People sometimes ask me how I come up with my characters. To some degree, the people in my books develop organically. That is, they grow as I work with them. But, they do start from somewhere, someplace, or some person. I’ll spend the next few blogs talking about how I came up with the principal characters.
As many of you know, the original story for Saint Maggie was based on a real event that happened in Warren County, NJ around 1858. It involves a young, up and coming minister named Jacob S. Harden who commits a heinous crime.
When I first started thinking about fictionalizing this disturbing and tragic story, I decided that I did not want to tell it from the minister’s perspective. Some authors are good at giving us the antagonist’s perspective, but I’m not one of them.
I needed to tell the story through the eyes of another person, instead.
My research revealed that the small church served by Harden lacked a parsonage and so arranged for him to rent a room in the house of a nearby couple. Maybe. A landlady would make a good narrative voice.
But one thing bothered me. The idea of a young pastor renting a room from a single landlady didn’t feel right for a couple of reasons. First, the church probably would have placed the minister with a couple for the sake of propriety. Second, the setting felt claustrophobic. The landlady needed people around her with whom she could relate. I realized I could solve my problem by placing the minister in a boarding house, rather than have him rent a single room.
The next questions I asked myself was, “Who is this landlady?”
Since we’re dealing with a minister, I decided that she should be a member of his church. The historical church part of the denomination known as the Methodist Episcopal Church. I decided to keep it the same because a) I’m a United Methodist; b) I had a Ph.D. in North American Religion and Culture; and c) I knew the culture of the denomination at that time. So my landlady would be a Methodist.
But it would be awkward if she were a young woman. Having her close in age to the minister might suggest that a romance was possible. I didn’t like that idea and decided she should be a middle-aged widow, 39 years of age. And, because of her age, I gave her two daughters, both of whom would be in their teens. This gave her an opportunity to have parental duties and concerns. And so, Lydia and Frankie were born. Lydia, eighteen years old, was calm, focused, maturing, and adept at medicine (and had become the family’s nurse). Frankie, all of fourteen, was outspoken, impulsive, emotional, and had a budding interest in religion.
The boarding house also opened the door to fill the book with other characters with whom she shared her house and her life. The men who live in the house, while not disreputable, should be low on the social pecking order: My imagination took it from there: Chester Carson, who once was a well-known author, but whose career faltered later in life; Edgar Lape, a struggling young attorney; Patrick McCoy, a teenager who is the undertaker’s apprentice; and James “Grandpa” O’Reilly, an old Irish immigrant of no fixed job. The common denominator among them would be lack of income. And that meant my landlady must have one heck of a big heart to let them continue to live in her house.
Of course, my big-hearted landlady needed a name. I chose Maggie, a nice, normal moniker, a boarding house owner’s name. Frankly, I don’t know where her maiden name (Beatty) and her first husband’s name (Blaine) came from. Sometimes I get last names from the phone book, sometimes I take names from my family tree (case in point, Edgar’s last name, Lape), and sometimes I just stumble upon them. I can’t recall where Maggie’s last names came from.
In the next blog, we’ll look at Maggie’s character and why she is who she is.