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Well, it IS. I’m not kidding.
Of course, “this” and “it” refer to my new work-in-progress.
A few years back, I got the hare-brained idea that Blaineton was due for an epidemic. Little did I know I’d start working on the story in the middle of our very own pandemic.
The writing life truly is weird. Sometimes authors manage to hook into important subject matter or themes that coincide with real life subject matter and themes.
Then again, some of what we do is conscious and planned. “Hmmm… our culture right now is dealing with racism, what if my characters [insert theme-based plot here]?” And that’s how a story based on a real-life issue takes off.
But sometimes authors don’t even see a connection between their work and reality until it smacks them upside the head. In my case, the storyline arose because I was wondering how mid-19th century people would deal with an epidemic. As I’ve said previously, my characters live right before embraced germ theory was embraced by doctors and scientists. They do not know there is such a thing as bacteria, that a particular bacterium called salmonella typhi is responsible for typhoid fever. So it would be challenging (not to mention interesting) for me to write about that.
That said, COVID-19 and typhoid fever of course are completely different diseases and spread in completely different ways. COVID-19 appears to be a respiratory disease transmitted through the droplets we exhale with every breath. (Note: we are still learning more about COVID-19, so information may change at any point) On the other hand, typhoid fever is a gastro-intestinal malady spread through contact with food contaminated by excrement infected with salmonella typhi.
Just the same, it feels weird to be working on a project about the spread of a disease with no known treatment in my fictional world while a similar thing is happening in my actual world. That’s part of the “it’s complicated” thing.
The other part is this: I didn’t realize how complex it can be to write a story in which typhoid fever is the bad guy. For one thing, I had to learn as much as I could about the disease, its symptoms, and progress, as well as what people of the 1860s in the USA knew or didn’t know about it.
While it is not unusual for me to write a timeline for my books, this one was particularly challenging. I needed to determine when and how the disease first appears in the story; how many people (and who) take ill and/or die; how the disease progresses through the first-infected group; and how, why, and when it spreads outside the initial location of the infection. And I have to do all this knowing how the outbreak happens even as the characters never have a clue.
All of this demanded a rigorous, rather detailed timeline. Here’s what part of it looks like.
At the same time, I began writing the manuscript because my characters always need to about 50 pages get reacquainted with one another, reestablish their relationships, and generally do a bit of business. Into that I mix, I inserted a new character, Shelby Garrison, who is a traveling musician. I also added a female character, a waitress at the Norton Arms restaurant and wicked-good fiddler by the name of Millie Turner. And surprise (or not)! Shelby immediately becomes smitten with her. Ah, love…
Anyway, once I had something on paper, I decided to toss the timeline notes into the body of the manuscript. That way, it would all be in one place so I will know what to do, what to change, or what to dump as I write. Here’s a sample of that:
PLEASE NOTE: What you’re seeing is first draft material. if you happen to read some of the text you might say, “What is she thinking???” And you’d be right, because you have discovered what all authors know: first drafts stink on ice. Actually, all authors know that their first 39 drafts stink! I’m exaggerating a bit, but you get the picture.
Another truth is that writing a first draft is only part of the process. A sizeable chunk of creating a novel involves multiple revisions and hours and hours of editing. It’s hard work. The process is pretty much the same for all of us, although we differ on who we get to be our editors and beta-readers. Some of us can afford to hire professionals. Some recruit friends or interested contacts who will give an honest appraisal, not to mention suggestions. Right now I use the “friends/interested contacts” option, but I’d like to add a professional to the mix once I can afford it.
After all, I’ll need all the help I can get because the elements in this novel are so complex.
Now, here’s a fun side note for this blog having to do a title change. If you look carefully, you may notice that the draft in manuscript screenshot is labeled “Epidemic Draft” but the header in the manuscript has another title, “A Balm in Gilead.” Yes, I renamed the book but neglected to change the file name. That has been corrected since I took the screen shot.
That title may seem kind of weird to you. Why would I name the book “A Balm in Gilead”? Answer: the phrase came up at church. It is Jeremiah 8:22: “Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then has the health of my poor people not been restored?” I realized that the verse connects with Maggie’s style, with Maggie herself, and with the situation that my characters are facing. Everyone in the story is or will be seeking spiritual, physical, and emotional relief (a “balm,” or a healing ointment, so to speak) during a frightening and difficult time.
Not surprisingly, I think the verse might connect with what we all might be thinking or praying these days, too. Once again, my fiction world intersects with my real life life.
Anyway, that’s all for now. May you find a “balm” this week, friends.
Janet R. Stafford
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I didn’t want to join another family. I mean, I had one of my own. I was happy.
I didn’t want to get adopted. But I did. I got adopted by a family who is not like me. And it changed my life.
Here’s the story.
In 2008 I had a rare opportunity. Two United Methodist churches were interested in me for a position as their Christian educator. One was a large, prosperous church located in Pennsylvania and peopled with important people, like CEO’s. The committee that interviewed me was primarily white and they were immensely proud of how influential their members were.
The second church was First UMC, a md-sized congregation located in Somerville, NJ. My interview was held at the parsonage that they had for the assistant pastor/Christian educator. I enjoyed my interview with them. They seemed like regular people. So, the next Sunday (I think), I decided to pay a visit to First UMC to see what their Sunday morning worship was like.
What I noticed right off the bat was that it was more racially and ethnically diverse than the other congregations I had served, all of which had been primarily white. I also was impressed by the passion they had for helping others and for being active in their community.
And then something else happened.
Part way into the service, a Black woman hurried in and plopped down in the same pew I was in. We exchanged a quick “hello.” At one point, she seemed restless, got up, and hurried out of the service. I wondered what was up. When she returned, I asked, “Are you okay?” She nodded and said that she was fine. Then the organist cranked up the next hymn. As we stood, I reached for the hymnal nearest me, but my pew-companion, shoved her hymnal at me and indicated that we were going to share.
I think I’ve mentioned in this blog that I’m an introvert. Sharing a hymnal with a total stranger makes me uneasy. I did it, anyway, though. Obviously, the woman was being hospitable, and it would be rude to insist that I use a hymnal of my own. It also might cause her to think I was refusing because she was Black. And that wasn’t it at all. So I dealt with my introversion and we stood and sung together from the same hymn book.
Aside from the Staff-Parish Relations Committee, this woman was the first person I met at the church where I soon would be starting a new position. (By the way, after nearly 12 years, I’m still at that church.)
Over time, I got to know the woman. She was low-income and hard-working, doing everything in her power to get her three girls education and opportunities denied to her. She was – and still is – a Tiger Mother of the first order.
Since I’m a writer, aspects of this woman’s personality, as well as those of her daughters, have found their way into some of my characters. As I’ve said before, authors frequently borrow their character’s traits and quirks, speech patterns, and appearances from people they know, or are well-known, or have simply passed them on the street. For privacy’s sake, I’m going to give this woman and her daughters the names of some characters that grew out of my association with them. If you are a member of my church and/or you know me, you will figure out who they are. However, there’s no reason for everyone else in the world to know.
So, I’m going to call the mother Matilda, from the Saint Maggie series. And I’ll call the daughters Harriet, Rosa, and Lena, from Heart Soul & Rock’n’Roll, although they also make appearances in the Saint Maggie series under different names. All except for Rosa, though. Somehow her name crossed genres.
I believe it was in 2010 that Harriet, the oldest daughter, entered the church’s youth group, Matilda asked if I could pick her up and drive her to the meetings. At that time, Matilda could not drive and did not have a car. I agreed and came Harriet’s chauffeur.
Harriet was (and is still) bright, open, and gifted with the impressive talent of asking tons of questions about a gazillion issues. I seriously loved those car rides with her. I still miss them!
And then it was time for Harriet’s first summer mission trip. It was going to involve home repair and we would be traveling from New Jersey to Tennessee. As the group hopped into vans to head to our destination, I abruptly realized that I was taking a Black child into an unknown situation. And it was very, very scary. Suddenly I was responsible for Harriet’s well-being.
Needless to say, I became Matilda’s stand-in. I don’t know if Harriet knows this or not, but when we made pit stops for bathroom breaks and snacks, I shadowed her all around the minimarts. No one was going to mess with my young friend. Because if they did, I was going to mess with them. Simple as that.
I did that for the entire trip.
I did it for Rosa and Lena, too. If they were in my care, I was Second Mom, or perhaps more accurately Adopted Auntie.
Like their sister, Rosa and Lena were amazing, but completely different. Rosa is articulate, aware, and a budding activist. The biggest compliment I have ever received came from her: “You’re the only person I know who can step out of being white.” Wow. I’m still not sure I’m worthy of that honor, but hearing her say it… what can I say?
The youngest sister, Lena, is shy, soft-spoken, and artistic. She used to show me her drawings. She always seemed to be sketching. I hope she gets the opportunity to let her gifts shine.
I still love all three young women. Harriet graduated from college this year. Rosa and Lena are attending college. I miss seeing them. But, as an experienced youth worker, I know kids grow up and develop lives of their own. Sometimes they re-establish contact with me, but most don’t. Just the same, I wish every single one of them well.
Matilda tells me that I helped raise her daughters. I don’t know about that. But I did my best to be another caring adult in their lives. And if I, an unrelated, white person, experienced anxiety and fear about what might happen to those girls on mission trips and at youth group activities, then I cannot – simply cannot – imagine how parents of children of color make it day after day, year after year bearing that fear and anxiety.
And yet they do it because they must. They do it because they love.
My time as an adopted aunt was life changing. So is knowing Matilda, which is on-going. We have had our share of crazy experiences, including a trip down a one-way street in Philadelphia, a scene that really deserves to be in a book or a movie. I mean, we missed death by car crash only by the grace of God. I’m not kidding.
Here’s the crux of this particular blog. I got to know people of color. I learned to listen. And I learned to love people who were not like me. I was honored to enter their family in my small way.
That’s why I don’t understand a system in which only one group does well, gets the advantages, feels safe, and doesn’t worry about getting killed by someone who hates them. Things have to change.
Black Lives Matter.
Go in peace, friends.
Janet R. Stafford
When I last posted, I wrote about how a high school teacher taught me to listen and started me on a path that I didn’t even realize I was on. I only recognized that I was on a path in later life. Funny how that happens.
Here are some highlights.
I either have placed myself or found myself among people who aren’t like me at various points in my life. In 1972, I transferred out of a college where I was majoring in English, and into Seton Hall University in South Orange, NJ, where I majored in Asian Studies. There I learned to speak, read, and write Chinese. Truthfully, that “read” and “write” part is kind of iffy. Written Chinese is comprised of characters, rather than an alphabet, which means we had to memorize the character for each word in order to read. We even used flash cards to help with the memorization. In the end, though, my peers and I decided that we were illiterate, despite two years of intense study.
While at Seton Hall, I made friends, many of whom were from Asia or of Asian descent. And because of that, I got to experience something many white people do not. One evening I went out with friends to a nightclub. While we were seated at a table, listening to the music, laughing, and enjoying being young adults, something hit me upside the head like a two-by-four. I was the only white person at our table. Everyone else was Asian (primarily Japanese or Chinese). The realization actually was disorienting. I suddenly felt as if I stuck out like the proverbial sore thumb and wondered what other people were thinking (i.e., “what is she doing with them?” or “what are they doing with her?”). After a moment of feeling weird and out of it, I decided, “Screw it,” and went back to enjoying the evening.
But I’m white. I get to say, “screw it.” A few hours later, I returned to being an insider. Not everyone is afforded that luxury. For some people “screw it” simply is not an option. They are stuck on the edges. Always.
Later, in my mid-30s, I finally answered that call from God. Have I mentioned that God doesn’t give up? God doesn’t. God is a total nudge. And all that nudging paid off, because I enrolled in the M.Div. program at Drew University in Madison, NJ.
During my time at seminary, I once again was reminded that I needed to relate to, listen to, and work with people who were not like me. One class was particularly good at this. It was called “The Black Religious Experience.” We had the usual readings, papers, discussions, and a requirement to attend one service at a Black church. But the class also gave me a huge “ah-ha” moment during one of our first meetings. I can’t remember how we got there, but the African American students among us suddenly began talking about what it was like to be Black in the United States. They spoke their pain and as I listened, part of me wanted to scream, “Hey, wait! I didn’t do that. I respect you. It wasn’t me.”
But thank God (the nudge), something (or Someone) told me to shut my brain off and my emotions up and just … well, just sit and listen and deal with the pain. After all, I intuited, my fellow students have to deal with that pain every day. Surely, I could take it for one class. JUST. LISTEN.
So I did. And it hurt. I’m not kidding. It hurt so bad to hear my fellow students’ stories. But I learned something important: if we stop listening, then we stop trying to understand, and if we stop trying to understand, then we stop caring, and if we stop caring… then we don’t help.
I never want to stop caring. I never want to stop listening, even if I do it imperfectly. Even if I blunder and say stupid things while trying to help. I still want to listen and try to be a better human to other humans.
Always a glutton for punishment, I returned to Drew University and enrolled in the Ph.D. program in American Religion and Culture in my early 40’s. The plan was to get the degree and teach at a theological school. Plans are great. I’m still working at a church, and God is still a nudge.
Anyway, I lived in what was then the Graduate and Theological School dormitory. And once again, I found myself among a diverse group. The dorm was home to people from other nations Students from Africa, Europe, and Asia, as well as white and Black Americans. The diversity included age. Many grad students were in their early-to-mid 20s, while the theology students ranged from their 20s into their 60s. And then there was a smattering of crazy midlife grad school students like me. And yet, somehow, we all got along, although not without the occasional spat or frustration.
Oddly enough, if memory serves me correctly, the thing that caused the most contention in our diverse little household were cooking odors. That’s right. Cooking odors. As it turns out, one person’s delightful aroma was another person’s horrendous stench. Who knew? And since every floor had a mini kitchen (and there were three floors), we were permitted to smell each other’s culinary masterpieces morning, noon, and night. Good times. Actually, I’m not being sarcastic. Those were good times.
The final part of my journey (thus far) will be up on Friday.
Keep open, my friends.
Janet R. Stafford
(Please read the article if you want to know more about what was going on that year_
I wasn’t going to publish this so soon, but I believe it’s important to tell my story, because it explains why I write what I do. As I have meditated on this, it explains why Maggie is the way she is. Someone once wrote in a review of my first book, “Janet R. Stafford is Saint Maggie.”
I used to argue that I’m not. She’s too good. And there’s a part of me that is also Eli.
But I think I can see where, like a child, she has some of my DNA.
What follows is one of those DNA strands.
As I mentioned in the previous blog, a big jump in my growth as an individual occurred during my sophomore year in high school. When I walked into my Block of Time class (translation: English/Social Studies/History) for the first time in the fall of 1967, I found a young Black man standing at the front of the class. His name was John Pinkard.
Now, I have no idea what it must have been like to have been the only African American teacher in a school full of lily-white students. And I’m not saying that because of him I became totally woke. Far from it. Being “woke” is a journey and I’m still on it. A long one. But John Pinkard was one of the important people who walked with me on that journey.
I think one of the ways Mr. Pinkard hooked us was that he was funny. Hey, humor is a powerful ice breaker, as well as a mighty weapon! But he also was honest with us. We saw that he actually cared about what we thought and what we learned. And, additionally important, he helped us navigate the tumultuous school year of 1967-1968.
Here’s some highlights from 1967: The USA was in the thick of the Vietnam war. The hippie movement was in full swing – the “Summer of Love,” drugs like LSD and marijuana were openly discussed (and used). There were protests: a violent one against Dow Chemicals (maker of napalm) in Madison, WI. A more peaceful one, the “March on the Pentagon,” drew 50,000 protestors in October. Black Panther leader Huey Newton got into a gun battle when he was pulled over at a traffic stop. The Beatles released their album, “Magical Mystery Tour.” African Americans rioted in Newark and in Detroit (the Detroit riot lasted 8 days). That also was the year in which first successful heart transplant was performed in South Africa.
The first half of 1968 was equally as full. North Korea seized the USS Pueblo, for allegedly spying and violating territorial waters agreements. The Tet Offensive in Vietnam began in January in which Viet Cong soldiers launched surprise attacks on US troops. The US Embassy in Saigon was attacked and then the My Lai Massacre gave the US effort in Vietnam a public-relations drubbing. Activity by militant students was ongoing in the form of protests in support of Black Power and against the Vietnam War. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in April. President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1968. Student riots erupted in Paris, France. Sen. Robert Kennedy, who was running for president, was assassinated that June.
All we needed to hit us was a pandemic. That avoided us. Thank God.
I remember a couple of specifics about Mr. Pinkard as a teacher, but the one I’m going to write about is the most significant. So here we go.
One day the class got into a discussion about the Black Panthers. The crux of the conversation seemed to be integration vs self-determination and separatism. Most of us took the pro-integration stance, since everything we were hearing or seeing or reading about the Black Panthers felt pretty scary. Mr. Pinkard tried to lift up the reasons a group of African Americans might not want to integrate. Then – and I cannot remember the specifics of this part – somehow our teacher mentioned that he knew someone who was a Black Panther and that it was too bad that we couldn’t heard the ideas directly from him. And then somehow the idea emerged about inviting the Black Panther to our class.
Predictably, the administration of the school did not love this. But they did something amazing now that I look back upon it. They negotiated. They said that we could have the man visit us but it had to be on a couple of conditions: 1) that it would be in the evening rather than during public school hours; and 2) that a parent must sign a permission slip and must come with us.
And, ladies and gentlemen, that is how a wide-eyed, white, high school sophomore got to listen to and ask questions of a Black Panther during the school year of 1967-1968.
I wanted to go. I don’t know or remember what my parents said or didn’t say. But do I know that I went and my dad was with me.
My memories of our speaker was that he was intense, logical, knowledgeable, and patient. After a rather long discussion about the integration vs. self-determination/separation argument, he finally leaned forward, put his elbows on the table, and said, “Listen, imagine this: you have a hot cup of strong, black coffee. Then you add some cream. What happens?”
After a silence, someone finally said, “It’s diluted.”
“I rest my case,” he said and sat back. “We need to stay strong.”
I now know that he was using the same image also used by Malcolm X to make the same point. And I get it.
But I was in my mid-teens and was kind of annoyed. Indignant, I tried to think of a similar analogy. In my head, I was saying, “Oh, yeah? Well, what if you take a glass of nice cold milk? And what if you add chocolate syrup to it? You’ll get…”
Yeah… you'll get what?
A tasty treat sensation.
The chocolate syrup makes the milk more interesting and palatable.
And then somehow I got it. Integration might work for white people, but not necessarily for Black people. And maybe not at that point in history.
Again, I didn’t become woke from this. But I was learning to look at things from another person’s perspective. And that was invaluable.
And that is why I will always be grateful to John Pinkard. He gave me a great gift. The gift of listening.
Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder