(Photo: The Sanitary Commission Headquarters at The Fahnestock Store, 1863, Gettysburg. The building is still standing today! I'll be mentioning Eli's connection to Gettysburg in this blog. Photo from Library of Congress.)
First off, please excuse the multiple typos in Wednesday's “The Newcomer Part 2” blog. When I post a piece of fiction on my blog, it only has been read two, maybe three times by me. So stuff slips by that usually gets caught by my beta readers.
Now, on to today’s subject.
As I was writing Saint Maggie, my first published novel, I assigned general backstories to my characters. For instance, Maggie is the daughter of a wealthy carriage manufacturer, who had eloped with the son of his business rival and, as a result, was disinherited, as was her husband John. Fortunately, John’s Aunt Letty took the young couple in and, after John died some years later and sensing her own mortality, Letty turned her home into a boarding house to give Maggie a means of income.
On the other hand, Eli’s backstory in the first book is a bit sketchier. We learn that he was raised as a Quaker but no longer has a Meeting. He was born the only son in the middle of a gaggle of five sisters. Interesting factoid: in the first edition of the book, Eli had five sisters and a brother!
But when I wrote the second book, Walk by Faith, I made a glaring error: I mentioned only the five sisters. Where did the brother go? Well, if you remember the old 1970s TV show, Happy Days, you might recall that in the early episodes Richie Cunningham had a sister but also an older brother. Then somehow that older basketball-playing brother disappeared. Nothing ever was said to explain his disappearance. The same goes for Eli’s missing brother. Eventually, I removed all mention of a brother from later editions of Saint Maggie.
The situation also prompted me to create a file called “The Saint Maggie Bible.” It contains all manner of details that keep me (I hope) from making blunders like Eli’s missing brother.
But Eli’s eldest sister, Becky, shows up in several books in the series, and she is quite a character! In the first novel she is painted as an early feminist, who lives independently in New York City. Here’s part of Eli’s conversation with Maggie about Becky.
“Becky’s very keen on the woman question,” Eli was saying.
Maggie turned the book over in her hands. “I wasn’t aware that there was a question about us.”
“Oh, yes. It’s called the emancipation of woman. Becky’s been telling me all about it and sending me books and papers to read. Do you know, twenty years ago, she tried to address a group at an abolition meeting and got booed off the stage! They told her it wasn’t proper for a woman to speak to a group made up of both men and women. Women, yes. But men? Outrage and horror!” (From Saint Maggie)
Another piece of Eli’s backstory is dropped in Saint Maggie by Maggie’s brother, Samuel Beatty, as he chews his sister out at camp meeting about the wrong things she has done, including her choice in men.
“The idea of marrying that newspaperman...it’s completely unacceptable. Why he rarely sets foot in church! And I have heard rumors that he is a free thinker. To judge from those editorials of his, he is obviously a raving abolitionist. I understand they burned his printing press back in Ohio in ‘55! If I were a betting man, I’d wager Smith even approves of that horrible raid on Harper’s Ferry last October! He is sure to side with those who believe that John Brown is a martyr.”
Yikes! Is Eli really all that bad? No. According to Maggie, he is not a fan of John Brown. However, he is a freethinker, an abolitionist (but not necessarily raving), and he did get thrown out of an Ohio town. But Sam’s off-hand about the printing press getting burned stuck in my head and resurfaced in my current work-in-progress.
By the time I published the second book, Walk by Faith, in 2013, Eli had told me more about his backstory. We learn that he grew up in Gettysburg and that the family still owned their old house there. Granted, it was a convenient way for me to get the family into Gettysburg just before the battle of July 1863. But there is much more to Eli’s background.
In one scene in Walk by Faith, Eli reveals to Maggie that his relationship with his father was difficult, to say the least.
“You know we were Friends. Mother was kind and loving. Father, on the other hand, was…well, strict. No, let’s make that judgmental. He owned a prosperous dry goods store in town. As the only son, I was expected to learn the trade. Maggie, can you imagine me as the proprietor of a dry goods store?”
Eli goes on to speak of his love or reading and newspapers. Sadly, his father held another opinion.
“He called it a worthless pursuit and a waste of time. Said I’d never amount to anything if I stuck to it. I didn’t care for his attitude, so at the tender age of fifteen, I ran away from home. Naturally Father was furious. Then he went one step beyond furious and disowned me. Then he went one step beyond that and had me read out of our Friends Meeting. He was a big bug in the Meeting, you see. It meant something to him, even though he wasn’t supposed to be prideful. I figured if religion was all about power and manipulation, then I could do without it…. And I figured I could do without him, too.”
So where did this disowned Quaker-raised boy go? Eli says he went first to Philadelphia and then to New York City, where he…
“Sold newspapers. Got beat up by rowdies. Sold more newspapers. Got beat up again. Learned to avoid the rowdies. Slept out of doors a lot. Grew adept at talking my way into or out of just about anything. Eventually, I ended up working for the Times.”
Meanwhile, Eli’s sister Becky stayed in touch with him and, as Eli says, she “brought the rest of the family along” after the death of his father.
Unlike Maggie, who lived in one place all her life, Eli has moved around, and his backstory is much more complex, if not filled with challenges and tragedy.
That’s all for now. More on Eli's backstory in the next blog!
Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder