as well as what people of the 1860s in the USA knew or didn’t know about it.
While it is not unusual for me to write a timeline for my books, this one was particularly challenging. I needed to determine when and how the disease first appears in the story; how many people (and who) take ill and/or die; how the disease progresses through the first-infected group; and how, why, and when it spreads outside the initial location of the infection. And I have to do all this knowing how the outbreak happens even as the characters never have a clue.
All of this demanded a rigorous, rather detailed timeline. Here’s what part of it looks like.
At the same time, I began writing the manuscript because my characters always need to about 50 pages get reacquainted with one another, reestablish their relationships, and generally do a bit of business. Into that I mix, I inserted a new character, Shelby Garrison, who is a traveling musician. I also added a female character, a waitress at the Norton Arms restaurant and wicked-good fiddler by the name of Millie Turner. And surprise (or not)! Shelby immediately becomes smitten with her. Ah, love…
Anyway, once I had something on paper, I decided to toss the timeline notes into the body of the manuscript. That way, it would all be in one place so I will know what to do, what to change, or what to dump as I write. Here’s a sample of that:
PLEASE NOTE: What you’re seeing is first draft material. if you happen to read some of the text you might say, “What is she thinking???” And you’d be right, because you have discovered what all authors know: first drafts stink on ice. Actually, all authors know that their first 39 drafts stink! I’m exaggerating a bit, but you get the picture.
Another truth is that writing a first draft is only part of the process. A sizeable chunk of creating a novel involves multiple revisions and hours and hours of editing. It’s hard work. The process is pretty much the same for all of us, although we differ on who we get to be our editors and beta-readers. Some of us can afford to hire professionals. Some recruit friends or interested contacts who will give an honest appraisal, not to mention suggestions. Right now I use the “friends/interested contacts” option, but I’d like to add a professional to the mix once I can afford it.
After all, I’ll need all the help I can get because the elements in this novel are so complex.
Now, here’s a fun side note for this blog having to do a title change. If you look carefully, you may notice that the draft in manuscript screenshot is labeled “Epidemic Draft” but the header in the manuscript has another title, “A Balm in Gilead.” Yes, I renamed the book but neglected to change the file name. That has been corrected since I took the screen shot.
That title may seem kind of weird to you. Why would I name the book “A Balm in Gilead”? Answer: the phrase came up at church. It is Jeremiah 8:22: “Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then has the health of my poor people not been restored?” I realized that the verse connects with Maggie’s style, with Maggie herself, and with the situation that my characters are facing. Everyone in the story is or will be seeking spiritual, physical, and emotional relief (a “balm,” or a healing ointment, so to speak) during a frightening and difficult time.
Not surprisingly, I think the verse might connect with what we all might be thinking or praying these days, too. Once again, my fiction world intersects with my real life life.
Anyway, that’s all for now. May you find a “balm” this week, friends.
Janet R. Stafford
Image from Free Clip Art Library, http://clipart-library.com/
I didn’t want to join another family. I mean, I had one of my own. I was happy.
I didn’t want to get adopted. But I did. I got adopted by a family who is not like me. And it changed my life.
Here’s the story.
In 2008 I had a rare opportunity. Two United Methodist churches were interested in me for a position as their Christian educator. One was a large, prosperous church located in Pennsylvania and peopled with important people, like CEO’s. The committee that interviewed me was primarily white and they were immensely proud of how influential their members were.
The second church was First UMC, a md-sized congregation located in Somerville, NJ. My interview was held at the parsonage that they had for the assistant pastor/Christian educator. I enjoyed my interview with them. They seemed like regular people. So, the next Sunday (I think), I decided to pay a visit to First UMC to see what their Sunday morning worship was like.
What I noticed right off the bat was that it was more racially and ethnically diverse than the other congregations I had served, all of which had been primarily white. I also was impressed by the passion they had for helping others and for being active in their community.
And then something else happened.
Part way into the service, a Black woman hurried in and plopped down in the same pew I was in. We exchanged a quick “hello.” At one point, she seemed restless, got up, and hurried out of the service. I wondered what was up. When she returned, I asked, “Are you okay?” She nodded and said that she was fine. Then the organist cranked up the next hymn. As we stood, I reached for the hymnal nearest me, but my pew-companion, shoved her hymnal at me and indicated that we were going to share.
I think I’ve mentioned in this blog that I’m an introvert. Sharing a hymnal with a total stranger makes me uneasy. I did it, anyway, though. Obviously, the woman was being hospitable, and it would be rude to insist that I use a hymnal of my own. It also might cause her to think I was refusing because she was Black. And that wasn’t it at all. So I dealt with my introversion and we stood and sung together from the same hymn book.
Aside from the Staff-Parish Relations Committee, this woman was the first person I met at the church where I soon would be starting a new position. (By the way, after nearly 12 years, I’m still at that church.)
Over time, I got to know the woman. She was low-income and hard-working, doing everything in her power to get her three girls education and opportunities denied to her. She was – and still is – a Tiger Mother of the first order.
Since I’m a writer, aspects of this woman’s personality, as well as those of her daughters, have found their way into some of my characters. As I’ve said before, authors frequently borrow their character’s traits and quirks, speech patterns, and appearances from people they know, or are well-known, or have simply passed them on the street. For privacy’s sake, I’m going to give this woman and her daughters the names of some characters that grew out of my association with them. If you are a member of my church and/or you know me, you will figure out who they are. However, there’s no reason for everyone else in the world to know.
So, I’m going to call the mother Matilda, from the Saint Maggie series. And I’ll call the daughters Harriet, Rosa, and Lena, from Heart Soul & Rock’n’Roll, although they also make appearances in the Saint Maggie series under different names. All except for Rosa, though. Somehow her name crossed genres.
I believe it was in 2010 that Harriet, the oldest daughter, entered the church’s youth group, Matilda asked if I could pick her up and drive her to the meetings. At that time, Matilda could not drive and did not have a car. I agreed and came Harriet’s chauffeur.
Harriet was (and is still) bright, open, and gifted with the impressive talent of asking tons of questions about a gazillion issues. I seriously loved those car rides with her. I still miss them!
And then it was time for Harriet’s first summer mission trip. It was going to involve home repair and we would be traveling from New Jersey to Tennessee. As the group hopped into vans to head to our destination, I abruptly realized that I was taking a Black child into an unknown situation. And it was very, very scary. Suddenly I was responsible for Harriet’s well-being.
Needless to say, I became Matilda’s stand-in. I don’t know if Harriet knows this or not, but when we made pit stops for bathroom breaks and snacks, I shadowed her all around the minimarts. No one was going to mess with my young friend. Because if they did, I was going to mess with them. Simple as that.
I did that for the entire trip.
I did it for Rosa and Lena, too. If they were in my care, I was Second Mom, or perhaps more accurately Adopted Auntie.
Like their sister, Rosa and Lena were amazing, but completely different. Rosa is articulate, aware, and a budding activist. The biggest compliment I have ever received came from her: “You’re the only person I know who can step out of being white.” Wow. I’m still not sure I’m worthy of that honor, but hearing her say it… what can I say?
The youngest sister, Lena, is shy, soft-spoken, and artistic. She used to show me her drawings. She always seemed to be sketching. I hope she gets the opportunity to let her gifts shine.
I still love all three young women. Harriet graduated from college this year. Rosa and Lena are attending college. I miss seeing them. But, as an experienced youth worker, I know kids grow up and develop lives of their own. Sometimes they re-establish contact with me, but most don’t. Just the same, I wish every single one of them well.
Matilda tells me that I helped raise her daughters. I don’t know about that. But I did my best to be another caring adult in their lives. And if I, an unrelated, white person, experienced anxiety and fear about what might happen to those girls on mission trips and at youth group activities, then I cannot – simply cannot – imagine how parents of children of color make it day after day, year after year bearing that fear and anxiety.
And yet they do it because they must. They do it because they love.
My time as an adopted aunt was life changing. So is knowing Matilda, which is on-going. We have had our share of crazy experiences, including a trip down a one-way street in Philadelphia, a scene that really deserves to be in a book or a movie. I mean, we missed death by car crash only by the grace of God. I’m not kidding.
Here’s the crux of this particular blog. I got to know people of color. I learned to listen. And I learned to love people who were not like me. I was honored to enter their family in my small way.
That’s why I don’t understand a system in which only one group does well, gets the advantages, feels safe, and doesn’t worry about getting killed by someone who hates them. Things have to change.
Black Lives Matter.
Go in peace, friends.
Janet R. Stafford
When I last posted, I wrote about how a high school teacher taught me to listen and started me on a path that I didn’t even realize I was on. I only recognized that I was on a path in later life. Funny how that happens.
Here are some highlights.
I either have placed myself or found myself among people who aren’t like me at various points in my life. In 1972, I transferred out of a college where I was majoring in English, and into Seton Hall University in South Orange, NJ, where I majored in Asian Studies. There I learned to speak, read, and write Chinese. Truthfully, that “read” and “write” part is kind of iffy. Written Chinese is comprised of characters, rather than an alphabet, which means we had to memorize the character for each word in order to read. We even used flash cards to help with the memorization. In the end, though, my peers and I decided that we were illiterate, despite two years of intense study.
While at Seton Hall, I made friends, many of whom were from Asia or of Asian descent. And because of that, I got to experience something many white people do not. One evening I went out with friends to a nightclub. While we were seated at a table, listening to the music, laughing, and enjoying being young adults, something hit me upside the head like a two-by-four. I was the only white person at our table. Everyone else was Asian (primarily Japanese or Chinese). The realization actually was disorienting. I suddenly felt as if I stuck out like the proverbial sore thumb and wondered what other people were thinking (i.e., “what is she doing with them?” or “what are they doing with her?”). After a moment of feeling weird and out of it, I decided, “Screw it,” and went back to enjoying the evening.
But I’m white. I get to say, “screw it.” A few hours later, I returned to being an insider. Not everyone is afforded that luxury. For some people “screw it” simply is not an option. They are stuck on the edges. Always.
Later, in my mid-30s, I finally answered that call from God. Have I mentioned that God doesn’t give up? God doesn’t. God is a total nudge. And all that nudging paid off, because I enrolled in the M.Div. program at Drew University in Madison, NJ.
During my time at seminary, I once again was reminded that I needed to relate to, listen to, and work with people who were not like me. One class was particularly good at this. It was called “The Black Religious Experience.” We had the usual readings, papers, discussions, and a requirement to attend one service at a Black church. But the class also gave me a huge “ah-ha” moment during one of our first meetings. I can’t remember how we got there, but the African American students among us suddenly began talking about what it was like to be Black in the United States. They spoke their pain and as I listened, part of me wanted to scream, “Hey, wait! I didn’t do that. I respect you. It wasn’t me.”
But thank God (the nudge), something (or Someone) told me to shut my brain off and my emotions up and just … well, just sit and listen and deal with the pain. After all, I intuited, my fellow students have to deal with that pain every day. Surely, I could take it for one class. JUST. LISTEN.
So I did. And it hurt. I’m not kidding. It hurt so bad to hear my fellow students’ stories. But I learned something important: if we stop listening, then we stop trying to understand, and if we stop trying to understand, then we stop caring, and if we stop caring… then we don’t help.
I never want to stop caring. I never want to stop listening, even if I do it imperfectly. Even if I blunder and say stupid things while trying to help. I still want to listen and try to be a better human to other humans.
Always a glutton for punishment, I returned to Drew University and enrolled in the Ph.D. program in American Religion and Culture in my early 40’s. The plan was to get the degree and teach at a theological school. Plans are great. I’m still working at a church, and God is still a nudge.
Anyway, I lived in what was then the Graduate and Theological School dormitory. And once again, I found myself among a diverse group. The dorm was home to people from other nations Students from Africa, Europe, and Asia, as well as white and Black Americans. The diversity included age. Many grad students were in their early-to-mid 20s, while the theology students ranged from their 20s into their 60s. And then there was a smattering of crazy midlife grad school students like me. And yet, somehow, we all got along, although not without the occasional spat or frustration.
Oddly enough, if memory serves me correctly, the thing that caused the most contention in our diverse little household were cooking odors. That’s right. Cooking odors. As it turns out, one person’s delightful aroma was another person’s horrendous stench. Who knew? And since every floor had a mini kitchen (and there were three floors), we were permitted to smell each other’s culinary masterpieces morning, noon, and night. Good times. Actually, I’m not being sarcastic. Those were good times.
The final part of my journey (thus far) will be up on Friday.
Keep open, my friends.
Janet R. Stafford
Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder