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.

————————————

For more information on The F Words, subscribe to Barbara Gregorich’s Newsletter.

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.

————————————

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.

———————————

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.

———————————

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.

————————————

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

Mountain Passes: Glorieta Pass

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Santa Fe Trail

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

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

Major John Chivington

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Glorieta Pass Battlefield

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

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

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

————————————

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

Sending the Wrong Message: Why Subordination Matters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But wait. 

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

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

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

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

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

————————————

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

Robert Frost

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

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

Reluctance

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

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

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

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

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

Dust of Snow

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

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

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

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

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

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

————————————

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

Rewrite Decisions (and Charts)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

————————————

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

Mountain Passes: Chilkoot Pass

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chilkoot Pass

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

these riches unfold.

Stampeders are blind
to all colors
but gold.

————————————

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