Long before the first shot is fired, people are aware that war is on the way. They may try to live their lives as usual, but there’s always something hovering over them that threatens to throw their world into chaos.
My characters in Saint Maggie live in New Jersey during the years1860-61, a time during which the prospect of a war between the states is ever present. In this scene, Maggie and the other women in her boarding house are in the parlor during Election Night of 1860. Maggie, Emily, and Leah are all pregnant. The men return to the parlor, having been outside among the rowdy, mostly male crowds.
The election campaigning had been vicious, replete with deplorable mud-slinging, but Nate was right. It was an important election. It grieved [Maggie] that Nate, because of his color, could not vote. She did not understand why New Jersey maintained such a law, nor did she understand why so many people in her town looked askance at Nate, Emily, and the handful of families on Water Street. They are people, she thought, just people. Why do others persist in seeing them as inferior?
Her musings made her angry and she began to mend with a vigor that bordered on the vengeful.
“Personally, I don’t care who wins,” Leah was grousing. “I’m tired. I think I’ll go to my room.”
“Good night, my dear,” Jeremiah said as she passed him.
“Good night,” she replied without any warmth whatsoever.
Carrie’s enthusiasm was undeterred. “Well, I think this is all very exciting!”
“In more ways than one,” Jeremiah told her. Suddenly he became quite somber. “Sadly, the outcome will most likely lead to disunion.”
“Perhaps you’re mistaken. Perhaps those elected will exercise good sense.”
“You’re a dear girl, Carrie. And you have great faith in mankind, but mankind possesses a sinful nature. I’m afraid common sense will not prevail in this case. Whatever the voters decide will cause rancor on one side or the other. The sad truth of it is everyone is anxious for a fight.”
Eli agreed. “Things are too far gone. Too much hatred and misunderstanding have piled up for too long.”
Mr. Carson lit his pipe. “Too true. The South hates us, and we do not exactly like them, either.”
“So the South will secede from the Union,” Patrick deduced. “Bet it’ll happen within the week.”
The older man smiled fondly at the boy. “No, no, my dear lad, it’ll take a bit longer than that, I should think.”
“But they’ll still secede. And then we’ll have war.”
“Oh, yes. War. No doubt about that.” He picked up one of the New York newspapers, sat down, and opened it. The pages crackled loudly. “No doubt at all.”
Eli noticed that Maggie was overly-focusing on her mending. He put a reassuring hand on her shoulder. “Hey, baby clothes!” he declared and, picking one of the items up, he whistled. “Will you look at the size of this? I’ve got some news for you, Maggie. No baby of mine will ever be able to fit into such a teeny thing.”
“Elijah Smith, I guarantee you that when our little one arrives it will be baby-size.”
At that moment, a loud crack echoed outside. It was followed by a long volley of rifle fire. Maggie flinched.
Eli squatted beside her. “It’s all right, sweetheart. It’s just some of the neighbors.” With a wink, he added, “Neighbors full of whiskey and armed with loaded weapons.”
“Somehow, my love, drunken men with guns is not a comforting idea.”
The men all guffawed.
“Oh, don’t worry,” Nate joked. “They’re just getting a little practice in.”
“They’re going to need it,” Edgar declared. “Pick up your rifles, men! Answer the call of your country!”
Patrick snapped to attention and saluted. “I’m ready to give my life for dear old New Jersey!”
“Fools,” Emily grunted. “You’re a bunch of doggone fools.”
Eli sighed, “Guess this just is a time for fools. The Union’s going to hell in a hand bucket.”
“Eli!” Maggie hissed.
He was instantly contrite. “Sorry.”
Nate elbowed Mr. Carson. “Looks to me like someone’s already henpecked.”
The men guffawed once again and Mr. Carson replied, “Not to worry. A turn in the army will take care of that. It will make him a man again.”
“All right!” Emily threw down her knitting and stood up. “You can just stop this nonsense right now. Your jokes aren’t funny and neither is all this talk of war. If there’s fighting, some of you will join our state’s militia and just might not come back. I don’t want to hear any more of this foolishness!”
Nate’s expression softened. “Em, honey, I wish I could make it go away. Just like I wish I could make slavery go away. But I can’t.”
She placed her hands protectively over her stomach. “Well, then, God help us. The world’s gone mad.”
The main plot of Saint Maggie is not about the ever-growing possibility of a civil war, but there is no way my characters are able to avoid the elephant sitting the corner. This is particularly true since Eli is a newspaperman, owning and printing the Gazette, a penny-weekly paper. It is also unavoidable because Nate and Emily (who are black) and Maggie and Eli (who are white) share the position of station master on an Underground Railroad stop. Finally, they live in a small town in New Jersey that has a telegraph and a railroad depot. They do not live in an isolated location. And so, like most nineteenth century Americans, Maggie’s family are voracious consumers of newspapers and periodicals, the main forms of media.
To incorporate the coming of the American Civil War into my story, I employed several techniques. First, having Maggie write a journal and Eli publish a newspaper allowed me to offer up their take on the news of the day. I also included brief historical information, usually at the start of a new chapter or a scene. Finally, I made use of conversation among the characters.
]In the scene above, I offer the information that the presidential campaign had been nasty. Then the characters take over. Their conversation reveals a shared opinion that there is little hope for a peaceful resolution between North and South. The members of Maggie’s household are abolitionist, yet each character reacts differently to the possibility of war. Jeremiah (a Methodist minister) and Eli (who was raised Quaker) are saddened by it. Maggie and Emily exhibit their fear for the babies they carry, for their husbands, and for what war might mean to their town. Mr. Carson is rather matter-of-fact. However, Patrick and Edgar, the younger men, seem eager to fight. Emily ends the discussion by reminding the men of the impact a war may have on them. After that, her husband, Nate, reminds her that there is not anything they can do to stop the approaching conflict.
I like weaving the greater historical events into my historical fiction. Even if the main plot focuses on a local incident, bringing in the larger story enlarges the texture and context of the novel.