Image by Lee Davis (Lins is on the left, Patti is on the right). See the PPS section of this blog post for more information.
A weird thing happened to me last week as I was reviewing the spec script Dan Bush and I had written for my novel Heart Soul & Rock’n’Roll. I suddenly I realized that I’m more like my protagonist Lins Mitchell than I ever thought.
Of course, I have always been more than a little aware that Lins is the character closest to who I really am. People have said to me, “Oh, but you’re Maggie!” (from the Saint Maggie series). Let’s be truthful, though. Maggie is way too good of a person, even if we do share a few things in common. Also, if I’m going to be completely honest, Eli has more than a little of me in him, as scary as that might seem!
Anyway, it’s not unusual for characters and settings in a novel to echo their creators. Of course, characters also can be giant billboards with arrows that point to their author and scream, “Look! We’re that person!”
When I wrote Heart Soul, Lins was close to me by design. She is an assistant minister at the Church of the Epiphany in a fictional Central New Jersey town called Cuylerville.
I also am an assistant minister at a United Methodist Church in Central New Jersey. If you want an idea of what a pre-COVID Sunday morning was like for me, just read the first few pages of the novel. The way Lins runs from thing to thing is very much like what I did. As for the coffee urn scenes… well, that is totally real. I have a very bad relationship with the dreaded urn at First UMC. We haven’t gone back to having a coffee hour after worship yet, but when we do, I just know people are going to ask where that thing is and how to make it perk.
The Church of the Epiphany actually is a love letter to a congregation with whom I have been for nearly 13 years. And, believe me, I have never been anywhere for 13 whole years. First UMC’s congregation is special to me and will always remain so. Likewise, our pastor – who will be retiring in less than a couple weeks – has been a kind, understanding, and caring human being. He also has been the brother I never asked for, but got – and for whom I eternally will be grateful.
In Heart Soul, Lins has turned 40 and hits mid-life crisis. She questions what she is doing and where she might go next, if indeed she goes anywhere at all. But college memories of playing in a band called the Poison Pen Society just won’t leave her alone. Clearly she misses those days. She moans to friends Patti and Sue, “I just want to rock out one more time before I die.”
As for me, I am nowhere near 40 anymore, but I do find myself wondering about growing my author-life both now and post-retirement. I am desiring more time to focus on writing. I knew that, and yet, as I ran through the spec script this time, one thing I hadn’t seen before suddenly hit me right upside the head.
That thing is this: even though Lins is feeling the urge to make changes, she is hesitant to go through with them.
Patti drags her off to a vacation at Point Pleasant Beach, where Lins ends up singing karaoke with her and then singing with a guy named Neil who just happens to have a band and is looking for a new singer. Abruptly, all sorts of doors just be might be opening for Lins. She might play in a band again. She might enter into a relationship with an interesting, although chronically broke guy. She might make new friends. She might find a new life.
But Lins drags her feet. In fact, in the script, Sue has had enough and gives her a little lecture that ends with the words, “Why don’t you just dive in for once?”
This time, those words hit home for me, too. I realized that I was hesitating to commit myself more fully to being an author. I was avoiding promotion and marketing because 1) it’s difficult to do and can be expensive; and 2) I’m scared to put myself out there
I was letting fear hold me back. I was afraid that putting more effort into promoting my work might not reap anything in the end. I also was afraid of receiving negative criticism. But negative criticism happens to every author – and sometimes it can be helpful. That’s life. It’s not all happy-happy, joy-joy. Bad or difficult stuff happens. Stuff that hurts or makes you sad. And that stuff happens to Lins, too, when she dives in. But this time I received a message for me. My fears should not stop me, either, not when I feel so strongly called to write stories.
So, I have given myself a firm talking-to and am going to become more assertive. The idea of self-promotion makes me cringe and the very real possibility of negative criticism still terrifies me. But I need to take a running start and dive off the board and into the water – being careful, of course, not to hit all the other authors swimming in the extremely small pool of the publishing industry.
At the moment, I have no idea exactly how I will “jump in,” but I believe that I will figure it out.
So, there you are. As weird as it may seem, that is how this author learned from a character of her own creation.
All I’ve got to say is, “Thanks, Lins!”
As for you, dear readers: You be brave, too. Take a deep breath and jump in.
Janet R. Stafford
PS: You may find Heart Soul & Rock 'n' Roll right here at Squeakingpips.com.
You also may find it at Amazon (HEART SOUL & ROCK 'N' ROLL: Stafford, Janet R.: 9780990835523: Amazon.com: Books) and other online book sellers.
PPS: The image at the top of this blog post came from a three-page collaborative graph novel wannabe between myself and artist Lee Davis. It came into being when Stephanie Hopkins of Layered Pages Media (https://layeredpages.com) suggested the idea to us. Thank you for shaping such a fun project, Stephanie!
And Lee, although you usually lean toward horror stories and accompanying imagery, you dared to illustrate a few scenes from a contemporary romance novel. Brave man! You may find Lee’s work at https://amazon.com/leedavis/e/B007J5CZ3O.
Love you both!
All images and information in this blog are from: “Levi and Catharine Coffin State Historic Site; Underground Railroad Station,” Midwest Wanderer, 28 February 2018. Website:
The image above is of a hiding place in the Levi and Catharine Coffin house, located in Newport (now Fountain City), Indiana. The Coffins were Quakers and originally lived in North Carolina, but moved north to an anti-slavery state in 1826 because of their pro-abolition position. Once up north, they became part of the Underground Railroad.
As is the case with Maggie and her boarding house, the Coffins’ activity on the Underground Railroad was secret. The only other people who know for certain that Maggie harbors freedom seekers are some people who live on Water Street, the street in Blaineton that is home to most of its Black population.
Levi Coffin was involved in various economic activities: he owned a dry goods store and a bank, had an interest meat packing, and approved mortgages as a director at a bank in another town. Unlike Maggie, Coffin was well-respected. Even those who knew of his activities would never think of reporting him (harboring people escaping from slavery was an illegal activity). And while Levi was out and about in the community being a good citizen (which he was), Catharine was at home caring for their visitors by providing food, clothing, and other comfort.
In 1839, the Coffins moved from living above the dry goods store and into a house of that Levi had designed. The place was designed to hid freedom seekers. One room had five doors in it. Should “slave catchers” arrive at the house, the self-emancipators were able scatter in five directions. Down in the basement was a full kitchen, where meals could be prepared in secret for the Coffins’ guests. The basement also contained a spring well which, when they had extra people inside the house, hid the fact that the Coffins were using more water than normal.
Finally, the Coffin house had a fifteen-foot-long closet in an upstairs bedroom. The entrance to the closet easily was hidden by putting a piece of furniture in front of it. The image of the closet from the Coffin house was what gave me the inspiration to include a closet in the Old Caretaker’s House on Maggie’s property.
Now, on to my story.
The final installment of “The Newcomer” answers Eli’s question about the cellar (I think the answer, given my blog above, should be obvious). As it turns out, that answer is something with which he is quite familiar.
Although "The Newcomer" involves the Old Caretaker's House on Maggie Blaine's property, the image above is just a stand-in. It really is a photo of Meade's Headquarters that I took on a visit to Gettysburg, PA. But the structure is a small building with, if memory serves me correctly, one room on the first floor, and there appears to be something of a second floor or an attic above. So it does the trick!
As for the second section of "The Newcomer," we find Eli making deals with Maggie to rent the Old Caretaker's House. He also meets the other residents of the main boarding house, and works on how to build and/or pay someone to build a flatbed press so he can start a newspaper.
The only thing Eli cannot do is find out why that cellar door is locked. How frustrating!
The image from the cover of "The Newcomer," purchased from istock.com
I published the first Saint Maggie novel in 2011, but it wasn't until 2019 that I decided to tell the story of how Eli and Maggie met - and that was after at least three full-length novels. I knew the basics of their backstory, but I wanted to flesh it out.
And so I wrote a little tale set in 1855 about a semi-sketchy guy named Eli, who, while his way to New York City, decides to sojourn in Blaineton in order to raise enough money to continue his journey.
As he checks out the little New Jersey town, he meets a kind-hearted widow named Maggie who runs a boarding house. She hesitantly agrees to rent him the old caretaker's house. But as nice and welcoming as she is, Eli senses that Maggie is hiding something. And it has to do with what is behind the door to the cellar in the old caretaker's house.
Download the fee PDF file below to read the first part of the story. It will be followed by other installments, which also will befree. They are my gift to you.
Janet R. Stafford
Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder