I’d like to welcome back Janet Stafford to Layered Pages today! Janet has several books published including the historical fiction novels, “Saint Maggie Series”. Hi, Janet! Please tell everyone a little about your Saint Maggie Series as a whole.
Hi, Stephanie! Thank you for talking the time to talk with me about my novels.
The Saint Maggie series is about love, hope, forgiveness, strength, and faith during difficult times. It is set in Civil War America and focuses on Maggie Blaine Smith and her unconventional family. Maggie learns the value of compassion and love after she is disowned by her family for marrying the son of a rival businessman. Fortunately, she and her husband are taken in by her husband’s Aunt Letty. After her husband and young son die, Maggie is encouraged by Aunt Letty to start a boarding house to make ends meet. Maggie does this and takes in people who need help, who need love, and who cannot pay her very much in the way of rent.
That’s her situation at the beginning of the first novel, Saint Maggie. The story is set in a fictional town called Blaineton in Warren County, New Jersey. Maggie has two teenage daughters (Lydia and Frances) and runs a rooming house with struggling boarders. She is best friends with her cook Emily Johnson and Emily’s husband Nate. The town’s folks look askance at Maggie and Emily’s friendship, since Maggie is white, and Emily is black. Eli Smith, owner and editor of the Gazette, a penny weekly newspaper, is sweet on Maggie. And Nate, Emily, Maggie, and Eli are station masters on an Underground Railroad stop, something the town may suspect, but cannot prove.
Maggie and her family of “blood relatives” and fictive kin take on the issues, dangers, and heartbreak of the American Civil War. They do it earnestly, compassionately and passionately, but also with humor. The series gives me an opportunity to look at the issues of their time through their eyes. Over the course of four full-length novels, I have been able to dig into the how the exposure to battle changed soldiers and civilians; slavery, race relations, and the work of the Underground Railroad; women’s rights; the treatment of mental illness; medicine’s first notice of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder; the first hints of the Gilded Age that will come. The fifth book, which is my current work-in-progress, deals with segregation in education, as well as the power of the press and attempts to suppress the it. Lest you think my stories are all issue-oriented, I assure you that my characters also fall in love, have children, try to understand each other, and have moments of silliness and fun.
Please tell me about your latest book in the series, “The Great Central Fair.”
The Great Central Fair is a novella. It had its roots in A Time to Heal: Saint Maggie Series 3 but I removed it because I realized that I had enough side plots going. I tried inserting it into my current work-in-progress, but again it just got in the way. Finally, I said, “Enough! Why don’t I make it a short story or a novella?”
The story is a solidly a romance, and I got to leave most of the social and political issues of the time behind. The Great Central Fair is about being young and in love during a time of war (1864). One of the relationships is well-established and looking toward the future. The other relationship is new and evolving. The city of Philadelphia serves as the catalyst for some of the changes that occur for the couples and the interaction among the characters in the story.
I love the title and how it stands out to grab the reader’s attention. Will you please tell your audience about the Fair and an example how it ties into your story?
I’d love to do that! When I realized I was bringing my characters to Philadelphia, I did a little research about what was going on in the city at that time. I thought it would be fun if they could engage in something that also was rooted in history. Well, I ran across a comment about the city hosting a “sanitary fair” and that stopped me dead in my tracks. What on earth was a “sanitary fair?” A showcase of bathtubs? An exhibition of the latest in sanitized drinking water? A display of modern sewage systems?
The answer both surprised me and made me slap my head and shout, “Duh!” A “sanitary fair” was a fair held to raise money for the Sanitary Commission, a civilian-run organization approved by the U.S. government. The Commission provided medical help and sanitary assistance (regarding food and general health issues) to soldiers and, sometimes, civilians. It also sent nurses and cooks to regiments and helped set up field hospitals.
The Commission was a huge effort initiated by the people to make life bearable for their soldiers. To support the Commission’s work, Sanitary Fairs were held throughout the Union and raised, by the time of the Philadelphia Sanitary Fair, over two million dollars. All the donations seemed to come from the Union’s citizens. The Philadelphia Sanitary Fair also was known as “The Great Central Fair” because it reached beyond its city and state to include people living in New Jersey and Delaware.
The connection of the fair comes into the story after the two young couples ask Chester Carson to be their chaperone on a three-day, two-night trip to Philadelphia before their young men report for duty at Mower General U.S. Hospital. It is Carson who mentions the fair a place to visit during the trip. The fair then provides a new experience for the couples, as well as (I hope) for readers. It is an 1864 exhibit of past and present during wartime that contains the hope that the Union will win the conflict and become whole once again at some future date. Within that environment, the characters all look toward their own futures.
Who are the characters in your story?
The novella revolves around Maggie’s daughters, Lydia and Frankie. By 1864, they are young women aged 22 and 18 respectively. That they are leaving the childhood behind is not lost on Maggie, who is feeling the tug of “empty nest syndrome,” especially when Frankie’s beau, Patrick, arrives at the household for a week’s leave from the army before he reports for duty as a steward at Mower General Hospital. She sees their relationship and knows it will lead to marriage. Maggie’s husband Eli also finds his stepdaughters’ maturing to be difficult. As Frankie’s in loco father, he goes a wee bit overboard to guard her purity. In Eli’s eyes Lydia is older, a widow, and the sensible sister. So, he figures he does not have to worry about her. We find out whether that is true.
Lydia’s friend, Philip, an army doctor who had been serving at Harwood General Hospital in Washington D. C., has also been ordered to report to Mower. He, too, arrives at in Blaineton to spend a week’s leave with his friend and her family.
The story follows the young couples as they become reacquainted. For Frankie and Patrick, that means making plans. For Lydia and Philip, it means a shift in their relationship from friends to something more. Both couples decide to have a holiday in Philadelphia before the men must report and, since it is 1864, they choose Chester Carson, Eli’s senior editor and one of the boarding house family, to accompany them.
For the readers who are not familiar with Eli Smith, can you talk a little about him?
Eli Smith – dark hair and eyes, short, portly, rumpled, and bespectacled. An incident in the first novel has left him with an unsteady left leg and his needs to use a cane to help him get around.
By 1864, Eli has been married to Maggie for nearly four years. He and Maggie are the parents of Bob, whom they adopted, and infant Faith, who was a surprise.
When we first meet Eli in Saint Maggie, he is a newspaperman who owns and prints the Gazette. He was raised as a Quaker but abandoned his faith and has become a free-thinker. I wanted him to be a free-thinker because Maggie’s strong Methodism needed some balance on her mate’s side. However, throughout the series, God clearly is not interested in abandoning Eli, and the newspaperman experiences the occasional bewildering supernatural intrusion. Eli also retains some of his early training as a Friend: he is anti-violence, anti-war, and a strong abolitionist. He’s an intriguing mix of a free-thinking agnostic, a man being shaped by his wife, and a man being chased by Something Else.
If Maggie is, as one of my beta readers puts it, someone who experiences ten different emotions at once, Eli generally tends to have one at a time and they’re usually strong: angry, remorseful, sorrowful, tender, thoughtful, questioning, and… funny. He’s good comic relief.
Over the course of the Saint Maggie series, Eli loses his precious Gazette weekly newspaper to an arson fire. He tries to continue to make a go as a war correspondent for the New York Times but loses the job when he writes something other than what the editors demanded. The experience demoralizes him and feels like a failure, professionally and personally. Fortunately, Tryphena Moore (Blaineton’s richest and most intimidating citizen) decides to start a paper of her own called The Blaineton Register. She invites Eli to be her editor-in-chief because she hopes he will create “controversy of the best kind.” So, in The Great Central Fair, Eli now oversees a growing newspaper and is living his dream. He may be in a smallish western New Jersey town but now he is a miniature version of his hero Horace Greeley.
I use Eli in the first chapter to introduce the characters and the setting in The Great Central Fair.
Were there any particular scenes you found challenging to write?
Good question! The chapter at the fair was quite challenging for me. Research-wise, I was lucky to find copies of the fair’s visitor guide online and in paperback form. I also found a great many black and white photos of the Philadelphia fair at the Library of Congress. But when I tried to bring the fair to life, that was rather tough. Sometimes it was difficult to imagine the black and white photos in color and teeming with the people. Also, the way people in the 1800s mounted exhibits is quite different than way we do today. From what I could observe, fair’s displays simply were hung on walls and set up on tables. I saw none of the installation methodologies we are familiar with today. My head kept thinking, “wow, all this stuff was just sitting around and hanging on walls. Boring!” And I had to remind myself that this was all new for my characters and therefore exciting. I think the easiest thing to imagine was the Floral Department because the guide book was bubbling over with nineteenth-century enthusiasm about all the flowers and displays.
Imagining the physical scope of the building was tough, too. It took up all of Logan Square! Trying to get the feeling of the walking in the space was next to impossible, but I gave it my best shot. Again, the pictures with some of the descriptions from the guide books helped.
What is some of the research that goes into writing an historical fiction novel?
I generally start with secondary sources – people who are writing about an era, its events, and people from a distance. That gives me context and a general understanding. But I love to get hold of primary sources – things written at the time the event or person lived. Frankly, I would love to be able to go and hang out in an archival library for a week, but I have another form of employment other than writing, so taking the time off to do that is not possible. That means I need to rely on books and the articles on the internet. However, I am fortunate to have a solid background in the 19th century, thanks to a Ph.D. in North American Religion and Culture from Drew University. So, that background plus the research starts me on my way. And yet research also occurs while I’m writing. I can’t tell you how many times I have stopped to look something up because I’m not sure what I’m doing is true to the era. That goes for everything from language to laundry to the type of press Eli’s newspapers have and what they look like.
Some friends have been encouraging me to write a YA (Young Adult) fantasy and I tried to put them off by saying that means I’d have to create a coherent world of my own. They immediately responded by saying that wasn’t a problem, it was a benefit. All I had to do would be make stuff up and make sure it makes sense. I wouldn’t have to research every little thing. Really? I don’t know about that. One of the authors I know has written a fantasy series and it looks like hard work to imagine a coherent, detailed world. I’ll probably take a stab at writing a book like that but I believe it will be every bit as difficult as historical fiction.
Reading your novels, it is apparent how much the 19th Century interest you. What are some of the misconceptions people might have about the time period?
We’ve talked about this on the phone, Stephanie, so you know what I’m going to say! The big misconception about the time period is that we see it as so much simpler than it was. An extreme example of this is the Civil War: North=good, South=bad. Wrong! The politics before, during, and after the war were complex, the emotions were complex, the beliefs were complex, the situations were complex. People did not march in lock-step physically, nor did they march in lock-step emotionally, intellectually, or spiritually.
A good example of this is my home state of New Jersey. It was part of the Union during the Civil War, but it was not overwhelmingly pro-war or anti-slavery. In fact, my state was the last to outlaw slavery in the Union and even then, we did it gradually. We also had many “Copperheads,” people who were anti-war and anti-Lincoln. In my series, I try to point out the conflicts that are peculiar to New Jersey.
We also like to think that 19th century Americans were basically the same in their ethnicity and religious beliefs. But even in the 1860s United States was a varied place. Living in the nation were Native peoples, people enslaved and free whose background was African, people from Ireland, England, France, Germany, and other European nations. Religions were diverse, too: Judaism, Islam (10-15% of African slaves were Muslim when they arrived & struggled to practice their faith in secret), native religions from Africa, Native American religions, Christianity (in all its diverse forms), and Mormonism. And I’m sure I missed more examples.
I firmly believe that the roots of who we are today and the issues with which we struggle today have their roots in the 19th century. Why? Simply because we haven’t dealt with them.
Will you continue to write more books in this series?
I’m thinking of ending the series in 1865, shortly after the war. However, Maggie and Eli may let me know that their story goes on beyond that. So, all I can say is that my plan is to end it in 1865, but I may get out-voted by my characters.
In the meantime, I am “spinning off” a series for Frankie and probably one for Lydia. The Great Central Fair and The Enlistment are my first attempts at focusing more closely on Maggie’s daughters.
Where can readers buy your book?
Once it is published, you may buy The Great Central Fair (or any of the other books or short stories related to the Saint Maggie series) at the following places:
Squeaking Pips Press, Inc. This is my micro publishing house. The website is Squeaking Pips and I have a convenient Store page on it. I sell only the paperbacks there.
Amazon carries the books in paperback and on Kindle. You’ll also find the books at Barnes & Noble, and other online distributors.
You might find them in a bookstore or a library. If you don’t see them, please request them!
The one store that I know you can find two of the series in is the Lahaska Bookshop, Peddler’s Village Store, 162 Carousel Ln & Rte 263 A, Lahaska, PA 18931. Dolyestown & Lahaska Book Shop
Thank you for the interview, Stephanie. I really enjoyed the questions!
About Janet Stafford:
Janet Stafford is a Jersey girl, book lover and lifelong scribbler. She readily confesses to being overly-educated, having received a B.A. in Asian Studies from Seton Hall University, as well as a Master of Divinity degree and a Ph.D. in North American Religion and Culture from Drew University. Having answered a call to vocational, but non-ordained ministry, Janet has served six United Methodist Churches, working in spiritual formation, communications, and ministries with children, youth, and families. She also was an adjunct professor for six years, teaching college classes in interdisciplinary studies and world history.
Writing, history, and religion came together for Janet when she authored Saint Maggie, an historical novel set in 1860-61 and based on a research paper written during her Ph.D. studies. She thought the book would be a single novel, but kept hearing readers ask, “What happens next?” In response, Janet created a series that follows the unconventional family from the first book through three other novels and three short stories, all set in the traumatic years of the American Civil War. Janet also ventured into the contemporary romance genre, going closer to home (the church) for her source material. Heart Soul & Rock ’n’ Roll tells the story of 40-year-old Lindsay Mitchell, who led a rock band in college but for the past fifteen years has worked as an assistant minister. Besieged by mid-life crisis, Lins wonders if perhaps she isn’t called to something new. But could that “something new” be a relationship with Neil, a man with a messy life and a bar band called the Grim Reapers?