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I always find it difficult to start a novel. I don't know any authors who find it easy. In fact, nothing about writing is particularly easy. Along with writing a story, we have to ask ourselves a bunch of questions. What will intrigue a reader? What will entice a reader? As far as my own reading habits go, an interesting character, a good description, or a teaser will pull me in. So I tend to write that way.
The Saint Maggie stories have started a variety of ways. Sometimes I use excerpts from Maggie’s journals. In Saint Maggie, the first paragraphs are a journal entry set in April of 1861 that lets us know changes have occurred during the course of the year that previously would have been unimaginable for Maggie.
Maggie’s Journal, 16 April 1861
The changes that have occurred over the past year for my country and my family have been great. In the spring of 1860, I would not have been able, nor would have dared, to imagine that which has transpired.
I was so delighted when the Presiding Elder came to me and asked if my boarding house could find a room for the new minister. At last, I thought, perhaps the people of Blaineton will afford me and my establishment some respect. This past year has taught me some hard lessons, indeed.
Those who know history know that the conflict as the Civil War broke out in 1861, which explains Maggie’s reference to changes happening in her country. But what happened to her family? It seems to be connected to the arrival of a new boarder, the Methodist minister.
Suddenly, we are in April of 1860, a year earlier, and find Maggie and her household preparing for the arrival of the Rev. Jeremiah Madison. Abuzz with activity and character introductions, the scene seems perfectly normal, but we are starting the journey toward the great, unthinkable changes that will happen over the year.
I have begun other novels with a bang. In the case of Walk by Faith, that bang happens to be a major fire.
She stood watching the flames lick upward. The air outside was bitterly cold as snow fell thick from a starless sky. And yet the heat coming from the house was strong – strong enough to make her sweat even though she was in the middle of the square.
Maggie Smith clutched her adopted son, Bob as if she was afraid the fire would shoot out and snatch him from her arms.
How did this horrible thing happen? Bewildered and strangely numb, she could only stand and watch as the Second Street Boarding House was swallowed up.
The disaster sets in motion a series of decisions leading Maggie to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, Eli’s hometown. And, of course, we all know what happened there.
But now I’m on the fifth book in the series. After messing around quite a bit, I decided on a teaser that starts with a rather a scary scene in 1 August 1864 and then flashes back to 14 June 1864.
The paragraphs at the start of the book get repeated toward its conclusion. Having it start the book might make the reader wonder what on earth is going on in Blaineton. Why is Maggie smelling smoke? Has there been another fire? What’s with the angry voices? Is she going to be burned at the stake? (Don’t be silly. She hasn’t been transported to Salem, Massachusetts in 1692.) Why does Maggie feel that she must speak? What is she going to say?.
Then we shift to a day in June of the same year. Eli is off to visit his employer, Tryphena Moore, publisher of The Register, Blaineton’s newspaper. He wants to start putting ads in the paper and hopes to pitch the idea to Josiah Norton, owner of the new Norton Arms Hotel.
Meanwhile, at Greybeal House, Emily Johnson has gone into labor – something which has taken Lydia and Birgit out of play in the kitchen right at dinner time. Maggie suddenly has found herself short-handed with only Moira Brennan and her youngest daughter Frankie as help. Frankie, as you may or may not know, is decidedly non-domestic by nature. She’s so bad in fact that she enlists Nate Johnson to snap beans for her. In a way, it makes sense, since Nate is sitting nervously at the kitchen table as he waits for his wife to give birth to their second child. Frankie decides she might as well give him something to do.
As I have noted before, my full-length novels have a pattern. They’re kind of like an unattended pressure cooker.
(Image from ClipArtLibrary.com. Personal Use License.)
I put the veggies and meat in, add water or broth and shut the lid. Steam slowly starts to build until eventually it explodes all over the place. This novel follows the pattern. We start with Maggie’s household. People are doing different things. It's a busy and congenial place. Then I add a new ingredient: the arrival of two young girls, Mary and Addie Brooks, who happen to be African American. The pressure starts building until – boom!
You’ll have to read the book when it comes out to get the full effect. But just know that I put the teaser in at the beginning as a hint of what is to come.
See you on Friday! Have no idea what I'll be writing about, so it'll be a surprise for me, as well.
Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder