I happily confess that I’m hooked on history. But it was something that gradually wove itself into my life’s journey.
When I was a kid, I wasn’t terribly interested in the subject. In school, history was presented as a series of events and dates with names that made little or no sense to me. “The Teapot Dome Scandal.” “The Battle of Gettysburg.” “The Meeting at Yalta.”
What I was interested in were stories. I loved to read, and I loved to write, and this is what eventually got me hooked on history. It took a long time, though.
I was lucky I had parents who used to haul my sister and me off to historic sites. I grew up in Parsippany, New Jersey. We moved there when I was in the second half of the third grade. If you know anything about New Jersey, you know that our state had a few battles during the American Revolution. So, it was natural that Mom and Dad would take us to visit Washington’s Headquarters in Morristown and nearby Jockey Hollow (a National Historical Park). Then, when I was in my early teens, they took us for a visit to the Williamsburg, Virginia, where we toured the restored and reconstructed buildings in the historical area. This was my first history hook.
What these visits did was put me smack dab in the middle of old buildings and locations where important things happened long ago. I saw kitchens, and parlors, and bedrooms; soldiers’ huts; and early governmental structures; clothing and toys and sundries.
As I saw it all, my imagination took wing. I wondered what it would have been like to have lived back then? To have eaten their food? To have worn their clothing? To have lived day-to-day life, even as great events went on around me?
At college, I suffered (and nearly snored) through the American history prerequisite course; but what got another hook in me was a medieval history class taught by a gifted young professor, who made it seem as if I had been plopped down into the era.
When I began a calling in vocational ministry, it, of course, pulled me into theological studies, educational methodologies for religious education, and – surprise! – the history of Christianity and Methodist history because – well, I’m a United Methodist and I was in a Methodist theological school. The history classes I had hooked me further, especially the ones with Dr. Ken Rowe (shout out!), who infused his lessons with humor and intriguing details that went beyond the who, what, when, and where.
In my early forties, I returned to school with the idea that I would teach at a seminary or college. I enrolled in the North American Religion and Culture Ph.D. program at Drew University (Madison, NJ). But I hit a huge reality check. The professorial field is tough to break into when you’re in your forties. Heck, it’s a tough field to break into, period. The truth is unless you’re very lucky or outrageously talented and have numerous publications, you most likely will become a “Roads Scholar” (a part-time professor who teaches at several colleges or universities to make ends meet).
So, I stayed in parish ministry. But I don’t regret the time I spent working on a Ph.D. First, I was lucky enough to have had as advisors and professors Dr. Kenneth Rowe and the brilliant Dr. Leigh Eric Schmidt. (Again, a shout-out!) Second, once you get to a certain level in historical studies, you stumble upon something amazing: history is about stories. It’s about people. In short, meta-history (the big picture) is created by many micro-histories.
The Ph.D. program allowed me to wallow in the Methodist Archives at Drew, where I read journals and letters, learned about people’s life journeys, and dove into magazines and newspapers. Along the way, I developed an addiction to musty old books and learned how to glean fascinating tidbits from dry-as-dust tomes like Annual Conference Journals, compiled from nineteenth-century Methodist annual meetings.
I am now good and hooked on history.
Even though I write a series about a fictional family and as such focus on character development, dialog, plot, and themes, I attempt to make the stories as historically accurate as possible. And, yes, I admit that Eli is sort of edgy for the nineteenth century, but he’s that way on purpose. If his mother named him after a prophet, then doggone it, he’s going to do some prophesying!
I still love trying to imagine what life would have been like in 1860s New Jersey, what people wore and ate, what their rooms looked like, and what it felt like to ride in a wagon or a buggy. And I hope I help my readers experience the same.
And I hope that what I write might encourage Saint Maggie fans to read the history lying behind the historical fiction for themselves.
Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder