This is just a short Squeaking Blog. Because I’m on vacation.
After a busy summer consisting of finishing the beta reader copies of A Good Community and sending them out, as well as my churchy duties (preaching twice while the pastor was away, overseeing Vacation Bible School, and helping at the church’s sandwich booth at the 4-H Fair), my family whisked me away to a remote location.
The California coastline.
The flight was smooth, but LONG. We guess-timated it was about 11 hours, plus a 3-hour layover in Los Angeles. And on the last leg of the trip, on the way to Kona, Hawaii, the plane was cold. Yikes!
Just a little philosophical note: Americans are terrible about giving their employees time off. My father always used to say that a person needed two weeks in order to feel rested before returning to work. I believe it, although our trip is only 8 days long.
If you can't relax here, you can't relax anywhere!
Still, if we want people to be productive, they need time off to rest and have fun.
But, of course, no one with any power is going to listen to me because, much like the nineteenth century, our contemporary powers-that-be enjoy grinding their workers into the ground until they’re all used up. That, of course, is just my opinion, but as a theologian, allow me also to note that God wants us to take a rest (that Sabbath on the seventh day thing, too).
Okay, I’m rambling. Have a good week, everyone. Enjoy the photos. I’ll be back next Monday with a bunch of shots and then will return to regular blogging.
CC0 photo from pxhere.com
Children are natural storytellers. Their play involves making up stories. Sadly, as they grow older, many lose the capacity for “make believe.”
But not authors. We look at the world around us and wonder “what if this happened” or “what’s that person’s life like?” Maybe it’s because most authors are introverts. We can be socially awkward, shy, or intimidated by groups of people. Instead, we have a lively interior world.
Me? Inside I’m an introvert, too. Inside I feel shy and socially awkward. I don’t enjoy being around big groups of people. And I dislike making small talk.
And yet… somehow, I ended up in ministry where I am around groups of people and have learned to make small talk.
It sounds crazy, I know. This introvert has been serving in churches for almost 30 years. How does that happen? Simple. I was called. For those unfamiliar with what “called” is, I’ll let Lins Mitchell, the protagonist and minister in Heart Soul & Rock’n’Roll, explain it:
“It’s an expression. It just means you feel that God wants you to do something. Of course, the deal is to figure out what that something is.”
On some levels, all of us are called to “do something.”
For me, I ended up serving in United Methodist Churches as a religious educator, assistant minister, or director of communications. My present position involves all three of those things.
I believe in God, I try (by God's grace) to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ, and I belong to the United Methodist Church, even though I am righteously ticked off at its current rule forbidding local churches to conduct marriages for LGTBQI+ people and forbidding annual conference from ordaining LGTBQI+ people as clergy.
In my novels, the characters are a mix of beliefs or lack thereof, but my protagonists (Maggie and Lins) are Christian. Maggie is Methodist Episcopal, one of the larger Methodist groups of her time. And Lins is… undeclared, although if pushed, I’ll say she’s UMC like I am.
Authors often write what they want to read. And so it is with me.
Ah. So all that must mean I write Christian fiction. Right?
Wrong. I don’t write that genre. When I first started publishing, I did add “Christian fiction” as a genre to my books’ descriptive tags. But that was until it became clear the term for some people meant “safe” reading. Thusly defined, “Christian fiction” must have no cursing, very little violence, only a hint of sex, and Christian characters who stand strong against the big, bad world and come out on top.
I’m probably wrong about some of the previous paragraph. But I have received enough criticism from some readers to decide, “Bag it. I really don’t write Christian fiction.”
What I want is to tell my stories my way and not according to someone else’s predetermined list of “do’s and don’ts.” As a result, I now classify my Maggie books as a mix of historical fiction and women’s fiction genres. And Heart Soul is contemporary romance and women’s fiction.
Don’t get me wrong. Lins believes. In Heart Soul, she tells her story of how she was called into ministry. She views others as children of God and as such worthy of her attention and care. And so, she doesn’t ignore homeless vet Kenny Jameson when he asks her for spare change. Instead, she buys him a sandwich and a friendship starts – something that leads to Kenny getting a job and a place to live. Lins also loves rock and had fronted a band when she was in college. Upon meeting Neil Gardner, front man for a bar band, Lins finds him interesting, despite his antipathy toward religion. Does this mean she converts him at the end of the book? You’ll have to decide that for yourself, but I think she gives Neil a lot of space.
Maggie obviously is a Christian. The first book, Saint Maggie, contains a lot of Bible verses and theological rumination, and some people find that uncomfortable. But it needs to be there. Maggie is historically spot-on for a nineteenth-century, journaling Methodist who strives to live according to Jesus’ two greatest commandments: love God and love neighbor. All the rest is commentary.
In the 1860s, many Christians were involved in positive social reforms – everything from anti-slavery to votes for women to temperance and to later in the century to laws to improve conditions for workers and to protect children with child labor laws. Maggie’s desire to see people treated with respect and love puts her shoulder to shoulder with those Christians.
While Maggie’s belief system can and does pit her against those who don’t believe, she more often than not finds herself facing off against co-religionists, which is reminiscent of Jesus, who broke the rules when they hurt people or impeded healing and wholeness.
Sometimes I get asked why I write these stories. My answer: have you looked at the world around us? There’s so much anger and violence out there. I want to bring a little hope into the picture. With some luck, maybe the books will inspire folks to love others. Maybe they will want to be like my characters. Maybe. But even if all I do is pull people out of the dark for a few short hours, that’s something.
It could be that by writing this way I am just whistling in the dark. But what if inspiration actually counts for something? According to Merriam-Webster, inspire comes from the Latin word “inspirare (‘to breathe or blow into’), which itself is from the word spirare, meaning ‘to breathe.’” It also is related to the word spirit, “which comes from the Latin word for ‘breath,’ spiritus, which is also from spirare.” ( https://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/the-origins-of-inspire)
So, inspiration literally is being breathed upon by something and given life. And that's good enough for me. Because where there’s life, there’s hope.
And that’s why I write.
I write to give myself and my readers hope.
Howeev****WARNING! THIS BLOG CONTAINS CURSE WORDS. I CAN’T HELP IT. ELI CUSSES!****
I have a friend who, when she wants a toilet break, says, “I need to go to the euphemism.” She’s joking, but most of us cannot bring ourselves to say, “I need to urinate” or “I need to have a bowel movement.” We generally say everything from “Excuse me” to “I need to go to the bathroom, go to the restroom, drain the lizard, take a leak, make a deuce…” We have a gazillion euphemisms for excretory functions.
But we’re not the only ones who do this. The nineteenth century was replete with euphemisms. Upper-and-middle class people were nothing if not polite and discreet, and sought to set the tone. Bodies and bodily functions were verboten in casual conversation and language policing became so extreme that sometimes the word “leg” was even too descriptive, and people would say “limb” instead.
Since I write about people living in 1860s America, I am accumulating a pile of euphemisms, especially since Maggie Beatty Blaine was raised in a well-to-do household. She is, though, married to Eli Smith, who is no stranger to cuss words and crude language. And so Maggie frequently tries to break him of this habit - to no avail, might I add.
One of the Big Cuss Words and Its Substitutes
The big nineteenth century swear word was “damn." It was much more powerful than it is now. Naturally, Eli uses it a great deal, to which Maggie almost always says, "Elijah, language." And It starts very early in Saint Maggie when the couple is newly courting.
Eli’s eyes flashed behind his wire spectacles. “Damn him, anyway!”
Maggie gasped. “Elijah Smith! And on a Sunday!”
To get their frustration across without offending delicate ears, people in the 1800s turned to euphemisms like dang, dern, blamed, gol, gol-derned, bell-fired, all-fired, and a multitude of others. Even Eli does it sometimes.
In a conversation with Carson about God, Eli uses one of the synonyms to explain how the Civil War is having a negative impact on what little faith he has.
Carson asks: “To what do you attribute your theological shift?”
Eli blinked his eyes to make sure he kept the tears at bay. “Ah, you know. Everything we’ve seen. I mean, what kind of a loving God permits this bell-fired mess?”
Eli is so distraught at this point, that he doesn't have the energy to cuss.
Maggie knows that Eli has his flaws, and cussing is one. And, as we can see from this exchange between the two in Seeing the Elephant, Maggie knows her husband will never change. But that doesn't stop her from reminding him when he goes astray.
“Elijah, must you use such language?”
“Darned?” he teased. “Blasted? Danged?”
She rolled her eyes. “You’re hopeless. Still, I consider myself fortunate.” Maggie kissed the tip of his nose. “There is nothing else I would change about you.”
Let’s Talk About Sex, Baby
Nineteenth century people also used euphemisms for sex and sexual activity. As I've said before, contrary to nineteenth century stereotypes, Maggie clearly enjoys her sexual relationship with Eli. However, propriety demands that she refrain from being too graphic when she speaks about it or when she writes in her journal. In A Time to Heal she uses an alternate term, "free," when writing about sexual activity in her journal, and yet it's clear what she is referring to.
I was taught the value of modesty, Journal. But having been married twice, I also learned the value of being free with one’s husband. Today Eli and I were free by the little pond on our property.
In the same journal entry, she also uses the word "pleasant" and the phrase "enjoy each other" to indicate sexual activity.
While it would not be prudent to give details of our afternoon, allow me to say that it was quite pleasant. The sun was warm, and we dried quickly after our swim. Then we enjoyed each other’s company while the birds called sweetly, and the cicadas whirred in the trees.
Later in A Time to Heal, Eli learns that Patrick and Frankie have spent a night together. Doing his step-fatherly duty, he has a manly chat with Patrick. One that has four synonyms for sex in it.
Eli fastened his dark brown eyes on the young man before him. “So … you and Frankie decided to spend some time in the hay.”
“It’s not what it seems –”
Eli’s eyebrows shot up. “That so? Well, it seems to me that you were answering the call to go forth and multiply. So, did you, Patrick? Did you partake in a little amorous congress with my stepdaughter? Some hogmagundy?”
The term “hogmagundy” is a very rude term and seems to have Gaelic roots in the Lowland Scots word "houghmagandie." The word was in usage in the United States during the Civil War by American soldiers and men like Eli to describe sexual activity. There is, however, some evidence that the term originally meant the birth of a child. Meanings can and do change over time.
With regard to reproduction, whenever Maggie or other women are speaking about pregnancy in the series, they usually choose alternate terms, such as “expecting,” "having a baby," or “in the family way.”
As a reminder to those of us who are older and perhaps new information for some younger folks, the word "pregnant" was taboo on American TV in the 1950s. In a famous episode of the classic TV comedy, "I Love Lucy," Lucy tells Ricky that she is pregnant. They too use the word "expecting" or the phrase, "having a baby." The episode's title was discreet. "Lucy is Enceinte" substituted an old term for the word "pregnant." The episode's original air date was 8 December 1952. (https://tv.avclub.com/more-than-60-years-ago-a-pregnant-lucille-ball-couldn-1798239435) My point is we're not that far removed from using alternate words to describe reproduction.
We still use euphemisms for these and so does Maggie. Predictably, though, Eli has no filter.
In A Time to Heal, Chester Carson comes to visit shortly after the Smith's daughter Faith is born. He asks Eli how things are going now that the baby has arrived.
Eli yawned. “Well, so far I’ve been pissed on and today the baby shat on me. It was her inaugural shit too. Guess I should be honored. But it was completely disgusting.”
When Carson has a similar experience with the baby (in Seeing the Elephant), he is disgusted and outraged. But being a gentleman, he chooses to load his objection with euphemisms, rather than taboo terminology. So the baby's bottom becomes her "derriere" and a bowel movement is "the mess."
“I have done far too many favors for you, Elijah, including babysitting your youngest child and changing the cloths on her derriere. You would not believe the mess she made today. I, sir, am no nursemaid!”
In an unpublished section from Seeing the Elephant, I found this scene in which Maggie once again tries to school Eli in polite terminology.
As Eli drew the diaper back he grimaced. “Egad! I thought I smelled something. Well, at least you’ll be clean for the night – or part of it, anyway. Maggie, would you please bring some soap, water, and a washing cloth, too? She just shat.”
Maggie sighed. “Eli, do try not to use that word.”
“What am I supposed to say?”
She set everything on the bed beside the baby. “Say she messed herself.”
Of course, Eli is of another opinion and explains why to their infant daughter, who is the one person on earth who doesn't care what he says.
Once Maggie left, Eli whispered to Faith, “Your mother is so proper! She’ll be wanting me to call your chubby little legs ‘limbs’ next. Can you imagine me adopting such dandyish talk? It’s blasted unmanly, if you ask me. I refuse to comply.”
Well, at least he used “blasted” instead of a full-blown curse. Not that it would have made any difference to Faith.
And so, the unrepentant Eli persists in his “manly” talk. But he makes a major goof in A Good Community after they and most of the town have been engaged in a long night fighting a fire in which Maggie has been away from Faith for many hours. Both husband and wife are sooty and smell of smoke, among other things.
With a little grin [Eli] added, “And you smell kind of milky. You must be leaking. You need to go home and let Faith milk you.”
She called up a tired smile. “I’m not a cow, Eli. Babies nurse. They don’t milk.”
He kissed the tip of her nose. “It’s just words.”
“Words are important, Mr. Editor-in-Chief.”
“So I’ve heard.”
Maggie sniffed and teasingly wrinkled her nose. “You smell of smoke, too, you know. And of exertion.”
He chuckled. “It’s called sweat.”
“Don’t be rude, Eli. Horses sweat, men perspire, and ladies glow.”
“Oh, words again, ‘ey? Well, it all means the same thing and it’s sweat. Horses sweat. Men sweat. And so do women. How is it we never say what we mean?”
“Oh, you’re just terrible.” But she laughed.
While "breast-feeding" would not be an acceptable term for Maggie, "milking" borders on the offensive. However, by her weary smile, you can tell she's almost giving up on correcting Eli. In other places in the series, female characters sometimes refer to "nursing" as "caring" as in "Let's go into the parlor, so you might care for the baby."
As for "sweat," that word was a no-no, too. "Horses sweat, men perspire, and ladies glow" probably arose during the nineteenth century. Sweating was a bodily function and one could not, in polite company, mention such things directly.
But, as we see in my series, not everyone adhered to the norms. In real life, nineteenth century people used different types of language and so they do the same in my novels. Therefore, be warned! The novels contain cussing - as well as violence and some semi-descriptive sex. Just thought you ought to know.
Interested in Reading More About Nineteenth Century Slang and Euphemisms?
These are two sources that I have found helpful!
Hadley, Craig, compiler and editor. “A Nineteenth Century Slang Dictionary.”
McKay, Brett. “Manly Slang from the Nineteenth Century.”10 March 2010. Last updated 17 November 2017]
In case you're wondering what this "Saint Maggie Series" thing is that I blather about, or in case you've stumbled upon this particular blog for the first time, here's some background.
The Saint Maggie Series is about a woman and her family living in New Jersey during the 1860s. But is it, as one of my friends joked “Little House on the Delaware”? Or is it something else?
While the series certainly has its pastoral and nostalgic components, as well as a load of engaging (usually positive) characters, it is about so much more. I like to think it inhabits a cross-genre space: historical fiction, nostalgic fiction, women’s fiction, and perhaps even literary fiction (although I might be stretching things a bit here).
Stripped to basics, the Saint Maggie Series focuses on how good people find their way in a nation divided by politics, custom, economics, race, and war. If that sounds familiar, it’s probably because, like most authors, my subconscious has become integrated with my writing world.
Our heroine, Maggie, is a kindhearted Methodist living in 1860's America. She is balanced by Eli, her free-thinking, newspaperman husband. As a team, they have sort of a heart-head dynamic. And yet Maggie is not all heart, just as Eli is not all head. Even though they are good people, it doesn’t mean they are perfect. They are multifaceted. They make mistakes. They get angry. They can be silly and funny. They’re quirky and sexy. And yet they stubbornly keep returning to one simple but difficult principle: love.
The first book, SAINT MAGGIE (2011), finds Maggie making the decision to live by the Great Commandment as stated by Jesus Christ: love God and love others. She already has taken the risk of working on the Underground Railroad with Eli and friends Nate and Emily. But when the Rev. Jeremiah Madison, the new minister of her church, shocks the good people of her town, Maggie wrestles to forgive him, something which puts her at loggerheads with those same “good” people.
WALK BY FAITH (2013), set in Gettysburg in 1863, asks “Who is my neighbor? And how do I love my enemy?” Eli and photographer Carson follow the 15th New Jersey Infantry Regiment as they cover the war for Eli’s newspaper. Meanwhile, war arrives on the doorstep for Maggie and the rest of the family in Gettysburg. The characters in each setting come into contact with the dreaded enemy and face the difficult facts of war, including Maggie and Emily’s battle with an old enemy.
Book three, A TIME TO HEAL (2014), continues to highlight the themes of loving neighbor and enemy, During in the second half of 1863, Maggie and her family work to come to terms with the violence they have experienced during the battle of Gettysburg, while her daughters’ compassion for enemy soldiers leads them into dangerous territory and puts their stepfather in legal jeopardy.
In book four, SEEING THE ELEPHANT (2016), the family finally returns to New Jersey and the family’s social and economic status begins to improve. Eli’s nightmares, a symptom of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and something noticed but not understood by the Civil War-era medical community, eventually leads him to seek treatment. At the same time, his family’s continuing compassion for “the least of these" puts Eli, now Editor-in-Chief of The Blaineton Register, at odds with a powerful industrialist whose interest in the new hospital for the insane will lead to disastrous consequences.
Book five, A GOOD COMMUNITY (to be published September or October 2019) finds Maggie, Emily, and others attempting to provide an education for the six children of color who live on Water Street, who have been deprived of a school of their own. The women end up starting a school for black students at Greybeal House, which unexpectedly blossoms into an integrated academy with 13 students and two teachers. Opposition to the school’s existence grows, things spiral out of control, and an unwilling Maggie finds she is forced to become a leader in her beloved town.
Even though our times are confusing, difficult, and divisive, I find comfort and hope when I write about how a family living over one hundred fifty years ago faced similar issues. They remind me that it is crucial love others, even if our love is imperfect. I hope these quirky, endearing characters and the stories of their lives engenders comfort and hope in readers, and perhaps encourages them to love and heal the world around them.
Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder