I could make this a two-sentence blog. I did a research paper on an event that occurred in in Warren County, New Jersey in the late 1850s. My setting and period were pre-determined.
But that is not the full truth. I mean, it certainly was true of the first novel, Saint Maggie. But what about the rest?
When I started getting the “what happens next” question from readers who liked my characters and wanted more books about them, I had no idea what I was going to do. I liked the characters, too. Maggie is so kind and true to her beliefs, Eli is questioning and challenging, Frankie is delightfully outspoken, Lydia is calm and focused, Emily is honest and loyal, and Nate is direct and unafraid. They’re a good mix.
Around the time that I was visiting with book clubs, Dan and I had visited Gettysburg. Somehow the power, pain, and sadness of the place stuck with me and I thought, “I wonder what would happen if Maggie ended up in Gettysburg?” And I was off. How I got the family there in Walk by Faith involved having the boarding house and Gazette shop burn down and the family threatened by a gang of punks. They are particularly vulnerable, since Patrick and Edgar are in the army, and Eli and Carson are serving as war correspondents. The women, Grandpa O’Reilly, and Nate Johnson are left to fend for themselves. Nate has an especially rough time because Maggie’s brother, Samuel, hires him to work as chief wheelwright at his carriage manufactory (which now is making wagons for the army). Nate hits racism straight on when the younger men who report to him, decide to jump him after work one day. After another threat aimed also at Samuel and his family, it was time to leave.
Eli’s family were Pennsylvanians, which was a natural, since that is where many Quakers settled. Eli’s father, who owned a dry goods store, gravitated to Gettysburg and had a house built there. By 1863, the family still owns the house, but it is used by members of the African Methodist Episcopal Church to hide and move self-emancipators. With Eli’s Blaineton family in crisis, his sisters Becky and Sally arrange to have the family live in Gettysburg and help the AME church with its efforts. It was a great opportunity to look at life in the town before the battle. What surprised me was how many “alarms” there were. Weeks before the battle, the town’s folk were on edge and subject to rumors of Confederate incursions.
Little did I know that moving my characters to Gettysburg would be more than a one-book adventure.
Getting them back to Blaineton, New Jersey was problematic because, as I’ve said before, I planned to bring my cast of characters home in A Time to Heal. When they refused to move (they claimed they had issues, which indeed they did), I had to find a story post-Battle-of-Gettysburg. The problem: there are tons of resources on the battle, but they dry up once you are past July 3 or July 4. After considerable research, I focused on the hospital in the old Smith House (Gettysburg) and the Middletown house where Eli and Nate move their wives. The creation of Letterman General Hospital and a storyline regarding the departure of two Confederate soldiers from the Smith house brought things together for me. In this case setting and period determined what I was able to do plot-wise.
In Seeing the Elephant, I finally got everyone back to Blaineton (except for self-emancipator Matilda Strong and her daughter Chloe, who moved to Canada). Now I had a new problem. New Jersey never experienced a battle during the Civil War, so no more big, dramatic battle scenes. However, New Jersey did have a significant population of Copperheads (Democrats who opposed the war, wanted an immediate reunion with the South, and who disliked Republican Abraham Lincoln). They were on the opposite side of abolitionist and pro-war Republicans like Maggie and her family. (Except, of course, for Eli who is will never be pro-war, thanks to his Quaker upbringing.) However, I really did not want to go into that dynamic. Still, the setting dictated that local issues needed to rule the day. So I worked with Eli settling into his new position as Editor-in-Chief of the Blaineton Register, and with returning soldiers some of whom exhibit symptoms of what we now know is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, something with which Eli also struggles. My decision to introduce a Kirkbride-style insane asylum with a superintendent who promotes the Moral Treatment Method was worked for the time period. I also introduced a Gilded Age harbinger with industrialist Josiah Norton. It seems to me that my decision to return the family to the setting of Blaineton and following the family's timeline into 1864 are the things that dictated the plot.
My novella, The Enlistment, set in 1862, has Frankie disguising herself as a boy and running away to Camp Fair Oaks in Flemington to join (she hopes) her beau Patrick as part of the New Jersey Fifteenth Volunteers. The original idea was to have her run away. Research done for Walk by Faith, indicated that Patrick and Edgar likely would have signed up in August 1862, a big recruitment period for northwestern New Jersey. I was delighted to learn that Flemington was the location for the recruitment and found several sources, one of which had been written as a memoir by the regiment’s chaplain. In this case, I think history dictated the story’s period and setting.
The short story, The Christmas Eve Visitor, takes place in Middletown, Pennsylvania in 1863. The house is the setting, as a snowstorm has everyone stuck inside. Essentially, this story could have happened anywhere it snows. However, I wanted to set it in Christmas of 1863, a period during which the family still would be feeling the sting of the battle and the losses it brought. In this case, the needs of my story drove the period and setting.
The other Christmas short story is The Dundee Cake. I wrote it, not just because I wanted to do another Christmas story, but also because I wanted to do a prequel telling how Maggie and Emily became friends. I set it in 1852, a time during which widow Maggie Blaine was struggling to maintain a boarding house after the death of Aunt Letty. The location, of course, had to be Blaineton because that is Maggie’s hometown. It was the character of Maggie and her history that dictated the where and when of the story.
My most recent novella, The Great Central Fair originally was a story about Patrick returning home on leave before taking up his new post at Mower General Hospital in Philadelphia. It had been part of Seeing the Elephant but I cut it out because it muddied the novel’s main plot. Next, I tried to make it part of The Good Community, which I’m still writing. Once again, though, it got in the way. I cut it out and, not wanting to let go of the story, decided to turn it into a novella. Because of its previous location in The Good Community, the story had been set in June 1864, right after the events in Seeing the Elephant. What I didn’t realize was that the story's period coincided with the Philadelphia Sanitary Fair of 1864 (a huge event to raise funds for the Sanitary Commission). Serendipity? Maybe. Not only could my characters visit Philadelphia, but they also could go the fair (something they certainly would know about). I also could use a visit to the fair to enlighten readers about the series of sanitary fairs held during late 1863 and into 1864. Philadelphia also is the home of the photography gallery that shows Chester Carson’s work, as well, and I was able to write a small side-story about Carson’s relationship with Alfred Benning.
All things considered, my Maggie stories’ settings are determined sometimes by plotting, but also by previous books and by my characters and their history. As for the period… well, that was settled in the first book. Except for The Dundee Cake, they all fall into the 1860-1864 period. So far.
Tomorrow: I stop talking about my books and present a little information on the history of Labor Day.
Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder