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.


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

Two-Way Street

I wrote this poem many years ago, way before I became a Roadie (see The Endless Highway: My Life as a Roadie). It seems, though, that being a Roadie may have been my destiny.

Two-Way Street

People in my early life mistook me for a messenger,
a carrier, courier, bearer, delivery person.
Cousins saddled me with items for Grandma,
who ladened me with numerous inessentials
to transport elsewhere down the road.

Sisyphus with a twist: no rock, no hill, 
just package after endless package. 
They had cars, they had trucks:
why was I their Mercury?

Moving away, I inserted several states 
between me and them. In my new, 
improved state people do not consider me
a runner. If a package is important,
they know all about United Parcel. 

Today I realize the roads travel 
in two directions, 
askers bound  to house and yard, 
while I — I know streets,
I deliver.


Crossing the Skyway is Barbara Gregorich’s first collection of poems. She hopes to put “Two-Way Street” into a second collection.

Mountain Passes: Bridger Pass

In 1849 Major Howard Stansbury of the US Army Corps of Topographical Engineers was assigned the job of exploring and surveying Great Salt Lake and its surroundings. In 1850 the Stansbury Expedition employed mountain man Jim Bridger to guide them through areas of the Rocky Mountains. It was during that time that Bridger found a pass south of South Pass and led the expedition through it. The significance of this pass (named Bridger Pass) was that it cut 61 miles off the distance of the Oregon Trail. In the mountains a wagon train may have averaged ten miles a day, so Bridger Pass could have saved immigrants a full week of travel as they headed to Oregon. 

James Bridger was born in Virginia in 1804. At a very young age he went west to St. Louis, where he worked as a blacksmith. In 1822, at the age of seventeen, he joined the Missouri River Expedition to further explore much of the territory that Lewis and Clark had traveled. Bridger was the youngest man on the trip.(Jedediah Smith was on this expedition, as were Hugh Glass and Thomas Fitzpatrick — all three of them mountain men (trappers and explorers). Many members of the expedition, among them Jim Bridger, stayed in the mountains to trap furs after the expedition had ended. Mountain men traveled thousands and thousands of miles, zigzagging across the west, blazing trails, finding rivers, lakes, and mountain passes.

In order to survive in the wild Bridger learned to speak with anybody he met. He spoke not only English but also Spanish and French and six different Indian languages. In addition, he was fluent in sign language.

In 1843 Bridger and his partner Louis Vasquez opened a trading post in Utah Territory. Their outpost came to be called Fort Bridger — a very important stop on the route west. Wagon trains stopping at Fort Bridger were able to buy food; re-shoe their horses, mules, and oxen; repair their wagons or buy other wagons; and receive further directions on where to travel and how to do it. The Donner Party stopped at Fort Bridger on its way to California in 1847.

Although California was admitted to the Union in 1850, statehood did not make communication with the far western state any easier. Business and personal mail still took months to reach California via wagon train or ship. The Butterfield Overland Mail Company was a stagecoach line that carried passengers and mail to the west, too. At first the stage took the southern route through Sitgreaves Pass to Los Angeles, then north to San Francisco. Later it switched to a northern route going through South Pass. And then it abandoned the South Pass route for the Bridger Pass one. Still, a letter sent by stagecoach took weeks and weeks to arrive in California.

In 1860 the founders of the Overland Mail did something very bold: they started a mail service of relay riders whose sole job was to carry saddlebags of mail from the end of the telegraph line in St. Joseph, Missouri, to Sacramento, California. The Pony Express, as it was called, employed young men who weighed approximately 120 pounds, so that their body weight would not slow down the horses too much. The men were young, with an average age of 20, and one rider was 11 years old.

Each rider was paid $100 for a month of work. He rode from 75 to 100 miles, changing horses every 10 to 15 miles at one of the 185 Pony Express stations along the route. At the end of 75 or 100 miles, the rider passed his mail on to another rider. One rider left from the east and one from the west once a week. Via the Pony Express the mail reached California in just eight days in summer, twelve days in winter. These riders galloped east and west through Bridger Pass.

Started in April of 1860, the Pony Express ended in October of 1861 — a mere eighteen months. It ended when the telegraph line across the continent was completed and messages could be communicated in a matter of minutes. By connecting California to the Union via speedier mail, the Pony Express helped keep that state on the Union side during the Civil War. In addition the Pony Express proved that the central route across the United States — through Bridger Pass — could be traveled all year long and was the best route connecting the different sides of the country.

Bridger Pass was significant in another transportation-and-mail way, and that had to do with the Union Pacific Railroad. Before the Civil War the federal government had plans to build a transcontinental railroad. Although the bill providing for this railroad was passed in 1862, and work on the railroad began then, it wasn’t until after the Civil War ended that the government went full speed ahead with the transcontinental railroad. The Union Pacific Railroad headed west from Omaha, Nebraska, and the Central Pacific headed east from Sacramento, California.  (The tracks met in Promontory, Utah, on May 10, 1869.)

The chief engineer of the Union Pacific was General Grenville Dodge, who had served in military intelligence during the Civil War. According to some accounts Dodge, wanting to shorten the route of the Union Pacific in any way he could, asked Jim Bridger if there was an alternative to South Pass. According to these accounts Bridger encouraged Dodge to do what the Overland Mail and Pony Express had done — use the mountain pass that Jim Bridger had discovered in 1850. Dodge and the railroad engineers investigated Bridger Pass and decided that building the railroad through it would indeed save time and money. And so the tracks of the Union Pacific were laid through that pass.

Mountain Range:  Sierra Madre
Elevation: 7,532 feet 
Location: On the Continental Divide in southeastern Wyoming, near Medicine Bow National Forest.

In order to speed up the laying of railroad track across 1,776 miles, the government urged the two railroads to “race” each other. For every mile of track laid, each railroad was granted $48,000 in government bonds plus 12,800 acres of land. In order to lay more miles of track the Union Pacific offered male passengers reduced fare if they would help lay the railroad beds and tracks.

The Union Pacific (which had to dig a mere four tunnels compared to the Central Pacific’s fifteen tunnels) won the race, and General Dodge credited Jim Bridger for this. Bridger died in 1881, one of the last of the mountain men. In 1904 General Dodge had a monument erected over Bridger’s grave, crediting him for discovering Bridger Pass and helping lay the route of the Union Pacific Railroad.

Not only was Bridger Pass a great route for the railroad, it turned out to be the best route for Interstate 80, which runs from Teaneck, New Jersey to San Francisco, California. Exploration, immigration, communication, transportation — Bridger Pass played a prominent role in each.

Bridger Pass

hoof beats, dust cloud,
skinny rider, bursting
saddlebags: why not stay a while? — 
so long!


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

Sentences: Position of Modifiers

To write good sentences, writers must understand what it is that their sentence says. Sentences have a life of their own — they say what the words and word order say, not what the writer might intend them to say, not what the writer might expect everybody to understand as her intent. If a writer is careless or indifferent to sentence structure, her sentences may create confusion. Or ridicule. 

Below are two examples of sentences that say what the words and word order say. The first causes confusion due to its ambiguous pronoun reference. The second sentence says that a book wrote a book: this one may arouse laughter due to the misplaced modifier. I’ve rewritten each sentence so that there’s no ambiguity in the first and no dangling modifier in the second.

Lisa’s sister told her she had to add more paprika to the spice mix.
“If you don’t add more paprika to that spice mix,” Claire told her sister Lisa, “I won’t eat your insipid stew!”
Lisa’s sister added more paprika to the spice mix, just as she had warned Lisa she would.

An accomplished, best-selling writer of Texas thrillers, Rangers is the author’s best book to date.
The author is an accomplished, best-selling writer of Texas thrillers, and Rangers is his best book to date.
An accomplished, best-selling writer of Texas thrillers, Joe Borders has written his best book to date: Rangers.

I sometimes think that well more than half of all incorrectly written English sentences are victims of misplaced modifiers. That’s what’s wrong with the second of the above examples — the first part of the sentence is meant to modify the author himself. It is not meant to modify his book: the book is not an accomplished, best-selling writer. Yet the writer of that sentence has unthinkingly placed the modifier where it doesn’t belong, possibly thinking that the words on the page say what’s in his/her head. They don’t. They say what the words and word order say — that Rangers is a best-selling writer. Rangers is not a best-selling writer. Rangers is the book written by the best-selling writer.

To understand what is wrong about misplaced modifiers, it helps to know that English, which evolved from several other languages (Latin, French, Norse, German, Anglo-Saxon), evolved in a revolutionary way. These other languages depended on word endings to tell the listener or reader what the sentence meant. Words could appear in a sentence pretty much in any order: it wasn’t the order, but the word ending, that told who did what to whom in what manner and when.

English changed that. English made position the factor that determines meaning. “The bear chased Gretchen” means something entirely different from “Gretchen chased the bear.”

In English, words and phrases should be placed as close as possible to the word or phrase that they modify — not in a willy-nilly order as the writer may think of them.  When the writer does not follow this logical pattern, sentences may unintentionally misinform or say ludicrous things — as in the three sentences featured below.

• A costumed person raced past me, leading a dachshund in a wizard’s robe.
• I wrote the song while traveling on the back of a menu.
• Screeching around the corner on two wheels, the house was on fire.

Just a few days ago I stood in front of a sign which read: Stand behind the pink line until called to ensure the privacy of other patients. My immediate reaction (with a touch of panic) was that I would be called upon to ensure the privacy of other patients.

Then I realized that the sign couldn’t possibly mean what I thought, so I had to spend a few seconds figuring out what the sign was trying to say. It was trying to say:  In order to ensure the privacy of other patients, please stand behind the pink line until called. This puts the phrase that explains “why” closer to stand than to called — the phrase belongs as close as possible to the verb it actually modifies, else it will seem to modify the other verb! The phrase explains why one is required to stand behind the pink line; it does not explain why one will be called.

To write clear sentences, avoid misplacing your modifying phrases. 


In Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies, Barbara Gregorich discusses the topic of writing well.

Writing Goals During the Pandemic

On or about March 9, 2020, it was clear to me that the corona virus pandemic would require what has been labeled social distancing and lockdown. In fact, lockdown started in Illinois on March 20 and was extended through May 30.

What, I asked myself, did I want to do during this time of undetermined length? 

Things that would make me happy — because feeling sad or depressed is a detriment to the functioning of the immune system.

Writing makes me happy. Very happy. So I set myself three writing-related goals during the pandemic . . . with the hope that I wouldn’t have to add more goals.

My goals were: (1) Create and publish a book trailer for Sound Proof, one that matched in tone and style the one I had created for Dirty Proof back in 2019. (2) Publish my book on Cookie, the famous Brookfield Zoo cockatoo. (3) Read, critique, and rewrite Draft #1 of my current work-in-progress, a 94,000-word novel, thus creating Draft #2. (This was a formidable goal, and I really hoped the pandemic would be over with before I finished.)

I began working on the book trailer on March 10, and on March 20 I uploaded the finished video to youtube and GoodReads and Amazon. You can view it here.

This blog is really about the second of my three goals: publishing Cookie the Cockatoo. Cookie was a Major Mitchell’s cockatoo captured by a bird hunter in Australia in 1934 and sold to the not-yet-open Brookfield Zoo in Brookfield, Illinois. Today the Brookfield Zoo is home to approximately 2,300 animals, but back when Cookie arrived he was one of only five original occupants of the Zoo. And he became by far the longest-lived. In fact, Cookie became the longest-lived cockatoo on record.

A Major Mitchell’s cockatoo

When I first saw Cookie at the Brookfield Zoo some time in the mid-1970s, I really had no idea that I would write a book about him. I was, however, struck by Cookie’s colorfulness, his incredibly loud bird calls, and, most of all, his attitude

Although Cookie was in a cage and we, the public, were outside that cage looking at him, it seemed to me that the being in charge was not us, but Cookie. He seemed to be performing for us. Or not, depending on how he felt. He seemed, above all, to be the center of things.

After my in-person encounters with Cookie, I encountered him yet another way. For several years I worked as a part-time typesetter for the Chicago Tribune. Occasionally one of my jobs was to typeset a story about Cookie’s yearly birthday party. Later, when I became a full-time freelance writer, I thought of Cookie again.

Most writers probably have all kinds of possible book topics floating around in their consciousness. Far, far more possibilities than one could write in a lifetime. Some of these ideas disappear, some merely recede, and some clamor for attention. Though not necessarily right away.

So it was with Cookie and me. He didn’t really clamor for attention until the 21st century. Maybe ten or twelve years ago he squawked and screeched so loudly in my brain that I had to sit down and write his story. And the way that story came to me was coupled with change — the changes in the world over the last eighty years. Changes to the world during Cookie’s lifetime.

And, just as with Jack and Larry, the story came to me as a series of free verse poems, each coupled to a particular year. I wrote the story, rewrote it, and rewrote it, re-examined it, rewrote it again, all over a period of maybe ten years. Originally my manuscript was titled Cookie Has Seen — because Cookie was alive and still seeing changes.

But in 2016 Cookie died. So I would need to retitle the manuscript, because Cookie Has Seen is present-perfect tense, implying that Cookie is alive and still seeing. In March 2020 a new title came to me, occasioned by the book’s theme and also by the pandemic. My title would be Cookie the Cockatoo: Everything Changes.

I typed the new title into my 6”x9” book template, and then I asked Robin Koontz, who has designed almost every one of my book covers, if she would be willing to design a cover for Cookie. I also attached my Cookie manuscript so that, if she were willing, Robin could quickly assess the content and tone of the story.

Robin was willing, and her design is now the cover of Cookie the Cockatoo: Everything Changes. And while Robin was thinking about the cover, I was working on the book’s Introduction, the Table of Contents, and the individual poems. And then the final About the Author.

Everything looked good, but as I formatted the book a few poems extended onto a second page by only one line. That looked awful. So I made some space adjustments and also some line adjustments in the poems. Eventually I got the content the way I wanted it. Then I worked on the page design. And after that was all done, I printed out a copy of the manuscript and proofread it. Then I submitted it to KDP and waited for a copy of my paperback to arrive, so I could proofread it again.

While waiting (the waiting took a week) I worked on designing the ebook version of Cookie. This was a lot easier than designing a paperback/hardback version, because ebooks do not contain page numbers, headers, or footers — features that cause innumerable problems during page design. 

Nor do ebooks have justified margins (if they do, they shouldn’t). Nor do the pages turn — which means that there is no such thing as a line or two of poetry that flows onto a second page. There is no second page — there is simply scrolling.

So, free of working with all these features that an ebook does not have, I was able to “design” the ebook in a matter of minutes. My main concerns were: (1) The font and font-size for the individual years (i.e., 1934, 1947, 1985, etc.), and, (2) what color (if any) to use for headers and/or titles.

For the font and size of the years, I decided on Big Caslon, 20 point. It may seem as if the size isn’t important because ebook readers can control the size of the font by increasing or decreasing it. However, whatever is on the page increases or decreases proportionally, so if my text were 12-point Palatino (it is), I would want the proportions between the headers and the text to look good. 

The other thing I decided to do was print the years in color, and I made that color as bold a pink as I could — both bold and pink in Cookie’s honor, since Major Mitchell’s cockatoos have a lot of pink in their feathers.

On April 10 my proof copy of Cookie the Cockatoo arrived. I found one error and corrected it. I then uploaded the corrected manuscript and hit the Publish button, and on April 11, 2020, Cookie the Cockatoo: Everything Changes was published as both a paperback and an ebook.

And I was left with the third and most difficult of my three pandemic writing goals looming ahead of me.


Cookie the Cockatoo: Everything Changes is a quick tour of world changes from a cockatoo’s point of view, suitable for ages 10-100.                   

Mountain Passes: Crowsnest Pass

In 1857 an Irishman named John Palliser led a scientific expedition sponsored by the British Royal Geographical Society. Its mission was to learn about western Canada — about the plants and animals, the rock structures, the climate, and the Indian tribes.The expedition members were also searching for mountain passes through Canada’s southern Rocky Mountains. If good passes could be found, a railroad could be built, connecting the Atlantic coast to the Pacific.

The Palliser Expedition discovered six southern passes previously known only to First Nations people. One of these was the Crowsnest Pass, not far north of the state of Montana. Although Crowsnest pass had been known to First Nations people for thousands of years, it wasn’t shown on Canadian maps until after the Palliser expedition. The area of Crowsnest Pass is the richest archeological zone of the Canadian Rockies, containing stone tools of the Clovis culture, which dates back 11,000 years. The area is also rich in coal deposits.

Even though it’s over 4000 feet in elevation, Crowsnest was one of the lower passes through the Rocky Mountains. This made it a natural choice for the Canadian Pacific Railroad to route the railroad through, and in1897 that’s just what the CPR did, completing the rail lines through Crowsnest Pass in Alberta. 

Because the entire pass area was rich in coal deposits, many small mining towns sprang up alongside the railroad line. In 1900 the Frank Mine opened in the newly-sprung-up town of Frank.

Mountain Range: Livingstone Range of the Canadian Rocky Mountains
Elevation: 4,455 feet (1358 meters)
Location: On the Continental Divide, on the Alberta and British Columbia border of Canada, near the Rocky Mountains Forest Reserve.

Above the town of Frank sat enormous Turtle Mountain. The Blackfoot and Kutenai tribes of the area would not camp near the mountain because it groaned, trembled, and moved. Indians called it “the mountain that walks.” In 1800 members of the David Thompson (see Athabasca Pass) expedition avoided Crowsnest Pass as they trudged westward, most likely because they heeded what First Nations tribes told them about the dangers of “the mountain that walks.”

The intimate knowledge of the land accumulated by First Nations people was disregarded by mine owners and investors panting for profit. The Frank coal mine was dug underneath and into Turtle Mountain. As they worked underground, miners felt the mountain moving. In fact, its movements shook coal loose from the rooms and tunnels the miners had dug. “The mountain that walks” made coal mining cheaper, because there was less digging involved.

The area of Crowsnest Pass would prove to cost hundreds of working-class lives. In 1914 an explosion at the Hillcrest Mine killed 189 miners: Canada’s worst mine disaster. (You can hear Canadian singer James Keeleghan’s version of his song “Hillcrest Mine” on youtube.)  And before the Hillcrest Mine disaster came the one at Frank.

Crowsnest Pass

On the morning of April 29, 1903, at 4:10 am, the east face of Turtle Mountain ripped loose with gigantic force. In 90 seconds more than 100 million tons of rock, ice, and mud thundered down the mountainside. The explosion could be heard 100 miles away: people thought that a volcano had erupted. An immense amount of the landslide is still there today, boulders strewn across the land.

The town of Frank was destroyed. More than 90 of the town’s 600 residents lost their lives. Businesses were wiped out. The railroad tracks were destroyed. Until the eruption of Mt. St. Helens in 1980, the Frank Slide was the largest landslide in North American history. (The Mt. St. Helens slide is thus far the largest landslide in world history.)

In the dark morning hours, made darker by huge clouds of dirt and dust, made more dangerous by fires started by rock dust and fueled by wooden buildings, those who survived rushed out of their houses to help rescue others.

When Turtle Mountain fell, it sealed the entrance to the Frank coal mines, covering up the air shafts that allowed miners to breathe fresh air. And it flooded the nearby river, turning it into a lake that poured into the mine.

Seventeen miners were trapped inside. They knew that unless they could dig their way out, they would drown or die from the poisonous mine gas.

Grabbing their picks and shovels, the miners dug straight up. They did not know how far “up” was, but they could not get out any other way. Three men dug frantically for half an hour, then another three took over, then another three. They did not believe they would make it, but they had to try something.

After 14 hours of hard digging, the miners broke through to sunlight and fresh air. They climbed out of their vertical tunnel and looked around. Inside the mine, they had no idea of what had happened. Now they saw the horrible site below. Their town was gone. They climbed over the gigantic rocks and mud and ice and stumbled down the 100 million tons of smashed mountain to help the survivors.

Crowsnest Pass

Grumbling mountain 
strongly suggests 
traveling through
instead of settling.
Humans stop, build, 
dig tunnels.

Mountain shudders 
in disapproval.


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

A Writing (and Music) Retreat

About a year ago Phil and I decided we would go on a three-week retreat in January of 2020 — music for Phil, writing for me. Several factors influenced our decision, among them: (1) Neither of us had ever experienced a retreat before and we both wanted to try it; (2) We have a cottage in Wisconsin that could serve as our rent-free retreat headquarters; (3) We each had big projects we wanted to work on in an uninterrupted fashion.

The view outside our window, January 2020

So, back in early 2019 we decided we would spend three weeks of January 2020 in our cottage, on retreat. The cottage is in Wisconsin, so we figured that the cold and snow would keep us indoors and working.

In December of 2019 we each decided what we would work on during this retreat. Phil originally thought he would work on music that he could play in clubs and other such venues (instead of the themed programs he performs mainly at libraries, such as “When That Great Ship Went Down: Music to Commemorate the Sinking of the Titanic.”

I have three unpublished novels in my file cabinet and originally thought I would take one of them and rewrite it in three weeks.

Neither of these initial plans worked out. Phil decided that he would spend the entire three weeks learning how to play the autoharp (of which he owns several), with the express purpose of determining whether this is an instrument he could perform with after he no longer feels like lugging the 35-pound hammered dulcimer around. His initial thought was that he would not be enamored of the autoharp because when he first tried it back in the 1990s, he just didn’t love playing it. Or at least that’s what he remembered. In case his anticipation came true, he would then sell his autoharps.

I had a very busy 2019 and as a result could not find the time to choose one of my three unpublished novels, read it, think about it, and decide how to change it in a meaningful way. All three novels were written in the late 1980s and early 1990s, so they would have to be updated. In addition, all three of the novels dealt with topical issues that had changed over three decades. So, because I hadn’t had the time to thoroughly prepare one of these novels for rewriting, I chose to do something else on the retreat.

What I chose to do was continue writing my WIP (Work in Progress). This was a novel I had started in April of 2019. Between April 2019 and early January 2020 I had written 20 chapters totaling 30,000 words. 

Both Phil and I had goals for this retreat. His was to make a decision about playing the autoharp. Mine was to write at least 20 chapters and/or 20,000 words.

My workspace in the weaving room

Once we reached the cottage (snow everywhere!), we divided up our work space. I took the downstairs space, using a kitchen chair and a weaving table. Phil took the loft space, using another kitchen chair and a shared desk. He very soon moved my stuff off the desk, so that he had it all to himself and his tune book and his two autoharps). 

Our retreat was supposed to be 20 days long, but we decided to go back home after 19 days — mainly because our retreat goals had been met and even exceeded, and because there was snow coming and Phil had a gig two days after we got home. Best to not get stuck in a snowstorm, so home we went.

Next we planned our meals so that we would spend as little time as possible cooking. Phil made scrambled eggs (quick!) for breakfast most mornings, and I washed the dishes. I made some sort of quick lunch (hummus, for example) and Phil washed the dishes. In the late afternoon I made some a dinner that allowed me to walk back to my table and write while the stew or soup or pasta was cooking. I also planned it so that almost every dinner I made lasted for two nights: that way we had even more retreat time every second day. Phil did the dinner dishes and then we would either watch a DVD or read. Or, on several occasions, go back to retreat work. Which did not seem like work. It seemed more like pleasure.

By Day 7 Phil was pretty sure he really liked the autoharp. Its sound was rich and full, and he was having a lot of fun learning to play chords and backup, instead of playing the melody as he does on hammered dulcimer. And, based on his nineteen days of playing on the retreat, he felt that he could eventually play up to speed. He made plans to take private lessons and also to attend autoharp festivals. Phil’s end of the retreat was highly successful.

Phil in his loft workspace

My end of the retreat was also highly successful — more so than I had anticipated. I arrived with 30 chapters written, I left with 54 chapters written. I arrived with 30,000 words written, I left with 64,000 words written. I had spent two of my 19 days rewriting rather than writing, so in 17 days of writing I wrote 34,000 words — that’s about 2,000 words a day.

Even more importantly, I had moved from the first third of my novel, right through the middle, and into the final third. This was fantastic. The “middle” parts of novels often bog writers down. I’ve had that experience: wondering what happens in the middle. This time, though, the middle was not a problem, and I think that’s because I was totally immersed in the story. I was living with the characters and plot every single hour of every single day, and it became much easier for me to see how the story was moving, and in what direction, and what else needed to happen.

In addition to being a highly productive period in itself, the retreat actually influenced me even after it was finished. From the time we got back home on January 28 to February 19 (a period of 23 days), I wrote an additional 30,000 words and finished the first draft of my novel! I think that the energy of the retreat did not stop when we got home: it stayed with me and I was able to write an average of 1,304 words a day. I was so high on the energy of the retreat, and so into my novel, that I simply didn’t stop until I finished it.

Having had one very successful writing and music retreat, we are ready to have another when we can schedule it. The one thing we would do differently, we decided, is to give ourselves a two-day weekend break in the middle of the retreat. So only 17 or 18 of our retreat days would be work days, and two back-to-back days would be rest, relaxation, and socializing with friends. We were reluctant to do that the first time around, for fear that we couldn’t get back into retreat mode. But now we’re sure we can.


In order to write his six Charlie Chan novels, Earl Derr Biggers went to a secluded spot each time: either an inn in the Berkshires or one in the California dessert. Read about Biggers in Charlie Chan’s Poppa: Earl Derr Biggers.

Poetry for Children

All studies in early childhood development have shown that both rhythm and rhyme play a huge role in helping children acquire early literacy skills. Parents and grandparents used to recite poems and songs to infants and toddlers, but now this happens less and less. Literacy experts have found that way too many 4- and 5-year-olds have never heard a single nursery rhyme in their young lives. This is sad. Hearing poetry helps children develop an ear for rhyme and rhythm, as well as for understanding more complex reading-and-thinking skills such as word usage and meaning, foreshadowing, and cause and effect.

The verses we know as Old Mother Goose’s Rhymes were compiled during the 17th century. My mother bought me a Mother Goose book and read to me from it until I was able to read on my own. Some of the rhymes I remember are: Little Bo-Peep; Little Boy Blue; Robin Redbreast; Going to St. Ives; To Market; Wee Willie Winkie; Simple Simon; Three Blind Mice; Miss Muffet; Humpty Dumpty; Jack Sprat; and of course Jack and Jill. I also remember my grade school teachers reading these poems to us.

Poetry for children was very popular during the Victorian era. One of the collections of poetry my mother gave me contained many poems by Victorian poets such as Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear. But it also contained poems (or parts of poems) meant for adults. I remember this one from Tennyson.

The Eagle

He clasps the crag with crooked hands; 
Close to the sun in lonely lands, 
Ring’d with the azure world, he stands. 

The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls; 
He watches from his mountain walls, 
And like a thunderbolt he falls. 

—Alfred Tennnyson

I used to recite this poem and pantomime the last line over and over. 

Although I loved the language and imagery of “The Eagle,” and somehow sensed that this was very good writing, I was also much enamored of humor when I was in grade school. In particular, I was drawn to the dark h humor of the Little Willie poems. Example:

Into the family drinking well
Willie pushed his sister Nell.
She’s there yet, because it kilt her —
Now we have to buy a filter.

My favorite Little Willie poem, which I still know by heart, is this one:

Willie saw some dynamite,
Couldn’t understand it quite.
Curiosity seldom pays:
It rained Willie seven days.

Today many wonderful books of poetry for children are published in picture book format each year. Most of these books are themed. And there are so many wonderful poets writing for children that it would be impossible to list them all. So I will mention only three of my favorites, Kristine O’Connell George being one of them. I love all her books, but am especially fond of the Little Dog poems.

Children also love the clever rhymes and observations of Jack Prelutsky’s poems. And, of course, those of Shel Silverstein, whose book of humorous poems for children (ages 6-8), Where the Sidewalk Ends, is now in its 36th year of publication. The book is a perennial Best Seller on Amazon and is often the year’s best-selling book of humorous poetry for children — indicating that when they’re young, children enjoy the rhymes, rhythms, and irreverence of poetry.


Barbara Gregorich’s poetry for children has been published in Cricket and other children’s magazines.

Mountain Passes: Sitgreaves Pass

Sitgreaves Pass was named after Captain Lorenzo Sitgreaves, a member of the Corps of Topographical Engineers of the US Army. Prior to being given the assignment that led him through Sitgreaves Pass, he had worked on a wide variety of civil engineering duties. Among them: constructing roads in Wisconsin; surveying Sault St. Marie; surveying the US-Texas border (when Texas was a republic); improving the Hudson River; and surveying the harbor of Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

Sitgreaves’ 1851 expedition was the first to survey the area that today comprises northern New Mexico. He explored the Zuni River and the Colorado, but his main task on this expedition was to find an overland route to California. In doing so, Sitgreaves crossed through the Black Mountains, a 75-mile long, 15-mile wide chain of mountains in western Arizona. After the expedition ended Sitgreaves wrote a detailed report of its findings. 

In 1857 President James Buchanan asked General Edward F. Beale (see Beale’s Cut) to help create a road from New Mexico to California. Under the command of Beale, soldiers built that road along the route that Sitgreaves had surveyed, through several mountain passes, one of them being Sitgreaves Pass. And, because the Army’s experiment with camels in the Texas deserts wasn’t working out, Beale took the camels with his troops as he marched west through Sitgreaves Pass.

Sitgreaves Pass could be traversed by people on foot and by people riding horses or mules, but it was impassable for wagons. In order to allow wagons through, Beale ordered his soldiers to cut a narrow road into the side of the pass. The Old Beale Road, as it was called, was the chief means of transportation between the Southwest and California for decades. The Butterfield Stage jostled many a south-California-bound passenger through Sitgreaves Pass, just as the Overland Stage bounced north-California-bound passengers up, down, and sideways through Bridger Pass (far to the north, in Wyoming).

Sitgreaves Pass

Mountain Range: Black Mountains
Elevation: 3,652 feet

Grade: 12%
Location: In northwestern Arizona, near the California-Nevada-Arizona border; also near Lake Mead National Recreation Area.

After coach travel was replaced by rail travel in 1867, Sitgreaves Pass was used much less. 

And then came the automobile.

For most of the US’s development, from the colonial 1700s through the early 1900s, California and the West were isolated from the East and Midwest — this was because of the wide desserts and high mountains that lay west of the Mississippi River. The completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1867 connected the two ends of the country.

After the invention of the automobile and the mass-production of the Model T by Henry Ford in the 1920s, families began to take road vacations. Once again, California and the West were isolated from the rest of the country because so many roads were unkept and unmarked and, most importantly, stopped at the foot of the mountains. Most people could not drive to the West Coast because they couldn’t find roads through the mighty mountains.

During the 1920s Cyrus Avery and John Woodruff, entrepreneurs, set out to change this by persuading Congress to build a national paved road from Chicago to Los Angeles. The road, labeled Route 66, was completed in 1926.

Route 66 traveled through eight states, heading southwest from Chicago. Logically, in order to avoid the high mountains, Route 66 should have veered to the south in Arizona, as do today’s Interstates, Routes I-40 and I-10. But the town of Oatman, Arizona, was a thriving gold-mining community during the 1920s, home to more than 15,000 people, and the business owners of Oatman wanted Route 66 to pass through their town. They persuaded the builders to do so.

This meant that the road had to be built through Sitgreaves Pass. While Sitgreaves is not all that high, it’s very steep — the westbound grade approaches 12%. Route 66 as it was built through Sitgreaves Pass was full of very tight hairpin curves, steep rocks lining the edge of the road, narrow lanes, and blind curves that drivers couldn’t see around until it was, perhaps, too late to avoid an accident. 

Sitgreaves was so steep that Model T’s couldn’t make it up the pass. That’s because the Ford engine was gravity fed: gas flowed downward from the higher-placed tank into the lower-placed combustion engine. As the Model T’s chugged up steep Sitgreaves, the gas no longer flowed forward to the engine — the direction of flow was reversed and the cars stalled.

Bold drivers solved this problem by driving up the steep, winding pass in reverse. That way, the back end of the car was above the engine-end, and gas flowed from the tank to the engine. Some drivers, however, were too shocked  and hesitant to drive Sitgreaves frontwards or backwards, so they hired local Arizonians to pull their cars up the pass with oxen, mules, or horses.

For nearly fifty years Route 66 was the most famous road in the US. By the late 1950s, though, big Interstate highways began to replace it. When I-40 was being built from North Carolina to California, it took traffic through northern Arizona — but the engineers of I-40 directed traffic south of Sitgreaves Pass, as Route 66 itself would have gone had not the town of Oatman had such influence. 

Today Route 66 is no longer on the maps, though parts of the original road remain in different states. And the town of Oatman is almost a ghost town, home to 200 people.

When the mines of Oatman and the surrounding areas were closed, mining families and businesses moved out almost overnight. They left behind their ladders, tables, and other mining supplies — which are still there to be seen. And the miners released the burros that had been used to pull the mine cars.

The burros took to the desert and became semi-wild. They also populated the town of Oatman, where today they walk on the streets and into abandoned buildings. The also thrust their heads into tourists’ cars, looking for a handout of carrots or other goodies.

The occasional tourist who takes Old Route 66 through Sitgreaves Pass can hear the burros braying in the dessert. She might even encounter one around a blind curve.

Sitgreaves Pass

Through this gap
mules pulled,
camels shambled,
Model T’s squeezed
their way west.


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

Graphic Novels: Panels vs. Paragraphs

I grew up reading graphic novels, only they weren’t called that at the time. They were called comics, and what I read were the Classics Illustrated of the 1940s. I read them daytime and nighttime, indoors and out, over and over, until the pages had to be taped back to the covers. My two favorites were Moby Dick and The Prince and the Pauper. Others I remember enjoying were Robinson Crusoe; Robin Hood; Gulliver’s Travels; and The Call of the Wild.

I was probably somewhere between 7 and 11 years old when I was reading these graphic novels over and over. I have no memory of ever thinking that these were in any way different from other books. I realized that they were made of art in panels, and words (either narrative or dialogue) — but I never stopped to think about how that might be different from a “normal” book which didn’t tell the story through panels. All I knew was that I loved these stories. 

In retrospect, I think that the reason I read them over and over (in a way that I would not read a novel over and over) was that each told an exciting story in a very condensed fashion, with illustrations which heightened my empathy with the character and increased the tension.

The term “graphic novel” was first coined during the 1960s, and it actually refers to nonfiction as well as fiction. A graphic novel is in essence composed of the same content as a comic book. That is, it’s composed of comics: panels of images and text which combine to tell a story. The story need not be “comic” or humorous: it can be deeply solemn and serious, as in Art Spiegelman’s Maus.

Perhaps this need not be said, but the term “graphic novel” refers to a format — not to a genre. If somebody says, “I read graphic novels,” that doesn’t tell the listener what genre the graphic novels are. Graphic novels are probably present in every genre of literature.

The Classics Illustrated I read when a kid were true “graphic novels” and not comic books. (Though I read hundreds of comic books, too, mainly Wonder Woman, Batman, Superman, Superwoman, Supergirl, Superboy, and Captain Marvel.) Graphic novels are usually stand-alones: one book tells the entire story. Comic books tend to be serials, with the story continuing from episode to episode.

Many creators of graphic novels, however, disagree with the term “graphic novel,” which they consider too highfalutin: they want their books to be called comics, even though the books may be serious nonfiction. Comics artists agree that, unlike a traditional comic book, a graphic novel is stand-alone with a beginning, middle, and end: the story is finished at the end of the book. It isn’t continued in a series.

Although I loved comics and Classics Illustrated, I had stopped reading them by the time I was in high school. By that time I was in love with the written word and didn’t want accompanying visuals for the fiction I was reading. Moby Dick in novel form was far more powerful to me than it had ever been in comics form. As I became an avid reader of fiction, I felt that pictures interfered with the smooth flow of the written story. Pictures also imposed the artist’s interpretation of what the characters looked like on me. I preferred to imagine them myself, without the intervening and interrupting illustrations.

I did return to reading comics, or graphic novels, about ten years ago, when I read Persepolis. There I felt no sense that the illustrations and words were separate. For me, the book worked in a powerful way, with the visuals and the words telling a story together. I felt the same sense of integrated story when reading Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home.

So now I’m back to reading comics, in the form of graphic novels. I don’t read many of them, maybe three or four a year, and each time I sit down with one, I never feel the same as if I’m sitting down to enjoy reading a novel. For me, it’s more work to read a graphic novel. The pleasure I receive from being swept up in the flow of words that tell a story is slowed perceptibly by the need to look at and interpret the panel illustrations, and then to read the dialogue and/or narration. Although I’m enjoying the graphic novels (particularly the illustrations) I’m never 100% immersed in the story the way I am when reading a novel.

In recent years nonfiction graphic novels have proliferated. They cover topics such as World War II, the Civil War, Cortez, the Titanic, etc. When compared to books such as The Complete Idiot’s Guide to World War II, for example, I think the graphic nonfiction novels present history in a way that’s much easier to grasp (visuals!), understand (small chunks of information in dialogue boxes), and remember (because of the visuals). 

Because graphic books require so much space to tell a story, they can’t tell as much of a story as a text-only book. But graphic nonfiction history books seem an ideal way to get young students (adults, too) interested in a topic. If they’re interested in more depth, they can then read a text-only book.

Although I read comics, I have yet to write one. I started to write one for early readers, and had great fun doing it. But for some reason I never finished: I think I found it tedious to tell the story in panels rather than in paragraphs. 


Barbara Gregorich thinks that She’s on First would work very well as a graphic novel . . . and maybe some day she’ll attempt retelling the story in that form.