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.

Foreshadowing

As so well defined by The Fiction Dictionary, foreshadowing is a literary technique in which the writer gives the reader a subtle hint of some important event that will occur later in the story — it helps the reader develop expectations about what’s going to happen. The important event is often surprising or shocking. 

The example The Fiction Dictionary gives of foreshadowing is from Flannery O’Connor’s story, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” The story seems like the depiction of an ordinary, even uninteresting, family trip. But the foreshadowing helps prepare the reader for the tragic ending. The foreshadowing is such that I, as a reader, felt uneasy. I knew something bad was going to happen.

In Of Mice and Men George’s killing of the dog foreshadows his killing of Lennie. The first killing sets a tone and direction and thus prepares the reader for what comes later.

Here’s how I introduced foreshadowing in Chapter 19 of Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies:

Think of foreshadowing as hinting. To foreshadow an event in a novel is to give earlier hints that it might happen. Great writers such as Shakespeare, Dickens, and Faulkner all use foreshadowing, whose purpose is twofold: to involve the reader more in the story by creating anticipation and suspense, and to make the events to come seem more plausible.

Foreshadowing adds richness, tension, and depth to a story. When the foreshadowed events happen, they feel more profound or important because it appears that some cosmic force had underlined their importance by “warning” us they are to come. It’s as if Zeus, looking down from Mount Olympus, takes a giant red pencil and “underlines” certain life events, be they words, actions, or even the weather. This makes it seem that what happens was meant to happen.

Books which lack foreshadowing seem so much more “on the surface” than books in which events are intricately bound to future results through foreshadowing. 

Here’s another piece of advice I give writers in Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel:

But if you’re thinking that you’re required to foresee and insert foreshadowing from the beginning of your story — at a time when you’re worrying about character, plot, setting, and dozens of other things — rest assured that foreshadowing is often added during a rewrite. Once you’ve reached the end of your first draft, you know where your story started, where it ended up, and how it got there. Now’s the time to ponder which events you want to foreshadow (to make them more anticipated, and to make them more plausible) and how you want to accomplish that.

Narrative, dialogue, and stream-of-consciousness thought can all be used to foreshadow. I most often use the narrative to foreshadow, but I’ve also used dialogue and character thoughts.

As I wrote Sound Proof, my second mystery novel (the one featured in Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel) I had a lot of fun with the foreshadowing, employing it from the first chapter onward. I used it not only to hint at what would happen at the book’s climax, but also to make the minor character villain more plausible.

Although foreshadowing is usually thought of as a technique in fiction, it’s also used in literary nonfiction. Any story that has a strong plot can make use of foreshadowing, the anticipation of future events — if not their exact nature, at least their general outline.

In Jack and Larry: Jack Graney and Larry, the Cleveland Baseball Dog, I used the fact that baseballs can take “good hops” or “bad hops” to foreshadow the sad events that occurred before the eventual triumph. By the repetition of “bad hops,” I wanted readers to know something bad would happen in the story, sooner or later.

One of the wonderful things about foreshadowing — wonderful for both writer and reader — is that it makes readers anticipate: makes them want to know more. And what writer in the world wouldn’t be thrilled with readers wanting to know more about his/her story?

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Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies provides information and how-to advice on many different aspects of writing fiction— mystery fiction as well as other fiction.

Keeping Cool in Outdoor Kitchens

Every summer my aunt, who lived on a farm, cooked in the outdoor kitchen rather than in the indoor kitchen. The more generic name for such a kitchen is a “summer kitchen,” but my aunt always called it the outdoor kitchen. The farmhouse, built around 1850, wasn’t air conditioned, and on a very hot day cooking in the kitchen was not only intolerable, it also made the rest of the house even hotter.

The old-fashioned farmhouse outdoor kitchen was not like today’s outdoor kitchens, which are literally outdoors, on a patio or other open area around the house. The farmhouse summer kitchen was usually a one-room roofed and enclosed structure (containing a kitchen and nothing else). You had to go outdoors to enter it. That is, you had to walk out of the main house to get to the other little house that was the outdoor kitchen — which is probably why my aunt called it an outdoor kitchen. 

Luckily the people who built the original farmhouse on my aunt and uncle’s farm also built an outdoor kitchen very nearby. This kitchen consisted of a stone floor, stone walls, and wide eaves that kept out the sun. I don’t remember what the roof was made of, but I do remember that the outdoor kitchen always felt cool. Even on a hot day.

I wrote this poem in memory of that kitchen.

A summer [outdoor] kitchen

Outdoor Kitchens

Before the cool hum of air conditioners
Before the glut of quarter-acre plots
When blazing days heightened kitchen heat
When everyone craved a cooling rainstorm
Women found relief in outdoor kitchens

When sizzling bacon and crackling cornbread
Roasting chicken and baking biscuits
Boiling potatoes, wilting greens, and steaming corn
Would have produced indoor saunas
Women cooked in outdoor kitchens

Thick stone walls defied noonday heat
Wide eaves foiled each invading ray
Stone floors remained divinely cool
Air breezed through uncramped space
Distress simmered down in outdoor kitchens

Though abandoned they have not disappeared
Like faithful friends who will not leave
Many linger close to the main house
Look for one when you pass a farm
Symbol of different ways, the outdoor kitchen

After the techno-hum of a long hot day
After a multitude of hydra-headed tasks
When pressures magnify indoor heat
When everyone hungers for relief
Consider the solace of the outdoor kitchen

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Barbara Gregorich’s poems are available in Crossing the Skyway: Poems.          

Mountain Passes: Donner Pass

In 1844 a group of emigrants bound for California, the Stephens-Townsend-Murphy party, which consisted of ten families from Iowa, became the first overland settlers to cross the Sierra Nevadas. They followed the route of the Truckee River and crossed through a pass which had a very steep ascent from the east, but a more gradual ascent from the west. 

For perhaps two or three years, this pass may have been referred to as Stephens Pass. But after the winter of 1846-47, it was always called Donner Pass.

In spring of 1846, approximately 7,000 covered wagons, traveling in small groups of 10-20, left Independence, Missouri, to cross 2,500 miles of plains, deserts, and mountain ranges. The emigrants were heading to California or Oregon. Some of these wagon parties were large, with thirty or forty wagons to the train. Others were smaller, with ten wagons to the train. The group led by George and Jacob Donner was small.

Donner Pass

It was also ill-fated. Nothing seemed to go right for the Donner travelers. Heavy rains stopped them in their muddy tracks. Flooded rivers delayed them further. Heavy rocks and boulders slowed them to a mile a day in some places. But worst of all, they were following bad advice — advice from ex-Confederate major, nouveau-Californian lawyer Lansford W. Hastings, who wrote The Emigrants’ Guide to Oregon and California, which suggested to the westward bound that they could shorten their journey significantly by taking a shortcut.

Following the regular wagon train route through South Pass in Wyoming, the Donners reached Fort Bridger by the end of July. There the men, women, and children spent four days resting their oxen and repairing their wagons.

But after the Donner party left Fort Bridger, it took a shortcut route. Tragically, this route was not only more difficult than the regular one, but also 125 miles longer. Rough ground, tangled undergrowth, and deep sands delayed the wagon train a whole four weeks. All the delays, both nature-made and human-made, contributed to the disaster that took place at Donner Pass.

Wagon trains tried to make it through the Sierra Nevadas before the end of September. Due to delays, the Donner Party didn’t reach the pass until October 31, 1846. They built a camp 1,000 feet below the summit of the long and difficult mountain pass. On the other side was the downhill route, safety, and Fort Sutter, California.

Donner Pass
Mountain Range: Sierra Nevada Mountains
Elevation: 7,239 feet (2,206 meters)
Location: On the Nevada-California border, in the El Dorado National Forest of California.

But that night a storm dropped five feet of snow into the pass, blocking it completely. The wind blew the snow into twenty-foot drifts. Men, women, children, and animals sank into the snow and could not move forward. Wagons slid backwards. The next day it snowed more . . . and more . . . and more. The Donner group was blocked in the mountain pass. They built small cabins to live in.

Their food ran out. They ate leather, bones, twigs, and dirt. And then they ate the bodies of those who died. By the time rescue came, in February and April of 1847, only 46 of the 87 emigrants remained alive. When they reached California, the survivors told the tale of how they were trapped and what they did to stay alive. Ever since, the pass has been called Donner Pass.

In 1863, less than twenty years after the Donner Party, another group entered Donner Pass. This was a larger group — thousands of Chinese men. They had been hired by the Central Pacific Railroad to build bridges, dig tunnels, build retaining walls, and lay railroad track from California eastward. The Central Pacific would build eastward and the Union Pacific would build westward. When they reached one another, the United States would have its first transcontinental railroad. This would allow people, livestock, and goods to travel across the land more easily than ever before.

Theodore Judah was the engineer who laid out the route of the Central Pacific, which included 105 miles of track through Donner Pass. So accurate was his planning that today, more than 150 years later, nobody has found a better route across the Sierra Nevadas.

In order to get the tracks through Donner Pass, the Chinese workers blasted tunnels. Fifteen tunnels in all. Tunnels allowed the trains to travel at a lower grade — instead of following the pass to its top, the tracks followed a less steep route by going through a tunnel.

Work on the tunnels through Donner Pass continued year round. In the winter of 1866-67, forty-four snowstorms raged. One of the storms blew for two full weeks and dropped ten feet of snow. But the railroad crew, thousands strong, supplied with food by the railroad, dug huge tunnels through the snow. Back and forth the workers moved through the snow tunnels, in order to work on the real tunnels — those they were blasting through the mountain sides.

On May 10, 1869, the Central Pacific and the Union Pacific met in Provo, Utah. At long last, the United States had a transcontinental railroad. Today trains going to and from California still use  Donner Pass and the railroads still use the tracks built by Chinese workers more than 150 years ago. Interstate-80 also goes through Donner Pass.

Donner Pass
Fierce winds pack
sudden snow,
fill crevice
and crack,
block route
front to back —
wagon train
under attack.

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

Character Names: Associations

One of the things beginning writers are warned against is starting multiple character names with the same letter of the alphabet. That’s because readers will inevitably get confused as to who the character is. In other words, don’t have a David and a Derrick in the same book. I failed to heed this warning when writing Dirty Proof, my first mystery. In fact, I failed badly. Frank Dragovic’s sister is named Stephanie; his fellow detective is named Sarah; and his love interest is named Suzanne. Aarrgghhhhh! I wish I could do this over, but, alas, I can’t. 

Another warning to all writers (not just beginning ones) is that in naming characters, it’s important to make the name fit with the era. I cringe when I read book reviews of romance historical fiction in which female characters have names such as Sienna or Courtney. For fiction to be believable to the reader, character names must ring true. 

One great way to get first names right is to use the Census Bureau information on-line and look at the listings of the most popular girls’ and boys’ names for each decade. I have used this source countless times, especially when writing workbooks, activity pages, and short historical pieces for classroom activity. Another name resource is old high school yearbooks. Or alumni magazines. I’m particularly fond of  using the obituaries in Harvard Magazine as a possible source for character names.

Before I wrote my first novel (She’s on First) I read many, many how-to books on writing the novel. Several of those books recommended naming characters after streets. This, if I recall, was so that a writer could always claim she didn’t name her characters after anybody in particular: she named them after a street — “This character isn’t named after a real person, Judge! She’s named after a street!”

During the time I was writing She’s on First we were traveling to Texas almost once a year to visit Phil’s parents. So as we drove I jotted down possible names, using towns, rivers, streets, and advertising signs in Tennessee, Arkansas, and Texas. And of course I tried to match names to a character’s “character.” Among the character names that I particularly enjoyed naming in She’s on First are Harland Abilene, catcher; Bobby Knuff, first baseman; and Frank Laughing, second baseman.

I confess that I made up the last name “Mowerinski” when I was trying to combine outfield grass with a Polish last name. Once I made it up, I loved it, and within seconds I immediately created a lawn-mower business for Big Al to build up after his retirement from baseball. 

It always kind of bothered me a bit that I had made up this name entirely, rather than taking an existing Polish name that seemed to fit the character. However, it rather pleases me that if you type the word “mowerinski” into Google, even now, 33 years after the publication of the novel, all hits go directly to She’s on First. 

The star of my early reader books is Waltur, a bear who misunderstands figures of speech: he takes them literally. Waltur is featured in two books, each book containing three stories. The first book is Waltur Buys a Pig in a Poke, and the second book is Waltur Paints Himself into a Corner.

The most frequent question audiences ask about the Waltur books is: “Why did you spell Waltur with a U, and not an E.” I reply that I spelled it that way because it just seemed right to me. For one thing, the UR goes with URsine. For another, bears growl, and to me a growl sounds more URRRR than ERRR

There’s a negative result of my having spelled the name Waltur. The effect is that about 10=15% of people who write to me about the book say, “I love your bear Wilbur. He is so funny.”

Aarrgghhhhh! (Or should that be Uurrgghhhhh!?) My bear is not Wilbur, he is Waltur! 

But I realize that some people cannot keep names straight. They constantly mix up Phil and Paul, for example, or Joe and Joel, or Sheila and Sara. For that part of the population which mixes up names, be the names written or oral, it’s possible that there is no help. I suspect, though, that my using the “u” instead of “e” leads such people to immediately shunt the name Waltur to the brain cell that houses the name Wilbur.

So, when you’re thinking of naming a character in fiction, give careful consideration to whether the name is one that sits on the cusp of confusion. If it does, consider whether you can live with reader name mix-ups, or whether you can’t. If you can’t, consider changing the name of your character.

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Barbara Gregorich URges you to read Waltur Paints Himself into a Corner and Other Stories.