The F Words: Inciting Incident

In fiction the main character experiences an “inciting incident.” The inciting incident is an event — not just any event, but one that propels the main character into the actions that will constitute the story. To state it another way, the inciting incident  (which need not be the first event in the book) triggers the primary actions of the story. 

In The F Words the inciting incident, which thrusts Cole into the actions of the story, is his spray-painting the f word on the brick wall of his high school (not just once, but fifteen times) — and getting caught by Mr. Nachman, his tenth-grade English teacher.

The inciting incident should occur early in the story: within the first three minutes of a movie, and within the first twenty pages of a novel. The inciting incident of The F Words starts on page one. (My attitude is, if you’re going to incite, don’t delay!)

In some novels there is backstory before you get to the inciting incident. But it’s the incident, not the backstory, that propels the main character forward into the conflict/journey/struggle. 

When I first started to write fiction I didn’t put my inciting incident on page one. In She’s on First, I think the inciting incident is in Chapter 2 — when Al Mowerinski signs Linda to play for the Chicago Eagles. Chapter 2 is a long way into the story for an inciting incident. I might have sensed that, because I began the novel with a strong hint of what the inciting incident would be. I then continued with backstory, and in Chapter 2 fulfilled the expectations of the inciting incident.

But by the time I was writing my second novel, Dirty Proof, I had somehow or other decided that the inciting incident should go on the first page of that particular story.

And speaking of page, it’s important for a writer to understand that the best inciting incidents are events/actions that take place on the page (not in summary or narrative or flashback). Not only should the main character experience the inciting incident, but so should the reader. The reader should be able to feel everything the main character feels about that incident, be it fear, surprise, anger, befuddlement.

A writer must make certain that the inciting incident makes the main character act in a way he or she would not have normally acted. Consider the incident of Cole being caught by his English teacher. When he catches Cole in the act of tagging the high school wall with the f word, Mr. Nachman tells Cole he will not report him to the principal if Cole fulfills two conditions. First, he must volunteer to clean the words off the wall. Second, he must, for every week of the school year, write two poems, each about a word that begins with f, and he must hand these in to Mr. Nachman every Friday morning. 

You can see that, had Cole not been caught, he would not have volunteered to clean the spray-painted words off the school wall. Nor would he have volunteered to write two poems a week for his English teacher. The inciting incident pushes Cole into a different set of actions than he would have taken without that incident. Because the inciting incident causes the main character to take actions he wouldn’t have taken otherwise, it causes the character to change — and change is important in fiction. The character on the last page of the story is different from that character as he appears on the first page of the story. He (or she) has undergone a journey and has changed.

At the end of a novel, the reader should be able to see the arc of the journey the main character has undergone. And, it is always rewarding to a reader when she can see the first step of that journey and the inevitable link between the first step and the conclusion.

The importance of the inciting incident can’t be underestimated. Yes, it grabs reader attention and kicks off the story. But more than that, it draws a line between the character’s previous life and this moment: Now. In fiction the inciting incident and its results change the character’s life forever.

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The F Words is available for pre-order wherever books are sold, including from the publisher, City of Light. To get updates and the latest news on The F Words, subscribe to Barbara Gregorich’s Newsletter.

The F Words: Cross-Country Running

In all of my novels, athletics/exercise is a part of the protagonist’s life. I think that’s because I believe that we, humans, are both body and mind, and wherever possible one of these shouldn’t be neglected in favor of the other. So in The F Words Cole is a cross-country runner. Because I never ran cross-country, I had to learn something about it as I was writing the book. And research is almost always fun.

To learn more about cross-country running for The F Words, I read articles on the sport —  general articles explaining what it is and how  cross-country meets are scored, what the courses are like. The scoring fascinated me. Each high school cross-country team has seven runners. Each runner receives points equal to the place position of his or her finish. If Cole was the fourth runner to cross the finish line, he would receive four points. The points of the first five runners on each team are added up. In a meet, the team with the lowest total number wins: its runners scored better over-all positions than did those of any other team at the meet.

As I said, I was fascinated by this information — because it immediately became clear to me that, Wow: the members of a cross-country team really have to think in terms of personal best and team best. They have to figure out a way to finish as high in the scoring as they can. At the same time, they have to think about helping their teammates score high, too. Maybe talking to a teammate during the race (in short breaths or grunts, I assume). Maybe finding an opening through which two of them can slip at once.

In The F Words Cole starts out protesting injustice alone. He gains nothing from this. Then his best friend Felipe wants to run for class president. Treva, the new student, steps into the picture and urges that they work together. That’s when Cole realizes the three of them are a team.

Felipe looks around, then motions for Treva and me to step closer. 
We do.
“We run them on a random loop,” he says, “so nobody knows when the photo they’re in will come up. They’ll be watching all day long, looking for themselves!”
“Brilliantamente!” says Treva, giving Felipe a high-five.
“Brilliante,” he corrects. 
“Oh. Sorry.”
The three of us look at each other. We each give a small nod. 
We’re a team. 
A battle team.

After I realized the connection between cross-country scoring and the importance of teamwork in The F Words, I continued to learn more about the sport. I watched two documentaries on high school coaches and cross-country teams. These were very interesting to me because I got to see tenth, eleventh, and twelfth graders racing together on a team, meet after meet — and this was the situation Cole would be in.

In addition to the documentaries, I also watched many YouTube videos. Watching these allowed me to see and hear what the athletes said, how they looked while warming up, while running, how exhausted they got, how the race changed during a downpour, and how large the crowds (mostly family and friends) were. Research is more fun with You Tube videos to watch!

After watching YouTube videos of high school cross-country running and after reading articles on the subject, the other thing I did was ask a friend whose son had run cross-country in high school to read a draft of The F Words and tell me what rang true and what didn’t. Some of the things I had to correct were how the runners got to the meet (school bus? family car?) and what usually happened after the entire meet was done.

Sharon Johnson was, as always, generous with her knowledge, and she also asked her son, Luke Johnson, certain questions about the scenes I had depicted. One of the things that both Luke and Sharon told me was that there’s a lot of snot-expectorating in cross-country. Gross! But fun to work that into the novel.

Before The F Words was ready for me to send out to editors, six or seven different people read and critiqued it. Based on their remarks, they all liked the cross-country running scenes. So I’m glad that my various kinds of research helped make the scenes work. And, cross-country running was a fun subject to learn more about.

What was most important to me about developing Cole athletically is that his interaction with his coach and teammates helps show what kind of person he is, and his determination at cross-country is part of his character. It carries over into other aspects of his life, and certainly into other aspects of the plot.

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The F Words is available for pre-order wherever books are sold, including Books a Million. To get updates and the latest news on The F Words, subscribe to Barbara Gregorich’s Newsletter.

The F Words: Point of View

Character, setting, plot, and point of view are considered the four pillars of fiction. A writer needs to create interesting characters, a setting that interacts with the story, a plot based on cause-and-effect, and a point of view that tells the story the way the author wants to reveal it, or the way the author wants the reader to experience the story.

A writer need not determine these four pillars in any particular order. It’s possible that some writers determine the pillars in the exact same order for each story. It’s possible that some writers don’t consciously think about any of the pillars. And it’s possible that some writers determine the pillars in a different, random order for each story they write.

I’m in the latter category. I am pretty sure that for She’s on First, I determined the plot and the characters together. Two pillars, but I worked on them at  one and the same time. For Dirty Proof, I know that I worked on the setting first: I was determined to write a mystery that took place in a newspaper plant, and once the setting was settled, so to speak, I was then able to work on characters and plot. The same was true of the sequel, Sound Proof — I determined the setting (a folk music festival) first, and from there I worked on the plot. 

In no case in any of my writing did I determine the point of view first. In theory it is possible to decide on POV first, I suppose, as in: “Oh, I think I’ll tell a story from Third Person Limited POV.  Now that I’ve decided, what shall my story be?” Possible, yes . . .  but . . . bizarre?

It makes no sense to decide the POV for your story until and unless you have a fairly good idea of who the characters are and what their problems are. I suspect that most writers come up with their POV during the same time that they’re thinking about their characters and plot, because POV goes hand-in-hand with characters and plot.

But, at the same time, POV is distinct from both characters and plot. POV is the angle or viewpoint from which the story is told. From whose eyes the story is seen and reported. And while there is something called the Second Person POV, it’s unusual. The two main POVs are first person and third person. 

Each POV has its own advantages and disadvantages. Many readers love first-person because it feels so close: right inside the character’s head. Others love third-person because it’s so broad (and  presumably objective), allowing them to look inside the head of several or many characters.  First-person tends to capture reader interest instantly. Third-person often takes a while. First-person narration has to be looked at with some suspicion: how can a reader be sure that the character telling  the story is telling it truthfully? Third-person sometimes feels cold and distant, and maybe even long-winded. But it does offer that bigger picture.

When it comes to POV,  I feel that I don’t actually choose it. I feel it chooses me. Somehow or other, it arrives at  the same time the characters and plot do. I have written maybe 200 books (from 12 pages to 500 pages in length), and only once have I changed the POV — from third person to first person. That was in a 36-page picture book. It’s possible that I’m wrong, but I do believe that for each book I’ve written, I’ve made a good choice on POV.

She’s on First is written in third-person POV. I never thought about it at the time, but looking back on it now, I think that POV came to me because of it telling a broader story. A wider perspective. And we are used to baseball reports of one kind or another, most of them written articles that try to employ an objective voice. So that POV seemed right to me and I went with it.

Both Dirty Proof and Sound Proof are told from the first person POV, from the eyes of the private eye main character, Frank Dragovic. That seemed something of a no-brainer because so many private-eye novels are told from the first-person POV. Adventure-thriller novels seem to employ the third-person POV. I have in my files an unpublished adventure-thriller novel, and that’s told from the third person POV.

As I started to work out the characters and plot of The F Words, the POV that came to me was first-person. This is often the POV of a YA novel, and it fits with how teens experience the world — the world and everything that’s happening seems to affect them directly. They really see things from the “I” point of view. I certainly did when I was a teen.

But with The F Words, I made another choice in addition to first-person POV. I chose to tell the story in present tense — something I had never, ever done before. Here, too, it’s not accurate to say that I “chose” to do so, because when I sat down to write the first chapter, I made no conscious decision: the words just came out in present tense. It’s as if Cole Renner were telling the story and this is how he was telling it and if by some chance I wanted a different verb tense . . . too bad! 

At first I wasn’t sure I liked how Cole was relating the story. But by the middle of the second chapter I was feeling comfortable with it. And by the third chapter I was certain I could not go back and change the story to past tense: it wouldn’t feel as urgent or immediate. Or as Cole-like.

I find first-person present-tense POV somewhat compelling. So much so that when I wrote an adult novel after I finished The F Words, I used present-tense for that, too. But now I’m working on a Middle Grades story, and that comes with a third-person POV. Which feels very right for this particular story. 

If POV is difficult for you to choose, one of the best things you can do is write your first chapter from both a first-person POV and a third-person POV. Read each chapter and ask yourself which sounds like the way you want the reader to receive the story. That’s the POV you should choose.

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The F Words: Setting

I’m a person who loves setting. I enjoy reading books in which setting has been developed by the author. Conversely, I don’t enjoy books which, when I’m reading  them, feel as if they could “be” anywhere: any city, any time. So, because setting is so important to my enjoyment of a book, I am always aware of it as I write. This doesn’t mean that I get it right in the first draft — but I do develop it more with each draft I write.

When it came time to set The F Words, I chose Chicago for several different reasons, prime among them that it would be easier for me to write about a setting in which I lived. But Chicago is vast: one of the most sprawling cities in the US. It measures 25 miles south to north; 15 miles east to west. 

Everyone in Chicago lives in one of its 62-or-more neighborhoods, and identifies with that neighborhood. I wanted Cole to live on the north side (I would use the south side in my next novel), in an ethnically mixed neighborhood that was largely Latino. The two neighborhoods I considered were Albany Park (48% Latino; 30% white; 16% Asian, 5% Black) and Logan Square (46% white, 44% Latino, 5% Black, 3%Asian).

I knew the Logan Square area fairly well, but not the Albany Park area, so I spent a day driving through the two neighborhoods, getting a feel for the schools, streets, parks, businesses, transportation, etc. I was leaning strongly toward the Logan Square area as the setting, but thought I should read up on both neighborhoods.

Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood

One of the first things I learned in reading the history of Logan Square was that the initial inhabitants of that neighborhood were English, Norwegian, and Danish. Serendipity once again —  Cole Renner’s heritage is Dutch and Danish. So of course I chose Logan Square as the setting for The F Words.

After choosing the neighborhood, I then drove around it again, picking up the names of hardware stores, laundromats, fast-food places, restaurants, schools, bus stops, el stops, and so on. I decided which street Cole lived on (though I don’t name the street in the book) and noted how far it was from the bus stops and the main avenues that run through Logan Square.

Once I had all of that down, I then considered where a high school student’s day is spent. In school, of course! And at school events. So I had to decide whether the school Cole, Felipe, and Treva attend was a real school in the city of Chicago, or a fictitious school in the city of Chicago.

Although Cole lives in a real Chicago neighborhood, Logan Square, I knew immediately that I wanted to create a fictitious high school within that real neighborhood, just as I created a fictitious ballpark in She’s on First and a fictitious newspaper for Dirty Proof. I don’t want problems with real sites claiming I misrepresented them. And if I used a real site, I would be required to be accurate to the tenth degree — or have readers write to tell me I got some aspect of the setting wrong. Therefore: fictitious high school.

As I wrote the first draft of The F Words, I had in front of me a map of the Logan Square neighborhood where Cole lived. I knew the block on which Cole lived, and what bus he had to catch to get to school. I wanted to know exactly where Cole’s [fictitious] school was, so I chose some vacant land on the city map and constructed Cole’s high school on that spot. I felt a sense of great power as I did this! 

After quickly building Cole’s high school on an empty lot, I tried to envision what that school looked like. This didn’t take too long: I just modeled it on the various high schools throughout the north side of the city. I gave the school exits and entrances on all four sides, and I constructed a chain link fence along one side of it. The other three sides were bordered by school lawn and public sidewalks, one of them on a major street. I  constructed the school out of light-colored brick. And then I had to give the school a name.

Chicago is a very ethnically mixed city, approximately 32% white, 29% Black, 29% Latino,  6% Asian, 4% other. (Percentages vary depending on source.) “White” is not really an ethnic division, but that’s how the Census categorizes people of European and Slavic descent. The so-called white population of Chicago is, likewise, ethnically mixed. In Chicago history Germans were the main ethnic group for many decades, followed by  the Irish, Poles, and Swedes. Among the other groups who settled Chicago are Jews, Bosnians,  Croatians, Serbians, Greeks, Italians, Hungarians, and Dutch. 

Both in choosing character names for The F Words, and especially in naming Cole’s high school, I took into consideration Chicago’s history, particularly the history of its German immigrants.

Most of the Germans who emigrated to Chicago during the 1840s and 1850s were fleeing the failed German Revolution of 1848, which sought democratic rights for German citizens. In the US, these Germans were referred to as Forty-Eighters. Opposed to slavery, they campaigned for Abraham Lincoln and helped him win the 1860 election. 

Hundreds of thousands of German-Americans volunteered to fight for the Union Army. Of all white ethnic groups to fight in that war, Germans were the largest. Somewhere between 176,000 and 216,000 of them fought to help end slavery. (More than 179,000 Black soldiers fought for the Union.) Major General Franz Sigel was the highest-ranking German-American in the Union Army. German-American regiments came from Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio, and Wisconsin.  And volunteers came from Illinois and from Chicago.

Given this important history, I decided I would name Cole’s high school after a Chicago German-American who fought in the Civil War. In order to do so, I spent a lot of time googling German-Americans, Chicago, and US Civil War. I don’t remember how many names I considered, but when I ran across the name August Mersy, I was intrigued. Born in Germany in 1822, Mersy participated in the 1848 revolution and after its failure emigrated to the United States, where he volunteered to fight with the 9th Illinois, which participated in the critically important Atlanta Campaign led by Major General William Tecumseh Sherman.

Drawn to all the important stuff going on in Mersy’s history (1848 Revolution, US Civil War, Atlanta Campaign), I decided to name Cole’s school August Mersy High School.

Almost two years after naming Cole’s school August Mersy High School, I was doing further research on August Mersy, and I learned that despite what my original source stated, he did not settle in Chicago. He settled in St. Clair County, Illinois, which is near St. Louis, Missouri. 

However,  by this time I liked the name August Mersy High School so much that I decided to keep it. A mistake, but one that worked out well.

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The F Words is available for Pre-Order at Barnes & Noble. To get updates and the latest news on The F Words, subscribe to Barbara Gregorich’s Newsletter.

The F Words: Naming Treva

My first thought in naming the third character in The F Words was this: should her name end in a? That may strike you as a weird thought, but it’s one that always crosses my mind when naming a female character.

Fully one-third of all girls’ names in English end with the letter a. Of the current top ten girls’ names (Emma, Olivia, Ava, Isabella, Sophia, Charlotte, Mia, Amelia, Harper, Evelyn), seven end with a. This propensity of names to end in a is true in most Indo-European languages, partly because a was the ending of female Roman names, partly because adding a became the way a  male name was changed into a female name, as in Oliver/Olivia or Henry/Henrietta, Lauren or Lawrence/Laura.

Names from the Romance languages and Slavic languages are particularly high in female names ending in a. And, maybe because my own name ends in a, I gravitate toward such names. In She’s on First the hero is named Linda. (Though in Dirty Proof the protagonist is named Suzanne — so I’m not wedded to the a ending.)

Once I knew the character’s name would end in a, I proceeded to think about what it would be. Because Cole and Felipe’s names start with letters in the first-half of the alphabet, I wanted a name that started with a letter from the second-half of the alphabet. (Believe me, these considerations and decisions do help readers differentiate characters and recognize them as soon as they appear in another scene.)

Okay, then —  the third character would have a name that started with a letter from N-Z, and end in A. I had a gut feeling that the name should start with a blend, probably because neither Cole nor Felipe’s name starts with a blend. 

This feeling that the name should have a blend led me to consider the initial letters P (Pl, Pr), S (Sl, Sm, Sp, St), and T (Tr). I immediately seized on Tr and came up with the name Treva. As you can infer, it’s Trevor/Treva. The name satisfied me, and it’s a two-syllable name (though I wasn’t consciously trying for that), so there’s a nice balance in the syllable-count of Cole, Treva, Felipe.

I think it could become very boring if I discussed how and why I named each of the minor and not-so-minor characters in The F Words, so I won’t do that. But I do want to say something about naming one other character, and that is Cole’s ex-girlfriend, whom I first named Sydnye. I don’t remember why. But I do remember that everybody in my writing group objected to the name and to the spelling of the name. Every time they read a section of the book that contained Sydnye, they felt they were reading a typo. And they couldn’t remember who she was. (Maybe because of my exaggerated spelling of the name.)

Okay. I had to get rid of not only the weird spelling, but the name itself. But I couldn’t figure out what to replace it with. For weeks and weeks I went through baby-naming books and websites, skimming the names, hoping that a name would grab me as just-right for the character.

Nada.

And then one day I was reading about a current-day girls’ baseball team on which one of the players was named Paloma. Hmmm. Paloma. That was different. Contemporary. So in the second and third drafts of the The F Words, I named the character Paloma.

This time it was me, not my writing group, who couldn’t remember the name. As I was writing the drafts and came to a scene with Cole and . . . Cole and . . . what’s her name again? I kept having to look it up!

Obviously, no matter how lovely a name Paloma is, it wasn’t working for my character.

Back to the drawing board. Which meant back to the baby-naming books. This time I settled down into an easy chair with a pen and paper in hand and a cup of coffee by my side. I s-l-o-w-l-y went through the names again.

And when I got to the J’s — I found it! Jillian. Don’t know how or why I missed it the first time around. But it sounded right and felt right. And, as it turns out, the name works very well in one of the campaign-for-class-president scenes in which Jillian and Felipe are both running for the same office.

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The F Words is now available for Pre-Order on Amazon.

The F Words: Naming Cole and Felipe

Once a story idea comes to me, I spend months (sometimes years) getting to know my characters. Their sex and age come to me immediately, when I conceive of the story — but their names don’t. The names take a lot of thinking about. In the case of The F Words, the first name of the main character came to me after several days: Cole.

Cole is a modern-sounding first name. In the Middle Ages it was a shortened form of Nicholas, which it can still be today; but it’s also a shortened form of more modern-sounding first names such as Colton and Coleman. And, it has become a name in itself. So that part of it felt right.

When I looked up Nicholas, I was reminded that it comes from the Greek and means “victory of the people.” (Nike is the winged goddess of victory.) That felt super-right for my character, who, due to cause-and-effect, comes to fight for “the people.”

Even though it often plays no role whatsoever in a novel, I do like to give my characters an ethnic background. In Cole’s case, I decided that his forebears came from both Denmark and the Netherlands. Cole is tall, and people from northern Europe are genetically taller than people from southern Europe. Cole is also a cross-country runner. I don’t remember if I thought of that before I realized he was tall, or after I realized it. 

So then I slowly went through New Dictionary of American Family names, looking for a last name for Cole. Eventually I came across the name Renner, which sounded right. It’s of Dutch origin. And — here’s the interesting part — it means “One who carried messages on foot or horseback, a runner.” In the process of writing The F Words (a process that took eighteen months, counting rewrites) I completely forgot that Cole’s last name originally meant “one who carried messages.” But carrying messages ends up being an important part of the plot! Amazing how these things seep into a writer’s consciousness and come out when they’re needed.

Before I started to write my novel, I knew that Cole would have a best friend, and that friend would be Mexican-American. And — I felt the friend’s name had to start with F. That just seemed right for a book titled The F Words.

The first name that came to mind was Felipe . . . but I was also aware of Fernando and Francisco. Using online research, I found a list of the most popular Mexican boys’ names. Francisco was sixth in popularity. Fernando was fifteenth. Lower down in popularity (but still in the top 120) were Felipe, Fabiano, and Facundo. 

Out of these five, my first choice just felt right — and so Cole’s best friend since first grade is named Felipe.

Full Disclosure: My husband’s name is Phil, and I suspect that might have had something to do with my name choice. Phil is a kind, caring, gregarious person — and so is Felipe.

I like the fact that Cole is a one-syllable name and Felipe is a three-syllable name. This difference in syllable count adds a nice texture to the writing: a different texture than if both characters had one-syllable first names.

In a novel it often pays to have three main characters rather than two. With two characters, A and B, the writer can examine the relationship A-to-B and B-to-A.

But with three characters, a different dynamic enters the picture. A-to-B; B-to-A; A-to-C; C-to-A; B-to-C; C-to-B. By adding just one more character, the writer gets three times as many relationship and conflict situations to explore. In literature, “three” seems to be a magic number. Three attempts. Three wishes. Three little pigs. You get the point.

So I knew I’d have a third main character. I just didn’t know what her name would be.

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The F Words: Political Protests

I’ve been a professional writer for a long time. My first novel, She’s on First, was called “the best book that’s written on the idea of the first woman to play professional baseball,” and was reviewed by Sara Paretsky on the front page of the Chicago Tribune features section. My nonfiction title, Women at Play: The Story of Women in Baseball, was featured in the Sunday New York Times and won the SABR-Macmillan Award for Best Baseball Research of the Year.

In children’s literature I’ve published more than 150 educational activity books. As a freelance editor/writer at School Zone Publishing I wrote eighteen Start to Read books and developed and wrote their Read and Think series. I’ve written many BrainQuest cards for Workman Publishing and my BrainQuest Workbook Grade 4 is very popular. My early reader, Waltur Buys a Pig in a Poke and Other Stories (Houghton, 2005) received excellent reviews in Kirkus, Booklist, Publishers Weekly, and School Library Journal and was named Book of the Week by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center.

And yet — I had never written a YA novel. 

I had started one, way back in 2001. But I never got beyond the first chapter. I thought that maybe it would be about freedom of speech in a high school context. 

As with many projects, I put this one aside on the assumption that if it was meant to be, it would happen.

At long last (well, 2018 to be exact) it did happen. I did write a YA novel. That novel, The F Words, will be published by City of Light Publishing on September 1, 2021. In other words: this year.

What caused my single chapter, sitting there in a lonely file on my computer, to come to life? It had to do with a protest demonstration. One day (I think it was in 2016), I was one of  perhaps 20,000 participants in an immigrant-rights march in Chicago. All around me I observed teens: thousands of them. 

I was very happy to see them. Their presence reminded me of politically active teens from the Sixties, when we protested for civil rights, for women’s liberation, and against the war in Vietnam. And this made me wonder: What are the circumstances that make a teen of today politically active? That help make him or her protest injustice? (This was before the 2020 police murder of George Floyd and the outpouring of mass protest, so much of it fueled by teens and even preteens.)

My question was the germ of the idea that led me to revisit the first chapter of The F Words and write the rest of the story — another forty-nine chapters.

The first draft was rough, carrying forward ideas of free speech and the school newspaper and public demonstrations. In the second draft I dropped the school newspaper part of the story and stuck with the heart of the first chapter — my character, 15-year-old Cole Renner, spray-painting the F word on the school walls.  

If I hadn’t been on that demonstration with all those teens, and hadn’t asked myself the question of what makes them political in these times, I may never have written The F Words. Just one more reason I’m glad to participate in protest demonstrations.

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The F Words will be published by City of Light Publishing on September 1, 2021.           

To Newsletter or Not To Newsletter

For more than twenty years I’ve read and heard that authors should have mailing lists and send out newsletters — to let their readers know about updates, author events, book reviews, awards, what the next book will be, and so on. Newsletters, perhaps more than any other format, help create repeat readers: those who will buy your next book.

When the internet first made email newsletters possible, I, as an avid reader, used to subscribe to author newsletters, mainly by mystery writers. But I soon tired of them and unsubscribed, for two main reasons. First, I thought many of those early newsletters were very long. Way more news than I had the time to read. Second, many of them were heavy-handed with the “buy my book” approach. 

With the growth of the worldwide web, it became easier for authors to be less blatant about the buy-my-book aspect of their web site or newsletter. The web allows authors to provide a link to their books. Readers can click on the link or not. As a reader, I love this. I like to explore these links, read about the books, and then buy them, file them away for future reference, or ignore them.

Despite the fact that author newsletters have become shorter and less blatant, I never got around to writing one. Until now.

Now, I feel, is the time for me to explore whether or not a newsletter is something my readers want. Whether it is something that will help get the word out about my books. Whether it will strengthen the relationship between my readers and me — via reactions to, comments on, and requests.

The reason I feel that now is the time for me to start a newsletter is that my first YA novel, The F Words, will be published September 1, 2021. There’s a lot of marketing that writers do to help sell their books, and heaps and heaps of those marketing efforts take place months before the book is published. My thinking is that I have eight or nine months before the publication of The F Words: now’s the time for me to start talking about the book, to get people excited about it.

Unlike my blog, in which I cover various topics in mid-depth, so to speak, my newsletter will cover topics only in brief. A quick mention to inform or to pique interest, and no more. While my blogs average 800 to 1,000 words each, my newsletters will average 50-400 words. While it takes a lot of time for me to write each blog, it won’t take much time at all for me to zap off a newsy newsletter. And because the newsletter will be quick, it will, I hope, sound very upbeat.

If you’re interested in my newsletter, click on the link below. 

At the end of a year, I hope to revisit this topic and analyze the first year’s results.

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To subscribe to Barbara Gregorich’s Newsletter, click here.

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.