Mountain Passes: Panther Pass

Contrary to common perception, Europeans didn’t first occupy the land that became the United States in an east-to-west direction. The Spanish marched from south to north, establishing the town of Santa Fe in 1610, ten years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock.

French missionaries and explorers, on the other hand, moved through the new land from north to south, using the waterways of the Great Lakes and Mississippi River to establish contact with native tribes of what are today Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois, and Arkansas. On the lakes and rivers, of course, the French encountered no mountains and no mountain passes.

The Spanish, moving across the land by foot and on horseback, did encounter mountains. So it should come as no surprise that they encountered mountain passes. (It’s said that the first European to discover a mountain pass in what is today the US was Coronado, who in 1540 marched through the pass called La Glorieta, southeast of Santa Fe, searching for legendary cities of gold.) One of the passes traversed by the Spanish was named after the mountain lions that roamed North America. The North American mountain lion goes by various names in different parts of the continent: cougar, puma, catamount, and panther.

In southwestern Texas the puma is called a panther. In the Chisos Mountains of the Big Bend area, the panther preys mainly on deer and javelinas (wild pigs). And although these large cats prowled throughout the Chisos Mountains, the place they were most often spotted was in a particular mountain pass. Naturally this pass came to be called Panther Pass. The Chisos Mountains, incidentally, are the southernmost mountain range in the US, and are also entirely contained within the boundaries of Big Bend National Park (1,252 square miles). 

Named after the giant turn the Rio Grande makes as it flows east to the Gulf of Mexico, the Big Bend area is spectacular. This is a land of wide variety: harsh desert, rugged mountains, bountiful river. It’s populated by shrubs, cacti, trees, reptiles, birds, and mammals, many of them found nowhere else in the United States. Mainly, though, the land of the Big Bend is desert. Until modern times only Indians native to the area could survive there. They knew which roots provided food, which plants provided moisture, which caves provided shelter. 

Panther Pass

Mountain Range: Chisos Mountains.
Elevation: 5,770 feet
Grade: 15% in some places
Location: In Big Bend National Park, southwestern Texas.

Although the desert was not suitable for farming, it was rumored to contain another kind of wealth: gold. And gold was a lure to the Spanish, who forced natives to mine both silver and gold. This new-world wealth was then loaded onto ships that sailed to Spain. 

Eventually mines are mined out or abandoned for some other reason. Then legends of lost mines spring up. Possibly because so many miners kept the location of their mines secret, the legends were believed. 

One of these many legends says that the Spanish forced prisoners to work in a fabulous mine north of the Rio Grande. This mine was located on what is today called Lost Mine Peak, in the Chisos Mountains. According to legend, the prisoners marched from the Spanish stronghold, Presidio [Fort] San Vicente, which sat on a bluff above the Rio Grande, through the desert, through Panther Pass, and into the dark mine. The gold mine was so rich, legend has it, that the Spanish  blindfolded the prisoners en route so that not one of them would never know its exact location.

Big-Bend-Lost-Mine-Trail2

Lost Mine Trail, Chisos Mountains

How does a gold mine get “lost”? Legends always have an answer. In the case of the Panther Pass gold mine, legend says that the Commanche, who did not want Europeans taking their silver, their gold, or their land, raided the mine and killed everyone in it. Then they sealed the mine entrance with rocks and covered it with brush so that nobody could ever find it again. 

But legends of lost gold mines always give hope to treasure hunters, and the legend of the Panther Pass mine is no different. Supposedly if a person stands in the chapel door of Presidio San Vicente on Easter Sunday, the sun’s first rays will shine on the exact location of the Lost Mine.    

Thousands of prospectors and treasure hunters have looked for the Lost Mine, but nobody has found it. Perhaps that’s because all that remains of Presidio San Vicente are adobe ruins. Or perhaps it’s because Easter Sunday falls on a different date each year. Or maybe it’s because the Earth wobbles on its axis as it rotates, so never again will the first rays of the sun on Easter Sunday strike exactly where they struck 300-some years ago. Or, perhaps . . . the entire legend is total fabrication.

Most likely nobody has found the Lost Mine because it never existed. As they move through the world, humans leave records behind: records of births and deaths, records of ownership, and records of profit or loss. Nowhere in Spain, Mexico, or Texas is there any kind of written record (ledgers, letters, deeds) of a gold mine just beyond Panther Pass. 

But don’t let that stop you. If you’re set on treasure hunting, you can drive or bike an asphalted road through Panther Pass, cross the Lost Mine Trail, and start looking.

Panther Pass

No lost gold
mine-yours-theirs,
there’s nothing where
the puma yowls
and prowls
the arid rocks.

________________

You can read Barbara Gregorich’s earlier blog on mountain passes, The Cumberland Gap.

The Power of Story: Phil Passen’s Musical Programs

As you may recall from a previous blog, The Endless Highway, I am a roadie for my husband, Phil Passen, who is a hammered dulcimer player. As roadie, I get to sit in on his performances. This has led me to not only observe that Phil’s performances are loved by the audiences he plays for (public libraries, historical societies, high schools), but also to analyze why they are so popular.

Here are a few of Phil’s musical programs:

Music of the Civil War
Music to Commemorate the Sinking of the Titanic
Carl Sandburg’s Songbag
The Music of Thomas Hardy
Music to Commemorate the Illinois Bicentennial

There are two basic reasons for the success of these programs. The first is Phil’s playing. I won’t spend much time on this (you can hear some of his tunes, such as “Shady Grove,” on his web site), mainly because one of the reasons for a musician’s success should be his playing. Phil’s ability to play music that people enjoy is evident on his first CD, Swinging on a Gate, which has sold steadily for almost twenty years.

The other reason I won’t dwell on this is that I myself am not a musician and while I find Phil’s music very enjoyable, I simply don’t have the knowledge to analyze its component parts.

The second basic reason for Phil’s success is his ability to create and present story. As a writer, story is something I feel I do have the knowledge to analyze and talk about. On its most basic level, story is an account of people and events, meant to entertain. 

IMG_5406

One of the ways in which stories entertain is in the way they’re constructed, so that listeners can see the cause-and-effect of events and behaviors. So that listeners can see the underlying conflicts between the story’s characters. So they can sense a foreshadowing of what is going to happen. So they can feel empathy with the people who experienced these events, perhaps caused them, perhaps fought against them.

A good story touches the human heart — it helps create empathy for others and helps us see how very much we have in common with those others.

Phil weaves story into all of his programs, but particularly into the historical ones. He researches the events he sings about and constructs that information into story form. True story, not fictional story. He puts his songs and tunes in the order that they will best tell the story. Between songs, he presents information. Audiences leave Phil’s programs saying they loved the music and the stories equally well. 

Phil does this for all of his historical presentations, but I’m going to use only one of them as an example. 

When audiences settle in to hear When That Great Ship Went Down: Music to Commemorate the Sinking of the Titanic, they first hear a spirited old-time tune, “A Man Named William Morgan,” which contains the refrain, My name is Morgan, but it ain’t J.P. I see them tapping their feet, smiling . . . and looking perplexed. Surely some of them are thinking they wandered into the wrong program.

After he finishes that number, Phil tells them about the vast financial empire ruled by J.P Morgan — an empire that included steel mills, railroad lines, banks, and shipping lines. Including the White Star Line, which owned the Titanic.

From J.P Morgan (who did not perish on the Titanic because he let his luxury suite go empty while he stayed in France with a mistress), Phil goes to the first and second class passengers, who would have listened and danced to the Irving Berlin tune, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.” When Phil plays this, I can see not only that the audience enjoys it, but that listeners are getting into the feel of the 1910s era.

From the first and second class passengers Phil goes to  “Shores of Amerikay,” a traditional Irish tune that was sung at the time and that represented the dreams of thousands of Irish who were emigrating to the US in hope of a better life. These third-class passengers were blocked from mingling with either second or (perish the thought!) first class passengers by steel gates and doors, which prevented their access to the upper decks. 

Titanic Flyer

The majority of Titanic deaths were working class people — the crew and third-class passengers. Only 706 lives were saved when the Titanic sank: 1,517 were lost. Of those 1,517, crew members totaled 685 dead and third-class passengers 556 dead.

After establishing the foundations of the story, Phil goes on to play more music performed on the ship, including “An Der Schonen Blauen Donau,” by Johann Strauss. He also sings songs about the ship, including Huddie Ledbetter’s 1912 composition “The Titanic,” which mentions the story that World Champion boxer Jack Johnson was not permitted passage on the ship because he was black. 

By the time the program is finished the audience is immersed in the story of these ill-fated people whose loss of life was totally preventable had not human vanity (the belief that the Titanic was unsinkable) interfered. The story of the Titanic is one of history’s great ironies, and the audience appreciates that. The unsinkable ship sank because of the hubris of those in charge, and lives were lost because the White Star line considered it more important to give first-class passengers a view that did not include lifeboats than it was to provide lifeboats for all aboard.

The program truly lives up to its title: it commemorates the fateful incident and the people who died and those who lived. Both the music and the story grip the hearts of those who hear them.

As one who works hard at creating story, it is a real pleasure for me to sit back and enjoy a story created by someone else’s research and construction. 

________________

For more information on Phil Passen’s programs, contact him here. For help on how to construct a mystery story (and other stories as well,) read Barbara Gregorich’s Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies.

From Here to There: Transitional Devices

Because I’ve been doing a lot of teaching lately, I’ve come to notice that most beginning writers have great difficulty with transitional words and phrases. That is, they don’t use transitional words and phrases. 

I suspect that one of the reasons so many beginning writers fail to think of and use transitional devices between sentences and paragraphs is that they are wrapped up in the story they’re writing, and the story is very clear to them. They fail to take the reader’s needs into consideration — not because they’re inconsiderate people, but because they haven’t yet internalized the need to build bridges that will help the reader follow  the story.

Unknown

A primary need of readers is to know where the characters are within the story and when the events are taking place. When asked to read somebody else’s writing and comment on it (critique it), perhaps the most common question readers ask of the writer is, Where are we in this scene? Are we still in the same location as in the previous paragraph? Or have we moved to another location? Because, Writer, this suddenly isn’t making sense. I don’t know where the characters are. 

The other very common question readers ask is: When? When is this action happening? The same time as the previous paragraph? Years earlier? In the future? Readers can become quickly disoriented and not know where they are in time. The writer knows: but she hasn’t clued the reader in on when the action is taking place. Or took place. Or might take place in the future.

Readers stumble when the written words don’t make it clear that a time shift or location shift occurred between the previous paragraph and the current one. This is why transitional words are critical: they help readers move through the story, just as a bridge helps people get from one side of a river to the other.

Transitional words aren’t limited to showing where or when. They can show contradiction, agreement, cause, conclusion, sequence, and many other relationships. Nor are such words limited to transitions within and between sentences: they are also needed in transitions between paragraphs. (Larger transitions, such as those between scenes or chapters, can be indicated by use of white space or a new chapter number.) Each transition serves as a bridge that carries the reader directly and safely from one thought to another . . . as opposed to sentences that contain no transitions, which require the reader to use slippery stepping-stones to reach the other side. 

imagesSome common transitional words are as follows: again, like, unlike and, but, also, then, besides, while, if, consequently, after, later, before, next, now.

Some common transitional phrases are these: in addition, in spite of, in contrast, different from, in order to, so long as, due to, for this reason, for instance, to repeat, as a result, as soon as, as long as.

Although transitional words and phrases aren’t the only way to move between sentences and paragraphs, they are a good way to do so. Using too many transitional words is a more easily corrected writing problem than is using too few transitional words.  

In addition to using transitional words such as then, after, and while, a writer can build bridges of comprehension between sentences or paragraphs by repeating a word or phrase from the first sentence in the second one. Or from the first paragraph in the second one. Unlike transitional words or phrases, these bridges built through small repetition are practically invisible to the reader. 

When they’re working well, transitional words and phrases are barely visible to the reader. That is, the reader has only a subliminal awareness of them, not an up-front, in-your-face awareness. That’s how transitional words and phrases should work: in the background, as aids, not in the foreground as attention getters.

Here’s a paragraph from my most recent book, Charlie Chan’s Poppa: Earl Derr Biggers. 

His next stop was Indianapolis, where he worked as a manuscript reader for Bobbs-Merrill and also wrote for Reader Magazine. At Bobbs-Merrill he met David Laurance Chambers, who would go on to direct the pubishing house through its most important years. Though it would provide him with a life-long connection to Bobbs-Merrill, Biggers’ stay in Indianapolis was short-lived, much as his Cleveland employment had been. In February of 1908 he moved to Boston, where he went to work for The Boston Traveller.

EarlDerrBiggersCover_GregorichI hope you found that paragraph smooth reading: that is, you were able to follow what I was saying without difficulty. If you were aware of any transitional words or devices, it was probably a subliminal awareness: not an up-front, in-your-face awareness. That’s how transitional words and phrases should work: in the background, as an aid, not in the foreground commanding your attention.

Below is the same paragraph, this time with the small transitional words as well as the repeated words or phrases boldfaced, so you can see how they help lead a reader from the information in one sentence to the information in the next.

His next stop was Indianapolis, where he worked as a manuscript reader for Bobbs-Merrill and also wrote for Reader Magazine. At Bobbs-Merrill he met David Laurance Chambers, who would go on to direct the pubishing house through its most important years. Though it would provide him with a life-long connection to Bobbs-Merrill, Biggers’ stay in Indianapolis was short-lived, much as his Cleveland employment had been. In February of 1908 he moved to Boston, where he went to work for The Boston Traveller.

When you look at the big picture of what transitional words, phrases, and devices do, you see that, ultimately, they give a piece of writing a logical organization and a direction. And this is true whether the writing is fiction or nonfiction or poetry. Transitional words, phrases, and devices are bridges that help carry the reader from one idea or action to the next.

________________

Earl Derr Biggers wrote many a wonderful aphorism for Charlie Chan. Unfortunately, none of these adages dealt with transitional devices. However, don’t let that stop you from reading Barbara Gregorich’s biography of Earl Derr Biggers, which is full of transitional words and phrases in the right places.

Mountain Passes: The Cumberland Gap

When I was in third grade, my mother gave me a book whose stories told about mountain passes in history. As a result I became fascinated by mountain passes. Once I started to drive and travel across the US, I encountered mountain passes in person and became even more interested in their location and  importance.

Years ago I wrote the manuscript of a nonfiction picture book on twelve important mountain passes in US history. For each mountain pass I wrote a poem, boxed statistics, and prose. The manuscript was almost published, but ultimately wasn’t, because to produce it the way the editor envisioned it would have cost too much. I then rewrote the information as a nonfiction Middle Grades book, but there was no interest in the subject among the publishers I queried.

5543-004-252355F0All the information I collected on mountain passes is still in storage. But this is the era of the blog, and my blog is titled “Much to Write About,” and so I’m going to write briefly about mountain passes. Not all at once, but off and on.

The first important mountain pass in US history (the land wasn’t the United States yet) was the Cumberland Gap, which was formed in the Appalachian Mountains by wind erosion over hundreds of thousands of years. For tens of thousands of years the pass was traversed by animals, and for thousands of years by Indian tribes such as the Lenape, Cherokee, Miami, and Shawnee, as they crossed from one side of the mountains to the other to engage in trade and also warfare.

The pass, or rumors of it, was known to English colonists as early as the 1670s. But it wasn’t until 1750 that Thomas Walker (physician and explorer, and the man appointed guardian of young Thomas Jefferson after the death of Peter Jefferson) mapped the location of the Cumberland Gap.

Cumberland Gap
Mountain Range: Appalachian Mountains
Elevation: 1,601 feet above sea level
Grade: about 4%
Location: Near the point where the states of
Kentucky, Virginia, and Tennessee meet.

As soon as the Gap’s location was made known, a few hardy men and women began to walk westward into the land of Indian tribes, taking the barest of possessions with them:  a knife, a gun, and the clothes on their back. Everything else they needed, they found or built on the other side of the mountains, or traded for with the Indian tribes.

Cumberland_GapMost people, though, wanted to take some possessions with them. Bedding, perhaps, and cooking utensils. So in 1775 the Transylvania Land Company hired Daniel Boone to hack a road through the Cumberland Gap. Boone and his crew of thirty men cleared away brush, axed small trees, and hauled away fallen logs, blazing the steep, rough, and narrow Wilderness Road.  The cleared path allowed people to cross on horseback. Twenty years later, the Wilderness Road was widened so that wagons could pass through.

More than 300,000 people poured through the Gap (into Indian lands) and claimed the land as their own. In 1792 Kentucky became the first state west of the Appalachian Mountains.Today the Cumberland Gap and area surrounding it are part of Cumberland Gap National Historic Park, visited by more than one million people each year.

Cumberland Gap

Nature’s wall blocked
their reach,
but not for long.

Carts, cattle, people —
through the breach
and gone.

________________

To cross a mountain pass is to enter another world. To read a book is to enter another world, too. Jack and Larry, one of Barbara Gregorich’s many books, opens into the world of 1910-1920 major league baseball.

The Floor Is Not a Laundry Basket

I thoroughly enjoy the Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series featuring Precious Ramotswe. In one of the more recent titles, Precious and Grace accepted as fact that men throw their laundry on the floor. The two detectives considered this clothing-as-debris behavior as unchangeable. This made me wonder how things might have been different had Precious and Grace reacted differently when, at the beginning of their marriages, they encountered the clothes on the floor.

That, in turn, prompted me to dash off this poem.

wooden washtubs

 

There They Lie 

Dirty underwear,
jeans, tees, and shirts litter
the floor,
crumpled where you
dropped them under
the mistaken notion that
somebody would pick them up
and return them freshly laundered
the way your mother used to
. . .  or maybe your father,
while ineffectually admonishing you
to pick them up
yourself.

Yourself now acts as if
I will pick up discarded raiments
and return them laundered. Yourself
is in for a scrubbing in thick suds
of intransigence. I not only refuse
to stoop for your dirty laundry,
I treat it like floor covering,
making certain to wipe
my feet
on it.

________________

You can read other poems by Barbara Gregorich in Crossing the Skyway: Poems. 

The Endless Highway: My Life as a Roadie

Perhaps we all have an avocation as well as a vocation. My father, for example, was a steelworker but also a carpenter. My mother was a bartender, then a homemaker, but always a crocheter. I’m a writer. But I’m also a roadie, and have been for more than twenty years. That’s because my husband, Phil Passen, is a musician. In order to be with him and help him out, I am his roadie.

IMG_2367

Roadie

I drive our car to Phil’s gigs. I help load the car as much as he’ll allow: he tends to think that only he knows the right way to load both the sound equipment and the hammered dulcimer, but he grudgingly allows me to push the equipment-laden cart to the performance area, and to push it back to the car when his gig is done.

He relies on me to provide a sound check. Because I hear the dulcimer all day long, I’m attuned to what it sounds like, and it’s my job to listen carefully after the dulcimer is connected to an amplifier, to make certain that the sustain isn’t too great, the bass notes aren’t muddy, the treble notes aren’t tinny. And so on.

Further, it’s my job to listen to the vocal mike to make sure it’s at the proper level for Phil’s speaking and for his singing, and to make certain the vocals and the dulcimer are in a good balance. Sometimes early comers to the performance get in on the act by suggesting more or less volume, but they never offer opinions on balance, treble, or bass. Which is just as well.

As a roadie I also work the CD table. I set it up, display the CDs, answer questions about them, sell them, collect the money, record the sale, and so on. Plus, I answer questions that people ask me. (Some of them approach Phil after the gig and ask him; others come directly to the CD table and ask me.) Questions such as: How long has he been playing? Who built his dulcimer? Did he take lessons? Which CD should they buy?

I love my life as a roadie not only because I love Phil, but also because I know that when I drive he can relax and rehearse before the performance, and decompress after the performance. Plus, it’s a great deal of fun to see and hear Phil in concert and to see how people react to him and his music.

But my life as a roadie has had . . . Dark. Moments.

One of these consisted of a 153-mile drive to Madison, Wisconsin, during which time Phil took along an autoharp to see whether he liked playing it and whether he liked singing while playing it. The song he chose to learn on was “Go Tell Aunt Rhody.”

Now, one thing you have to understand about Phil is that he is determined. Some would say compulsive. But no, he denies compulsive and prefers determined. And he likes to get things right. So, in order to learn the autoharp and the song, he kept playing and singing the first two lines.

Over and over. And over. And over.

Go tell Aunt Rhody / Go tell Aunt Rhody / Go tell Aunt Rhody / The old gray goose is dead.

I’m a person who admires simplicity. But there is such a thing as Too. Simple. As in Go tell Aunt Rhody three times over. (And over and over: you get it.) 

PP, Springfield

Musician

After maybe 90 miles, Phil felt confident enough to advance to the second verse. It’s a good thing, too, because I was ready to kill the old gray goose and anybody who insisted on singing about her — in a closed vehicle from which there was no escape.

Still, the drive-to-Madison experience was nothing compared to the drive-to-Memphis experience. We’re talking 533 miles. We’re talking Phil learning to sing the John McCutcheon song, “Christmas in the Trenches.” We’re talking the first line over and over.

My name is Francis Tolliver, I come from Liverpool.

Around mile 75 I had heard this first line enough. More than enough!

But Musician hadn’t. Apparently the first line was his way into the song: the notes, the tempo, the story, the attitude. Everything. And he wasn’t going to advance until he had mastered this line.

Roadie, Mile 150: This is sounding good. What about the next line?
Musician: My name is Francis Tolliver, I come from Liverpool.

Roadie, Mile 225: Time to stop and walk about a bit. [Pulls into an oasis.]
Musician: My name is Francis Tolliver, I come from Liverpool.

Roadie, Mile 340: Seriously, Phil, can you stop singing that line over and over?
Musician: My name is Francis Tolliver, I come from Liverpool.
Two years ago the war was waiting for me after school.
Roadie: [Huge sigh of relief.]

Roadie, Mile 400: Considers asking Musician to drive the car, which he would willingly do. But realizes Musician would not only drive, he would sing while driving. Roadie decides that is worse than current situation. In current situation, she could always open the passenger door and push Musician out. She could not do that if he were driving.

Roadie, Mile 435: [Gnashes teeth. Pounds steering wheel. Considers driving car into the Mississippi River.]
Musician: My name is Francis Tolliver, I come from Liverpool.
Two years ago the war was waiting for me after school.

Musician, Mile 473: [Stops playing. Stops singing. Packs autoharp into its case.] Well, that’s enough for now.
Roadie: [To herself. “That’s enough for one lifetime.”]

Despite these Very. Dark. Moments., Roadie and Musician have survived. Musician now sings a wonderful version of the entire “Christmas in the Trenches.” Roadie feels tension drain away as soon as musician continues to the third line. And beyond.  Which, so far, has been at every performance. 

________________

Barbara Gregorich includes humor in her folk-music-based mystery novel, Sound Proof — in which not a single character sings a line over and over.

Punctuation Marks – 3

The first thing that impressed me about the Harry Potter novels was the story; the second thing that impressed me was J.K. Rowling’s use of semicolons. I was happy to see her punctuate closely related independent clauses with a semicolon. 

And I have found, when reading some mystery fiction, more semicolons than one would normally encounter in a novel. The first question I ask myself is: Was the author an attorney? Quite often the answer is Yes. Perhaps the legal mind is attracted to the fine distinctions made by semicolons. 

Moby_Dick_final_chaseThe semicolon has four major uses, as follows:

1  To link two closely related independent clauses

    Jason sailed the Argos; Ahab sailed the Pequod.

2  To link clauses connected by conjunctions such as however, as a result

    Ahab was consumed with the idea of vengeance against Moby Dick; as a result, he smuggled five Parsee harpooners aboard the Pequod.

3  To separate items in a list, when items within each part of the list contain commas.

    The author kept her manuscript in three forms: as an electronic file, which she stored on her computer or, sometimes, on two different computers; as a paper file, which she kept in her locked file cabinet; and as a digital file, which she kept on her flash drive, which was with her at all times, even when she slept.

4  To link lengthy clauses that also contain commas, so as to distinguish between clauses.

   The gardener turned the soil over twice a year, using a spade, a pitchfork, a hoe, and, finally, a rake; but she planted seeds only once, after the first turning-over.   

Just as the semicolon seems a bit formal, so, too, do parentheses. As Karen Elizabeth Gordon explains in The New Well-Tempered Sentence, parentheses are meant to include additional information within a sentence — not the main information, but additional info. “They make for a softer interruption than the abrupt snapping or daring that dashes do. . . .” she explains. (Note the abruptness of that dash two sentences ago? Note the softness of this additional information?)

Punctuation-MarksGordon’s book (one of my favorite of all grammar books) is full of examples of parentheses usage. As you can see in the previous sentence, I have placed additional information within parentheses. Wisecracks, asides, insults (!), and even punctuation marks that reveal a writer’s attitude (Attitude with a capital A?) are usually placed within parentheses. 

Brackets are called square brackets in some English-speaking countries, but in the US they’re simply called brackets. I learned about brackets in high school, probably when I was learning how to write a research paper, and I can recall using them in college papers, too. But then I began writing adult fiction and nonfiction and children’s fiction and nonfiction and also children’s activity books and filmstrips and such — and brackets disappeared from my writing.

RN3Only to resurface again in 2010 when I wrote Research Notes for Women at Play: The Story of Women in Baseball, Volume 1. Ditto for Volume 2, which was published in 2013, and ditto for Volume 3, published in 2015.

The reason that brackets resurfaced in my writing is that one of their main uses is to enclose material added by someone other than the original author. In Research Notes I quoted a lot of original material (mainly newspaper articles from 1875-1923), and in many cases I needed to add explanatory material or indicate that something was incorrectly spelled.

In the first example below, I add the information that the Hartford referred to is in Michigan. In the second example I add a sic to indicate that the incorrectly-spelled word preceding the sic was there in the original newspaper text.

“Manager Olson has arranged for a game with Hartford [Michigan] for Friday afternoon, May 11, at the Hartford ball grounds.”

“The season has been a disasterous [sic] one to many carnivals and circuses, and with no encouraging outlook for the present season, the wise and conservative showmen will probably be in winter quarters not later than the early part of October.”

In an earlier blog I wrote that I think the apostrophe will disappear from American English sooner or later, because people simply do not understand its use to show possession. Another punctuation mark in grave danger of disappearance — it has practically vanished — is the hyphen. I often find myself confused by a billboard or ad slogan that, after three or four readings I finally figure out. Had words been properly hyphenated, I would have understood instantly. For example:

a third best vacation

a third-best vacation

The first two or three times I read the top line (which is how it appeared on a billboard), I thought somebody had taken three best vacations. Frankly, I didn’t see how that was possible. The vacations could have been good, better, best, but all three of them could not have been best. Finally I figured out that the writer meant to sneer at a particular vacation, calling it third-best. When the hyphen is missing, it takes a couple of readings to figure out exactly what is meant. (See my poem blog on the hyphen, Goodbye Hyphen, Hello Confusion.)

Importance-Hyphen1

Here’s another example of  how a missing hyphen — which is meant to join words that need to be understood as belonging together — can cause a reader to stumble.

Twice now I’ve seen the cover of a book that is titled:

BLUE EYED STRANGER

So each time I’ve seen this, I’ve read it as a blue stranger who happens to be “eyed,” and that strikes me as hilarious. The ridiculousness of the situation makes me realize that the cover designer means this to be a

BLUE-EYED STRANGER

Upon looking this book up online, I see that text descriptions (i.e., not the cover, but words) call it Blue-Eyed Stranger. So apparently it’s just the cover that is wrong. Either that, or the write-ups about the book have corrected the poor punctuation because they just couldn’t stand it! 

Which is why I do not carry a pen with me.

________________

Barbara Gregorich loved using both the colon and a comma in one of her book titles — Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies.