In the full-length novels, I deal with larger subjects such as racism, slavery, women’s rights, mental illness, murder, and of course the American Civil War. But the short stories and novellas seem to concentrate among personal issues common to most people: hope, holidays, family, growing up, making mistakes, and so on.
My first short story, “The Christmas Eve Visitor,” takes place during a roaring snow storm in December of 1863, while Maggie and family still in Pennsylvania. A fever and cough has stricken the children. While such things may not be overly-concerning today and addressed with a visit to the doctor and proper medication and rest, in the mid-1800s medicine was in its infancy and a fever and cough could turn into bronchitis or pneumonia – and lead to death. So, the family is having a worrisome, rather than a hopeful or joyous Christmas Eve. Suddenly, a little peddler by the name of Ira Strauss comes to their door. When Maggie takes him in and gives him supper, the little stranger proceeds to give gifts to each member of the family. The tale is one of those “Christmas miracle” stories. It was fun to write and any sappiness is corrected by Eli’s skepticism. "The Christmas Eve Visitor" is a good introduction to Maggie and family if one does not wish to purchase an entire book.
Two years later, I wrote a second story, “The Dundee Cake,” another Christmas story. I had wanted to write a Christmas story every year, but frankly I’m just not that organized. However, I hope to write enough to make a collection later. “The Dundee Cake” takes place in 1852 and we find widow Maggie Blaine trying to run a boarding house by herself after the death of Aunt Letty Blaine and mothering Lydia and Frankie. It was fun writing her two daughters as little girls! They exhibit their essential cores here: Lydia is rational and thoughtful, while Frankie is full of exuberance and impulse. In desperation, Maggie finally hires a woman named Emily Johnson to help her with the cooking. Emily is black and does not talk much, but the two women find common ground: both women have had miscarriages and Maggie has lost both her husband but her little boy Gideon to rheumatic fever. And so begins a life-long friendship and it is a good thing: a fire damages the Johnson’s shack, making it uninhabitable. Maggie is determined to help her new friends, but will she be able do that and have enough left over to provide Christmas dinner for her boarders? To me, the story feels very 19th century and I love it. At the back of the book, I added a recipe for Dundee cake, a type of fruit cake. I’ve yet to make it – but Dan and I intend to tackle it once fall arrives and the weather is cooler! (Dan's mother used to make a fruitcake, which he says was not like the dreaded canned kind that make better doorstops than dessert.)
The Enlistment, a novella (longer than a short story and shorter than a full-length novel), is set in August 1862. It is identified as a "Frankie Blaine Story," so yes, I am going to spin Frankie off at some point. Lydia might get her own series, as well. But let's talk about the novella right now. The New Jersey Fifteenth Volunteer Infantry is recruiting in at Camp Fair Oaks in Flemington, NJ, and Frankie’s beau, Patrick McCoy, and Lydia’s husband, Edgar Lape, go off to enlist. Frustrated that women cannot join the army and wanting to be with Patrick, Frankie cuts her hair, puts on boy’s clothing, and sneaks away to Flemington. Unfortunately, the men in the recruitment tent take one look at her, mistake her for a fourteen-year-old boy, and laugh. They tell her that she’s too young to join the army. Moreover, the drum and bugle corps is full and has no openings. Frankie is left adrift in the regimental camp and far from home. However, before Maggie and Eli can get to her and before she can locate Patrick, she comes upon the regimental laundresses and makes friends with the ones assigned to Patrick's company. When she tells them that she is a girl, she is invited to work with them, since they need one other laundress to make a full complement of four. Frankie becomes close to the youngest washerwoman, a sixteen-year-old black girl named Rosa Hamilton. Frankie's adventures also include meeting and speaking with a woman who is “passing” as a soldier. This story was enjoyable to write, because I learned about woman soldiers in the Civil War and even how the laundry was done and how laundresses were hired. The tale is pitched to be read by young adults as well as by older folks. And in case you're wondering how on earth women could disguise themselves as men and not be noticed in the nineteenth century, I included an annotated bibliography at the end.
My latest novella, The Great Central Fair, is a story about love and decisions that occur during a visit to Philadelphia's Sanitary Fair of 1864. It is still in the works but look for it to come out at the end of September – “God willin’ and the crick don’t rise,” as Grandpa O'Reilly might say.
All stories are available at the Squeaking Pips Store and other distributors. You also can pick them up as ebooks at Kindle.
Next week I’m digging into Eli: a skeptical man who is being chased by the Eternal.
See you on Monday!
Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder