Series Yes, Series No: Part I

I started first grade when I was five years old, and it was in first grade that I learned to read and that I was first introduced to the concept of a series of books. Up until that time, the only books I was familiar with were picture books that my mother or grandfather read to me, and none of these were series books.

The series I was introduced to were the Dick and Jane readers, published by Scott Foresman, and I must say, I was underwhelmed. Dick bored me. Jane bored me. Sally bored me. Spot was fun. The series was not. I honestly think that, if I thought about series at all (probably not), it was with the intention of avoiding them, on the assumption that they would all be like Dick and Jane.

But then came third grade and the bookmobile! Wow! I could stand in line with other kids and we could enter the bookmobile three at a time and we could choose three books each if we wanted to. And I chose a book titled The Black Stallion, by Waltur Farley. And that changed my entire attitude toward books in series.

Because now I wanted to know what happened next to Alec and the Black. I needed to know. I needed to know faster than the bookmobile could supply me with books, and so my mother took me to a bookstore and I bought the next book in the Black Stallion series. Three days later, I bought the next. (My mother was very generous when it came to keeping me supplied with books.) And so on . . . until I caught up with Walter Farley’s writing and had to wait for the next book in the series to come out.


I was a fan and I wanted another book. I needed another book. I needed the story to go on and on and on and never end, always another adventure on the horizon. I wrote Walter Farley a fan letter. It’s possible that I urged him to hurry with the next book in the series. Only now, as an adult and a writer, do I realize how very difficult it is to produce a book a year. What’s good for fans is not necessarily good for writers.

unknownWalter Farley may have known before, during, or immediately after writing The Black Stallion that he would write a sequel. That book was The Black Stallion Returns. Two books do not make a series. That takes three books.

A sequel continues the story or expands on the theme of an earlier work. The Black Stallion Returns was clearly a sequel to the first book — the story continued from where it had left off. One of the reasons people love series is that they love to participate in the lives of other characters, be they heroes or villains — and they love to participate in these lives in a chronological, cause-and-effect order.

What’s good for fans (more books in the series they love) may not be good for the writer. I suspect that Walter Farley felt the need of a break from Alec Ramsey and his Arab stallion, because after writing a third book (a series!) titled Son of the Black Stallion, he wrote a fourth book about a boy and a horse, titled The Island Stallion. This was not part of the Black Stallion series. It was totally separate . . . although it eventually became its own series and it eventually linked up with the Black Stallion series when the two boy heroes met. The point is, I believe the writer needed a break from writing about the same people or the same horses all the time.

Today we’re inundated with series in fiction and even in nonfiction. Publishers like series because they sell more books. Readers like series because they get to spend more time with the characters they love.
But there was a time when writers didn’t automatically jump at the thought of writing a series of books. Earl Derr Biggers, creator of Charlie Chan, was thrilled that his first Chan novel, The House Without a Key, became a big hit. He was thrilled that the public clamored for more, More, MORE adventures of Charlie Chan. But Biggers wasn’t sure whether or not he should write a second book about Chan. He did feel that to write such a book would be financially wise. Up until the Chan novels, he had never written a sequel to any of his novels, and he felt he could probably make more money writing a series.

Unknown-1What worried Biggers was this: he believed that as soon as he wrote a sequel, he would have taken a step down a road from which there was no going back, because both his publisher and his public would demand nothing but Chan novels from him. This turned out to be absolutely correct: Biggers’ publisher wanted nothing but Chan novels, as did his public. Biggers did write a sequel (The Chinese Parrot) to the first Chan book, but as he lamented to his editor, “He who mounts a tiger cannot dismount.”

The public went crazy about Chan novels during the 1920s and early 1930s. Biggers received sackloads of fan mail, and his fans did not stop at praising him and telling him they wanted another Chan novel — they told him what the plot should be. Basically, they wanted Chan to take a trip from Hawaii to London to meet up with Inspector Duff, who had appeared in the third Chan book, Behind That Curtain.

These suggestions as to the plot of his fourth novel irritated Biggers. He wrote several letters to his editor complaining about the suggestions. In his fourth Chan novel, The Black Camel, Chan was in Hawaii and Inspector Duff was not present. I think Biggers was saying Phooey to the plot suggestions coming in from his millions of fans around the world. (The books were translated into 23 different languages.)


What his fans suggested must have made an impression on Biggers, and he ended up using their suggestions — though not in the way they suggested them. In the fifth Chan book, Charlie Chan Carries On, Chan does not go to London. (Too bad, fans!) But a murderer does go to London. That murderer is on an around-the-world cruise. He murders somebody on the ship while it’s in London. And so Inspector Duff, who cannot solve the crime before the ship leaves, joins the passengers on their cruise. The murderer strikes again in Italy, but, again, Duff can’t determine who the murderer is.

Finally, halfway through the book, the cruise reaches Hawaii. So instead of Chan going to London to meet Duff, it’s Duff who comes to Hawaii to meet Chan. What the fans really wanted was a reunion of Chan and Duff, and Biggers gave them that, but in his own way. And I’m glad he did, because the fifth novel is delightful. Biggers managed to keep his hero out of the book for half its length, bring him in at a critical moment, and continue the exciting story of the around-the-world cruise.

As one who loves reading mystery series, but also as one who understands that authors need breathing space and creative room, I totally admire the way Biggers carried on his Chan series.


Barbara Gregorich keeps wanting to make her two Proof novels into a series, but keeps getting waylaid by other books that demand to be written.

Outline: The Black Camel

I’ve been teaching a lot of writing classes lately, and when I teach fiction I recommend to students that they choose a novel they like and outline it, in order to determine its bare-bones construction. Then I confess to them that I have never done so.

Today I’m remedying that situation by posting my outline of Earl Derr Biggers’ fourth Charlie Chan novel, The Black Camel. The outline below lists only the pertinent plot points — the statements and incidents which lead Charlie and the reader forward, toward the solution of the mystery. Such an outline reveals the novel’s skeleton only — it in no way shows the wit, the humor, the character differences, the setting, the dialogue, the subplots, or any other of the muscle, sinew, and tone which help create a delightful reading experience.

In my next blog I’ll analyze the novel. Until then, you can use your own judgement to figure out why certain things are bold-faced or italicized.

Spoiler Alert: If you read the outline, you will know who committed the crime and how and why.

Shelah Fane — Hollywood actress
Alan Jaynes — man who has recently proposed to Shelah
Jimmy Bradshaw — young reporter working for the Hawaii Tourist Bureau
Julie O’Neill — secretary to Shelah Fane
Diana Dixon — Hollywood actress
Huntley Van Horn — Hollywood actor, Shelah’s leading man
Anna Rodderick — Shelah’s maid/dresser
Tarneverro the Great — fortune-teller to Hollywood stars
Val Martino — director of the Shelah’s current film
Charlie Chan — Inspector in the Honolulu Police Department
Jessop — Shelah Fane’s butler
Robert Fyfe — actor, ex-husband of Shelah Fane
Rita Ballou — former actress
Wilkie Ballou — wealthy Hawaiin who married Rita
Wu Kno-ching — cook at Shelah Fane’s house
Kashimo — a member of the police force who reports to Chan
Smith — a beach bum, former artist in landscapes
Chief of Police — Chan’s superior
Mr. and Mrs. MacMaster — retired Australians on vacation in Hawaii

Chapter 1  
• Shelah Fane, Alan Jaynes, Huntley Van Horn, Val Martino, Diana Dixon, and Anna Roderick arrive in Honolulu, coming from Tahiti.
• Waiting for them are Jimmy Bradshaw, Tarneverro the Great, and Julie O’Neill.
• Tarneverro meets Charlie Chan, who tells him he should use his psychic powers to aid the Los Angeles police with unsolved murders such as that of Denny Mayo, which occurred three years earlier.
• Shelah meets with Tarneverro to have her fortune read: she wants to know if she should accept Jaynes’ proposal of marriage.

unknownChapter 2
• Back in the house she has rented, Shelah Fane is distressed at the results of her session with Tarneverro.
• A box of orchids arrives from Robert Fyfe, her ex-husband. He’s performing on stage in Honolulu.
• Guests start arriving for a dinner party — Jimmy Bradshaw, Rita and Wilkie Ballou and her husband, Alan Jaynes.
• Shelah tells Alan that she cannot marry him. This infuriates Jaynes, who believes she is refusing his offer of marriage because Tarneverro advised her to do so.
• Jaynes leaves the house and walks back to the Grand Hotel, where he confronts Tarneverro
• Val Martino, also staying at the hotel, restrains Jaynes. With Martino is Huntley Van Horn.
• As the four men are in the lobby, Charlie Chan arrives
• Van Horn announces that he’s leaving in order to walk to Shelah’s for dinner. Martino and Jaynes also leave.
• Tarneverro tells Chan that he, too, is dining at Shelah’s later that evening, and that when the dinner is over, he may have a very important message for Chan. A message that requires Chan to arrest a murderer.

Chapter 3
• Arriving at Shelah’s house Van Horn strolls out onto the lawn toward the pavilion.
• Wu Kno-ching enters the room, demanding to know when dinner should be served.
• Jessop goes down to the beach to round up the guests. They all wonder where Shelah is.
• Julie and Jimmy volunteer to fetch Shelah, who must be in the pavilion. Together they enter — and find Shelah dead, her body on the floor.

Chapter 4
• Chan is called to investigate.
• On his way out of the hotel, he encounters Tarneverro and tells him that Shelah Fane has been murdered.
• The fortune teller is stunned. Chan invites him to ride with him to the investigation. Tarneverro laments that Shelah’s blood is on his head.
• Chan asks him to explain, and Tarneverro tells him that at Shelah’s fortune-telling yesterday, she confessed to him that she was hiding in another room when, three years ago, Denny Mayo was murdered.
Shelah told him that the murderer was at this moment in Honolulu. But she did not tell him the name of the murderer.
Tarneverro says he encouraged Shelah to write the name of the guilty person on a piece of paper and give it to him that evening, so that he could give it to Chan and so that justice could be done.
• Chan theorizes that the person who killed Shelah was the same person who murdered Mayo — but Chan can’t figure out how this person would have known that Shelah was about to reveal his name.
• Chan examines the body. He finds that there was a struggle, and that Shelah’s wristwatch was smashed, its crystal broken, and the hands stopped at 8:02.
• Tarneverro firmly reminds Charlie that at 8:02 he, Jaynes, Martino, and Van Horn were all standing together, with Chan, in the lounge of the Grand Hotel.
• A bouquet of flowers that had been pinned to Shelah’s dress was torn off and trampled under foot. But the pin with which the flowers were fastened is missing. “Strangely missing,” Chan observes.
• Chan also finds a fresh nick on the corner of a glass table inside the pavilion.
• Tarneverro looks in Shelah’s gold mesh bag, saying that maybe the note she promised to write to him was there. But it isn’t.
• When Chan and Tarneverro enter the house, Jessop hands Tarneverro an envelope from Shelah.
• Chan intercepts the envelope, stating that the police are now in charge.
• The others are called into the room. Charlie holds up the envelope — and then the lights go out.
• The thud of a body hitting the floor is heard. When the lights are turned back on, Charlie is lifting himself from the floor, rubbing his right cheek, which is bloody. All but a small fragment of the letter is gone.

Chapter 5
• Chan looks at the men standing around to see if any are wearing rings: he figures it was a ring that cut his cheek. None are wearing rings.
• Chan does not search anybody: he figures the person who swiped the letter immediately tucked it into a drawer, chair, or recess of some kind.
• During questioning, Chan ascertains that Wilkie and Rita have been married for three years, and that both lived in Hollywood three years ago.
• Julie O’Neill informs Chan that the orchids Shelah was wearing came from Robert Fyfe.
• Huntley Van Horn says that he arrived at Shelah’s around 8:15.
• Val Martino says he did not live in Hollywood three years ago, only two years ago.
• Alan Jaynes asks if Chan has fixed the time of death, and the detective acknowledges that it was 8:02. Jaynes says that he has never been to Hollywood.
• Diana Dixon says she left the house at 8:00 and walked down to the beach. She noticed a man leaving the pavilion. He wore a long overcoat, dress clothes, and his white shirt was stained with something red.

the-black-camel-movie-poster-1931-1010267452Chapter 6
• Jessop says he lived in Hollywood three years earlier.
Jessop states that at 8:02 he was in the kitchen with Wu and with Anna.
• He informs Chan that earlier in the day he saw Shelah in the library, weeping over a photograph of a man. The photo was mounted on a green mat.
Chan questions Wu in Cantonese as Jimmy, Julie, and Tarneverro look on.
• When the interview is finished, Jimmy asks Chan what was said, but Chan refuses to reveal it.
• Anna Rodderick has been Shelah’s maid for 18 months, from the day Anna first arrived in Hollywood.
• Anna describes the gold and diamond pin that Shelah used to fasten her orchids.
• Chan takes Anna into the pavilion and asks her to check to make certain that all of Shelah’s jewelry is still there.
• While Anna is searching, Kashimo discovers a set of footprints outside the pavilion window.
Anna tells Chan that the pin that fastened the orchids is missing — as is a large emerald ring that Shelah wore on her right hand.

Chapter 7
• Chan lists all those who were in Hollywood three years earlier, when Denny Mayo was murdered: Wilkie Ballou, Rita Ballou, Huntley Van Horn, and Jessop.
• Tarneverro informs Chan that Diana Dixon was also there at the time.
• So was Julie O’Neill.
• With Chan’s permission, Tarneverro examines the wristwatch, turning its stem: the minute hand instantly moves.
Tarneverro argues that this means the murderer adjusted the watch time to a certain setting — 8:02 — then forgot to re-adjust the stem.
Chan then points out that everyone’s alibi is gone — including Tarneverro’s. The fortune teller hints that he might have another alibi.
• Charlie finds the letter that was snatched from his hand: it was hidden under a rug. The letter does not name the murderer. Instead, in it Shelah begs Tarneverro to forget that their conversation ever took place.
• Kashimo returns from his search of the upstairs and produces a handful of torn bits of paper and heavy green cardboard: he found them buried in a potted plant.
• Chan spreads the pieces out on a table and sits down to put them together. In the room are Chan, Tarneverro, Van Horn, Martino, Jaynes, and Wilkie and Rita Ballou.
Chan informs them that everyone’s alibi for the 8:02 time has vanished.
• Kashimo thrusts open a French window and the bits of photograph blow everywhere.
• The guests start picking up the scattered pieces, as does Chan. When the collection is completed, Chan realizes he has less than half the amount he started with and thus won’t be able to reconstruct the photo. 
• The doorbell rings. The new guest introduces himself as Robert Fyfe, Shelah’s ex-husband. He is wearing an overcoat, and across his chest is a bright red splash: it is part of his costume.

Chapter 8
• Fyfe says he was not in Hollywood three years ago.
• When Chan asks whether Fyfe saw Shelah this evening, Fyfe replies that he did not.
• The guests leave for the dining room, where coffee is served. Fyfe and Chan remain and
Fyfe admits that he did see Shelah that evening. She met him in front of the pavilion and the two of them went inside and talked.
Fyfe left at 8:04 and arrived at the theater at 8:20. The stage manager was waiting for him at the door.
• A Honolulu police officer arrives: in his grip is a beach bum who claims his name is Smith. Chan takes Smith into the living room, where Fyfe waits.
The footprints under the window match Smith’s exactly. Chan demands an explanation. Smith insists that he never entered the pavilion, simply listened underneath the window.
• Smith identifies Fyfe as the man he saw inside the pavilion.
• Just as Smith is about to tell Chan what he heard Shelah tell Fyfe, Fyfe himself leaps up and confesses that he killed Shelah.
• Chan asks why. Fyfe replies that he wanted Shelah to return to him, but she wouldn’t.
• Chan refuses to accept the confession. Fyfe has an unshakeable alibi, having left the pavilion at 8:04 and arrived at the theater at 8:20.
Then Chan announces that Shelah Fane was alive and well at 8:12.

Chapter 9 
• Tarneverro wants to know how Chan knew that Shelah was alive at 8:12. Chan says that Wu told him this, when the two were speaking in Cantonese.
Wu stated that at 8:12 he went to the pavilion to speak to Shelah Fane: she was there, alive and well.
• Chan returns to interrogating Smith, who now claims that all he heard between Shelah and Fyfe was Fyfe’s pleas for her to return. Smith says Fyfe left and Shelah remained in the room, alive.
Chan knows that Fyfe is hiding something: something that came out in the conversation with Shelah, that Smith overheard, and that Fyfe wants repressed.
• Chan tells the guests that because Shelah was alive at 8:12 and dead by 8:30, he wants to know what each guest was doing during those crucial eighteen minutes.
• Four people in particular, who had alibis before, now need to explain where they were: Tarneverro, Val Martino, Alan Jaynes, and Huntley Van Horn.
• Tarneverro says that he spent the time talking with an old couple who are friends of his from Australia.
• Jaynes says that he has no alibi, he was wandering the beach.
• Van Horn says that after he arrived at the house, he went down to the beach, where he spoke to Rita Ballou.
• Val Martino says he was sitting outside the hotel, thinking.
• Tarneverro calls Chan’s attention to a bleeding cut on the director’s brow and tells Charlie that Martino just placed a bloody handkerchief in his pocket.
• Chan examines the handkerchief with a magnifying glass and finds a few splinters of glass in it: splinters which may have come from the glass top in the pavilion.
• Martino denies that it’s his handkerchief. He has no idea how it ended up in his pocket.
• Martino points out to Chan that there’s a laundry mark on the silk handkerchief: the letter B.

Chapter 10
• Martino says that as the guests were leaving the dining room, he felt a little tug at his pocket. But he has no idea who was around him at the time . . . except, he says, Tarneverro was nearby.
• The director and the fortune teller get into a heated argument.
• Chan stops the argument by announcing to all the guests that they are free to go home.
• Chan searches the bedrooms, then questions Anna again.
• Producing an emerald ring from his pocket, he asks her if it’s the one that was missing from Shelah Fane’s hand. She affirms that it is.
• Chan then turns to Julie and asks her what the ring was doing in the drawer of her dressing-table.
• Julie says that Shelah was always hard up for money and that the actress asked Julie to sell the ring for her.
• According to Julie, Shelah gave her the ring at 8:00 a.m.
• Chan looks at the ring through his magnifying glass. It’s inscribed: “Shelah from Denny.”
• Julie bursts into tears.
• When Chan gives Jimmy a ride back to the newspaper office, Jimmy asks if he can have his handkerchief back: it was his silk handkerchief, with B for Bradshaw, that somebody lifted and palmed off onto Martino.
• Chan refuses to return the handkerchief.

Chapter 11
• At the police station Charlie reports to the Chief all that has transpired.
• The Chief tells Chan that they fingerprinted Smith and let him go.
• They discuss Tarneverro and how he might seem a bit too eager to assist Charlie.
• Outside the police station, Chan sees Smith.
• Chan follows him. Smith goes to the Waioli Hotel, looks into the lobby, hesitates, then leaves. Chan knows that the Waioli Hotel is where Robert Fyfe resides.

Chapter 12
• The next morning Smith awakens on the beach. He visits Robert Fyfe, who says he has been waiting for Smith to arrive and blackmail him.
• Fyfe gives the beach bum a $50 advance on $250.
• Smith then goes to the seedy Nippon Hotel and rents the room he always rents when he has a bit of money.

Chapter 13
• After Chan arises he drives to the Waioli Hotel, where he is informed that Mr. Fyfe left earlier, with a man. By the description, Charlie ascertains that the man was Smith.
• At the theater Chan finds Fyfe rehearsing. He questions the stage manager, who verifies Fyfe’s time alibi for the previous evening.
• Chan speaks to Fyfe privately, imploring him to speak the truth about what Shelah said to him. Fyfe claims he forgot what she said to him.
Chan argues that Fyfe is hampering the police investigation, but Fyfe won’t budge.
• At the Honolulu library, Charlie asks for the Los Angeles newspapers of three years ago. The librarian tells him that the particular volume he wants is in use at the moment.
Chan looks to see who is reading the volume. It is Huntley Van Horn.

unknown-5Chapter 14
• At the Grand Hotel Charlie speaks to Mr. and Mrs. MacMaster of Australia: the old couple who provide Tarneverro’s alibi for the now-established time of murder.
• As Chan begins to speak to the couple, Tarneverro himself approaches.
• Chan asks specifically about the time Tarneverro departed, and MacMaster says it was 8:32 when the fortune teller left them.
• Ten years ago, Tarneverro was a sheepman on the MacMaster ranch.
• As Mrs. MacMaster starts to say something, Tarneverro interrupts her to continue his story.
Tarneverro suggests that Chan consider Wilkie Ballou as a suspect.
• “There is also Martino,” Chan replies. Tarneverro agrees.
• As Chan and Tarneverro walk through the hotel, the head bellman speaks to Tarneverro in Cantonese. Tarneverro asks what the bellman said, and Chan replies that the bellman made a respectful inquiry about Tarneverro’s health.
• At Shelah’s house Chan strolls to the pavilion and, outside the window, where Smith had been standing, he finds a small cigar — of the type that Alan Jaynes smokes.

Chapter 15
• On the inside of the pavilion windowsill are the prints of a man’s fingers and thumb.
• Chan asks the police department’s fingerprint expert to photograph the prints.
• Chan goes to the Grand Hotel to talk to Alan Jaynes about the cigar. While waiting for Jaynes, Chan improvises a way to capture his fingerprints without Jaynes’ knowledge.
• Jaynes denies that he was near the pavilion.
• According to the fingerprint expert, Jaynes’ fingerprints do not match those on the windowsill.
The prints on the sill match those of Smith, the beach bum.

Chapter 16
• Chan asks the Chief to have Smith found and brought into the station.
Jessop swears that Shelah was wearing the emerald ring at 7 p.m. the previous evening.
• Chan asks Julie why she lied to him about the ring. She denies that she lied.
She informs Chan that there’s an old grudge between her and Jessop and that he lied.
• Chan asks why Van Horn was in the library reading the Los Angeles papers from three years ago, and the actor hands Charlie an unsigned typewritten note.
The note tells Van Horn to go to the library and remove from the bound volumes any references that damage him (Van Horn).
• Van Horn says that whoever did this, did so to throw suspicion on him. Chan suggests that Van Horn could have written the letter himself.
• Back at the library Chan finds the volume of Los Angeles newspapers on the very table where he had seen Van Horn examining it. When Chan opens the volume, he is astonished to see that every picture of Denny Mayo has been cut from the newspaper.

Chapter 17
• The photos are gone, but the articles remain, so Chan reads them. He learns that Mayo came to Hollywood directly from the English stage.
• His servant had the night off and went out: when he returned at midnight, Mayo was dead, shot at close range with his own revolver.
• Little was known of Mayo’s past, though it was rumored he had a wife back in England. Yet no family member came forward.
• Mayo had been working in a picture with actress Rita Montaine — now Rita Ballou.
• A witness testified that he had heard a quarrel between Wilkie Ballou and Denny.
• But on the night of the murder Wilkie had an alibi: he was with Rita from 6:00 until midnight.
Van Horn swears that he left the volume on the table around 9:30 in the morning, and it was in perfect condition at the time.
• The Chief says he wants to interview the MacMasters himself, to determine if they are lying.
• Kashimo returns to the station, dejected: he hasn’t found Smith.
Rita Ballou says that Shelah Fane was wearing the emerald ring the previous evening. Rita remembers Shelah wearing the same ring in Hollywood.

Chapter 18
• Chan once again confronts Julie. He drags out of her the following information:
• (1) Shelah Fane did give her the ring in the morning and asked her to sell it.
• (2) After she returned from her late-morning interview with Tarneverro, Shelah took the ring back.
• (3) When Jimmy and Julie found Shelah dead, Julie knelt down and removed the ring from Shelah’s hand.
• Chan says he knows that Shelah was in Denny’s house the night he was murdered and, consequently, she knew the name of the killer.
• Julie says that the night of Denny’s murder, Shelah came home in a state of hysteria and wasn’t herself for weeks.
• After she returned from seeing Tarneverro, Shelah asked for the ring back because it had Denny’s name in it and she didn’t want any mention of that name now. “He’ll come back to disgrace me yet,” Shelah said of Denny Mayo.
• Julie says she took the ring in order to keep Denny’s name from disgracing Shelah, and Julie ripped the photo of Denny to shreds and buried the pieces in a potted plant for the same reason.
• When Chan asks her if she gathered up many of the photo pieces that were scattered all over the living room and kept them to herself, Julie says that was not her. She reminds Charlie that she wasn’t in the room when that happened.
• Chan puzzles over who doesn’t want him to see a photo of Denny Mayo — and why.
The bellman who had spoken to Tarneverro in Cantonese tells Chan that Tarneverro understands Cantonese.
• Chan thinks about this and concludes that Tarneverro understood what Wu said about seeing Shelah alive at 8:12, and so Tarneverro made a point of “discovering” that the murderer had deliberately set the broken wristwatch to 8:02.
• Chan concludes that Tarneverro is not as true a “helper” as he pretends to be.

unknown-1Chapter 19

• Martino urges Chan to solve the case soon. Charlie confesses that he is “opposed in this matter by some person of extreme cleverness.”
• Martino states that Tarneverro is very clever. Chan counters that Martino himself is clever.
• Martino thanks Charlie for the observation, then says he is convinced that the way Tarneverro gets Hollywood stars in his clutches is that he has spies working for him.
• Chan reminds Martino that Tarneverro has an unshakable alibi for the time of the murder.
• Chan asks Alan Jaynes how the cigar stub ended up outside the pavilion window if, in fact, Jaynes had never been there.
• Jaynes says that he saw Tarneverro take a couple of cigars from his (Jaynes’) cigar box and put them in his pocket.
• Jaynes concludes that Tarneverro used the cigar to plant a false clue.
• The Chief wants to break Tarneverro’s alibi: he informs Charlie that he has asked the old Australian couple, the MacMasters, to come into his office later.
• The Chief, Chan, and a house detective search Tarneverro’s room, where they find a locked trunk.
• They open the trunk: it contains a portable typewriter and a ring.
• Chan types a few words and compares them to the anonymous letter Van Horn received: both were written on the same machine, the one in Tarneverro’s trunk.
• Charlie thinks the ring is the very one that cut his face when somebody snatched the envelope from his hand in Shelah’s house the night of the murder.

Chapter 20
• The librarian describes a second man who was in the library that morning. From the description Chan is convinced it’s Tarneverro.
• Chan sits in on the Chief’s interview of the MacMasters. Reluctantly, the Chief agrees that they are speaking the truth: Tarneverro has an unshakeable alibi for the eighteen minutes in question.
• Chan asks the couple if Tarneverro is the man’s real name. The couple says that Tarneverro has asked them to not reveal his real name.
• Chan explains that if they give his real name, they will not harm Tarneverro, who has an alibi, but they will help solve the murder of Shelah Fane.
Mrs. MacMaster tells Charlie that Tarneverro’s real name is Arthur Mayo. He is Denny Mayo’s brother.

Chapter 21
• Chan requests that the fortune teller come to the police station immediately.
• Chan proposes to the Chief that they say nothing of Tarneverro’s obstacles (hitting Charlie, snatching the letter, stealing Jaynes’ cigar, planting it as a false clue, and so on), but rather tell him they know he is Denny’s brother, and see what he says.
• When confronted with their knowledge that he is Denny Mayo’s brother, Tarneverro says he will explain. He says that because the police didn’t solve the case, he went to Hollywood in disguise as Tarneverro and began prying into the secrets of those who knew Denny — to determine who murdered him.
Tarneverro believes that the same person who killed Denny also killed Shelah, to keep her from revealing his name.
• After Tarneverro leaves, the Chief and Chan agree that Tarneverro’s story was not true: that it in no way explains why he created false clues at every turn.
• Chan finds Smith and brings him to the station house.
• The Chief unleashes on Smith, asking him why his fingerprints are on the windowsill of the room in which Shelah Fane was murdered.
• Realizing he is in a tight spot and may be accused of murder, Smith confesses that he did climb the windowsill and looked inside and spotted a diamond pin. Stooping from the sill, he picked up the pin — and then he noticed the murdered woman on the floor.
• Smith reaches into his pocket and hands the broken pin to Chan.
• The Chief says that unless Smith reveals what Shelah said to Fyfe, he will be sent to prison for theft of the diamond pin.
• Smith says he will tell them. Chan says that he wants Fyfe to be present.

Chapter 22
• Fyfe arrives at the police station.
Smith announces that what he heard Shelah Fane tell Fyfe was that three years ago in Hollywood, she murdered Denny Mayo.
• Fyfe then explains that Shelah told him that she had fallen in love with Denny, but on that night three years ago, he told her his wife in London had had an accident and was no longer able to work: he was going to ask her to join him in Hollywood.
• Shelah went crazy, pulled a revolver out of Denny’s desk, and pointed it at him. He struggled with her and the gun went off, killing him.
• Against her will, Shelah somehow found herself confessing this crime to Tarneverro.
• Immediately afterward, she regretted having confessed.  In fact, she was afraid, which is why she called her ex-husband and asked him to see her.
• After her murder, Fyfe found he couldn’t tell the police the truth because it would forever tarnish Shelah’s name.
• Chan asks if Fyfe is sure that Shelah did indeed confess to Tarneverro that she killed Denny Mayo. Fyfe says he is certain she did.
• The Chief wants to arrest Tarneverro for the murder of Shelah Fane. Chan disagrees, stating that the fortune teller’s alibi is unshakeable.
Chan produces the broken diamond pin and says it will help him solve the case. When they find the missing half, they will know who the murderer is. The murderer, he believes, tore off the orchids and trampled them underfoot, breaking the pin and imbedding part of it in his/her shoe.

Chapter 23
• In the dining room of Shelah’s house Chan asks Jessop to place the chairs in the same position they were the previous evening, when the guests were served coffee.
• With a magnifying glass Chan examines the floor, then asks Jessop which guest sat where. Chan stands behind a particular chair and asks who sat there. Jessop can’t remember.
• Chan makes numerous calls, asking people to return to the house.
• He tells the Chief that there are scratches in front of one (and only one) chair in the dining room, and that Shelah Fane’s murderer sat in that chair.
• Everyone files into the dining room and recreates where they sat the previous evening. It is Tarneverro who sits in the murderer’s seat.
• Again the Chief wants to arrest Tarneverro. Again Chan protests that the man’s alibi is unbreakable.
• Chan asks Jessop if, after the guests left, anybody else sat at the table. Jessop admits that he and Anna sat there. He indicates that Anna sat in the chair Chan is most interested in.
• Chan calls for Anna. He asks her to remove her right shoe. She is wearing a brace on her right ankle, which she injured three years ago. She removes the shoe.
• In the presence of all, Chan slits the rubber heel with his penknife — embedded in the heel is the other half of the gold pin.
• Chan accuses Anna of murdering Shelah Fane. He realizes that she is the wife of Denny Mayo — the one he intended to return to before Shelah murdered him.

Chapter 24  
• Chan accuses Tarneverro of having used Anna as his spy in Hollywood: the person who relayed to him various things about the stars, so that he could pretend to “see” these things in his crystal ball.
Chan states that as soon as Tarneverro heard of Shelah’s murder, he instinctively knew who did it and sought to protect her, inventing lies along the way, planting false clues.
Anna confesses that she killed Shelah. She remembered a watch alibi from a play she was in, and she used it to set the time of the wristwatch to 8:02, when she was in the kitchen having tea with Jessop.


Barbara Gregorich provides clues and suggestions to mystery writing in Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies, available through brick-and-mortar booksellers and online booksellers.

“I Say: She’s Writing About Dialogue!”

Writing teachers often tell the story of an 8-year-old who walked into the library and asked the librarian for “more books with those funny marks inside.” Upon questioning the child, the librarian determined that he was talking about quotation marks, and that he wanted books with lots of dialogue.

Indeed, dialogue (defined as conversation between two or more people in a book or a play) interests most readers. Some very strongly prefer books heavy with dialogue. But even those readers who might prefer narrative summary or description still don’t crave books without dialogue. In short, although they might be crazy about narrative, they will also, subconsciously, want relief from unending narrative.

Dialogue is fascinating to readers because, if done well, it reveals character, it reveals conflict, it shows the reader what is happening — and it seems more “real life” and faster than narrative.


Readers aren’t the only people who love dialogue. Some writers so enjoy writing dialogue (usually witty) that they initially write pages and pages of the stuff. But the main purpose of scene (almost all scenes contain dialogue) is to reveal conflict, reveal character, and move the plot forward. Its primary purpose is not to feature dialogue. Instead of a scene being an excuse to write dialogue, it should be dialogue which serves the purpose of the scene.

Although dialogue may seem “real life,” it is not so. As Sol Stein points out in Stein on Writing, realistic dialogue is contained in court transcriptions. And nobody craves reading court transcriptions. Here’s how Stein put it:

“Dialogue, contrary to popular view, is not a recording of actual speech; it is a semblance of speech, an invented language of exchanges that build in tempo or content toward climaxes.”

Good dialogue gives the impression of natural speech, but is not a verbatim rendition of natural speech. Usually the uh’s the you know’s, the see’s and other such verbal crutches are left out: or are put in, but are only representative. It would be painful to read dialogue that actually reproduces speech. So dialogue gives the impression of naturalness, but the writer usually works very hard to make the dialogue seem natural when, in fact, it is more pertinent, more efficient, and more meaningful than most natural dialogue.

When writing dialogue, writers must consider how the lines will look on a page. A full page of nothing but one-liners is difficult for readers to assimilate: they loose track of who’s speaking. But a full page in which one character’s dialogue occupies the entire page, or even half of the page, is also difficult for readers to relate to.  Long paragraphs of dialogue cease feeling like dialogue to the reader: they start to feel like narrative.

Of course, just as uninterrupted dialogue is difficult to read, so is uninterrupted narrative: the reader wants something to happen live — on the page, in real time. With people! People speaking words!

When well-written, those words surrounded by “funny marks” carry a lot of weight in creating character, revealing plot, and moving the action forward.


Barbara Gregorich has more to say about dialogue in Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies.

How I Wrote a Book in 92 Days

After She’s on First was published in 1987, I spent more than a year avoiding writing a nonfiction book on women who played baseball. Finally, toward the end of 1988, I decided I would write such a book. It would, I figured, take me a year to do all the research.


It took four years of daily research, travel, and interviews before I felt I had enough material to tell the story of 100 years of women playing baseball. In 1992 my agent sold my book proposal to Harcourt — and Harcourt gave me 92 days in which to write the manuscript.

After I wrote the manuscript, I wrote an article about the 92-day experience. “How I Wrote a Book in 92 Days” was published in the 1994 Writer’s Yearbook. I’m reprinting the article below.

Truth may not be stranger than fiction, but it certainly is faster. I needed two full years to write my first book, a novel about a female baseball player. Writing the novel led to what eventually became my fourth book, the real story of women who played baseball. After I developed a proposal for Women at Play: The Story of Women in Baseball, my agent submitted it.

On Sunday, July 12, 1992, my agent, Jane Jordan Browne, called from her office to say that a 19-page sample contract had arrived from Harcourt Brace Company via fax, and that while she was negotiating and modifying the contract, I should know that I had only until October 15, 1992, to write the manuscript. According to editor John Radziewicz, this was a “drop-dead” deadline.

Elated at the contract, but stunned by the deadline, I counted the squares on my wall calendar. Exactly ninety-five of them from Monday, July 13 through Thursday, October 15. But three of them were filled with day-long events, leaving me ninety-two days to write a 50,000-word book and collect at least fifty photographs of female baseball players.

No time to panic or complain. That very Sunday I sat down and figured it out, day by day. The 27 chapters listed in my proposal (each chapter containing two, three, or four sidebars) were organized into four sections, each with an introduction. Counting each introduction as a chapter, I had 31 chapters. This gave me a smidgen less than three days to write each chapter and its accompanying sidebars. That night I went to sleep knowing the next morning was critical: I would start off right and keep on schedule.

Monday, July 13 , Day 1 — My schedule calls for me to write from 7:30 A.M. until 2:00 P.M., exercise from 2:00 until 3:30, answer correspondence, return phone calls, and run errands from 3:30 until 6:00, and then write again from 6:00 until … whenever.

At 7:42 A.M. I face the computer and begin Chapter 2. (Chapter 1, the sample chapter of my book proposal, is written, so I’m three days ahead of schedule already!) Chapter 2 is the shortest in the book and I finish it by 7:30 P.M. of Day 1. Hot damn!

Later, I type a long list of possible photos and their probable sources for Sharon Johnson, a friend who works as my research assistant five hours a week.

Monday, July 20 , Day 7— Chapter 4 completed, I place it in a green file folder that I nestle into a bright yellow pocket folder. Four of the yellow pockets sit on a shelf, each representing one section of Women at Play. On the two shelves above the yellow pockets sit eight linear feet of folders stuffed with photocopies of old newspaper articles, letters, diaries, and notes from baseball books — the history of women in baseball, 1872 to the present, and the product of my research so far.

Tuesday, July 28 , Day 15 — After reading comments on Section One from Jane and from my husband, Phil Passen, I rewrite the six chapters and introduction. By 9:15 P.M., I’m printing out the last of the rewritten chapters and am an amazing six days ahead of schedule.

Wednesday, August 12 , Day 30— Late in the evening I finish Chapter 10. The sidebars are fun: I write them first because they serve as a warmup to the chapter.

But Section Two is turning out longer than I thought. Worried about keeping the manuscript to a reasonable size, I consider deleting a chapter from Section Three and another from Section Four. I make no decision.

imagesTuesday, August 18 , Day 36 — At 7:00 A.M. I launch into the introduction for Section Two. Around 11:30, I break for lunch. As I’m eating a slice of pizza, I hear a loud Crack and feel something dreadfully wrong in my mouth.

I have broken my upper left bicuspid (tooth number twelve, I later learn). Some pain, but not much. Returning to the computer, I finish writing the introduction. I work until 2:00, as scheduled. At 2:01 I call the dentist, who tells me to come in at 4:30.

Thursday, August 20 , Day 38 — By the time I rewrite chapters 7-12, write the cover letter, make copies, and mail Section Two, I’m three days ahead of schedule.

Saturday, August 22 — Today doesn’t count: it’s the third of the Chicago White Sox 1992 seminars on women in baseball and I’m one of the speakers. Phil’s birthday is August 24, but we go out to celebrate tonight. It feels wonderful to have a whole day off.

Monday, August 24 , Day 41 — At approximately 9:30 P.M., as we’re lying in bed, we hear a strange sound — thousands of gallons of water rushing down the heating-cooling duct that runs behind my desk and in front of my fax machine.

Water flows down the walls: in the office, the bedroom, the baths, and the foyer. Working frantically, we move machines and boxes off the floor and out of my office. We sling old towels on the sodden carpeting and stomp on them: they turn yellowish-green from the coolant-filled water. A condo maintenance person with a wet vac arrives around 11:30 and begins extracting water. He informs us that a coupling in the air conditioning pipes broke in the unit above us.

At 12:15 we fall into bed, utterly exhausted. Phil moans, “Why did this have to happen on my birthday?” I moan, “Why did this have to happen during my book?”

large-paper-stack1Wednesday, August 26 — This is not a writing day. Sharon and I meet for breakfast and she shows me photos of female ballplayers. We then drive to Rockford, Illinois, where we read 1943-54 microfilmed newspaper articles on the Rockford Peaches of the All-American Girls Baseball League. Exhausted, we drive home.

The carpet cleaners have come and gone, leaving disinfected carpet and three huge blower fans in their wake. Unfortunately, they have also stacked bookcases, chairs, and boxes of computer paper in the kitchen. Phil is out of town. I spend 45 minutes hauling boxes and bookcases out of the kitchen.

It will be a miracle if I finish writing Section Three on time.

Monday, August 31, Day 47 — I now see that two of the final six chapters won’t work. Rewriting my outline, I end up with 25 chapters instead of 27, the two former chapters becoming sidebars. I feel confident that the final outline works. In addition, it makes up for some of my lost time. In the evening I begin to write Chapter 13.

Tuesday, September 8, Day 55— Tackling Chapter 16, I recognize that in order to finish the manuscript on time, I must spend more hours of the day writing. Reluctantly I jettison exercising and cooking dinner.

Civility is the next to go. When telephone solicitors call and ask how I am, I growl, “Call me after October 15” into the phone and hang up.

Wednesday, September 16, Day 63— Chapter 18 is looking good, but lack of exercise is making me tired. I’m sick of home-delivery food. Sharon started medical-technician school full-time yesterday and tells me that she can’t even make phone calls while at school. It appears that I’ll have to finish the remaining photo research by myself.

Despite everything, I wake up eager to write. The good feeling usually vanishes by 4:30 P.M. — then resolve alone keeps me going.

Tuesday, September 29, Day 76— Another long, late day. I begin at 7:45 A.M. and finish at 9:15 P.M. But I complete the rewrite of the third and longest section. I’m now two days behind schedule.

Wednesday, September 30, Day 77— The home stretch. I confront Chapter 22. Every day I spend two hours making calls to procure photos. Instead of filing each piece of paper as it crosses my desk, I toss everything into a huge cardboard box. Come October 16, I’ll regret the mess I’ve created, but right now I’m probably gaining 20 or 30 minutes of writing time a day.

Sunday, October 11, Day 88— The knowledge that this is the last weekend of my ordeal enables me to start writing at 9:00 A.M. and continue all day until 10:30 P.M., wrapping up Chapter 24. Victory is in sight.

Wednesday, October 14, Day 91— Adrenalin kicks in. I write the introduction to Section Four and then rewrite it. In the evening I curl up on the couch with Chapters 22-25 and go through them with a red pen, making changes.

Thursday, October 15, Day 92— I start work at 6:30 A.M. Five hours later, the last rewritten chapter curls out from the printer. I’m euphoric. I call Jane to tell her I finished. I’m on a roll. I call John to tell him I finished and the final section is on its way via Federal Express.

It would be comforting to think that my 92-day writing marathon, replete with minor and major catastrophes, is an abnormality, something that won’t happen again. And frankly, if I stick to writing fiction, it may not. The truth is, however, that the writing of truth is changing.

Thanks to new computer technology allowing for use of the author’s “captured keystrokes” and for design of the book and production of page proofs in a matter of days, and thanks to the competitiveness of the market place on hot topics, more and more nonfiction books will be produced in a shorter time. Under such circumstances, publishers want the author to write the book in less than a year — in three months, even.

I was able to meet my “drop-dead” deadline and live to tell about it, but only because I developed a schedule that put me on track to complete specific chapters by specific dates. Writing to schedule made me write faster and produce more. When really pressed, I was able to write a chapter in two days and, on two occasions, one day. As a result, I was able to complete a book I had spent years researching. Sort of like a utility player who, when called in to play shortstop during a crucial game, comes through because she knows the fundamentals — and applies them.


In August 2016 Barbara Gregorich donated her thousands of pages of research materials to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. But many of the notes are available in book form, in Research Notes for Women at Play: The Story of Women in Baseball — Volume 1, Volume 2, and Volume 3.

Another New Year’s Free Chapter

Exactly one year ago I offered readers a free chapter from Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies. That blog linked to two other free chapters, and I joked that at this rate a reader could get the entire book for free . . . in about twenty years.

So, for the New Year, I’m offering another free chapter, making it four altogether. (To see the other free chapters, click on Minor Gift: A Free Chapter.)

7 Setting, Including Scene of the Crime

Some writers are great at creating setting, others are indifferent to it. Some are great at all three aspects of setting, some at one or perhaps two. This reflects how different we all are. Some of us are very conscious about clothing styles, others aren’t. Some of us are always au courant with the latest slang or buzz words, others aren’t. Some observe architecture, or trees, or house interiors in detail. Others don’t.

But no matter what we’re like in real life, in the world of fiction it’s necessary for a writer to be aware of setting — of creating it and maintaining it. Of making it come alive for the reader. For the fact is, one of the great vicarious pleasures readers get from fiction is the pleasure of setting: people enjoy learning about other places, other times, and other cultures through fiction.

Setting: Place, Time, Culture
Setting consists of the place or spot where a story takes place; the time when it takes place; and the culture in which it takes place. A mystery could take place in the Adirondack Mountains of New York. That’s the spot on Earth where the story is set. (Stories need not be set on Earth, of course.) The story could take place now, in the 21st century. Or it could take place in the 19th century, during the days of the Underground Railroad. Or earlier, during the days of the French and Indian War. Or even earlier, when Indian tribes lived free of Europeans.

The cultural setting could be any of the above-mentioned. It could be Dutch-Americans whose families have lived in the region for over 200 years. It could be about criminals who run meth labs. It could be about amusement park owners.

In mystery novels as in other novels, these three aspects of setting can be equally developed, or one or two can be developed more than the others. But I can’t imagine a novel in which they wouldn’t all be present.

Dirty Proof takes place in the 1970s, in Chicago, in the culture of the newspaper publishing industry: mainly in the composing room, where typesetters worked.

Sound Proof, as you know by now, takes place in the current era (say early 21st century) in Iroquois County, Illinois, on a farm during an old-time music festival called Midwest Music Madness. The culture it takes place in is the culture of folk music or, more specifically, what’s called old-time music (the kind of music played by the Carter Family and by Doc Watson and John Hartford, for example).

As I explained in an earlier chapter, setting is very important to me, and it comes to me at the same time as do plot and character. In the very first page of Sound Proof, the culture aspect of the setting is prominent:

     Shelby Stubbs stepped onto a bale of straw and looked down on the group of musicians. I leaned against a porch rail and watched everything in sight. Even Stubbs, though he wasn’t the thief.
     Stubbs hooked a thumb through his belt, puffed out his chest, and repeated his announcement. “No sir. Absolutely not.” This was directed at Vance Jurasek, who was balancing a string bass on its endpin. “Only fiddles, guitars, and banjos,” Stubbs lectured. “No other instruments allowed. That’s ‘cause no other instruments belong.”
     “You’re kidding.” Jurasek settled his bass against the rail and scowled.
     “No sir. You don’t see a bass in old-time music. It’s not traditional. You never saw an old-time player carrying a bass around. No bass in my class.”

Researching Setting
In developing setting you might end up doing research in several different ways: travel, internet, library, or others. If your mystery is set in the past you’re probably aware that today there are wonderful web sites through which a visitor can see photos of buildings, rooms, clothing, and many other artifacts of previous eras. Research your setting well before you actually sit down to write — that way, details about the setting will be in your mind and will emerge in your writing. It’s easier to feel yourself inside the setting from the start, rather than to have to “add” setting during the rewrite. The first is organic, the second artificial.

Speaking of setting and research, let me say that a wise and conscientious writer researches any aspect of his novel that he isn’t 100% certain about. Take, for example, the murder weapon. If it’s a gun, you had better be certain what kind of gun it is and how it works. Readers will know instantly if you’ve said something wrong about the gun. The same is true for poisons or any murder method: research it first . . . in books, articles, or online. If you can, interview experts on the subject.

Back to setting. I’ve already told you that Sound Proof sprang out of the fact that I accompanied my husband to many old-time music festivals and observed and absorbed what I saw and heard. As for the farm aspect of the setting, I spent most of my childhood on a dairy farm in Ohio. But Ohio is not Illinois, and so before I began to write Sound Proof I traveled to Iroquois County, Illinois. I drove up and down the rural roads. I drove through the towns. I ate lunch in one of them. I jotted down notes on the town buildings, the railroads, the bus depots, the barns, the silos, the fields, the farmhouses, the drainage ditches. I took photos. I typed notes and printed them out and had them alongside me as I wrote, so that I could incorporate them throughout the book.

There is, however, a great danger in having copious notes on any single aspect of your story. The danger is that because you did the work garnering this information, and because you are excited about it, you will cram it into your novel.


Readers like details. They like a setting to come alive for them. But what they really, really love is dialogue and action. Setting is neither dialogue nor action. So use what you know about your setting sensibly.

Below is a single page from my four single-spaced pages of Iroquois County research notes. The observations in boldfaced type are the ones I used as part of the setting — the others I didn’t use at all. I hope this drives home the point that research results work best when used selectively.

cupolas on barns, even on sheds and on police station
third-floor of a farmhouse has stained glass windows
saloon with Bud Light sign overhead and Old Style sign on side
saloon made of red brick
hip roof with cupola
saloon serves burgers and beer
post office is on Main Street
saloon is on Main Street
pickup trucks, most of them American makes
black-eyed susans everywhere
many, many pole barns in addition to the main barns
abandoned buildings
grain storage silos
L-shaped porches on many farmhouses
Depot Street, Church Street, Main Street
1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th streets
circle of rocks in ditch, probably thrown out of the field by a farmer
lots of one-and-a-half-lane dirt roads, especially running alongside cornfields

Sketching Setting
One other thing I did in developing the setting for Sound Proof was to draw a sketch showing me where the buildings were in relationship to one another.


I kept this sketch alongside my desk while I wrote perhaps the first third of the book. Soon I knew Mary’s farm and the festival grounds so well that I didn’t need the sketch: the mental image was imprinted on my brain.

In writing Dirty Proof I had no such sketch. That’s because Dirty Proof took place in a wide variety of places within Chicago, and Chicago is a real place. Mary Ployd’s farm, however, is not real. With an invented setting, the temptation is to write the story and occasionally throw in something about the surroundings. But I felt that method wouldn’t bring the setting to life. Because the story is told in the first-person point of view, I wanted to imagine what Frank Dragovic would see as he walked the grounds.

Here are three examples of how setting appears in Sound Proof.

     Mary’s barn brought back these memories. Entering her barn through the south side, I noticed that all six double doors — south, east, and north — were rolled back, the few windows propped open with sticks. The entire bottom floor hosted the old-time ensemble class. Clustered around a pine stage built against the north wall, most of the students perched on rusty folding chairs. Others took a big chance with chairs cobbled together out of branches and twigs. I suspected Mary might host a rustic furniture festival during the winter.

•     •     •

     Like the outbuildings, the barn was aligned with its long sides facing east and west. Along its old stone perimeter I looked for possible hiding places, checking for chinks below, loose boards above. If I were the thief, I’d swipe an instrument and hide it immediately, so I couldn’t be caught with it.
     Mary’s barn was in serious need of painting. Its weathered gray wood was probably last painted when Bob Dylan was a teen. Back in Chicago the aged siding would fetch a fortune as ambience in a restaurant or private home. The barn’s east wall faced a small creek, Raccoon Run. No hiding places I could see. And the south wall was unlikely because it could be seen from the dining hall. High above me, below the peak of the gambrel roof, the hayloft door stood open. Music from a guitar class drifted down.

•     •     •

     No time for a shower. I wondered which was more socially unacceptable: showing up late the first day of class, or smelling like a pig sty. Wafting eau de swine in all directions, I hurried toward the pole barn.
     Farmers like my Uncle Rudy and whoever had owned Mary’s land before her constructed pole barns quickly and cheaply: one story high, gable roof, round poles as the main structural support, siding hung from two-by-fours. The life expectancy of such barns was thirty or forty years: a one-generation solution to hay and machine storage problems. Mary’s pole barn, its two short sides sagging toward each other, stood at the brink of its life cycle. One long side slumped on its own door, and a lone, dust-covered window blended in with the weathered wood.
     Between the pigpen and the pole barn, clumps of butterfly milkweed still bloomed in the blazing sun. I wondered if Mary had considered restoring these few acres to prairie: it could be an additional attraction of her festival.

In each of these paragraphs I as the writer knew where Frank was within the setting and what he saw. Having the sketch helped me.

By the time I got to the storm scene in chapter eighteen (a critical situation that reveals much about the various characters and leads to a partial solution to one of the mysteries), I knew my setting so well that I could feel Frank moving through it.

     “Attention, attention!” she continued. “Fonnie Sheffler is missing from the old-time ensemble group.”
     There was a general shuffling, people looking left and right and all around, as if the missing person had simply failed to report to the right group. During these few seconds of confusion Fonnie herself staggered in through the southern doors. “Where were you?” demanded Vance. “We were worried about you.”
     “Sorry,” she gasped. “I wanted to secure my camper.” She struggled for more breath. “It’s really bad out there.”
     “Fonnie has been found!” shouted Mary. “Lafayette Wafer is also missing from the old-time ensemble group. Has anybody seen Lafayette?”
     We looked around again, and then we looked toward the south door, as if Lafayette would repeat Fonnie’s trick of appearing out of the blue. In this case the black.
     Once it was clear that Lafayette wasn’t there, Mary asked if anybody knew where he was. Voices offered facts, opinions, judgments.
     “I saw him around four o’clock,” Cindy called out. “He said a tune was calling him.”
     “That’s right,” shouted Vance. “He was heading toward the big tree by the creek.”
     “But it was already starting to rain,” Cindy yelled. “He might have gone to the pole barn.”
     Mary repeated these remarks to all over the microphone and asked if any of us had seen Lafayette after that time. Hearing her was becoming more and more difficult in the thunder. I walked over to Suzanne and took the flashlight and first-aid kit from her backpack. She had packed our rain jackets and I pulled mine on.
     “Where are you going?” she asked, a note of panic in her voice.
     “The pole barn.”
     “No!” She grabbed my arm. “Frank, don’t go.”
     I shook my head. “I’ve got to.”
     “For who?” demanded Booker, watching me. “Lafayette?”
     I stuffed the first-aid kit in a pocket and gripped the flashlight.
     “Don’t do it, man.” Booker placed a hand on my shoulder. “It’s too dangerous.”
     I moved to leave but Booker pushed me back. “No! Let the little rat drown! He doesn’t deserve saving.”

Knowing the physical setting well helped me write this scene. And knowing the setting also helped Frank find his way back from the pole barn. Setting is not just something a writer puts into a book: it’s something the book’s characters live in. That’s why it’s important for you to make the setting visible to the reader. And I mean cultural setting as well as physical setting.

Connections with Setting
Setting is connected to the story experience in three different ways. First there’s the connection between the writer and the setting. The writer works to make the setting come alive, especially since readers love learning vicariously.

Second, there’s the connection between the reader and the setting. Readers want to experience the setting of a book, particularly if it’s a world they know little about (as is, for example, the world of old-time music). But readers in general don’t want long descriptions of setting, so writers work to bring the setting to life in ways other than long descriptions. I’ll discuss how this is done in the chapter on description.

Third, there’s the connection between the characters and the setting, particularly between the protagonist and the setting. Is the setting in the protagonist’s wheelhouse, so to speak? Does he know it well, function in it well? Or is he a fish out of water, totally lost in this setting? The connection between the hero and the setting is important for you to consider, because it will determine the hero’s attitude and actions and observations and maybe even success or failure.

In writing Sound Proof I wanted Frank Dragovic to be unfamiliar with old-time music (though Suzanne is familiar with it). In a way, I was giving him a handicap in solving the murder of an old-time musician, probably by an old-time musician. Frank is an outsider with no knowledge of musical terms or traditions or fingerings of stringed instruments. It’s good to give your characters weaknesses, sometimes several kinds of weaknesses. Admittedly, not knowing old-time music isn’t considered much of a weakness by most people, but it does put Frank at a disadvantage, and that makes him more human. It also means that some of the characters who do know old-time music will underestimate Frank’s abilities: humans have a tendency to think that those inside a particular group are better or smarter than those outside it.

At the same time, I didn’t want to make Frank an outsider to everything except detection, so I made him familiar with farms and barns and farm animals. Even though he’s a city person, born and raised in Chicago, I had him spend his summers on his uncle’s farm in Galesburg, Illinois. Because of this Frank moves through the setting confidently and comfortably, and this means he can spend his psychic energy observing what he as a detective needs to observe.

I notice that in my first novel I also made Frank an outsider to typesetting and the composing room. It could be that I like to treat the reader to unusual settings and place my hero in unusual settings — just so that, despite the setting, he can triumph.

Scene of the Crime
In some mysteries the scene of the crime is more important than in others. Police procedurals, for example, often give minute details about the scene of the crime because it’s the job of the crime scene specialists to gather evidence that will help detectives interpret the way the crime was committed and what kind of person did it. If you read police procedurals, you’ll be familiar with how scene-of-the-crime is developed. Many thrillers also show and develop scene-of-the-crime details.

Whether those who write private eye or amateur detective fiction need to develop the scene of the crime depends on the answer to a question I raised earlier in this book: does the crime occur during the course of the novel, or has it already occurred when the book opens? In Dirty Proof the murder of Ralph Blasingame has already occurred before the first page of the novel. But any self-respecting detective would want to investigate the scene of the crime, even if the crime had occurred months or years ago. One of the first things Frank does in Dirty Proof is walk through the scene of the crime. In doing so he reaches certain conclusions about the murder.

In Sound Proof the murder occurs at the end of the first day of the five-day music festival, so in this book I needed to show the scene of the crime. In order to do so I had to know what the physical place of the crime looked like. I had to know (of course!) who the killer was and how he committed the crime. I had to know (and this is visually important) what people who entered the scene of the crime would see. And: I had to plant important clues and/or important misdirections — pieces of the scene that might lead the protagonist and/or the police in the wrong direction.

Here’s how the reader experiences the scene of the crime in Sound Proof, through the eyes of Frank Dragovic.

     The moaning came from Bliss.
     Shelby Stubbs lay on the couch of his RV, his head smashed in, blood splattered on both couch and wall. I checked his pulse just to make sure. Dead. The body was still warm, but on a night like this that meant little.
     Only two places to sit: up front in the driver and passenger compartments, or in the dinette directly across from Stubbs’ body. I moved Bliss toward the front of the vehicle, pulled aside the pleated curtains separating the front from the back, and sat her in the passenger seat. “Stay here,” I said, hooking back the curtains so I could keep an eye on her.
     A cell phone rested on the sink counter. I took a kerchief out of my shorts, held the phone with it and dialed 911. Behind me, the microwave clock read 3:30 A.M. Turning away from Bliss I reported the murder, then replaced the phone on the counter. I thought of calling Mary but decided against it for the time being.
     “Somebody will be here soon,” I told Bliss. She was shaking. “Can you hold on?”
     She stared out the window into the dark. When I arrived, she had been moaning in the doorway.
     I returned to the living quarters, if they could still be called that, and looked around. One of the dinette benches held Bliss’s mountain dulcimer case, a couple of small cosmetic bags, and an African drum. One of Kofi’s drums, I was sure. On the other bench lay a bright red fiddle.
     The fiddle was in fine fettle — except for its four strings, which somebody had snipped off and twisted round and round the fiddle’s neck, as if strangling it. I looked but didn’t touch. A bow lay on the floor. I squatted to examine it, expecting to find its horsehairs cut through, but the bow looked fine.
     The red fiddle wasn’t the one Stubbs’ had played in class. That had been the $20,000 fiddle and the $10,000 bow Mary wanted safe at all costs. I looked around for his black fiddle case. Using the kerchief, I lifted the handles of storage areas, peeking inside. No fiddle case. No $20,000 fiddle. No $10,000 bow. In fact, there was no fiddle case anywhere, not even for the strangled red fiddle.
     I rubbed my forehead with both hands. Stolen hurdy-gurdy, stolen fiddle and bow, and a murdered man. I was standing at the plate looking as the strikes blew by me.
     And something else was missing.
     The murder weapon.
     Stubbs’ head was smashed in, his skull cracked wide open. Flecks of brain dotted the couch and the window above it. As far as I could see, no weapon in sight.
     I went to sit in the driver seat. “Tell me what happened,” I said.
     “Is he dead?” Bliss breathed.
     “Yes. Where were you?”
     She stared at me without answering.

Complications at the Scene of the Crime
As you can tell from reading this scene, I’m not a techno-type writer (or reader). That is, I don’t concentrate on small technical details or expert technical knowledge for the murders in my mysteries. The murders are somewhat basic. But that doesn’t mean I can’t introduce complications into the scene of the crime.

The scene above contains the following evidence and complications:

(1) Stubbs was murdered with a blunt instrument.
(2) But that instrument is not present at the scene of the crime when Frank arrives.
(3) One of Stubbs’ prized fiddles, a red one, has had its strings cut, and the strings have been wound and twisted around the neck of the fiddle.
(4) Stubbs’ main fiddle and bow, both very expensive, both insured, are missing.
(5) No fiddle cases are present on the scene of the crime.

My purpose in creating these details at the scene of the crime was to complicate matters, specifically to suggest that the person who murdered Stubbs may have been the same person who was stealing stringed instruments — else why would Stubbs’ expensive fiddle and bow be missing?

I used a blunt instrument as the murder weapon in order to throw suspicion on those characters who had been using hammers earlier that day. These include Mary Ployd, Raven Hook, Jeff Glover, Kim Oberfeld, and Frank Dragovic (though I hope the reader does not suspect Frank!)

I used the cut fiddle strings to throw suspicion on those characters who had been using Leatherman tools on Monday. These include Lafayette Wafer and Guy Dufour.

I used the fact that one fiddle was stolen while the other wasn’t stolen (but was mutilated) to throw confusion over what happened and why.

I’lll have more to say about the planting of clues and the casting of suspicion in later chapters.


Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies</em> is available through brick-and-mortar booksellers and online booksellers.

The Index: A Nonfiction Tool

I’m not sure when I first learned what an index was, but I suspect it was when my tenth grade English teacher required each member of the class to write a small research paper. My subject was Dr. Samuel Mudd, the physician who set John Wilkes Booth’s broken leg. Once I realized there were no books on Dr. Mudd in the local library, I felt great dismay, thinking I would have to read many, many books on the Civil War and Lincoln in the hope of finding a mention of Mudd in some of them.

But then, sitting in the library, thumbing through one of the Lincoln books, I noticed something called an Index at the back of the book. In a single glance I inferred what the index provided: an alphabetical list of names, places, and subject matter within the book, with a page number detailing where each mention occurred.

Eureka! I wouldn’t have to read countless books after all, tediously combing through each for a crumb of information. All I really had to do was check the indexes of countless books and read only the chapters (I never read only the pages) in which Dr. Mudd appeared.

Future experiences, especially once I was in college, elevated my appreciation of the index as a nonfiction tool — one that allowed a peruser or a researcher to understand the topics (and the depth of the topics) within each book. Yes, a table of contents should give the reader a general idea of the topics covered, but only an index shows the details of those topics.

sc004dc527Take my best-known nonfiction title, Women at Play: The Story of Women in Baseball. The table of contents tells the reader that in the section titled “The League Years” I have a chapter titled “Rose Gacioch,” which starts on page 114 and ends on page 120.

But the index references Rose Gacioch in the following manner (with italicized numbers refering to photos):

Gacioch, Rose, 114-20
    All Star Ranger Girls and, 35, 73, 74-75, 115
    retirement, 120
    Rockford Peaches and, 115, 116, 118-19, 135, 138
    South Bend Blue Sox and, 116

Simply by skimming this index information, the reader might infer that Rose Gacioch played for the All Star Ranger Girls, the Rockford Peaches and (perhaps) the South Bend Blue Sox. She did in fact play for all three teams. If somebody researching Rose Gacioch used only the table of contents, they would read pages 114-120 — and would miss the fact that significant information on Gacioch appears in two other chapters, neither of them in “The League Years” and neither of them titled “Rose Gacioch.” Not consulting an index can lead researchers to false assumptions and less information than if they had used the index.

When I teach nonfiction writing, I find that some people in the class don’t know what an index is. They think it’s a table of contents. When shown an index, they appear perplexed, as if they’ve never seen one in their lives. I don’t know how or why this happens: perhaps they have never searched a nonfiction book for information of any kind. This ignorance of indexes extends to search engines such as Google Images: type in “book index” and you’ll see photos of both indexes and tables of content, as if they were one and the same.

In Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies, a reader can look at the table of contents and see that I divide the topic into 25 chapters. Dialogue is one of those chapters, and the table of contents shows that Dialogue begins on page 163 and ends on page 172.

But wait. Look at the index. Under “Dialogue” the indexer provided the following information:

    avoiding exposition in, 150-151
    character development and, 163-168
    oblique revelations through, 168-171
    plot advancement through, 171-172
    without conflict, 90-92

This breakdown of the dialogue topics I wrote about gives a reader so much more information than does a chapter title. For one thing, the five subheads tell the reader some of the suggestions I make in regard to writing dialogue. They also indicate that I discuss dialogue outside the chapter entitled “Dialogue.” Specifically, I write about it on pages 150-151 and also on pages 90-92.

An index that works the way it’s supposed to work is somewhat forgettable. That is, the reader uses the index, is pleased with it, and continues with his or her research, giving the index not a second thought . . . until she needs to find something again and can’t remember where it was in the book. But when an index doesn’t work well — when it’s too shallow (not enough subheads), too ludicrously machine-made (words, not concepts) — the reader definitely notices. I have refused to buy books whose indexes look shallow and lack levels of indexing. In this, I’m not alone: many nonfiction readers refuse to buy books that have no indexes or poor indexes.

If you aren’t already a fan of indexes, learn to be one — you’ll soon find that the index is an indispensable tool for nonfiction books.


Sharon Sliter Johnson created the index for two of Barbara Gregorich’s books: Women at Play: The Story of Women in Baseball and Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies.

Summary: Telling the Story

In my previous blog, Scene: Centered on Conflict, I gave examples of how even scenes with minor conflicts help move the plot forward and reveal character. Scenes help a story come alive. But just as night balances day, so summary must balance scene. Scenes occur in “real time” in a novel, and so, even though scenes can be intense and absorbing, they can, if there are too many of them, increase the length of a novel. Because scenes take place in “real time,” they occupy more space on the page and in the book.

Enter summary (also called narrative or narrative summary): a condensed description of what happened. Unlike scene, which shows character and actions, summary describes them. Summary is telling rather than showing. Some books on writing define summary as “everything that isn’t dialogue.” Not a bad way to remember it. Scenes almost always contain dialogue, along with the “he said” or “she said” attributions. Just about everything else is summary.

Writers are always making decisions, conscious or subconscious, about what to present to the reader in scene and what to present in summary. The decision about what should be presented as scene and what as summary is up to each individual novelist, and so much of the decision depends on the story the writer wants to tell, and how she wants to tell it. All major conflicts in a novel, however, must be presented in scenes — that’s where the drama is, that’s what readers want, that’s what reveals character.

In my previous post I reprinted a small scene from Sound Proof. I’ll do the same in this post on Summary, but with a different excerpt. The paragraphs below are part of Chapter 11. The italicized parts are summary; the boldfaced parts are scene.SOUNDPROOF-Cover

    After lunch I went off to drum. Not going would offend Kofi, I rationalized. Not going would single me out as strange in a gathering where everybody played music. Admit the truth: I was here because I couldn’t resist the drums.
     I caressed the goatskin drum head, savoring its gritty texture. All of us stroked our drums in one way or another, practicing the patterns. I tried a few of the deep, satisfying booms. Left right left right. The volume filled my chest, the reverberations thrummed through my veins. Fingers flattened, I slapped the skin just past the outer edge, producing a higher pitched sound that wakened my brain.
     Attuned to life, and in this case death, Kofi taught us a pattern played during Ewe funerals. Only part of the pattern, he explained: the whole pattern was very long and complex. The mourning seemed appropriate, the pattern healing. We had been drumming for maybe fifteen minutes when I noticed Bliss. Like a barefoot waif she stood in the doorway of the pole barn, one foot curled over the toes of the other. Kofi signaled Stop on the drum. We all stopped except Lafayette, who did so only when he realized nobody else was playing.
     “Come in.” Kofi motioned to Bliss. “We are playing a song of mourning. You will feel better. Come.”
     Bliss hesitated, then selected a drum and sat near Cody. The drumming resumed.
     Yesterday I’d left the class feeling invigorated. Today it took prime energy to drag my ass out of the pole barn and up toward the main complex. I was tired and bad-tempered. My head hurt, I could barely keep my eyes open. I sniffed under my armpits. I stank. At the pigpen I stopped, leaned over the rail, and rested. I squinted up at the sun. If I tried to nap, I’d probably steam to death in the tent.
    Suzanne was standing outside the kitchen, talking to Aja Freeman. After a couple of minutes, she left Aja and marched my way, practicing her bones, a pair in each hand. One-TWO-three-FOUR, one-TWO-three-FOUR.
     “What’s wrong?” she asked, imitating my posture by leaning on the rail. She held the bones in front of her, clicking them softly.
     “What makes you think something’s wrong?”
     “Easy. You’re hanging with the pig instead of with me.”
     I didn’t reply.
     “What’s with all these cupolas?” she frowned, studying the one on the pig shed.
     “Over-decoration, if you ask me. I’m glad the barn doesn’t have one.” She did something quick with the bones, a series of fast clicks.
     “What’s that you’re doing?”
     “Triplets.” She smiled in satisfaction. “Not bad, huh?”
     “Yeah, I guess Best Bones West of the Mississippi would approve.”
     The triplets stopped a moment, then started up again. “What’s wrong with you?” she asked.
     “Did you know that Raven had been married to Shelby Stubbs?”
     She snapped the bones loud enough to register three counties away. “I don’t like it when you talk to me in that tone, Frank.”
     “What tone?”
     “As if I’m holding out on you, as if I’m a suspect you’re trying to extract information from!” She scowled at me.
     “I need that kind of information to do the job I was hired to do.”
     “Did you know?” I persisted.
     “No!” she snapped, “I didn’t know. I don’t know these people like you think I do. Mary’s the only one I know. What do I care who’s married to who — you know how I feel about marriage anyway.”
     Right. Suzanne didn’t believe in marriage, only in living together.
     Except that she still wasn’t living with me.
     “You need a shower.” She walked away, her body stiff.
     “No, I don’t,” I retorted out of pure orneriness.
     She turned and threw a bone at me. I caught it in my right hand. She threw another, I caught it in my left, barely. I thought she was going to throw the last two bones, but she turned and marched toward the farmhouse.
     I looked at the bones in my hands: gray corners and sky-blue streaks winked back at me.



In Sound Proof this excerpt comes to twenty-two lines of summary and thirty-seven lines of scene. I started this particular chapter with summary but moved into scene quickly. The scene isn’t large, but it is a scene: it takes place in real time, contains conflict, contains dialogue. So there’s variety in the opening of my eleventh chapter: some summary, some scene.

I’m not saying that I regularly write twenty-two lines of summary followed by thirty-even lines of scene. What I do is alternate scene and summary, pacing the book in a way that feels good to me: that is, it feels to me that this is the way my private eye would experience and report the story. And it feels to me that this is the way a reader would enjoy the telling of the story.


For more information on scene and summary as well as other aspects of writing fiction, see Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies. Although aimed at mystery writers, the book offers basic advice and examples on writing fiction in general.