The Tale of Katie Malloy

When I write, I use the close third person point-of-view (POV) to tell the stories in The Shiloh Trilogy. I actually have three POV characters.  First, is Jamie Harper, an officer in the Union army and nominally the lead protagonist in all three books – he is the title character, after all: Harper’s Donelson, Harper’s Rescue, and Harper’s Shiloh. Next is Gustav Magnusson, a corporal in Harper’s regiment and the oldest child and only son of the Friend Leader in a Quaker Meeting at Salem, Iowa.  Lastly is Katherine Malloy, known as Katie, who first appears in the story as a saloon girl and high-priced prostitute.   This month, I want to talk a bit about Katie and how she came to have such a prominent role in these three books.

Katie appears in the first chapter after the prolog in Harper’s Donelson.  It seems that Lieutenant Harper arrives in Paducah Kentucky on the afternoon before his two-month convalescent leave expires and rather than report early to the First Iowa’s duty office he has decided to spend the night in the comfortable feather-bed of the most expensive “soiled-dove” in Paducah. Lafitte’s Hideout is an above-average saloon run by Franklin Bosley, his wife Loreena, and her friend Eleanor. The saloon gets its name from the Louisiana heritage of the two ladies.

When the story opens, we find Harper and Katie in her bed slightly before sunrise, with Harper checking to ensure that none of his valuables were stolen and thinking about his future with the First Iowa while Katie chatters in the way that teen-aged girls sometimes do.

When I first wrote this chapter, it was to meet a class homework assignment: Write an Interest-Grabbing First Chapter. At that time, I was taking creative writing courses at the Extension University of U.C. San Diego and this particular class numbered twenty students: fifteen women, five men, and a lady professor.

The expectation was that the students would offer critiques of each other’s work and given the composition of the class, I expected the worst when it came time to discuss the chapter.  In my turn, I stood and passed copies of the five pages to the instructor and the other students. While I read the work-in-progress, I avoided eye-contact with the people in the room by reading directly from the pages.  Eventually, I reached the end of the piece and sat down to a silent room.

The three Fates smiled on that day. When I looked at the other students, they were busy leafing through the pages and not staring at me as if I had just pooped in the punchbowl. The questions began and I waited with anticipation to collect feedback on their impressions of Jamie Harper.

“Was I really going to use this in a story?”

“Why did you choose to make Katie just fifteen?”

“How did Katie come to be working in the saloon at such a young age?”

“Was indentured prostitution a real thing?”

Etc., etc., etc.

A stream of questions about Katie’s back story and how did she play into the plot of Harper’s Donelson. Meanwhile, I’m waiting to hear just how well I had revealed Jamie Harper’s background as former marshal, a loner, and a man without feelings for the people around him, an anti-hero. So I asked, “What did you think about the Harper character?”

The answers were pretty much: “Yeah, yeah. We get it: The Lone Stranger, Man-with-No-Name, Josey Wales, etc. Got that, but where does Katie go in your story?”

My answer: “Well, she’s a throw-away character. This is her last chapter.”

“Oh no you don’t!” This was the unanimous decision of the class and the professor. “She has to stay!” The women in the class were Katie’s greatest supporters.

So, she stayed and I had to figure out how to get my 67-year-old male engineers’ brain inside the head of a fifteen-year-old girl of the mid-nineteenth century and after that, decide where her character arc would take her across a novel which was already too large to be published. It is largely because of adding the story of Katie and the other inhabitants of Lafitte’s Hideout that the over-sized novel: Harper’s Shiloh became The Shiloh Trilogy.

If I continued to write in close third-person, what do I do with a fifteen-year-old prostitute in the middle of a story about soldiers and fighting and spitting and other guy stuff?  I knew that Katie should exist in the stories as realistically as possible. I also knew that if she survived into Book 3, I would need to find a logical reason why she should become part of Harper’s posse. I found a partial answer from an authors’ group on Facebook when I learned about a website called TV Tropes. It was while visiting TV Tropes that ideas for Katie’s character arc flew off of the page – too many to put into one book. The result of melding several of these tropes is a relatively complex character who adds an entire new dimension to The Shiloh Trilogy.

The trope which I enjoyed using the most was: The Plucky Girl, described thus:

“You might be able to pile life complications onto this young woman to the point where the readers would forgive her if she just refused to go on. She might even have a chapter or so where she does throw in the towel, because human beings can only take so much of what the universe is handing her. But The Plucky Girl always comes back. That’s the bravery part.
“The optimistic part is the rest of it. This character leans toward the sane version of The Pollyanna, blending the agency of the Action Girl with the sweetness and wise charm of the Spirited Young Lady, while exhibiting a strong sense of optimism and an unassailable spirit. You can beat her, but damned if she’ll let you break her.”

I had a lot of fun working within this trope in the first book. It allowed me to throw a series of outlandish mishaps at Katie to see how she would react and bounce back.  The description of The Plucky Girl includes a number of sub-tropes which also helped to frame her reactions.

Another trope which I found I needed to cultivate was the Moe (pronounced mo-eh) :

“The ability of a character to instill in the reader an irrational desire to adore them, hug them, protect them, comfort them, etc. To evoke a sort of Big Brother Instinct, in men and women.”

This was a magic combination. The only thing left to do was to observe modern teen-aged girls in their natural habitat and then speculate how they might respond to the challenges I planned for Katie if they were bound by elements of the two tropes I had chosen. This worked so well that soon, one of the more common comments from my reading group was a sad-faced: “Oh, Katie.”

In Harper’s Donelson, Katie’s fate is set by the circumstances of how she became a saloon-girl and how she responds to the trusted guidance of Eleanor and Loreena.

In Harper’s Rescue, she is forced to confront the degrading reality of life as a prostitute in an Army-town.

And how will the Fates treat her in Harper’s Shiloh? That story evolves still.

Here is an extract from Harper’s Rescue which illustrates Katie’s dilemma.

****

Alone in the darkness, despair began to tinge her thoughts and she fell into a full-on crying jag. She had been in The Box once before, right after she arrived in Paducah. Then, Loreena told her they must teach her what she would do to entertain the soldiers.

Tonight, she sat alone on the crude bed in the dark, dank cell awaiting her punishment. Eleanor wouldn’t learn what had happened until morning. However, even Eleanor might not be able to stop Loreena from keeping Katie locked here or allowing the workmen at her.

Katie shivered as much from the cold as from her fear. No sheets or blankets covered the bed – not even a mattress. She felt along the walls around the small space but couldn’t find any other objects on the dirt floor except the dry, empty honey bucket. Katie moved her hands along the walls to search for something she could use to keep warm. She found nothing there, only the ladder up to Mister Bosley’s office. The Army had taken everything.

Feeling had left her toes. They scuffed across the dirt floor. She paced the length of The Box several times to keep the blood moving before she sat on the bed to rub them hard and fast. After a minute or so, pain of the cold stabbed at them. Frustrated, Katie pulled her feet under her. She squeezed into the corner, propping herself into a tight ball while covering her feet with the pillow sack. Hoping she had found the daguerreotype of her mother, she pulled it from the sack along with the dagger next to it.

Katie gripped the picture and the knife to her chest. She wished her mother would come visit now, while she waited for her punishment to begin. She rummaged into the sack to find the bottle of opium extract. Her mother came to visit her when she last used the opium. She would come again if Katie used the opium now. Katie pulled the cork stopper to smell the concoction. No odor. She froze. Opium was more powerful than laudanum. If she took any, she might not be able to protect herself.

The noise from some creature scuttling across the floor startled her before she realized it was not a threat. Katie slumped into the corner of the cell. Her shoulders, back, and arms burned from the stings of the riding crop. She wore stinking clothes bought from a stable hand with everything she valued bundled into the sack made from a pillowcase. A single tear rolled along the side of her nose, onto her lips. They would be here in the morning, the way they had the last time she stayed in The Box.

This time, she had her dagger.

****

Sean Gabhann

Book 1 of the Shiloh Trilogy

Book 2 of the Shiloh Trilogy