Well, This is Complicated...
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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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Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder