I’ve never surfed, but I believe creativity needs to be surfed. It’s often like trying to balance on a little board while you’re out in the middle of an enormous, unpredictable environment. Writing is not sitting down, planning a neat little plot, and inputting it into a computer in an orderly manner. At least, it isn’t for me.
Case in point: this week. I had the plot all figured out for The Good Community. It would revolve around an epidemic striking the town and the struggle to figure out what caused it, how to treat it, and how to stop it. The primary character would be Lydia. I planned to insert the usual secondary story lines – maybe about Frankie’s romance with Patrick, Eli’s continuing head-butting with industrialist Josiah Norton.
And then I remembered another story line that I had deleted from Seeing the Elephant. It was about Maggie, Emily, and Maggie’s sister-in-law Abigail starting a school for maids in response to the presence of Moira and Birgit (already serving as maids-in-training at Greybeal House) and the arrival of two new characters: Addie and Mary Hill. I liked the idea and began inserting this story as a secondary plot.
And that was when I realized something. I was out in the middle of the ocean and this huge wave of creativity and possibility was coming at me.
So, I decided to surf the wave.
Why? Because it promised to be a better story. The original idea of a school for maids got jettisoned along the way. It happened when I realized that Maggie, Emily, and Abigail’s reason for starting a school was not to prepare young women for a career, but a response to a very real problem: racism.
Addie and Mary are black, you see. They have been orphaned, came from an impoverished family, and cannot read or write. So, Maggie and Emily set off to enroll them in the town’s school but are told that they cannot because the school no longer accepts “colored students.”
Legally, New Jersey schools were ordered to be open to all races in 1881. (De facto segregation, however, continued well into the twentieth century due to segregated housing, among other issues.) But my story takes place in 1864.
It was a fractious time in New Jersey. There was anger that citizens were being sent to “fight for the Negro” and fear that a wave of freed slaves would inundate the state, taking jobs and housing from white people. New Jerseyans truly were conflicted about the big issues of their day. Many were “copperheads,” also called “Peace Democrats.” They opposed the war and abolition and supported the idea of a negotiated peace with the South.
The political and social division carried over into the presidential elections. In 1860, Lincoln split the electoral college votes with Stephan A. Douglas. Lincoln walked away with 4 out of 7 electors, while Douglas got 3. Yet, Lincoln lost the popular vote by a small margin. In 1864, Lincoln lost the popular vote by a small margin again, but this time George B. McClellan ended up with all 7 electors.
All that means is Maggie, Emily, and Abigail, have hit the realities of their time face on. In response, they decide to start a school for children of all races and ethnicities.
I’m looking forward to doing more surfing with these amazing women. How they start the school, what it will look like, and what the reaction of the town will be like is yet to be uncovered. But I’m excited.
Our current era contains echoes of the Civil War era, so this is a timely (or is that out-of-timely?) story. The fact that two white characters and one black character are determined to help educate children of any color/ethnicity in a highly divisive environment is a continuation of the Saint Maggie tradition, too, something that makes sense to me.
We’ll see how it goes.
Meanwhile, I’ve got a wave to catch.
Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder