Janet R Stafford

Eli Smacks Me Upside the Head



 Cane and clothing of Walter Scott. Public Domain.



 When I wrote SAINT MAGGIE, I didn’t realize the ramifications an incident toward the end of the book would have. Essentially, I condemned Eli to walk with a limp for the rest of his life, or the rest of the series, at any rate.


But I identify with this character I accidentally gimped up. I’m a gimp, too. I have arthritis in both knees. My entire family is riddled with arthritis, but don’t feel sorry for me. I am lucky. I live in the 21st century and can get knee replacements (once I start receiving Medicare if certain forces don’t take it away). Eli’s problem can’t be fixed. He’s stuck.


The good news – kind of – for him is that he would not have stood out among the men of his time. Walking sticks were all the rage. They had been for some time. So he could look like the height of fashion (Eli? Fashionable? Inconceivable!). That is until he started limping.


You may read more about the history of the walking stick at http://www.geriwalton.com/index.php/2014/10/walking-sticks/


But on to the real point of this blog: I was telling a friend how much of a struggle I had been having with SEEING THE ELEPHANT. The story was enormous, uncoordinated, and unconnected. Then, a couple of weeks ago, it was as if Eli grabbed me by the shoulders and yelled into my face, “This is MY story, dang it!” And you know what? It is. I realized I was digging into his trouble with nightmares. For him they are a symptom of PTSD. In his article, “Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and the Civil War,” (Examiner.com on 18 January 2013) Bob O’Connor describes the disorder this way:

The definition of the disorder (PTSD) is the severe trauma suffered by someone as the result of a terrible frightening, a life threatening situation or a highly unsafe experience. Often those who suffer re-live the experiences through re-occurring nightmares. Sometimes they become loners, avoiding people and places that remind them of the traumatic event. They can also become hyper-sensitive to experiences we might consider as being “normal.” (http://www.examiner.com/article/post-traumatic-stress-disorder-and-the-civil-war)


Civil War era physicians didn’t know what was going on with soldiers and civilians complaining of nightmares, heart palpitations, the sudden onset of alcoholism, the tendency to become loners, and other symptoms. The palpitations were called DaCosta syndrome, Soldier’s Heart, or Irritable Heart. Sometimes soldiers were sent to asylums for “exposure,” the belief that sleeping out of doors had somehow done mental or emotional damage to the soldier.


Eli knows something is wrong with him. He sees other men with varying symptoms, all of which emerged after they were in the military and had experienced warfare. However, he’s desperately afraid of being considered “mad,” as mental illness is looked upon as shameful. We’ve all heard stories of how nineteenth-century people suffering from mental illnesses or developmental disorders were shut up in attics, cells, or asylums. A man of Eli’s time is supposed to be independent and strong. The last thing he needs and wants is to be committed. So part of the story involves his journey with PTSD.


The other part of the story follows Eli’s growing dislike and suspicion of a wealthy industrialist by the name of Josiah Norton. Josiah is an early robber baron, or at least hints at what would come during the latter part of the century during the Gilded Era. No spoilers, though.


In short, when I looked back on all I had written, I saw that the storylines about the other characters were not the true center of the story. Oh, they’re definitely in the story, especially Frankie; but for the longest time, I did not know where the story’s center lay. Now I do, thanks to Eli, and I feel more confident that the book will be worth publishing and reading.


Keep a good thought in for me - or us, since we all know fictional characters take on a life of their own!


Rumination: I Didn't See It Coming


This is a non-fiction post. I don’t have any new fiction to share, but I do want to write about something that occurred to me recently. So here goes.


I’ve been living with Maggie Beatty Blaine Smith for years now. I first created her around 1999. That was when I decided to novelize the story and trial of Rev. Jacob Harden, a young pastor living in Warren County, NJ in the 1850s. He is Jeremiah Madison’s prototype and the trial at the end of in SAINT MAGGIE is based upon reports taken from three or four newspapers and, as crazy as it seems, brochure sold as a souvenir. I understand that the proceeds from chapbook were to go to help support his family, although I can’t help be wonder how much of a cut the hawkers got from it.


In the historical story, Harden rented a room from a married couple, but that setup felt too claustrophobic for my purposes. So I expanded the room rental into a boarding house and plopped it in the middle of town. That opened things up and gave me a number of characters to work with. The first character I created was, naturally, Maggie. She was a widow, struggling to make ends meet with a boarding house full of men who didn’t always pay her, and trying to raise her teenage daughters, the gentle, serious Lydia (Liddy) and outspoken, feisty Frances (Frankie). My Ph.D. was fresh then. I had studied North American Religion and Culture and had read a number of journals written by 19th-century evangelical Christians. Thus I made Maggie a Methodist, a logical choice. I was a member of the United Methodist Church and was in parish ministry. (I have served in six congregations to date as an educator and/or assistant pastor.)


I often describe Maggie as devout, but she’s not devout in a crazy, damn-you-all-to-hell-because-I-got-the-truth-so-you’d-better-do-it-the-way-I-say way. She’s devout because she really believes what Jesus says about love. When asked what the most important law was, Jesus basically replied, “Love God and love neighbor.” He also told his followers to forgive endlessly. These concepts Maggie embraces and tries to embody in her life. These are also the concepts that sometimes put her at odds with her neighbors and even with her church.


Maggie has been part of my life since 1999. That’s fifteen years. And she’s been intensively with me for six years, when I picked up the original draft in 2010 and began to revise it for publication. The first book then led to the creation of a series after readers began asking me “what’s next”. So I’ve been living with, thinking about, and putting to paper another human being for a long time. And, yes, we can say that Maggie is actually part of me, since she comes from my imagination and some of me must leak into her. When people try to identify me too closely with Maggie though, I also am quick to tell them that I have a lot in common with Eli, too. But we’ll deal with him in a later post – maybe.


What I did not expect was that Maggie would change me.


I’ve always been a “good girl.” I was the one in my group of teenage friends who always said when we were supposed to go home, that we were not supposed to sneak out of the house during a sleep-over, that we shouldn’t climb the fence to the community swimming pool and run around, that we shouldn’t put that stuffed dummy in the outhouse when we were camping with the Girl Scouts, and that we definitely shouldn’t have gone into that creepy abandoned house, even though the door was locked, nobody was around and it was cavernous and amazing and… well and then we heard a noise, all screamed at nothing and ran out (so obviously I was right).


So it should surprise nobody that I went into ministry. I put up a good fight, though, let me tell you. But God won. I had a professor in seminary who said God “noodged” some people rather than hit them over the head with a two-by-four. I am one of those people. To me, God is a noodge, an annoying, tireless noodge. If God’s noodging me, I might as well give up and get on with whatever it is I’m supposed to do.


It took Maggie, though to make me aware, really aware of the power and necessity of love. Now I find that I see other people’s pain and struggle more clearly. I understand that while I can’t solve all their problems, at least I can show them they are of value, no matter who they are.


Maggie has taught me the power of forgiveness. That forgiveness is not forgetting what happened, but letting go of its power over me so that I can live in the moment and not in the past.


Maggie has taught me about hospitality, about being open and welcoming to those I meet.


Maggie has taught me that even when prayer isn’t answered or not answered in the way I’d prefer, I still should keep praying. God may be big and mysterious and incomprehensible, but God is still there, even if we don’t feel a Presence.


Maggie has gotten under my skin and into my head. If writing is a process of opening oneself up to ideas and opinions and ways of being that maybe you wouldn’t do yourself, it may be considered as contemplative. Oh, it’s fun, too, and hard, and frustrating. But it's the contemplative side of writing that has changed me. Thanks to Maggie, I have become a bit better, a bit kinder, a bit more loving.


In one of my favorite scenes in WALK BY FAITH Eli, Carson, Patrick, and Edgar are sitting around a fire near the Sixth Corp’s camp in Virginia. The guys are laughing and playing cards and drinking. At one point, Eli, who excels in profanity, is teased by the others about how his language becomes squeaky clean around Maggie. Eli’s reply is, “I’m a better man for Maggie’s influence.”


I agree with Eli. The influence of a fictional character of my own design has made me a better person. Go figure.


I did not see that coming.


I did not see that coming at all.






I now have a reasonable draft of "The Dundee Cake: A Saint Maggie Short Story." It's not perfect. Probably still has a ton of typos and other issues that will make me scream when I look at it next. But for those who need a little Maggie fix, since SEEING THE ELEPHANT is taking forever to finish, it might help. Also, I don't have an ISBN for it yet, which is okay, because this is a freebie at the moment.



(federal house in Wellesley, Ma) image from http://www.tcroninarchitect.com/posts/page/2


I can't find a photo of a house that reminds me of what I see in my mind for Greybeal House, and I'm a terrible artist, so there you are. However, drawing above approximates the central portion of Greybeal House - only it's not brick, it's made of New Jersey stone and plastered over. Now imagine an old wing to the left and a newer wing to the right, and you've got it. Wow! That's a lot of imagining, isn't it?


In chapter 2 of SEEING THE ELEPHANT, Maggie’s family move into their new house. It’s an old estate that used to belong to the founding family of the town, and is indicative of a lifestyle that most of them have never experienced (with the exception of Maggie). What will they do with Greybeal House? Will they suddenly find themselves as leaders in Blaineton?  The war has had an impact on them all, most noticeably Eli. How will they deal with that?

 Currently, I'm in the middle of chapter 7, a chapter that requires some major work. But I’m getting there! In the meantime, here is the third draft version of chapter 2.


Rolling Out Chapter 1




I’m now working my way through the third draft (more or less) of SEEING THE ELEPHANT. I think the first chapter is in relatively good shape, so I’m going to post it here on my blog. Funny thing. During the last draft, I cut out a pile of material. Apparently, now I’m putting some of it back into draft #3. Actually, I put something back that I had cut out several drafts ago. I just felt the story’s opening needed to flow better. We’ll see how much I appreciate the flow when I start draft #4!


Anyway, one of the tasks when writing the first chapter of a saga/series is to help those who may not have read the initial book get a grasp on who the characters are, where they’ve been, and what they’re like without putting to sleep those who have read the other books. It’s sheer craziness.


So here is the current opening chapter. Excuse the typos and poor usage when they crop up. I’m not at that part of the process yet. I may be uploading chapters as I go along or perhaps only selected chapters. It’s still a work in progress.

That's my story and I'm sticking to it.



Doesn't Maggie Ever Get Annoyed?


And the answer to the question is "yes, she does." Usually she gets aggravated at Eli. Well, who wouldn't? He has a tendency to get himself in trouble when chasing down a story, he can be self-centered at times, and other times he seems to take her for granted. In short, he's a man. Okay, I'm sorry. I take it back. That was sexist. 

In this excerpt from SEEING THE ELEPHANT, there is an upheaval at the Western New Jersey Hospital for the Insane, and Eli has told several staff members that they may stay at Greybeal House (the new home for the Smith and Johnson family in Blaineton). We won't discuss the reason for the upheaval at the hospital,  or what Eli was doing there ("Spoilers, sweetie," as River Song often says to Doctor Who). We'll just look in on the marital politics between Eli and Maggie. Personally, I think Eli's lucky Maggie's not the sort to throw pots and pans.

By the way, Mary and Moira are two of the young ladies at Greybeal House who are "maids-in-training." More about that later. Maybe.





Slogging my way through the first draft of SEEING THE ELEPHANT. Just finished Chapter 7, which went on for ages. I'm thinking I'll be doing a great deal of cutting and look forward to printing an 8.5 X 11 copy so I can slash it to pieces. I promise I won't be that violent! But I do need to cut and rewrite quite a bit.

In this excerpt, Eli's new position at the Register requires him to secure the proper staff. He has placed an ad for a reporter and for a telegrapher. We come in when an unlikely applicant walks through the newspaper building's door. 






Monday freebie: The first chapter of SEEING THE ELEPHANT. (It's draft two or three.)


Part of this I uploaded last week, but here’s the entire chapter.

Maggie and family return to Blaineton, NJ after nearly a year in Gettysburg and Middletown. However, they bring with them baggage from the trauma of close contact with the war. The good news is that opportunities are there for them in Blaineton: a large house, an important job for Eli, the promise of money, and fresh starts for the rest of the family. But these things come with challenges, too, some of which raise their heads in this chapter.



Maggie and Friends Get an Idea


(Five O'Clock Tea, by Mary Cassatt, 1879)

First of all, I am aware that the image is later than 1864. I could tell by the hairstyle and clothing even before I saw that it was by Mary Cassatt. But the painting picks up some themes in the attached excerpt from the post-first draft of SEEING THE ELEPHANT. The ladies are obviously thinking about something as they enjoy a spot of tea. Having tea while you mull something over is a time-honored tradition - particularly if you hale from English ancestors or an English-inspired culture. 

And so the image reminds me of what is going on in this scene. Background: the family has returned to Blaineton - and to a new home, the overly-spacious Greybeal House. Maggie and Emily worry that they will not be able to keep up such a grand old home. When Maggie's sister-in-law Abigail pays a visit, the three brainstorm a solution.


Love, Love, Love (Seriously)




Maybe it's because I've been teaching a class called Disciple (which combines a Bible study with understanding one’s mission in life) or maybe it's because I helped publish Sherri Shumate's book, REAL Superheroes to the Rescue, but I now find myself looking for opportunities to be of service and show love.

In a country where anger and hate have become the norm, I think it’s about time that we stand up and start loving one another. Yes, I know. It’s completely unrealistic. Oh, yeah? I far prefer love to the alternative because alternative only puts us at each other’s throats.

Maybe it's because I've been teaching a class called Disciple (which combines a Bible study with understanding one’s mission in life) or maybe it's because I helped publish Sherri Shumate's book, REAL Superheroes to the Rescue, but I now find myself looking for opportunities to be of service and show love.


In a country where anger and hate have become the norm, I think it’s about time that we stand up and start loving one another. Yes, I know. It’s completely unrealistic. Oh, yeah? I far prefer love to the alternative because alternative only puts us at each other’s throats.


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