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.

The Importance of Pace

Just as a walking pace consists of the speed, the length of stride, and even the rhythm with which one walks, so in fiction pace consists of the speed with which a story moves, the amount of action, and the rhythm with which scene and summary follow one another.

Long paragraphs filled with long sentences eliminate most of the white space on a page and make the story’s pace slow down. Short sentences and short paragraphs create a lot of white space and make the story’s pace quicken.

For the writer, knowing how to pace a story is important because pace affects reader satisfaction.

If I took a four-hour walk on a flat, even surface and never once varied my pace, and somebody looked at a printout of my footsteps, that somebody would most likely go, “Ho. Hum. How boring.” That’s because the absence of variation makes the printout look all the same. There’s no place where I stopped. Or slowed. Or hurried. Or raced for my life. 

An unvaried pace in fiction is equally boring. Something must happen to the characters, and that something creates tension, and tension by itself increases the pace of the story. And after that tension (almost always depicted in a scene) comes a calmer, less tense summary/narrative. The back-and-forth between scene and summary helps vary the pace of a book — as long as the scenes contain conflict.

In my office I have 35 books dealing with writing skills. Only four of these books contain anything at all on pace or pacing, which leads me to believe that it’s a difficult skill to teach. One can’t teach pace without looking at a novel as a whole, from beginning to end, and that’s hard to do in a class or a book.

When I served as a judge for the Shamus Award a couple of years ago (see Judging a Book: Like, Really Judging a Book), I was disappointed in the lack of tension in most of the novels submitted. Another way of saying this is that the pacing of the novels wasn’t varied enough: the footsteps plodded along without variation. Tension is a critical part of pacing. If there’s no tension (a strained state resulting from forces acting in opposition to one another), the pace most likely stays the same. And that is boring.

One of the oldest writing books on my shelf is Structuring Your Novel: From Basic Idea to Finished Manuscript, by Robert C. Meredith and John D. Fitzgerald, copyright 1972. The writers talk about how all events in a plot must be causally connected. If the events are not causally connected, the novel loses continuity because some events have no bearing on the plot or the main character. They then go on to talk about pacing, as follows:

A novel can have continuity without pace because the author can add one continuous event after another and have a story that stands still. For example, in The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck could have prolonged the trek of the Joad family to California for another couple of hundred pages by continuing the chain of causally related events causing minor complications that hindered their progress. The result would have been lack of pace despite good continuity because the story would stand still and the reader would get bored. A novel will always lack pace when an author overwrites or rambles away from the plot or story line. One way to avoid this is to delete any event that doesn’t move a story forward.

Pacing is one of those things that, when working right, is hardly noticed. Readers are so focused on the characters and plot, and maybe the setting, that they aren’t conscious of the pace when that pace is good. But when the pacing is not good, readers notice right away. If the pace is too slow, they put the book down, or take forever to finish it (perhaps a kind of revenge on the slow pace of the book?).

Some editors rapidly flip through a manuscript before reading it, to judge whether the pacing is good. Pacing is different for different genres, there being no comparison between the pacing of a literary novel and that of a thriller. But the editors know that, and they’re looking for the right balance for a particular genre — in that rapid flipping through the manuscript, they’re judging paragraph length, amount of dialogue, chapter length, and any breaks in chapters. 

If as a writer you pay attention to the pace of your novels, then of necessity you will also be paying attention to other critical story elements such as scene and summary, dialogue and narrative — and paying attention to these elements will help you improve the way you tell your story.


Barbara Gregorich discusses pace in Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies.

Mountain Passes: Avalanche Pass

By the mid-1800s most of the important mountain passes in the West had been discovered and were being used for migration and transportation. Back East people were enjoying leisure time and looking to spend some of this time in the wilderness. This desire to know the wilderness wasn’t new. Almost from the first, the British colonists explored the land around them. Surveyors and scientists climbed high peaks to determine just how high they were and to gaze at the land below from atop a mountaintop. By the 1770s New Englanders climbed Vermont’s Mount Mansfield, and by the 1780s they had conquered Mount Washington. 

In New York nature lovers traveled to the Catskill Mountains in the southeast part of the state. Painters such as Thomas Cole, Asher B. Durand, and Frederick E. Church toted their canvases, paints, and easels into the mountains of New England and New York during the 1820s. These painters were described as the Hudson River group (because the beautiful Hudson River was one of the subjects they often painted). These nature paintings attracted even more wealthy people to the the Catskills, which they believed contained  New York’s tallest mountains.

But in northeastern New York state, south of Quebec and Ottawa, lay the Adirondacks, which would prove to be wilder by far than the Catskills. Unlike all the other mountains of the East, the Adirondacks are not part of the Appalachian Mountain system. Instead, they are part of a rock layer known as the Canadian Shield. The rocks of the Canadian Shield are the oldest known rocks on Earth —  one billion years old.

There is no record of white Americans in the Adirondacks before 1836, when William Redfield, Ebenezer Emmons, and James Hall entered the area to learn about its rocks, streams, trees, wildlife, and mountains. What they discovered was a rough, harsh wilderness where winds howled and snow and ice persisted even in August. That year the group discovered Avalanche Lake, which is surrounded by steep cliffs on each side. They also discovered what they thought were the tallest peaks in New York. They were right: the area was full of so many tall mountains that it became known as the Tall Peaks region. 

The following August the three men returned with others, who this time included portrait painter Charles Cromwell Ingham. Emmons and Redfield and several of the others climbed Mt. Marcy , which at 5,344 feet proved to be New York’s tallest peak. Mt. Marcy’s summit was crusted with ice even in August. The group also explored Avalanche Pass, a long narrow pass that allows movement between Mount Colden and Avalanche Mountain. 

Remnants of mud slide in Avalanche Pass

Avalanche Pass and Avalanche Lake received their names for the many mudslides and avalanches that roar down on them from the surrounding mountains. In 1869 landslides gouged Avalanche Pass, blocking it with debris. Eventually the pass was cleared by woodsmen and hikers. In 1942 still more avalanches blocked the pass and filled Lake Avalanche, raising its water level. In 1999 the same thing happened again: the heavy rains of Hurricane Floyd sent huge mudslides into the pass, burying it under twenty feet of dirt and uprooted trees. With shovels and chainsaws, members of the Adirondack Mountain Club worked to cut a narrow passage through the debris, so that hikers and skiers could squeeze through Avalanche Pass.

Mountain Range: Adirondack Mountains.
Elevation: 3,065 feet 
Grade: 5-26%
Location: In upstate New York, near the Canadian border, within Adirondack State Park.

After visiting the Adirondacks in the 1830s, Redfield and his companions told others about the wild area, and by the 1850s New Yorkers began to take outings there, hiking by day, sleeping in tents by night. One of the most popular destinations was Mt. Marcy and the Avalanche Pass Trail.

Although the Avalanche Pass Trail is not an easy one, it was highly popular right from the start, 150 years ago. Avalanche Lake, hemmed in by steep rock cliffs, sits at one end of the pass. To get through Avalanche Pass, a hiker had to somehow cross the lake. A hiker could walk alongside Avalanche Lake . . . except that there was no ground to walk on. There was a ledge that ran along the bottom of a cliff — but the ledge sat two to three feet under water!  Not everybody who wanted to hike Avalanche Pass felt able to walk the underwater ledge.

Back in 1868 a nature lover named Matilda Fielding, along with her husband and their niece, hired Adirondacks guide Bill Nye to take them hiking and camping. Led by Nye, the group hiked in the High Peaks region, camped out, and even climbed Mt. Marcy. When it was time to head back to civilization, Nye took the group through Avalanche Pass.

When they reached Avalanche Lake, Nye gave the Fieldings two choices: (1) he could build a raft and the group could float across the lake; (2) he could carry Mrs. Fielding, Mr. Fielding, and their niece across the underwater ledge one at a time. The Fieldings chose to be carried, starting with Matilda, who sat on Nye’s shoulders as he walked on the underwater ledge. But she started to slip down . . . down . . . down! As they saw Matilda slipping  and her skirt trailing in the water, her husband and niece shouted, “Hitch up, Matilda! Hitch up!” 

Avalanche Pass

Nye told the story to other guides and soon everybody was calling the ledge under Lake Avalanche “Hitch-up Matilda.” Today narrow wooden catwalks are bolted into the high rock walls — hikers use the catwalks rather than the underwater ledge.  But these narrow catwalks are even today called Hitch-up Matildas.

The wilderness area of the Adirondacks was so valued by the citizens of New York that in 1892 they established Adirondack National Park. Today the park comprises six million acres. This is larger than Yosemite, Yellowstone, and Grand Canyon Parks put together! Except for state parks in Alaska, Adirondack National Park is the largest in the US.

In Avalanche Pass a small waterfall splashes onto a big boulder. Part of the water hitting the boulder flows south and part flows north. The part that flows north trickles through Avalanche Pass and ends up in Lake Champlain. From there it streams into the St. Lawrence River, the major waterway that flows between the United States and Canada. 

The water that heads south trickles down Avalanche Pass in the opposite direction, into Avalanche Lake. From there it streams into other Adirondack lakes and finally into the Hudson River, which flows through the state of New York and through New York City itself. The Adirondack lakes provide fresh drinking water for the citizens of New York City — and it all starts in Avalanche Pass.

Avalanche Pass
Mud slides
and avalanche
jettisoned from above —
tall peaks are known to show mighty


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

Anglo-Saxon vs. Latin-French

Approximately 20% (possibly less) of the words in the English language come from Anglo-Saxon roots. Approximately 60% come from Latin, but indirectly —  usually through French. 

The words that come from Anglo-Saxon have been part of the language for hundreds and hundreds of years. They name relationships and actions to which we have immediate, visceral responses: foe, naked, break, slam. 

Often we don’t have quite as strong a reaction to the French/Latin synonyms of these words: enemy, nude, demolish, collide. There’s something about the French/Latin words that seems to smooth over or disguise things, to make them less stark than they are when spoken in Anglo-Saxon. 

Here are some contrasts of words with similar meanings. The first is an Anglo-Saxon word, the second is a word derived from Latin, French, or French/Latin (from the Latin into the French, then into English).

mad   insane
In the end, King Lear goes mad.
In the end, King Lear goes insane.
You might say mad when you’re describing the plot to a friend, but you would be more likely to use insane if you were writing a paper on the subject.

together       in conjunction
I feel satisfaction when we work together.
I feel satisfaction when we work in conjunction with one
The first one sounds more honest; the second sounds as if the speaker or writer is trying to amplify the importance of the process or relationship. Words of French-Latin origin can come across as being untrustworthy — as if the speaker or writer is trying to disguise something or make it seem more important than it is.

wicked      iniquitous; nefarious
The politician’s refusal to help the famine victims was wicked.
The politician’ refusal to help the famine victims was iniquitous.
As in the previous example, the first one sounds honest and heart-felt. The second judgment doesn’t sound as severe as the first.

knell        reverberation
The knells sounded throughout the valley.
The reverberations sounded throughout the valley.
Knells is a somber word, implying the weight and seriousness of death knells. Reverberations sounds more scientific and thus more distanced and less emotional.

everlastingness       perdurability
The everlastingness of our friendship warms my heart.
The perdurability of our friendship warms my heart.
First one: I am touched. Second one: get real!

It may seem, in the examples above, that I’m advocating always using words of Anglo-Saxon origin instead of using words of French-Latin origin, but that is not the case. Our language would be poorer indeed if we did not have words of French-Latin origin, because these words help us express thought, ideas, distinctions, and are widely used in law, science, politics, medicine, literature, and the whole world of ideas. Words of French-Latin origin have their uses, as do words of Anglo-Saxon origin. A writer (and speaker) must learn to use each to their best effect.

Here’s an example of how important French-Latin words are to the whole world of ideas. The paragraph below is from my nonfiction book, Women at Play: The Story of Women in Baseball. Each boldfaced word is derived directly from the Latin, directly from the French, or from the Latin through French — except for the word athletes, which comes to us from Greek, through Latin.

Women would play baseball again. From 1943 to 1954 they played on the most professional, most highly paid women’s teams the country has ever seen. But these teams were owned and controlled by men who required women to play the game with shorter basepaths and a larger, softer ball—concessions to women’s supposed inferior abilities. A reduced perspective was never the tradition of bloomer teams, who faced their fellow athletes on equal terms.

In the novel I’m currently writing, I’m using the differences in word origins to help characterize the two main characters. The working class character uses mainly words of Anglo-Saxon origin. The middle class character, who holds an M.A. from Harvard, uses mainly words of French/Latin origin. The words they speak and the words they think in help readers feel the differences between these two characters.


To help characterize the very literary and Harvard-educated Earl Derr Biggers, Gregorich used mainly words of Latin/French origin in Charlie Chan’s Poppa: Earl Derr Biggers.

Exposition through Appositives

In fiction, exposition is the information the reader needs in order to understand the story: background information, for example, or descriptions of unusual things. Usually exposition is told in narrative: that is, not in dialogue.  It’s important for writers to understand that the information revealed by exposition is not the story. It’s merely necessary information without which the reader might not understand aspects of the story.

 When writing my first novel, She’s on First, I assumed that everyone reading it would know baseball. But when my agent read the manuscript, she said that the story would appeal to many people, both women and men, who liked the idea of such a story (first woman in the major leagues), but who did not understand baseball at all. My agent herself was such a person.

So, explained my agent, as I rewrote the manuscript I would have to explain various baseball terms and situations as they came up in the novel. Double play, for example. Curve ball. Three-and-two. AND: I would have to explain these terms (exposit them) in such a way that the non-baseball reader understood the explanation — but also in such a way that the baseball reader would not be offended by my “explaining” basic concepts they already knew.

Writing the exposition for readers with such different backgrounds was difficult. It was my first novel — what did I know about exposition? 

Regardless of what I knew or didn’t know about exposition, this was a problem I had to solve. So, as I rewrote the story, line by line and page by page, I paid careful attention to words, phrases, or concepts that I thought a non-baseball reader would need explanations for. And I decided, almost intuitively, to solve the problem by expositing mainly through appositives.

Yes, I remembered appositives from tenth grade English, though little did I think back then that I’d have a “real life” need to know what an appositive was. An appositive is a phrase which clarifies or provides more information about its nearby noun by renaming that noun in different words. Here’s an example from the wonderful Sin and Syntax by Constance Hale: “Miss Goldenfingers, my typing teacher, was fond of tongue-twisters.” 

As you can see, the noun that’s being renamed is “Miss Goldenfingers,” and the exposition provided is that she is the writer’s typing teacher.

As you might infer, appositives can be — and quite often are — very short. A word. Two. Three. And that’s it. A reader understands the main sentence, quickly assimilates the information in the appositive, and moves on, barely aware that he or she has been fed information. Sort of like a parent feeding a child medicine by sinking the medicine into a spoonful of pudding. 

I felt that baseball readers could tolerate exposition in such short doses and maybe not even notice it. But if I were to stop the story in midstride to explain in an entire sentence or two what a double play was, baseball readers would notice. And probably be offended.

Here are two examples from She’s on First, each using an appositive.

“One clothesliner, a low-hit line drive, came her way in the second inning.”

“Harland signaled. Two fingers: curve.”

In the first example, I explain what a clothesliner is, and I use an appositive to do so. This is smoother and less intrusive than if I had used an entire sentence to do so, as in: “One clothesliner came her way in the second inning. A clothesliner was a low-hit line drive.” In the second example I could have exposited/elaborated with something like: “Harland signaled. Two fingers. The usual signal for a curveball was two fingers.” You can see very quickly how using a full sentence of exposition can sound klunky and can stop the story. The reader momentarily comes out of the forward movement of the story while assimilating the information in the expository sentence. 

Beginning writers sometimes put all their exposition in one place: the first chapter; sometimes the second chapter; a full paragraph describing each character; several sentences at a time. Such heavy use of exposition is called an “information dump,” and that’s an excellent term for it, because the information is being dumped on the reader all at once.

Readers experience a story more deeply when the exposition is smoothly woven into the story. That smooth weaving usually requires that the writer break up the exposition into small pieces or occasional sentences tucked as unobtrusively as possible into the story.

In some genre fiction such as science fiction or forensic fiction, readers need more exposition than in most novels. Sometimes a lot more exposition before they can understand the particular science fiction world the writer has created, or understand the medical problem or procedure involved. Many readers of these genres don’t mind the “information dumps.” They’re used to them and maybe even expect them as part of their reading experience. But for readers from other genres who might be reading a sci-fi or forensic novel for the first time, the information dump can be a huge hurdle for readers to overcome. 


Even if you aren’t a baseball fan, you will easily understand what’s happening in She’s on First.

Mountain Passes: South Pass

When Lewis and Clark were making their way up the Missouri River and then westward across the Rockies, the Indian tribes who lived there warned them that crossing the mountains at Lolo Pass anytime after August was not a wise idea. Not if one wanted to survive. There was, the Native Americans said, a much easier crossing to the south. Lewis and Clark looked for that easier pass and found Lemhi Pass, approximately 150 miles south of Lolo. Lemhi was not the pass that would give them an easy crossing.

Because they never found that southern pass, the Corps of Discovery crossed the Bitterroot Range of the Rocky Mountains at Lolo Pass, nearly perishing in the process. That was in the early autumn of 1805. And in 1806 the Corps crossed back the same way: through Lolo Pass.

But that more southern, much easier crossing lay there, 600 miles south of Lolo, between the Wind River range and the Antelope Hills. In fact, this historically important pass is actually two passes side-by-side, but collectively they are called South Pass and treated as one.

In November 1812 the first non-Native Americans crossed it: Robert Stuart, who worked for the American Fur Company, founded by John Jacob Astor. The fur-trading baron had a structure erected on the mouth of the Columbia River, naming it Fort Astoria. In June of 1811 Stuart and six other trappers left Astoria and headed east, their goods strapped to their backs. Rather than take the northern passes, they traveled southward, into the land of the Crow Indians.

Luckily for Stuart, the Crow Indians shared their knowledge, explaining to him that he could make an easy crossing at the pass that would later be called South Pass . . . . because it was the pass Lewis and Clark looked for but never found.

Stuart and his fellow travelers made a safe and successful crossing of South Pass. Stuart himself kept a meticulous journal of the trip with all its landmarks noted. He presented a copy of this journal to both John Jacob Astor and to President James Madison, who placed it in his library.

And apparently forgot about it completely, because for the next dozen years, knowledge of South Pass was lost. Except, of course, among the Indian tribes, who knew their land intimately and could not conceive of losing any life-saving information such as the location of an easy crossing of the Rocky Mountains. Nor, I imagine, could they conceive of “losing” anything as large as South Pass.

South Pass is large indeed. Mountain passes came in all shapes and sizes, from tall and narrow to short and wide, to ones with high grades to ones with low grades. As mountain passes go, South Pass is magnificently wide — 35 miles wide. You can be in the middle of South Pass and not know that you’re in a mountain pass at all. Its grade, though steep, rises imperceptibly, so imperceptibly that many of the Oregon Trail emigrants who drove wagons through South Pass did not realize they were crossing to the other side of the Rocky Mountains until they reached the crest of South Pass and looked down — down where all the water now ran toward the Pacific Ocean instead of the Mississippi River.

South Pass
Mountain Range: Between the Wind River Range and the Antelope Hills
Elevation: 7,412 feet
Location: In west-central Wyoming

The same fur-trapping fever that led Robert Stuart to Oregon and then back east across the mountains led other trappers along the same route. Two of these trappers are given credit for “re-finding” South Pass. One is William Henry Ashley, who in 1823 led a group up the Sweetwater River to its source, thus entering South Pass. 

The other is Jedediah Smith who, at the age of fifteen in 1814, read the newly published diaries of Lewis and Clark and, influenced by them, went west in 1822 to join a trapping expedition. In winter of 1823 Smith and his companions headed eastward with their furs. They asked the advice of the Crow, who drew a map of South Pass on a deerskin. Smith memorized that map and led the expedition through South Pass safely in February, 1824. Instead of giving the knowledge of South Pass to a president, Smith shared it with anybody who would actually use the pass. Thus the “lost” pass was “found” again.

Less than twenty years later, westward bound wagon trains crossed through South Pass, some of them turning southward toward California, others northward toward Oregon and Washington. Because South Pass is located in an area that receives almost no rain, and because more than half a million people drove their wagons through, you can still see wagon-wheel ruts there today, 170 years later.

Early in 1860 the Pony Express was established to carry mail from St. Joseph, Missouri, to Sacramento, California, in as quick a time as horseback transportation allowed. The route of the Pony Express went directly through South Pass. Likewise, the telegraph lines which would make the Pony Express obsolete also ran through South Pass. The Union Pacific Railroad, however, which would make wagon trains obsolete, chose a different route: but that’s another story of another mountain pass.

Along with the Cumberland Gap and Raton Pass, South Pass is one of the three mountain passes that helped change the composition of the part of North America that became the United States. These three passes allowed hundreds of thousands of Euro-Americans to flood westward into Indian lands they could not have reached so quickly had they not been able to use these passes. Historians speculate that if those half-a-million emigrants hadn’t crossed into Oregon and Washington, that area would have been held as British territory.

South Pass

Here I sit,
a wide crossing
through mighty

Use me,
but do not
lose me.


Barbara Gregorich’s previous blog on mountain passes was Beale’s Cut.