Long Time Coming: Earl Derr Biggers Book

The things from my life that I turn into books are sometimes predictable, sometimes not. I always wanted to be a baseball player, so it makes sense to me that I turned that desire into a novel, She’s on First. And I worked in the typesetting department of a major newspaper, so it makes sense to me that I turned that into a mystery novel, Dirty Proof.

But back when I first became interested in Earl Derr Biggers, who created Charlie Chan and wrote about him in six novels, I was sixteen years old and never once thought about writing a book about anybody, let alone a long-forgotten author from Warren, Ohio. Perhaps I should have, because on my first encounter with Biggers I realized that I enjoyed his Chan novels immensely. I loved the character of Chan, I loved the humor of Biggers, I loved the mysteries themselves, and I loved the setting. Biggers seemed to excel at setting.

Fast forward to 1998, when I actually began thinking about writing an article (not a book) on Biggers. This was due to the fact that I had written an article on baseball player Alta Weiss (from Ohio) for Timeline: The Magazine of Ohio History, and I was scouting around for another Ohio topic. That’s when and why Biggers came to mind. 

A page from my Timeline article.

When I was committed to the Timeline article on Earl Derr Biggers back in 1998, I had a very difficult time finding any information on him. It was as if his early death (at the age of 49) resulted in the mystery world eventually forgetting about him. Or perhaps, because he wrote during the Golden Age of Mystery, he, along with others, was simply overshadowed by the hard-boiled private eyes that followed.

What I did discover, though, was that his publisher, Bobbs-Merrill, which went out of business in 1954, turned its archives over to the Lilly Library at Indiana University. I called the Lilly Library to see if, within the Bobbs-Merrill archives, there was something on Earl Derr Biggers.

There was. So I made an appointment to research, drove there, and spent three or four days going through everything that was in the file boxes labeled Earl Derr Biggers. I was so impressed with everything that Bobbs-Merrill kept — posters, letters between the author and his editor, telegrams, book cover ideas — that I almost vowed to never throw any written thing away, ever again. Almost. If I didn’t throw things away, I would be overrun by paper.

After doing as much research as I possibly could back in 1998, I wrote the article, and it was published in 1999. I then proposed to Harvard Alumni Magazine that I write an article on Biggers — because he was a Harvard graduate. They accepted my article, which was published in 2000.

Somewhere in the middle of writing the two articles on Biggers, I thought that some day I would write a book on him. Probably. I entertained the thought, but I wasn’t committed to the action.

In fact, any thoughts I had of maybe writing a book on Biggers were kind of quelled by the popularity of the Timeline article. After the piece was published and after the internet grew, my article was and still is reproduced everywhere. Or is quoted as a source. Or is quoted from. And so, for many years, I thought I would never write a book about Biggers because the magazine article was everywhere.

But then, in 2014 I began this blog, Much to Write About. Part of the “much” was Earl Derr Biggers and his Chan novels. In order to blog about them, I re-read them and began to blog about each.  The more such blogs I wrote, the more my interest in Biggers was renewed. I now grasped more about the six Chan novels than I had twenty years ago, and way far more than I had forty years ago, and appreciated them more, too. So I began to think about a book again. I felt a bit like Charlie Chan himself, who in the first novel, The House Without a Key, states: “We sway about, seeking  still another path.”

Once I decided that I would, in fact, write an entire book about Earl Derr Biggers, I went through all the notes I had taken back in 1998 while at the Lilly Library. I then took my 4,700-word Timeline article and began expanding it. I did this three times, adding more information, changing the structure somewhat, adding subheads, moving things around . . . until I ended up with a 19,000 word piece titled “The Life of Earl Derr Biggers.” This constitutes the first section of my book. 

The second section of my book consists of all the analysis and observation I did in the blog articles I wrote. These add another 17,000 words to the book.

One of the most difficult parts of the book was the Acknowledgements and the Sources. They were both hard because I wasn’t keeping notes on everybody who helped me all those years ago. And some of my source material (clippings) was impossible to find publishing information on. But what there is, is very valuable to anybody else who might want to study Earl Derr Biggers. And I hope there are such people.

Biggers’ story is an interesting one. He was a good writer who aimed at pleasing “middle-brow” America. Which means that his books were neither high-brow (intellectual) nor low-brow (pulp fiction). I think he would fall into the category of what we call “popular fiction” today: easy to read.  His plotting was excellent, his dialogue clever, and he had a great sense of pace and, as I mentioned earlier, was terrific at setting. His characters were likable and some were quite interesting (Tarneverro the Great comes to mind).

The public loved Biggers’ novels: he was very well known in the US from 1913-onward, and very well known around the world from 1925-onward. My book looks at the problems Biggers faced as a writer. Most of these were problems with his publisher, but some were problems with the public and some with Hollywood. I think that most readers will enjoy learning about writing and publishing by reading the life of Earl Derr Biggers. 

I’m very happy that, after all those years, I finally got around to writing the book.

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You can read all about Biggers and his six Charle Chan novels in Charlie Chan’s Poppa: Earl Derr Biggers.

Women at Play: A Square Book

My first novel, She’s on First, was a baseball novel, published in 1987. After I spent 1987 promoting She’s on First, I decided I would write a true account of women in baseball. I started researching this subject in January of 1988 and figured I would finish by December.

Wrong! It took me four years, from 1988-1992, to uncover the story of women playing hardball. I frequented libraries, asking for local history files. I visited the National Baseball Hall of Fame Library. And I scrolled through the microfilm of more newspapers than I care to remember.

Part of the reason it took me four years to complete the research on women in baseball was that I was searching for Maud Nelson, whom I first heard mentioned in Debra Shattuck’s Master’s Thesis. (I read every master’s thesis that I could find if it contained a mention of women baseball players.) After maybe two years I discovered that Maud Nelson was also Maud Olson. And after that I discovered that she had two brothers whose last name was Brida . . . so her name must have been Brida. And then I discovered she married a man named Costante Dellacqua. And then I discovered that Maud Brida Nelson Olson Dellacqua wasn’t really Maud: her name was Clementina Brida.

I’ve never been particularly fond of long telephone calls. I’d much rather meet somebody in person, or exchange letters. That was back in the 1980s. Today I prefer email or text. But neither email nor text existed when I was researching Women at Play, so I ended up making  many phone calls many times. Whenever I found a lead on somebody who might have played baseball in, say, 1912, I would track her down — or who I supposed she might be — and then I would make a phone call. 

My spiel went something like this: “Hello, I’m Barbara Gregorich, calling from Chicago. I’m writing a book on the history of women who played hardball, and I wonder if  you’re the [NAME] who played baseball in [YEAR] for [TEAM NAME].” Amazingly — they almost always were the person I was looking for. And they were very willing to talk to me, and very generous with their time and information.

After the publishing contract was signed, my editor at Harcourt suggested that the approach I take should not be scholarly, but “popular” — a book that the average person would want to read, written in a non-scholarly style. In fact, he said something that I’ll always remember: “Think proper nouns. Make the title and focus of each chapter a proper noun.” So that’s what I did, and I’m very happy he suggested that approach, and happy that I was able to think, organize, and write with that approach.

Besides the proper-noun chapters and focus, photos and sidebars also contributed to the popularity and success of Women at Play. Each chapter contains at least one sidebar, and most contain three. These extra snippets of information, printed in bold, attract the reader’s attention and win the reader’s interest. 

As for the photos, I think that of the 150 or so I collected 99 went into the book. Unfortunately, the photo permissions cost close to $6,000 back in 1992, and they would cost even more today, which is why I’m not able to include them in the text-only digital version of Women at Play.

 I signed the publishing contract for Women at Play in July, 1992. The manuscript was due 92 days later. This was an incredibly tight deadline for a book covering 100 years of history, containing 80 or so sidebars, plus 99 photos and captions. To say nothing of the Introduction, Acknowledgements, Credits, and so forth. The reason the deadline was so tight was that the movie A League of Their Own was due to be released on video in March, 1993 — and my publisher wanted to take advantage of that by having my book released at the same time. This was a wise marketing decision, and even though it made my life very difficult for 92 days, I’m happy that Women at Play and A League of Their Own came out in popular format at the same time.

The year it was published, Women at Play won the Benjamin Franklin Award (given for best design) in the Sports category. I think it’s a beautiful looking, inviting book. Everything about its design seems to promise that the contents will be lively and interesting. However, I was both amused and astonished when several people told me they couldn’t get themselves to buy the book because it was . . . square. In shape. 8”x8”.  Up until that time, I had no idea that some people disliked square-shaped things. As a result of what I call the “square reaction,” I had nightmares that square-hating customers would walk into bookstores and start bending back the corners of Women at Play . . . so that it would no longer be square.

I thoroughly enjoyed the years spent researching the story of women in baseball, and I equally enjoyed meeting and/or talking to many of the baseball players in the book — Mary Gilroy Hockenbury, Margaret Gisolo, Edith Houghton, Jo Winter, Sophie Kurys, Dottie Collins, Rose Gacioch, Jean Faut, Isabel Alvarez, Lois Youngen, Toni Stone, Julie Croteau, and others. They will always be a part of who I am and what I’ve done.

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The 25th Anniversary edition of Women at Play was published as an ebook. It is not square.             

Mountain Passes: Glorieta Pass

Somewhere back in time, probably when I was in college, I remember learning about La Glorieta, the mountain pass in which one of the few western battles of the US Civil War was fought. I used to think that the name Glorieta meant something like glory, and that’s one of the reasons I always remembered the name of the mountain pass.

Not so far back in time, when I began to travel through and then read about US mountain passes, I learned that in Spanish a glorieta is a town square, thus a hub or, as an online translator puts it, a roundabout. And way back in 1540, when Spanish conquistador and explorer Francisco Vasquez de Coronado first traveled through the pass and named it, he definitely named it appropriately, for Glorieta (it used to be called La Glorieta, but the La has been dropped in recent times) was a much-used roundabout traveled by Pueblo Indian tribes, Apaches, and others.

Coronado’s 1540 crossing of Glorieta is considered the first crossing of a Rocky Mountain pass by Europeans.

Mountain Range: Sangre de Cristo Mountains
Elevation: 7,500 feet
Location: Santa Fe County, New Mexico

Like all North American mountain passes, Glorieta was originally discovered and used by various Indian tribes. In this case it was used as the best passage of travel between the Pecos River Valley and the Rio Grande River Valley. Indians traveled through Glorieta in order to hunt, in order to trade, and in order to wage wars. Coronado traveled through it in order to explore the land north of Mexico, in order to find gold, and in order to impose military force on any peoples who lived in the land he was traveling through.

Although his expedition found no gold, it did encounter the Colorado River and the Grand Canyon. On the way back to Mexico, Coronado and his expedition once again passed through Glorieta.

After the successful Mexican Revolution, North American territory that Spain had closed to residents of the United States was opened: citizens of Santa Fe (in Mexican territory) wanted US industrial goods. Thus in 1821 William Becknell blazed the Santa Fe Trail. In hauling goods from Independence, Missouri to Santa Fe, Becknell had to conquer the formidable Raton Pass. But he also traveled through Glorieta. If you study a map of the Santa Fe Trail, you can see that, in order to pass through the mountains, the trail goes south of Santa Fe and then hooks back northward. Glorieta Pass is part of that hook.

The Santa Fe Trail

In 1862, one year into the Civil War, former Army officer William Gilpin, Governor of the Colorado Territory, requested that the government send Union soldiers to help defend against Confederate troops which had captured Albuquerque and Santa Fe. These troops were led by Confederate General Henry Hopkins Sibley, who with his cavalry was seeking to capture Denver and its supply of gold, and also to conquer California and thus secure seaports for the Confederacy. (Union ships were blockading Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico ports.)

Gilpin was denied the troops he asked for, and so, convinced that he had to act on his own, he raised an impromptu rag-tag force made up of miners, muleskinners (mule-train drivers), bartenders, preachers, clerks, actors, and others. Gilpin’s force consisted of 1,342 people, most of whom had never fired a gun. The Colorado Volunteer Infantry was commanded by Col. John P. Slough and, under him, Maj. John Chivington.

Major John Chivington

As this force marched over Raton Pass on March 8, 1862, a rider from the town of La Glorieta arrived to tell them that Sibley’s 1,100 soldiers would soon march from Santa Fe to Fort Union (a US Army supply center north of Santa Fe). If Fort Union fell, the Confederacy would control the Rockies and Denver, the road to California, and California itself.

Much like the heroes of Yellow Mountain Gap, the heroes of the Battle of Glorieta Pass rose to the occasion, marching on the double through a blizzard that raged through Raton Pass. They reached Fort Union two days later, on March 10. Then they spent two weeks practicing how to shoot their weapons. The Colorado Volunteer Infantry was joined by detachments of the 1st and 3rd US Cavalry regiments, as well as parts of the 5th US Infantry.

On March 28 General Sibley’s Texan troops, armed with rifles, tomahawks, and bowie knives, moved through Glorieta Pass toward Fort Union. In the twenty-mile-long pass, they encountered Colonel Slough’s Union forces. The battle raged there, on the Santa Fe Trail, for several hours. When it was over, the outnumbered Union forces retreated — leaving the route to Fort Union wide open.

This appeared to be a crucial Confederate victory.  Except for one thing. Not all of the Colorado Infantry marched forth to encounter the Confederates. Earlier in the morning Slough had ordered Major Chivington, a Methodist Episcopal minister, to lead approximately 400 troops along another path, a sixteen-mile route through San Cristobal Canyon. 

Chivington asked Lt. Col. Manuel Chaves of the 2nd New Mexico Infantry (which was fighting for the Union) to guide his [Chivington’s] troops to the Confederate supply train. Chaves’ scouts found the supply train and reported back to Chaves, who led the regular Union soldiers and Colorado volunteers to a hill looking down on that spot: Johnson’s Ranch, on one end of Glorieta Pass.

From the top of that hill Chivington looked down on General Sibley’s entire supply train: 73 wagons loaded with ammunition, medical supplies, saddles, blankets, food, cooking utensils — everything an army of 1100 needed to wage war while traveling across vast territory. As the story goes, Chivington looked down at the supply train for a full hour, planning his attack.

Basically the attack consisted of the 400-plus regulars and volunteers rushing down the mountain side, screaming at the top of their lungs, and shooting as they attacked. In their wild charge they killed or scattered all the Confederate guards and teamsters. Rushing toward the single cannon, the Union forces quickly spiked it.

Glorieta Pass Battlefield

And then the Union forces spent four hours laying the Confederate camp to waste: setting the wagons on fire and throwing everything into that fire. It’s been estimated that Chivington’s troops destroyed more than half a million dollars worth of Confederate supplies. Everything that the Confederates required in order to conquer Fort Union and then Denver (and its gold supply) was gone. Up in smoke.

The Confederates of course realized this. They buried their dead soldiers in shallow trenches in Glorieta Pass and left their wounded soldiers to face what may come in Santa Fe as the able-bodied beat a quick retreat back to Texas, before they could be cut off by Union forces.

The Battle of Glorieta Pass — with a well-armed Confederate force against a combined force of regular Union soldiers and a bunch of poorly-armed Colorado irregulars —  secured New Mexico, Colorado, and California for the Union.

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Barbara Gregorich’s previous blog on mountain passes was Chilkoot Pass.

Sending the Wrong Message: Why Subordination Matters

Many readers, myself among them, experience something I’m going to call “wrong message” when reading a book or article. By wrong message I mean that the writer has written a sentence, paragraph, or scene in such a way that the reader logically leaps to the conclusion that This. Is. Important!

And so, having inferred that This Is Important, the reader keeps expecting the subject matter of the sentence (or paragraph, or scene) to come up again in the book. The reader anticipates that what is taking place is foreshadowing: that the writer is providing information that will later be relevant.

But in many cases . . . this never happens. The information that seemed to signal its own importance simply disappears from the book. And the reader is left a bit disappointed, a bit annoyed. Even a bit puzzled, wondering how she could have misinterpreted the writing.

So, by dwelling on something that isn’t really important to the plot and theme and character development of the book, a writer is indeed sending the reader a wrong message. The writer seems to be saying: Pay attention, this will come up later.

But then it doesn’t, and reader dissatisfaction grows.

Sentences and paragraphs have their own logic (a logic that the reader absorbs without even thinking about it). Unless a writer understands and employs this logic, she is going to be sending wrong messages to the reader.

An example of [subconscious] paragraph logic is that the first sentence is by far the most important sentence in the paragraph. This sentence sends out super-strong signals to the reader: Heads up! Comin’ at ya! After all, the writer ended the previous paragraph and started a new one specifically to break with the previous thought and to signal what the new thought/action is.

So. Imagine that you are reading a book that contains the following paragraph:

Justin parked the powerful riding mower in the garage. He entered the kitchen and immediately keyed his code into the security screen. Then he pulled the notebook out of his pocket and sketched the maze he had just mowed through the tall grass.

As it’s written, this paragraph signals that Justin parking the powerful riding mower in the garage is important. This simple sentence occupies the prime spot of importance in the paragraph. And, writers who write like this (more about that soon) tend to write many such paragraphs in which an object they are using for, say, texture or realism, occupies the primary spot in the paragraph. Often it is the same object that they use over and over: a lawn mower; a purse; a skateboard; an opal ring.

So, in such a book, the reader would encounter many paragraphs in which information about Justin and the riding mower is related in the first sentence of the paragraph, as a simple (S-V-O) sentence. Justin brushed the grass off the seat of the riding mower. Or, Justin kicked the dried grass off the wheels of the rusty riding mower. Or, Justin noticed that the riding mower needed cleaning. And so on.

The reader is going to be thinking: Aha! There’s something important about that riding mower! But in reality, that’s not the case. The writer is merely trying to add some texture to the book by painting a picture of concrete objects. 

Despite what the writer is trying to do, she is sending the wrong message to the reader, and that’s because she is placing her unimportant-to-the-plot texture in the most important spot of the paragraph. And because the simple declarative sentence shouts: Important!

Such wrong messages can be corrected by moving the texture information to somewhere else in the paragraph. Sometimes in trying to move the information, the writer realizes that it looks strange anywhere else in the paragraph. This could be a sign that the information maybe doesn’t really have anything to do with the content of the paragraph. In the case of Justin and the riding mower, it’s difficult to figure out a way to move the information into another spot in the paragraph.

But wait. 

There is a tried-and-true way to handle this problem, and that is to subordinate the not-important information to what is important. Please note that I’m not talking about a subordinate clause, which is a dependent clause containing a subordinate conjunction such as while, whereas, if, until, and so on. I’m talking about a dependent clause — one that cannot stand alone. Because it cannot stand alone, it’s “subordinate” to the main part of the sentence. The information that is not that important should be presented as a dependent clause, and the main information as an independent clause. Here’s an example:

Parking the powerful riding mower in the garage, Justin entered the kitchen and immediately keyed his code into the security screen. Then he pulled the notebook out of his pocket and sketched the maze he had just mowed through the tall grass.

Voila! Because it’s in a dependent clause, the information about Justin parking the riding mower no longer screams This. Is. Important. The way it’s now written, as a dependent clause, the information definitely adds a bit of visual information — but that information is clearly nowhere as important as what follows in the independent clause. And a reader will instantly assimilate this: a reader will understand that parking the riding mower is just throw-away information. 

Earlier I said that I would try to explain why writers end up giving the reader the wrong message. It is, I think, because the writer is so intent on the story, maybe racing ahead at full speed, that he doesn’t see the relationship between the sentences that constitute a paragraph. And, we have a habit of writing things in the same way, so if a writer has inadvertently fallen into the pattern of presenting trivial texture information at the beginning of each paragraph, you can see why the reader would be confused — everything the writer has done by placing such information into a simple sentence at the very beginning of the paragraph screams out “Pay attention!”

Sending the wrong message is a definite problem in writing, particularly among beginning writers. But it is a problem easily corrected once the writer understands the importance of the paragraph’s first sentence and the importance of subordinating less important information.

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Barbara Gregorich does not park riding mowers anywhere, but she does discuss aspects of writing well in Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies.              

Robert Frost

The photo above is of my copy of The Complete Poems of Robert Frost, which was given to me as a birthday present in December 1963. I thumb through the volume on occasion, looking for particular poems, or just looking for something that triggers my memory or attracts me in some way. I have always found the poetry of Robert Frost appealing.

Robert Frost was born in 1874, married in 1895, and attended Harvard for two years (1897-99). He worked as a farmer for nine years, and during that time he must have awakened even earlier than most farmers, because he wrote poetry each morning. Farming didn’t work out economically for Frost . . .   possibly because he was so much more interested in poetry. Giving up on agriculture, he became a teacher. In 1912 he and his family moved to England. It was in England that he published his first book of poetry, A Boy’s Will (1913) at the age of 39. “Reluctance” is my favorite poem from that collection. 

Reluctance

Out through the fields and the woods
And over the walls I have wended;
I have climbed the hills of view
And looked at the world, and descended;
I have come by the highway home,
And lo, it is ended.

The leaves are all dead on the ground,
Save those that the oak is keeping
To ravel them one by one
And let them go scraping and creeping
Out over the crusted snow
When others are sleeping.

And the dead leaves lie huddled and still,
No longer blown hither and thither;
The last lone aster is gone;
The flowers of the witch hazel wither;
The heart is still aching to seek,
But the feet question ‘Whither?’

Ah, when to the heart of man
Was it ever less than a treason
To go with the drift of things,
To yield with a grace to reason,
And bow and accept the end
Of a love or a season?

Frost was a master of the iamb: a two-syllable metric foot consisting of an unstressed sound followed by a stressed one. Examples: Exist, Because, Diverge. He wrote poems in iambic dimeter, as in “Dust of Snow.” In iambic trimeter, as in “Nothing Gold Can Stay.” In iambic tetrameter, as in “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening.” And in iambic pentameter, as in “Acquainted with the Night.”  I suspect that Frost could have mastered any line length in iambs.

Dust of Snow

The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree

Has given my heart
A change of mood
And saved some part
Of a day I had rued.

In 1914 Frost’s second collection of poetry was published, North of Boston. This short collection begins with “Mending Wall.” I swear that every single time I drive by a stone wall on a country road, I think of “Mending Wall.”

Frost and his family returned to the United States in 1915. He bought a farm in Franconia, New Hampshire, continued to write poetry, and began teaching English at Amherst College. The Franconia house is today a museum and writer’s retreat site called The Frost Place.

Unlike many of his contemporaries (Amy Lowell, T.S. Eliot, Carl Sandburg, and others), Robert Frost didn’t experiment with poetic form. He didn’t, for example, write free verse. Because of this, and because of his rural-based subject matter, some literary critics ignored Frost or considered him an “old-fashioned” poet. But of the poets who were awarded the Pulitzer Prize more than once, Frost leads all others: he won four, compared to the next-closest (also traditional), Edwin Arlington Robinson, who won three.

If you aren’t familiar with the poetry of Robert Frost, I suggest you read a few of his poems, including the ones I’ve mentioned. Perhaps they’ll lead you to two roads diverging in a yellow wood . . . and you’ll take the one that makes all the difference.

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Barbara Gregorich’s poetry (none of it in iambic pentameter) has been published in several places, including Barnwood, Blue Collar Review, Inkwell, and Prairie Journal, and is available in Crossing the Skyway.

Rewrite Decisions (and Charts)

In 2017 I wrote my first YA novel, The F Words. That was Draft #1, which ended up at 69,000 words and 50 chapters. Then I wrote Draft #2, and then Draft #3, all in a twelve-month span. Because this process went much more quickly than with many of my novels, I remember it and want to share the various rewrite decisions I made.

I worked on my first draft from roughly early February through late September. And then not only did I put the draft away for a while, to separate myself from what I had written, but I also took a long vacation. It’s essential to put any writing aside before tackling a rewrite, so that you can separate the love of what you actually wrote from the necessity of making it better. Putting days, weeks, or even a couple of months between you and your just-finished first draft is invaluable. But dropping a vacation into your separation time is, as I learned, even better. Vacations — visiting new places, talking to new people — stimulate the creative brain and allow you to entertain new possibilities.

By early November I was ready to start writing Draft #2. I gave myself the goal of rewriting one chapter a day. My chapters averaged about eight pages — few enough pages that I could look for a lot of different things that needed improving. My critique group had already read the first fourteen chapters of my novel and had given me a lot of valuable feedback. For example: perhaps I had too many subplots. Perhaps I hadn’t made it clear what the novel’s main conflict was. My protagonist wasn’t self-reflective enough — didn’t let the reader know his thoughts and feelings. My chronology of what happened when was sometimes confusing. 

That’s a lot of different things to try to correct in one draft, but I felt that by limiting myself to 4-8 pages a day, I could do it. In fact, I was able to do it, though it took about 2.5 to 3 hours each morning. As you can see, I also made myself a 50-chapter chart that I filled in each time I completed a chapter. And as you can also see, I worked on Thanksgiving Day. And on my birthday.  And on Chanukah.

In writing the second draft I deleted an entire subplot, increased the protagonist’s self-reflection, and intensified the main plot. In each chapter I also looked for wordiness and corrected it. My 50 chapters turned into 51 chapters because I split one of the chapters into two parts. All of my changes added about 3,000 words to the book.

One of the reasons I aimed to rewrite a chapter a day was that I wanted to keep my head in the book, so to speak. I went to sleep each night thinking about the plot and characters, and I rewrote my chapter right after breakfast, so that real life couldn’t interfere with the fictional world I was creating. After I finished the second draft, I asked my husband, Phil Passen, to read and critique it. Ideally, I wanted him to read the book in one day, which he has done for me in the past. This time his schedule didn’t permit that day-long read. But he was able to read it in two days, starting around 4 p.m. on a Sunday and finishing around noon on Monday. 

Phil caught several cases of repetition that I needed to address, he found some confusion in the order of events, and he thought I needed to do some additional research for one of the subplots. On all accounts, he was correct. He also suggested combining two of my chapters, so that the 51 chapters dropped back down to 50. Amusingly, the two he wanted combined were not the two I had separated. So we were both “right” in our opinions.

I wanted to write Draft #3 in a much shorter period of time than it took me to write Draft #2. For one thing, the manuscript required fewer changes, and because of that I could rewrite at least five chapters a day. As it ended up, I made myself a new grid, a circle grid. (I was tired of the rectangle!) Dividing it into 6 chapters a day (with two days in which I would rewrite seven chapters) allowed me to rewrite the book in eight days.

Draft #3 was 1200 words shorter than #2, and was back down to 50 chapters, some of them only one page long. In addition to concentrating on Phil’s suggested changes, I also researched current teen slang and made agonizing decisions on which would still be here ten years from now. And I did some research on the subplot Phil thought needed more information. After the third draft was finished I asked members of my writing group to read and critique it. They did, and I then wrote Draft #4, which took approximately the same amount of time as Draft #3.

At that point I hired Chicago writing coach Esther Hershenhorn to read and critique the manuscript. She did, and what she stressed was that I should follow six important subject-matters through the entire manuscript, never letting the reader lose track of any one of them. Esther listed the six subject-matters/themes/plots she thought were most important.

In no particular order, those six are: Cole’s relationship with his father; cross-country running; Cole writing f-word poems; Cole thinking about f-words; the Chicago setting; socialism. Esther suggested that I use the “colored manuscript” method to see where any one of these subjects was missing in Draft #4. If the subject matter was missing for a while, then the reader couldn’t keep it in mind. In other words, these were threads running through the story, and it was my job as a writer to keep weaving those threads through the story, making certain to not drop or lose any of them.

Color-coding a manuscript takes a long time. It took me six long days to go through The F Words and color the background of any sentences, paragraphs, or pages where one of the subjects was “active.” (You can read more about this technique in Color-Coding Your Manuscript). Once I finished the color-coding I taped the chart to the bookcase in my office, and every day as I worked on Draft #5, I consulted it.

You can see by looking at the chart that in Draft #4 I wove Cole’s relationship with his father, coded in blue, through almost the entire manuscript. But I did drop it in a few places (they show up white). And when it came to cross-country running, coded in brown, I had another set of white spaces — which meant that I had to weave that subject into the manuscript more as I rewrote. By the way, it makes sense that there are some small white  spaces here and there in all of the columns: a writer can’t be mentioning a subject constantly. That would come across as relentless and maybe strident. Small white spaces are fine. But big white spaces, as you can see with the brown, blue, and especially pink colors, aren’t fine. The right-hand column (pink) had the most gaps — that was the Chicago setting. I got so wrapped up in micro-settings such as Cole’s school and the cross-country running that I forgot to put larger, Chicago-specific descriptions into the story. That was a huge oversight, and I’m so glad I had the chance to correct it. A subject shouldn’t disappear from the novel or from the reader’s mind for such long stretches.

After I finished Draft #5 I began to submit it to agents and to publishers, and in 2020 I was offered a contract by City of Light Publishing.

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For various posts about The F Words, visit Barbara Gregorich’s Facebook page.          

Mountain Passes: Chilkoot Pass

A long line struggles up a jagged ice-covered pass — men, women, horses, oxen, dogs, carts, and sleds. The year is 1898 and the people are called stampeders because that’s what they’re doing — stampeding into Canada’s Yukon Territory to join the Klondike Gold Rush. (The Klondike, spread out alongside the Klondike River, is a section of the Yukon.) 

After a prospector discovered gold along the Klondike in 1896, thousands of others determined to try their luck at prospecting. From California they sailed to the town of Skagway, Alaska, on the Pacific Ocean. From there they hauled their worldly goods — food, clothes, pots, pans, bedding, picks, axes, and shovels — 32 miles along the Chilkoot Trail. From sea level the trail climbed 3,500 feet through jagged, ice-covered Chilkoot Pass into British Columbia and then the Yukon Territory. The trail and pass are named after the Chilkoot Indians, who used it for hundreds of years.

Hauling provisions along the Chilkoot Trail was no easy feat for a Klondike gold rusher. In fact, it took weeks to carry one person’s goods through the pass. A stampeder could haul maybe 50 or 60 pounds in a backpack. He carried this five miles, then tucked it away alongside the trail and walked back five miles to carry more of his goods. Over and over and over. It was estimated that a stampeder walked eighty miles to move his goods one single mile along the Chilkoot Trail. And then — he faced Chilkoot Pass itself.

Mountain Range: Coast Mountains
Elevation: 3,500 feet (1070 meters)
Location: On the border line between British Columbia and Alaska. Chilkoot Pass and the Chilkoot Trail are part of the Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park.

There was no good time of year to climb Chilkooot Pass. Slick ice covered the rocks in spring, fall, and winter. A slippery mixture of mud and ice coated every surface in summer. The higher the stampeders climbed, the more dangerous the pass became: sleds and wagons slipped away and smashed to pieces. Worse, dogs, oxen, horses, and people slid off the trail and fell to their deaths. No wonder the Chilkoot Trail was called “The Meanest 32 Miles in the World.”

And still another hardship awaited at the very top of the the formidable pass, for there stood the North West Mounted Police, who collected duty on the incoming goods. Not only did the police collect duty on the goods, they also made certain that each stampeder had one ton (2,000 pounds!) of goods. The one ton of food and equipment was considered necessary for one person to survive one year in the Klondike.

During the summer of 1898 an upper-class Chicago woman named Martha Munger Purdy decided to go to the Yukon with her husband, Will Purdy. At the last minute Will opted to go to Hawaii instead. Martha, however, headed north with her brother George. Trekking the Chilkoot Trail, Martha (pregnant with her third child) wore the clothes of a well-dressed lady of her time: a corset, many petticoats, long ruffled bloomer pants, and a heavy floor-length corduroy skirt. Grasping at rocks and tree roots when she fell, she half-walked and half-pulled herself up the pass. In January 1899, in a log cabin in Dawson City, she gave birth to her third son, Lyman.

Martha decided to live in the Yukon, prospect for gold, and raise a family. In 1904 she married Canadian politician George Black, and in 1935, when he was too ill to run for office, she ran in his place, becoming the second woman ever elected to the Canadian House of Commons.

Of her gold-rush experience she wrote: “I had actually walked over the Chilkoot Pass! I would never do it again . . . . Not for all the gold in the Klondike. And yet, knowing now what it meant, would I miss it? No, never! Not even for all the gold in the world!”

For those who entered them, mountain passes were doorways into a new world, sometimes better than the old, sometimes worse — but always an adventure.

Chilkoot Pass

Blue water behind,
brown mud below,
white snow ahead —

these riches unfold.

Stampeders are blind
to all colors
but gold.

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Barbara Gregorich’s previous blog on mountain passes was Mosquito Pass.   

Rewriting with Production Schedules

As a writer I sometimes have a writing schedule and I sometimes don’t. When I was writing She’s on First, my first novel, I had a part-time job as a postal letter carrier. My work schedule was erratic. On some days I started work at 4:30 a.m., some days at 11:30 a.m., and occasionally I started at 3:00 p.m. Under these circumstances all I wanted to do was write some portion of my novel every day: say 15-30  minutes of writing time. On most days I managed that.

However, I had interruptions. For  one,  I got  a full-time job which cut into my novel-writing time! And then I ran into plot problems in the novel and stopped writing for a week or so. And then I killed off a character I liked, which made me very sad and kept  me from writing for five months. And so on and so forth.

I finished the novel, rewrote it and rewrote it, and it was published in 1977. Basically, She’s on First was written without my having a production schedule. So was my second novel, Dirty Proof. All I aimed to do was write every day until the novel was finished, seven days a week. I did that, and in eleven months I completed the novel. 

Since then I’ve written many other books, all without any particular schedule applied to them — other than that I wrote every day, even if it was for only fifteen minutes. All of these books were my own ideas and my own vision. I was writing them because I wanted to tell a particular story in each book.

But I also wrote for others, and on these jobs I had deadlines, and when I have a deadline, I create a production schedule of how many pages or chapters I want to write each day. I remember one workbook in particular in which I had such a large book to write and such a short time to write it in, that when I drew up a schedule that would allow me to complete the book in time — I realized that I had to create eleven activity pages a day. Eleven! If you’ve never had to create student activity pages, you might not grasp how difficult that is. At the grade level I was working at, creating a page would take between 45 minutes and  two hours. That meant that on a bad day . . . I would have to work for 22 hours!

Well, I had no 22-hour days, but I did have several 17 hour days and many, many, many 12-hour days. In fact, I don’t think I had any work day that  was shorter than nine hours during the whole long ordeal. 

And, to make matters worse, this project took up most of July, all of August, and the first two weeks of September. Was there a summer that year? I have no idea — I was indoors writing work sheets.

Whenever I think of that writing assignment I realize that, had I not drawn up a production schedule and stuck to it, I would never have completed the job on time. 

It was during that ordeal that I did something to amuse myself. I started to color my work chart. After I completed each worksheet, I would color one square on my production chart. Filling in the squares was both a satisfaction and a relief. I then went on to the next worksheet. 

The habit of making these goal-oriented charts stayed with me for any job with a deadline. I’d analyze the time, the number of chapters/pages, and then make a chart and follow it, thus pacing myself and assuring that I would finish in time. Not all of the schedules were grueling. (Some were only semi-grueling.)

In this particular chart, each wedge represented six chapters. Each time I finished rewriting six chapters, I connected that wedge to the center of the circle. You can see that at the time I took a screen shot, I had completed 30 chapters and still had 18 to go.

The habit of making production charts then slowly crept into the writing that I did because I wanted to do it — my novels and my nonfiction books and my poetry. The habit hasn’t crept into my first-draft at all, and probably never will. When I start writing a book, I have no idea how long it will take me. Nor do I worry about it. Each book is different. Some I’ve written in three or four months, some in three or four years.

But each book has to be rewritten at least a couple of times, maybe even four or five times. And it is with the rewrites that I began to use production charts. I understand why I did this. Once the first draft is finished, a writer can look at it and see its beginning, middle, and end . . . and know where it’s strong and where it’s weak. So after letting the first draft rest for a while, then reading and analyzing it, a writer is ready to go on the second draft.

What I try to do with my second draft is add needed exposition, work on character and motivation, clarify plot, strengthen cause and effect, work on rising action, make sure I have foreshadowing, and so on. (I don’t achieve all these things in the second draft, but I try, because that means less work on the third draft.)

In order for me to do this I need to keep my head in the book at all  times. To keep my passion for the story at a peak. So . . . in order to keep myself in the rewrite at all times, in order to intensify the story, I intensify the rewriting by creating a production chart.

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Barbara Gregorich wrote Women at Play in 92 days with a production schedule that called for a completed (written, edited, and rewritten) chapter every three days.

Rising Action

In fiction rising action need not be action itself, and that’s because the term “rising action” includes not only character actions, but also character decisions, as well as events within the setting or plot (an economic depression, for example, or an earthquake). Taken together, all these incidents help build interest, suspense, and tension — and lead to the novel’s climax.

The individual events that constitute the rising action are important because they help lead the story to its climax. To put it another way, the climax is the ultimate, logical outcome of the rising action. If a writer doesn’t plan the rising action so that it’s believable and so that the cause-and-effect is very strong, the climax may not satisfy the reader.

Rising action is created when a writer throws obstacles in his hero’s path. These obstacles stand between the hero and her goal. The obstacles can be other people . . . or the character’s own doubts or hesitations . . . or society . . . or the natural world.

All action is, in a way, change. Rising action, then, is escalating change — to a character, to a relationship, to a plan, to a mission, to a town, country, or world. Again, this change need not be action: it could be something as simple as a character making a discovery, or being told a secret. Much of the rising action in Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca consists of the protagonist (the second wife) learning things that change her perception of and understanding of Rebecca.

In Building Better Plots, Robert Kernen encourages writers to think about the arc of their story: the plot events that curve upward from the first incident to the climax. Kernen believes that as you outline or list these story elements, you should “naturally feel the level of tension, anticipation, and your characters’ stakes rising.” I agree. Rising action is something you can feel as you think about your story’s plot. And you can especially feel it as you’re writing the escalating events.

Many months ago I wrote about Rewriting: Macro. If the story in manuscript form doesn’t contain rising action, the writer must rewrite the entire story so that it does contain rising action. That’s a major  (macro) rewrite. So it pays for the writer to pay attention to rising action from the first page onward.

Rising action is often depicted as a set of stairs, with each step an escalation (increase in intensity or seriousness) of the protagonist’s situation and choices. I prefer to think of rising action as a series of bridges that get burned behind the protagonist due to each choice she makes. Or as a tunnel of increasing narrowness, with no retreat possible: the only way out is through bold action.

Recently I wrote my first YA novel (publication date not yet set)and in plotting it I tried hard to make certain there was one bridge crossed and burned toward the end of the first 20% of the manuscript, maybe two additional bridges crossed and burned in the next 60%, and the final bridge crossed in the last 20%. I knew that if I plotted the novel with rising action embedded in the story, I wouldn’t have to worry that my first rewrite would require the insertion of rising action. What I chose as my steps of rising action were there from the beginning, pulling the story forward.

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Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies, contains a chapter titled “Rising Action and Pace.”               

Mountain Passes: Mosquito Pass

In 1860, just a few years after gold was discovered in California, a miner named Abe Lee sank his pick deep into a pile of rock, looked at what he’d unearthed, and cried out: “I’ve got all of California right here in my pan!” Lee’s discovery started a gold rush to what became the town of Leadville, Colorado. After the gold mined out, even richer deposits of silver and lead were found, which is how the town got its name.

In order to haul supplies in and gold out, the miners of  Leadville hacked a pass through the mountains, so they could reach the town of Fairplay. Like Beale’s Cut, then, Mosquito is a “doctored” pass: humans made changes to it in order to ease their passage through it. The pass was named after the town of Mosquito, which no longer exists.

Mosquito Pass is very, very high —  higher than many mountains. At this height snowstorms are possible any month of the year. But snow and ice never stopped the miners from crossing back and forth. Some died doing so — Mosquito Pass was nicknamed “the highway of the frozen death.”

Mountain Range: Rocky Mountains
Elevation: 13,187 feet 
Location: In central Colorado, part of the White River National Forest.

One man, though, conquered the pass almost daily. That was Father John L. Dyer, a Methodist minister who carried mail as well as gold between the mining camps. To walk Mosquito Pass in winter, when twenty feet of snow covered the ground, Dyer built himself a pair of “snowshoes” ten-feet long (they were more like skis). Strapping on his skis, Dyer crossed the dangerous pass at night, when the ice was hardest. Father Dyer was so much a part of the mining camps that after his death a monument was erected at the summit in his honor.

In 1949, decades after Leadville’s richest days, the merchants of the town were looking for ways to attract tourists. They thought up an annual burro pack race between Leadville and Fairplay, with a $500 prize going to the winner. The route would start in one town and end in the other — getting there through Mosquito Pass, of course. Each burro was required to carry a 33-pound pack of mining supplies: picks, shovels, pans, and so on. Each man (later women entered the race) had to walk or run with his burro, holding a 15-foot long lead. No riding was allowed. The pack was weighed both before and after the race, just in case some contestants tried to lighten the load by tossing equipment.

Back in 1949, a few of the contestants didn’t know a burro from a mule — two of them showed up with mules and were disqualified.

After several successful years, the merchants of Leadville and Fairplay split the race into two different races, held about a week apart. One race leaves from FairPlay, the other from Leadville: both go to the top of Mosquito Pass and back. Today the Leadville International Pack-Burro Race is twenty-one miles long. (The Fairplay race is 29 miles long.) Winning teams usually finish in under four hours. 

Despite the fact that humans, burros, and even stagecoaches all made it over Mosquito Pass, an ordinary car cannot do so. The pass is very rocky unpaved road with tight switchbacks, narrow in some spots, and very difficult on a vehicle’s tires and undersides. 

Four-wheel drive off-terrain vehicles, however, can make it up Mosquito Pass and back, and drivers of these vehicles love to do Mosquito Pass because the views from the top are stunning in all four directions. Still, it takes considerable skill and determination to get a four-wheel drive vehicle over the 22-mile route. In many places top speed is only four or five miles per hour, because the vehicle must “climb” up and down large rocks or boulders. 

Today many four-wheel driving clubs post photos of their Mosquito Pass trip on the Internet. Climbing the highest pass in the US gives people bragging rights.

Mosquito Pass

Traffic tonight
two miles up —
lone skier
plummets down
ice-slick trail,
intent to deliver
miners’ mail.

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Barbara Gregorich’s previous blog on mountain passes was Donner Pass.