Image from https://meanmary.com/photos
When I was working on Heart Soul & Rock’n’Roll, I created a playlist and listened to it while I was writing. It was quite useful with regard to my creativity.
Sadly, this has not been the case with the Saint Maggie series.
A couple of months ago I was messing around on YouTube. I have certain things I like to watch. Don’t most of us? As a Jack Black fan, I check to see when he’s put up the latest installment of Jablinksi Games. My other faves are K’eyush the Stunt Dog, a really talkative husky whose antics make me laugh, SNL, old Beatles videos, and Karolina Zebrowska (a historical fashion fanatic). Yes, I’m weird. And yes, I do like humor. And I love the Beatles because… well, they were and always will be “my” band.
Occasionally I also drop in on Abby the Spoon Lady who, well, plays the spoons. For some reason, I find spoon-playing fascinating. I think it’s probably because I’m rather uncoordinated and easily can imagine both spoons flying out of my hands after clacking them together once.
The YouTube analytic noticed that I appeared to enjoy old-timey music and suddenly this woman with a banjo popped up. Her name is Mean Mary and she was playing an instrumental piece called “Blazing.” I thought, “Interesting name.” Banjo music has never been my thing, but I watched the video and to my surprise loved it. I was mesmerized by how fast her fingers moved.
As a result, I began listening to her other music and learning a bit more about her life.
First off, there is nothing actually mean about Mean Mary James. According to her bio on meanmary.com, she was the youngest of six children, whose peripatetic parents moved from place to place and lived in a variety of settings, including a tent and a hand-built log cabin.
Early on Mary had a love for music and turned out to be gifted, learning “to read music before she could read words.” She wrote her first song with her Mom’s help before she entered Kindergarten. That song was “Mean Mary from Alabam.” Not surprisingly, the press took the moniker and ran with it.
Mean Mary recorded her first album when she was six and became proficient in banjo, guitar, and fiddle. Her performing career began in childhood and this meant she could not attend public school because she was on the road so much. So, she was home schooled and passed the state 12th grade equivalency test at the age of 9.
So there you are: child prodigy and genius.
The other thing that caught my notice was that Mary and her brother Frank began touring and performing historic folk music and music from the Civil War era. She’s got the hoop skirt to prove it, too. This, of course, endeared her to me, and so I began listening to more of her music, much of has created my Saint Maggie playlist.
Here's "Blazing," the instrumental that caught my attention. Folks, I am a rocker. Aside from my nostalgic fits of Beatlemania, I listen to heavy metal and hard rock more than anything else. I never thought banjo music would pull me in, but the way Mary James plays and the variety of styles she employs did it.
But there’s another side to Mary James’ story besides talent and genius. She faced near death. That was followed by a debilitating injury, which she met with perseverance and faith.
One night, while riding in a friend’s small car, the driver lost control. The accident was horrific. Mary’s head crashed through the windshield and her neck hit the dashboard, twisting her neck so badly that her companion thought she had died.
But she hadn’t. The paramedics and the doctors at the hospital were able to save her life. But sadly, they couldn’t save her voice. Mary was told that the vocal chord on her right side had been paralyzed.
Not willing to give up music, Mary fought to recover physically and to get her voice back. At length, a doctor told her that he had observed some movement in right-side vocal chord. Determined, Mary booked a ton of performances. At them she sang when able and played her instruments when she couldn’t. And then… amazingly vocal chord on her side recovered.
That story says it all to me. Mean Mary is determined and strong and, yes, she has faith. In her story, I hear echoes of my character, Maggie.
Finally, Mary also writes novels with her mother, Jean. She's an author, too - yet another reason I like this woman. Go to the website at the top of this blog and check her out.
So, so a big thank you Mean Mary James, musician, Civil War buff, survivor, and fellow author, for giving me a soundtrack by which I am able write my series about a determined, faithful, and strong Civil War-era woman named Maggie. May you continue to inspire others the way you’ve inspired me.
Have a good weekend, all.
Image from http://www.angelpig.net/victorian/engagement.html
People of the nineteenth century are not well-known for their public – and even private – discussions about sex. Of course, some discussion of the subject did slip into some of their writings. And there were, of course, manuals geared to educating women who were about to be wed. But generally speaking, these manuals were not what they are today. Instead, they often sought to reinforce beliefs about women’s submissiveness, including the notion that sex was not something that women were supposed to enjoy. And orgasm? Don’t even go there. Please note, I am speaking in generalities here. There were people who actually defied convention and wrote or spoke on sex and sexuality.
During my research into the nineteenth century, I found scant references to sex and sexuality in primary resources such as journals. However, I do believe that women talked about the subject among themselves. And so I wrote these moments into Saint Maggie and have continued to do so in the other books throughout the series.
With that in mind, I thought I would offer up some moments from Saint Maggie in which my characters discuss sex. In this first excerpt, Maggie is preparing to marry Eli, and she is predictably nervous about the wedding night. She and Eli have refrained from having premarital sex, mainly because having done so might have resulted in a pregnancy outside of marriage. After all, this is an era in which contraception was close to non-existent. The day before the wedding, Maggie wonders what intimacy with Eli will be like. It is clear that she enjoyed her sexual relationship with her late husband, John Blaine. But would she experience the same or similar with Eli?
Notice that Maggie, having been raised in a white, well-to-do family, is not blunt about her problem. She has to dance around the issue and the question. Emily, on the other hand, comes from a less prosperous background and from a family of color, so she tends to be much more forthright. Toward the end of the conversation, we learn that Maggie does greatly desire Eli. And her dear friend Emily gives her some solid, commonsense advice.
When I first visited with reading groups after the publication of Saint Maggie, several people commented that they found Maggie’s little joke in the excerpt below to be rather shocking. After all, Maggie is a rather reserved person. My point here is that, given the right circumstances, even Maggie can rip off a bawdy joke.
It all starts rather innocently, with Maggie typically fretting about the fact that the men have gone out to the shed to share a celebratory drink.
Let’s transition into Maggie telling her daughters about “the facts of life.” First up is Lydia, who has already been given the basic information. But, since she is about to marry her beau Edgar Lape, Maggie feels it is necessary to educate her a bit more. As one of my friends, a pastor, used to insist, “God created sex. And since everything God created is good, then sex is good!” Maggie has a similar take and attempts to break through restrictive Victorian attitudes in the hope that her daughter will have a happy marriage and a happy sex life.
Finally, we come to how Maggie educates Frankie about “the birds and the bees.” Since Frankie is fourteen years old, it now is time to tell her about sexual relations. Maggie ends up doing it on Christmas Eve, as she and the family walk home from providing Christmas cheer for the local orphanage. The scene begins with Maggie and Eli talking about adopting a child, since Maggie has miscarried and not become pregnant again. When they are interrupted by Frankie, who has overheard part of their conversation, Maggie knows she needs to have “the talk.” Notice how quickly Eli skedaddles out of there so he won’t be involved in any sex chat.
So do I think nineteenth century people discussed sex? Why, yes. Yes, I do. I mean, they obviously had sex, or else we wouldn’t all be here. So they most likely talked about sex with each other. However, what they said and how they phrased it is anyone’s guess. This is mine. It was fun for me to look back on these little chats in Saint Maggie. Similar discussions show up in other books in the series.
I love Saint Maggie because it started it all. The characters are both quirky and likeable, perhaps even loveable. And, may I be so bold to say, you probably will find that one of them becomes your favorite. They are nineteenth century people, but relatable.
The story is part murder mystery, part romance, part women’s fiction (with its emphasis upon women’s life at that point in history).
If you haven’t read Saint Maggie, then I invite you to grab a copy – paperback or ebook – and read it. It’s not long and it moves fast.
And then do me a huge favor – leave a review on Amazon.
Have you ever heard of Mean Mary James? Her music is starting to form a soundtrack for me as I work on the series. More on that on Friday.
A plot can emerge in a story while my characters are in the midst of doing something else, and it’s reminiscent of the adage, “Life is what happens when you’re making other plans.” Who came up with that saying it is uncertain. John Lennon said it in his song “Beautiful Boy” (1980), but it also has been attributed to Allen Saunders (1957), Quin Ryan (1958), and others.
To me, the phrase seems to say that living is a fluid experience and thus we may find that our plans and even the way we live diverging from their expected paths.
When it comes to the characters in the Saint Maggie book, A Good Community, plot happens when my invisible friends are engaged in their day-to-day activities, and suddenly they find themselves enmeshed in something they did not quite expect.
This is clear in the new book’s first chapter. We know something crazy will be going on later in the book because of its first entry, which dated August 1. Then we jump back to June 14, where Maggie is struggling to get noon dinner ready for over a dozen people with only two helpers and herself in the kitchen. Worse yet, one of the “helpers” is her domestically challenged daughter, Frankie. Maggie’s future plans here are limited: get dinner on the table.
We go next to her husband Eli, who has other plans: he wants to enlarge the reach of the newspaper where he serves as editor-in-chief and floats an idea by the paper’s publisher, Tryphena Moore. He wants to do something daring. He wants to put advertisements in the paper to supplement the income from subscriptions.
Check it out. (I know I've ;put this up before, but I've made some changes.)
In Chapter 2, Nate and Emily’s baby is born. At the same time, Maggie realizes that her oldest daughters, Frankie and Lydia are becoming women. Letting go of them, allowing them to live independently is a struggle many parents have faced throughout the ages. And this is one thing life is now throwing at Maggie. But it’s not the life-changing plot.
That starts to emerge in Chapter 3 with the arrival of Mary and Addie Brooks, two orphaned girls of color, who happen onto the Greybeal House property. The desire to provide for Addie and Mary’s education is the spark that leads Maggie and her friends into action that in turn leads them into controversy, and then leads Maggie to into on a role she never considered, much less wanted. In short, it looks as if our heroine’s life is rudely upended by the plot. So, plot happens!
I’m looking forward to releasing the novel, because it will lead Maggie into new territory that will be explored in later books.
NOTE: Speaking of planning, I had planned to release the book this month, but things have happened in the lives of two of my beta readers that have slowed and even stopped their ability to read the beta draft. Likewise, I spent the first half of 2019 with my own “life happens” moments: caring for a dog with cancer, having her pass away in early May, and then grieving for the loss of a dear, furry friend.
But finally it looks as if the book is close to being released.
Regardless, this all has been a huge lesson for me: while I was making plans for the new book, life intervened. Whether it is releasing a new novel or planning to live quietly in 1860s Blaineton, life (and plot) happens and can turn things around.
One final thought. Having been around for a while, I know that it’s not so much what happens to you as how you deal with it. It a difference whether we get engulfed the life-wave or whether we are able to surf it.
But that’s a story for another blog.
Until Monday, friends! Have a good weekend.
Image found on Warder, G. (2015). Women in nineteenth-century America. Retrieved 09 Sept. 2019 from http://www.disabilitymuseum.org/dhm/edu/essay.html?id=18.
The concept of “separate spheres” for men and women was pervasive, especially among middle-to-upper-class people. Of course, women in the lower classes and among non-European and immigrant groups worked to feed, house, and clothe their families and no one seemed to find it shocking because, well … class and race. But what led to this notion of separate sphere? I suspect that much of it was connected to the Industrial Revolution.
The Industrial Revolution had several phases and is acknowledged to have had a first phase, which occurred in Great Britain in the 1700s. The result was that the shift from an agrarian-based economy to an economy based on industrial production and consumption caused a huge upheaval in Britain. Factories sprouted up in cities and people flocked to them in search of employment. But soon problems arose from this boom in urban populations, among them were crowded and inferior housing, crime, and a spike in alcoholism made possible by access to cheap gin. And this put the nation on the edge of a crisis. As a result, a host of reformers arose at that time to address the nation’s issues. One of them was a guy named John Wesley, the founder of Methodism (my character Maggie’s faith community).
In the British colonies in North America, the Industrial Revolution did not arrive until after their establishment as an independent nation. It is generally believed that the first wave industrial wave in the United States began around 1790 and continued through the 1860s. It was followed by a second wave of industrialization from the 1870s until about 1914 or thereabout.
Maggie’s world of Civil War America was not as heavily industrialized or urbanized as the last decades the nineteenth century, yet it still experienced the impact of industrialization. Up until the nineteenth century the United States and its colonial predecessors had been largely rural and agrarian. We had towns and cities, of course, but these were nothing like the cities we know today. Twenty-first century New York City with its world of skyscrapers, wall-to-wall traffic and people, business and busyness would have blown even the mind of my free-thinking Eli Smith.
But as in Britain, the Industrial Revolution in the USA brought an explosion of factories and urbanization. With them also came enormous cultural changes. One earth-shaking change was how time was perceived. In earlier eras the passage of time was measured by seasons of the year and by daily activities. The day ran from sunrise to sunset. The work people pursued depended upon the time of the year. As the factory system emerged and grew, time became more regimented. People no longer worked until the job was done but according to schedule. They also did the same activity day in and day out.
Another change occurred in the home, particularly among those in the upper- to middle-classes. Men left the home and went off to the rough and tumble “world of work.” On the other hand, women were expected to remain in the home and tend to household chores and raising children. As a result, perceptions of men and women’s natures underwent a shift. Men came to be seen as coarse, instinct-driven, amoral at best and immoral at worst, while women were perceived to be pure, spiritual, and moral. Men therefore were meant to be “out there” among the danger and corruption, while women were designed to keep the home a safe haven, raise virtuous children, and see to the family’s religious training.
When I was an adjunct professor, my students frequently were stunned when I produced the laundry list of things women couldn’t do in the nineteenth century. Examples: a woman could not vote in national elections and frequently could not vote in state or local elections; she could not hold public office; once a woman married she became a femme covert (a “covered woman” who was absorbed into her husband’s household rather than existing as an independent human being); in some states marriage meant a woman no longer could own property or have the right to any income she earned; she could not deliver a speech to a group of men or to a mixed group of men and women; she could not lead or vote in most organizations, such as the abolition movement, although she could lead and vote in groups comprised only of women; and a woman could not be a clergy person, nor could she preach or lead a church, although she could “exhort” (encourage).
Not surprisingly, the “rules” changed somewhat as one went down the social ladder. They also changed according to a woman’s race. So, a lower-class woman could work in a factory; slave women and the wives of farmers could work in the fields; and the wife of a shopkeeper could work with her husband, but most other professions and jobs were closed to women – although some did manage to break through. Exceptions also emerged as non-native people moved westward. In frontier areas women frequently had greater opportunity to break the rules and flex their creativity, skills, and talents.
I routinely bring these women’s issues into the Saint Maggie series to highlight the struggle for women’s rights, something which began in earnest in the USA during the 1800s. Maggie’s illustrates this change, commenting that she hopes her daughters will be able to more than she was allowed to do. And indeed they seem to be going there.
Throughout the series, Frankie feels called to ministry and is trying to find ways to answer that call, even though she is blocked from ordination by most Protestant denominations. Lydia begins her journey as the family’s official “nurse” (an in-house job open to all women) but who goes on to become a midwife and a doctor.
Although Maggie does editing and writing for husband Eli’s newspaper, the upcoming novel, A Good Community, pushes her into a more prominent position. It feels to me that she goes into it kicking and screaming. Maggie does not believe that wider opportunities are meant for a woman in her early 40s. But she’s wrong. As Eli tells her, she’s powerful, but she just doesn’t know it yet.
Have a good week!
See you on Friday.
Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder