I’m working on a new story. It’s a long-form novel which will be #6 in the Saint Maggie series. Bear with me, because I’m going to be going all the way from creating a character to dances and music of the 19th century to typhoid fever.
First of all, in the new book, I will introduce a new character by the name of Shelby Garrison, who is a traveling musician. He came into being when my friends, who are members of the admin team at a fan group for Jack Black and Tenacious D, challenged me to put a Kyle Gass-type of character into the story. They knew I had borrowed Eli Smith’s appearance, speech pattern, and a few behavioral quirks from Jack Black and wanted to know where Jack’s buddy was. I tried to explain that Eli already has two good buddies, Chester Carson and Nate Johnson, but they kept saying, "... but Kyle..." So I caved.
Allow me to note that over the years Eli Smith has developed into a well-rounded character and reminds me of that on a regular basis. Fictional characters can and do take on a reality for their authors. They exist only in our heads but are, as I’ve heard many of us say, “invisible friends” with whom we like to play. Yes, we are nuts, hopelessly so. But we’re harmless nuts.
Also, when I write a character, it helps to have an image or voice or attitude in my head when I write. Most of my characters either look like or sound like other people, and most of those take after people I know, rather than celebrities. One good example of this is Chester Carson, who is actually a composite character. That means he looks like a friend of mine but speaks like a friend of my friend. Because of that, I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised when Carson (who hates to be called Chester) “came out” to Eli in the Walk by Faith. And why not? Both of his models also identify as gay.
At the moment, Shelby looks and has a voice that sounds like Kyle Gass to me, plus he’s a musician who plays guitar. But he rapidly is becoming as his own person. In fact, he’s doing it even in his first scene, where he is coming across as a courtly, although impoverished fellow. He feels more like someone from a Mark Twain story than one half of Tenacious D. And that’s good, because we’re in Civil War era America. There’s no metal in the Saint Maggie series, other what is found in cannon and other weaponry!.
Because I write historical fiction, I often need to stop and run to the internet for information to make sure I’m being historical. Working with Shelby has been no exception. The process started yesterday when I began researching the type of songs he might have sung. So, I combed the internet for mid-19th century songs and spent time compiling a little list of things for Shelby.
Another situation arose when in that first chapter Rosa Hamilton suggests that Shelby not only play for the Greybeal House family that evening but provide them with some dance music. So… back I went to the internet. It is amazing what you can find there. I came upon at least three YouTube videos with people doing dances from the 1800s.
Of course, writing about a music and dance in the Civil War era is not completely new to me. When I was working on Seeing the Elephant, Maggie and Eli were invited to a ball at the home of industrialist Josiah Norton. At the time I found a very useful article on how to put on a 19th century ball. I was able to use the information as a model for the ball scene at Norton’s house. And – huge plus – if I ever get the yen to hold a 19th century ball of my own, I’ll know what to do. Now, where did I leave my crinoline cage and corset?
I learned that formal balls had a number of conventions, including the Grand March during which everyone entered the ballroom, and the first dance (often a waltz), followed by a plethora of dance styles. Also, gentlemen could not simply ask a lady to dance, rather they asked to write their names on the dance card attached by a ribbon to her wrist. They then would be assured of having at least one dance during the course of the evening.
Although Maggie, Eli’s wife, spent many years running a boarding house, she actually comes from a well-to-do family. The evening at the ball opens Eli’s eyes about this side of Maggie’s history as he watches her from the sidelines. And, the poor guy indeed is sidelined in the truest sense of the word. If you have read the series, you’ll know that an encounter with a bullet to his left leg has left Eli with a limp and pain (probably caused by ligament damage). He is forced to use a cane to get safely around. Thus, he spends much of the evening watching his wife dance with other men. It’s not a happy experience for him, as you can see from the excerpt below. I’m not sure he has forgiven me for it.
Over the next few hours, Eli watched in amazement as his wife executed waltzes, polkas, a schottische, a quadrille, several galops, and a Virginia reel. He realized that underneath the humble boarding house owner was a woman who had been trained in the social graces. Although she tried to spend time sitting on the side with him, other men had noticed Maggie’s social graces and the low cut of her gown. At one point, Eli finally took Maggie by the elbow and led her to the refreshment room, so she could rest – and he could control his jealousy.
In the new book, which has yet to have a working title other than “Untitled” (how original of me!), the little party planned at Greybeal House with Shelby as the musician will be less formal. There probably will be far more quadrilles (also known as square dances) than waltzes. The women will not have dance cards. No one will be in formal attire. It simply will be a fun time for all to kick back, relax, and celebrate the progress made on building new houses on Water, Fourth, and Main Streets after the devastation of the Great Fire (see A Good Community for that story).
As I mentioned in a March blog post, the new book also most likely will involve a health crisis. One of the diseases common to the Civil War era was typhoid fever. I have been mulling over a story about an outbreak in Blaineton for a couple of years now and it most likely will be the main plot of the story. Right now, I’m writing “getting to know you” scenes to establish the characters and set up the main plot. Sometimes I cut or change this early material as I see fit, so anything I write now is not firm.
All that said, my Monday blog will focus on typhoid fever and Typhoid Mary, as well as other people who spread the disease.
So that’s what been happening writing-wise for me in between working at home for First United Methodist Church, getting weekly groceries in a face mask, staying in touch with family and friends, and walking Vida the dog several times a day.
Until then, stay safe and well, friends.
 A dance like the polka.
 A square dance that, as its name implies, involves four couples.
 A dance for couples done to music having two beats to the bar. The dancers move quickly, hence the name “galop” or “gallop.”
 The venerable American country dance. The dancers begin by facing each other in two lines.
Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder