When Fact and Fiction Overlap
Map of Belvidere, NJ (from Google Maps)
One of the weirder experiences I’ve had when talking with a book club happened when I was first making the rounds with Saint Maggie.
Now, as I’ve noted before, Saint Maggie is a fictional work based on the research I did on Rev. Jacob Harden, a Methodist minister living in 1850s Warren County, NJ. He was sent to a congregation whose membership had dropped and had been busted down to “mission church” status. In the course of a year, Harden managed to double the church’s membership. He also was handsome, but I suspect rather naïve about the mothers plotting to have him marry their daughters.
Long story short, Harden ended up in a shotgun wedding. The marriage was far from happy and, at a loss over what to do, Harden took extreme measures that ended in a trial.
I was always open about where I got the character for my novel’s Jeremiah Madison as well as the basis for the trial in Saint Maggie. Because of this, I was invited to speak to a book club in Belvidere, NJ, where the trial took place. The trial was a big deal. The crime was shocking and a man of the cloth was involved. So, the members of the book club were familiar with Harden’s story.
During my evening with the club, I happily described how I changed some of the aspects of the story. For instance, I chose to invent a boarding house for the minister to live in rather than having him rent a room in a home (which was what Harden did). It felt too claustrophobic to have the minister rooming with just two other people (the husband and wife who owned the place). So I created Maggie, a widow, her two teenage daughters, friends Emily and Nate Johnson, and four boarders at the bottom of the social ladder. I added a love interest for Maggie in the form of Eli Smith, so she would not fall in love with her new minister, Jeremiah Madison.
I named my story's town Blaineton. Like Belvidere it is located along the Delaware River. Like many New Jersey towns, Blaineton has a First Street, Second Street, Third Street, and so on. It also has a square. And it has a street called Water Street, where the black population of Blaineton live.
My conversation with the group continued, one of the members said, “You know, Belvidere has a Water Street, too.”
I was surprised. I had not looked at a map of the town and had no idea Belvidere had a street by that name. But it does, although it runs to the waters of the Delaware, rather than running alongside the river, as Blaineton’s Water Street does .
That comment was followed by another book club member saying, “You know, I think black people did live on our Water Street back in the day.”
I was thrown off guard by this. Now, that was weird. How could I explain this bit of synchronicity? Had I read the information about Belvidere at some point in time and was it called up from the depths of my brain as I wrote? Or was this some kind of spooky weirdness?
Blaineton, NJ (Fictional Town), as conceived by Janet Stafford and drawn by Dan Bush: We did use Belvidere as a template for this, but the map was drawn for Seeing the Elephant. I had no map for Saint Maggie.
Another person said, “I heard the old newspaper office had an Underground Railroad station in the cellar.”
Now that was really creepy! In Saint Maggie, our heroine, Eli, and the Johnsons are station masters for an Underground Railroad stop. It is located in a tunnel located between Maggie’s boarding house and the outbuilding that Eli uses as the office for his penny-weekly newspaper, the Gazette.
By now, the coincidences were freaking me out. I listened as other people around the table discussed whether anyone had investigated the cellar or was the UGRR station just a rumor.
Since that time, I have tried to learn more about the newspaper office in Belvidere but have been unsuccessful online. I’m just going to have to go to the town's library and do onsite research to answer my question.
The next topic of conversation in the group made my mouth drop open. They started chatting about which house on the square might have been Maggie’s!
At that point I was thinking, Whoa, people! Maggie’s fictional. The boarding house isn’t real!
That whole conversation is so cool. To me, it means that the people of that book club had loved my story enough to pay attention to its details and were trying to draw connections between Blaiineton and Belvidere. In essence, "how much of us in is in that book?"
This is why I love visiting book clubs and groups. You never know what is going to happen and where the conversation will take you.
If I learn anything about the Belvidere newspaper office and the Underground Railroad, I’ll be sure to let you know.
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Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder