The F Words: Cross-Country Running

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The F Words: Setting

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

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

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

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

Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Long Time Coming: Earl Derr Biggers Book

The things from my life that I turn into books are sometimes predictable, sometimes not. I always wanted to be a baseball player, so it makes sense to me that I turned that desire into a novel, She’s on First. And I worked in the typesetting department of a major newspaper, so it makes sense to me that I turned that into a mystery novel, Dirty Proof.

But back when I first became interested in Earl Derr Biggers, who created Charlie Chan and wrote about him in six novels, I was sixteen years old and never once thought about writing a book about anybody, let alone a long-forgotten author from Warren, Ohio. Perhaps I should have, because on my first encounter with Biggers I realized that I enjoyed his Chan novels immensely. I loved the character of Chan, I loved the humor of Biggers, I loved the mysteries themselves, and I loved the setting. Biggers seemed to excel at setting.

Fast forward to 1998, when I actually began thinking about writing an article (not a book) on Biggers. This was due to the fact that I had written an article on baseball player Alta Weiss (from Ohio) for Timeline: The Magazine of Ohio History, and I was scouting around for another Ohio topic. That’s when and why Biggers came to mind. 

A page from my Timeline article.

When I was committed to the Timeline article on Earl Derr Biggers back in 1998, I had a very difficult time finding any information on him. It was as if his early death (at the age of 49) resulted in the mystery world eventually forgetting about him. Or perhaps, because he wrote during the Golden Age of Mystery, he, along with others, was simply overshadowed by the hard-boiled private eyes that followed.

What I did discover, though, was that his publisher, Bobbs-Merrill, which went out of business in 1954, turned its archives over to the Lilly Library at Indiana University. I called the Lilly Library to see if, within the Bobbs-Merrill archives, there was something on Earl Derr Biggers.

There was. So I made an appointment to research, drove there, and spent three or four days going through everything that was in the file boxes labeled Earl Derr Biggers. I was so impressed with everything that Bobbs-Merrill kept — posters, letters between the author and his editor, telegrams, book cover ideas — that I almost vowed to never throw any written thing away, ever again. Almost. If I didn’t throw things away, I would be overrun by paper.

After doing as much research as I possibly could back in 1998, I wrote the article, and it was published in 1999. I then proposed to Harvard Alumni Magazine that I write an article on Biggers — because he was a Harvard graduate. They accepted my article, which was published in 2000.

Somewhere in the middle of writing the two articles on Biggers, I thought that some day I would write a book on him. Probably. I entertained the thought, but I wasn’t committed to the action.

In fact, any thoughts I had of maybe writing a book on Biggers were kind of quelled by the popularity of the Timeline article. After the piece was published and after the internet grew, my article was and still is reproduced everywhere. Or is quoted as a source. Or is quoted from. And so, for many years, I thought I would never write a book about Biggers because the magazine article was everywhere.

But then, in 2014 I began this blog, Much to Write About. Part of the “much” was Earl Derr Biggers and his Chan novels. In order to blog about them, I re-read them and began to blog about each.  The more such blogs I wrote, the more my interest in Biggers was renewed. I now grasped more about the six Chan novels than I had twenty years ago, and way far more than I had forty years ago, and appreciated them more, too. So I began to think about a book again. I felt a bit like Charlie Chan himself, who in the first novel, The House Without a Key, states: “We sway about, seeking  still another path.”

Once I decided that I would, in fact, write an entire book about Earl Derr Biggers, I went through all the notes I had taken back in 1998 while at the Lilly Library. I then took my 4,700-word Timeline article and began expanding it. I did this three times, adding more information, changing the structure somewhat, adding subheads, moving things around . . . until I ended up with a 19,000 word piece titled “The Life of Earl Derr Biggers.” This constitutes the first section of my book. 

The second section of my book consists of all the analysis and observation I did in the blog articles I wrote. These add another 17,000 words to the book.

One of the most difficult parts of the book was the Acknowledgements and the Sources. They were both hard because I wasn’t keeping notes on everybody who helped me all those years ago. And some of my source material (clippings) was impossible to find publishing information on. But what there is, is very valuable to anybody else who might want to study Earl Derr Biggers. And I hope there are such people.

Biggers’ story is an interesting one. He was a good writer who aimed at pleasing “middle-brow” America. Which means that his books were neither high-brow (intellectual) nor low-brow (pulp fiction). I think he would fall into the category of what we call “popular fiction” today: easy to read.  His plotting was excellent, his dialogue clever, and he had a great sense of pace and, as I mentioned earlier, was terrific at setting. His characters were likable and some were quite interesting (Tarneverro the Great comes to mind).

The public loved Biggers’ novels: he was very well known in the US from 1913-onward, and very well known around the world from 1925-onward. My book looks at the problems Biggers faced as a writer. Most of these were problems with his publisher, but some were problems with the public and some with Hollywood. I think that most readers will enjoy learning about writing and publishing by reading the life of Earl Derr Biggers. 

I’m very happy that, after all those years, I finally got around to writing the book.

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You can read all about Biggers and his six Charle Chan novels in Charlie Chan’s Poppa: Earl Derr Biggers.

Women at Play: A Square Book

My first novel, She’s on First, was a baseball novel, published in 1987. After I spent 1987 promoting She’s on First, I decided I would write a true account of women in baseball. I started researching this subject in January of 1988 and figured I would finish by December.

Wrong! It took me four years, from 1988-1992, to uncover the story of women playing hardball. I frequented libraries, asking for local history files. I visited the National Baseball Hall of Fame Library. And I scrolled through the microfilm of more newspapers than I care to remember.

Part of the reason it took me four years to complete the research on women in baseball was that I was searching for Maud Nelson, whom I first heard mentioned in Debra Shattuck’s Master’s Thesis. (I read every master’s thesis that I could find if it contained a mention of women baseball players.) After maybe two years I discovered that Maud Nelson was also Maud Olson. And after that I discovered that she had two brothers whose last name was Brida . . . so her name must have been Brida. And then I discovered she married a man named Costante Dellacqua. And then I discovered that Maud Brida Nelson Olson Dellacqua wasn’t really Maud: her name was Clementina Brida.

I’ve never been particularly fond of long telephone calls. I’d much rather meet somebody in person, or exchange letters. That was back in the 1980s. Today I prefer email or text. But neither email nor text existed when I was researching Women at Play, so I ended up making  many phone calls many times. Whenever I found a lead on somebody who might have played baseball in, say, 1912, I would track her down — or who I supposed she might be — and then I would make a phone call. 

My spiel went something like this: “Hello, I’m Barbara Gregorich, calling from Chicago. I’m writing a book on the history of women who played hardball, and I wonder if  you’re the [NAME] who played baseball in [YEAR] for [TEAM NAME].” Amazingly — they almost always were the person I was looking for. And they were very willing to talk to me, and very generous with their time and information.

After the publishing contract was signed, my editor at Harcourt suggested that the approach I take should not be scholarly, but “popular” — a book that the average person would want to read, written in a non-scholarly style. In fact, he said something that I’ll always remember: “Think proper nouns. Make the title and focus of each chapter a proper noun.” So that’s what I did, and I’m very happy he suggested that approach, and happy that I was able to think, organize, and write with that approach.

Besides the proper-noun chapters and focus, photos and sidebars also contributed to the popularity and success of Women at Play. Each chapter contains at least one sidebar, and most contain three. These extra snippets of information, printed in bold, attract the reader’s attention and win the reader’s interest. 

As for the photos, I think that of the 150 or so I collected 99 went into the book. Unfortunately, the photo permissions cost close to $6,000 back in 1992, and they would cost even more today, which is why I’m not able to include them in the text-only digital version of Women at Play.

 I signed the publishing contract for Women at Play in July, 1992. The manuscript was due 92 days later. This was an incredibly tight deadline for a book covering 100 years of history, containing 80 or so sidebars, plus 99 photos and captions. To say nothing of the Introduction, Acknowledgements, Credits, and so forth. The reason the deadline was so tight was that the movie A League of Their Own was due to be released on video in March, 1993 — and my publisher wanted to take advantage of that by having my book released at the same time. This was a wise marketing decision, and even though it made my life very difficult for 92 days, I’m happy that Women at Play and A League of Their Own came out in popular format at the same time.

The year it was published, Women at Play won the Benjamin Franklin Award (given for best design) in the Sports category. I think it’s a beautiful looking, inviting book. Everything about its design seems to promise that the contents will be lively and interesting. However, I was both amused and astonished when several people told me they couldn’t get themselves to buy the book because it was . . . square. In shape. 8”x8”.  Up until that time, I had no idea that some people disliked square-shaped things. As a result of what I call the “square reaction,” I had nightmares that square-hating customers would walk into bookstores and start bending back the corners of Women at Play . . . so that it would no longer be square.

I thoroughly enjoyed the years spent researching the story of women in baseball, and I equally enjoyed meeting and/or talking to many of the baseball players in the book — Mary Gilroy Hockenbury, Margaret Gisolo, Edith Houghton, Jo Winter, Sophie Kurys, Dottie Collins, Rose Gacioch, Jean Faut, Isabel Alvarez, Lois Youngen, Toni Stone, Julie Croteau, and others. They will always be a part of who I am and what I’ve done.

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

Sharing My Research Notes

From 1988-1992 I spent every day of the year researching the story of women who had played baseball in the 19th and 20th centuries, and as part of that research I ended up with 8,000 or so sheets of paper that I stored in files, which I stored in file-pockets, which I stored in my file cabinets. In 2016 I donated all of this material to the National Baseball Hall of Fame Library: you can read about it here.

But before I donated the research materials, I published some of them (the public-domain ones) as books — Research Notes for Women at Play, Volumes 1, 2, and 3. My reason for doing this was that I wanted to make these materials available to historians, to baseball researchers, and to teachers who needed primary source materials in order to teach the research paper.

My understanding of who might find the books useful was a bit too narrow. Since their publication I’ve heard from professors of journalism, who have used them to illustrate what sports reporting was like 100 years ago. I’ve heard from women’s studies professors who use the books to illustrate the differences between how women’s sports and men’s sports were reported. And (this was a surprise) I’ve even heard from people who study and teach about clothing styles.

I have shared my research notes with many different people, in many different ways, in many different places. But I’ve never shared them on my blog. So I thought, why not? Below are examples of my research notes from each of the three volumes.

All of the newspaper articles in Volume 1 were in the public domain, so I was able to quote them in their entirety.

From Research Notes for Women at Play, Volume 1

Cincinnati Enquirer, October 6, 1905

THE BLOOMER GIRLS 
Easily Defeated the Cincinnati Stars 
Yesterday — Score 12 To 7

Before a large crowd at the Cumminsville Ball Park, the Star Bloomer Girls defeated the Cincinnati Stars by the score of 12 to 7. The girls played as if their lives depended on winning the game and though they were up against one of the strongest amateur teams in the city they never showed the white feather, but kept working hard for victory.

On the other hand the gentleman ball team playing under the name of Cincinnati Stars, after making four runs in the first inning, got careless and the fair ones had the boys at their mercy. It was simply a case of follow-me, boys, as the Bloomer Girls forged ahead with four runs and added three more to their score before they left the field. Maud Neilson [sic] pitched the first four innings and the boys made four runs off her slants and shoots. She stated she was not feeling well before the game, having been on the road for the past two weeks and for that reason was not in the best of condition. But at that, if it had not been for two unfortunate errors by the right fielder, the boys would have made but one run off her delivery. McKenzie finished the game and pitched gilt-edged ball. Only three hits were made off his delivery in the next five innings and one of them was a fluke. The work of Miss Day at first was a revelation to the large crowd in attendance. No matter where the ball was thrown she would get it. Some of her pick-ups of low-thrown balls were remarkable. She also led her side in batting. Miss Grace, in right field, made a hit with the bleachers with her fast work on bases and was picked out by the bleacherites as “The Peach” of the bunch.

At second Miss Dolly got everything that came her way and figured in two double plays. The other girls did their share in helping to down the Cincinnati Stars. . . .

Only some of the newspaper articles in Volume 2 were in the public domain. Many of them were published after 1924, which meant that I could reprint only a small portion of each verbatim: I had to paraphrase most articles. This made my job more time-consuming.

From Research Notes for Women at Play, Volume 2

Port Arthur News, Port Arthur, Texas, March 12, 1933

Didrikson Says She
Can’t Accept Challenge

This is a three-paragraph article datelined Dallas, Texas, March 11. It reports that Babe Didrikson was advised that Jackie Mitchell challenged her “to face her on the mound in a baseball game this summer.” 

According to the newspaper report, Babe replied that if she accepted every challenge, “I’d be busy every hour of the day and night filling engagements that really don’t mean anything.”

Although she refused the challenge, Babe did say that “if I ever happen . . . to be anywhere at the same time Jackie is there, I’ll let her see whether she can outpitch me and bet her that she can’t.”

Muscatine Journal and News Tribune, Muscatine, Iowa, November 15, 1933

Jackie Mitchell
Signed by Doan; 
to Report Here

__________

Famous Girl Hurler and Star
Cager and Cliff Walsh
Newest Additions to Club

Seven paragraphs in all, this article reports that sports promoter Ray L. Doan signed Jackie Mitchell “to join his Babe Didrikson’s All-Americans basketball quintet.”

The second paragraph reads: “Jackie was with Doan’s House of David baseball club last year and performed efficiently as a starting pitcher. She says she was chosen as an all-American forward in a girls’ independent basketball tournament at Dallas, Tex., three years ago. In that tournament she played against Miss Didrikson.”

The article concludes by stating that the entire squad signed by Doan will report to Muscatine for a ten-day training session.

As in Volume 2, so in Volume 3 most of the articles were not in the public domain, requiring me to quote judiciously and to paraphrase.

From Research Notes for Women at Play, Volume 3

Unknown Source, Unknown Town, Unknown Date, 1934

Gair Trimmed by Girlies,
But It Was All Jolly Fun

A reporter named Cal Royal wrote this long, two-column article.

In the first paragraph he informs readers that the Gairmen were runner-ups in the City League, but were defeated by the Chicago Ranger Girls, 2-1.

Royal describes the second inning at length, because it netted the Ranger Girls their two runs. Margaret Gisolo was thrown out and Elizabeth Pull walked, advancing to second on an error. Joe Fiarito walked. Cecelia Griedl struck out without swinging at a pitch. Nellie Kearns swatted the ball to second, where the Gair player, Gibbs, misplayed it. That left Kearns on first, Fiarito on second, Pull on third. Then catcher Frank Ranallo smashed a ball to right field (the only hit off Gair pitcher Locke), scoring two runs. Rose Gacioch flied out to Locke.

After the second inning, “only three hitters faced Locke an inning.”

The Gairmen scored their only run in the first inning. They might have scored two, but Rose Gacioch “relayed a throw to the shortstop who snapped it to the plate in time to get Eccleston for the third out.”

In the following innings the Gairmen collected five hits, including two doubles, but none advanced beyond second “as the Girls turned in as good a fielding exhibition as any men’s team could show.”

The next morning Manager Southard of the Gairmen announced that the Ranger Girls would return in two weeks, but that the exact date had not been decided.

According to the article Elizabeth Pull, who had been playing baseball for 23 years, was the manager of the Ranger Girls. The writer stated that the Ranger Girls played every day, seven days a week, and sometimes twice a day. The team, consisting of twelve women and three men, started out on May 10 and was expected to continue through September 20. 

The box score indicates that the Rangers had only one hit (Ranallo’s in the second inning). Pull and Fiarito scored the two runs. The Gair team (called Robert Gair in the box score) collected six hits but scored only one run.

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Research Notes for Women at Play, Volumes 1, 2, and 3 can be purchased in softcover or ebook format. The ebooks can be purchased as a set.

Mountain Passes: Athabasca Pass

Athabasca Pass is located in the Canadian Rockies, on the Continental Divide between Alberta and British Columbia. During the early 1800s it was an important pass on the highly lucrative fur-trade route, with furs trapped west of the Rockies carried eastward and shipped to England.

The first non-Indian to see Athabasca Pass was David Thompson, perhaps the greatest European explorer of the North American continent. David Thompson was Welsh, born in London in 1770. Although his family lived in poverty, he was able to attend the Gray Coat Charity School, where he excelled in mathematics. At the age of 14 he was apprenticed to the fur-trading Northwest Company and sailed to Canada. There he would have been a clerk working on books indoors, except for the fact that he broke his leg so badly that he spent a long time recovering. During that time, he was taught how to use a compass and sextant and locate the exact position of land forms by sighting the stars. 

Thompson became so good at determining location that the rival Hudson Bay Company hired him as a mapmaker. In 1798 he mapped the upper Missouri River and the Mandan villages. When Lewis and Clark explored that area of the continent in 1804, it was David Thompson’s maps that they used.

Because Thompson used a sextant to site the stars and determine the exact location of rivers, lakes, mountains, and even forts, the First Nations people called him Koo Koo Sint — he who looks at stars.

In 1807 Thompson was the first Euro-Canadian to cross Howse Pass in the Canadian Rockies. The native tribes such as the Kootenay and Piegan (Blackfeet)  had been using this pass for centuries, and shared its location with Thompson. Using Howse Pass, Thompson and other fur traders crossed the Canadian Rockies yearly, bringing furs back east. 

But First Nations people (in this case the Piegans) resented being cut out of the fur trade business. They resented white people taking over their land. They especially resented that Thompson’s men traded weapons to the Kootenays and Nez Perce, who were enemies of the Piegans.  When David Thompson and his group of trappers tried to cross Howse Pass in 1810, he was warned away — the Piegans had blocked the pass. Even though Thompson was highly respected by the indigenous tribes, his life was in danger — he left Howse Pass and headed north, convinced he would find another way through the Rocky Mountains.

Thompson headed north during the month of November — winter was fast approaching. In fact, it had arrived in the Canadian Rockies. In preparation for heading north, Thompson and his group of thirteen hunters/trappers spent nearly three weeks building dogsleds and snowshoes.  With the help of an Iroquois guide named Tomas, they did find a pass further north. Thompson called it Athabasca Pass, after nearby Lake Athabasca. The pass was 30 miles long.

Thompson’s men grumbled all the way — the going was very, very difficult. In crossing, the men sank into snow up to their kneecaps. When they tested the snow with a 20-foot pole, the pole did not touch bottom. The temperature was minus 30 degrees, the winds howled, and there were no game animals to eat, so the traders were forced to eat dogs and horses, much like the Lewis and Clark expedition would do in Lolo Pass. 

Mountain Range: Canadian Rockies
Elevation: 5,751 feet
Location: On the Continental Divide between Alberta and British Columbia, in Jasper National Park, Canada.

One man who made the crossing of Athabasca Pass wrote: “We were obliged to stop every moment to take breath, so stiff was the ascent. . . . On either side were immense glaciers or icebound rocks.” But where others saw difficulty, David Thompson saw beauty. He wrote that the pass was “a most exhilarating sight, but . . . a heavy gale of wind, much more a mountain storm, would have buried us beneath it. . . . . My men were not at their ease, yet when night came they admired the brilliancy of the stars, and as one of them said, he thought he could almost touch them with his hand.”

Despite the difficulty of the climb and the steeper descent heading west and the glaciers and the ice and snow, Athabasca Pass was a safer trading route than Howse Pass. For nearly forty years this far-north pass was the most-used pass in the Canadian Rockies. the main route used by traders of all kinds. But then, with the coming of the Canadian Railroad, the pass was abandoned by traders and travelers.

During the 28 years that he worked out west, David Thompson traveled 55,000 miles and covered eight million square miles of land. He explored the entire length of the Columbia River, which runs from the Continental Divide into the Pacific Ocean. He found the headwaters of the Mississippi River and mapped the lands and waters around them.

After the War of 1812 between Britain and the United States, David Thompson was asked to map the new borders — both sides accepted his findings without question. And much later, when he was 58 years old, Thompson was asked to determine the boundary between Canada and the United States from Lake Superior westward. Again, his decision was accepted without question, so great a cartographer was he, and so trusted. Many have called David Thompson “the greatest land geographer ever.”

In 1971 Athabasca Pass was declared a National Landmark by Canada. It lies in the southwest corner of Jasper National Park and is enjoyed by hikers. Blazes left on trees by Thompson and his men two-hundred years ago are still visible.

Athabasca Pass

Centuries of slumber
broken by a brief flurry
of fur trade glory,
and then a rolling over
and back to sleep.

___________________

Barbara Gregorich’s previous post on mountain passes was Lolo Pass.

The Power of Story: Phil Passen’s Musical Programs

As you may recall from a previous blog, The Endless Highway, I am a roadie for my husband, Phil Passen, who is a hammered dulcimer player. As roadie, I get to sit in on his performances. This has led me to not only observe that Phil’s performances are loved by the audiences he plays for (public libraries, historical societies, high schools), but also to analyze why they are so popular.

Here are a few of Phil’s musical programs:

Music of the Civil War
Music to Commemorate the Sinking of the Titanic
Carl Sandburg’s Songbag
The Music of Thomas Hardy
Music to Commemorate the Illinois Bicentennial

There are two basic reasons for the success of these programs. The first is Phil’s playing. I won’t spend much time on this (you can hear some of his tunes, such as “Shady Grove,” on his web site), mainly because one of the reasons for a musician’s success should be his playing. Phil’s ability to play music that people enjoy is evident on his first CD, Swinging on a Gate, which has sold steadily for almost twenty years.

The other reason I won’t dwell on this is that I myself am not a musician and while I find Phil’s music very enjoyable, I simply don’t have the knowledge to analyze its component parts.

The second basic reason for Phil’s success is his ability to create and present story. As a writer, story is something I feel I do have the knowledge to analyze and talk about. On its most basic level, story is an account of people and events, meant to entertain. 

IMG_5406

One of the ways in which stories entertain is in the way they’re constructed, so that listeners can see the cause-and-effect of events and behaviors. So that listeners can see the underlying conflicts between the story’s characters. So they can sense a foreshadowing of what is going to happen. So they can feel empathy with the people who experienced these events, perhaps caused them, perhaps fought against them.

A good story touches the human heart — it helps create empathy for others and helps us see how very much we have in common with those others.

Phil weaves story into all of his programs, but particularly into the historical ones. He researches the events he sings about and constructs that information into story form. True story, not fictional story. He puts his songs and tunes in the order that they will best tell the story. Between songs, he presents information. Audiences leave Phil’s programs saying they loved the music and the stories equally well. 

Phil does this for all of his historical presentations, but I’m going to use only one of them as an example. 

When audiences settle in to hear When That Great Ship Went Down: Music to Commemorate the Sinking of the Titanic, they first hear a spirited old-time tune, “A Man Named William Morgan,” which contains the refrain, My name is Morgan, but it ain’t J.P. I see them tapping their feet, smiling . . . and looking perplexed. Surely some of them are thinking they wandered into the wrong program.

After he finishes that number, Phil tells them about the vast financial empire ruled by J.P Morgan — an empire that included steel mills, railroad lines, banks, and shipping lines. Including the White Star Line, which owned the Titanic.

From J.P Morgan (who did not perish on the Titanic because he let his luxury suite go empty while he stayed in France with a mistress), Phil goes to the first and second class passengers, who would have listened and danced to the Irving Berlin tune, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.” When Phil plays this, I can see not only that the audience enjoys it, but that listeners are getting into the feel of the 1910s era.

From the first and second class passengers Phil goes to  “Shores of Amerikay,” a traditional Irish tune that was sung at the time and that represented the dreams of thousands of Irish who were emigrating to the US in hope of a better life. These third-class passengers were blocked from mingling with either second or (perish the thought!) first class passengers by steel gates and doors, which prevented their access to the upper decks. 

Titanic Flyer

The majority of Titanic deaths were working class people — the crew and third-class passengers. Only 706 lives were saved when the Titanic sank: 1,517 were lost. Of those 1,517, crew members totaled 685 dead and third-class passengers 556 dead.

After establishing the foundations of the story, Phil goes on to play more music performed on the ship, including “An Der Schonen Blauen Donau,” by Johann Strauss. He also sings songs about the ship, including Huddie Ledbetter’s 1912 composition “The Titanic,” which mentions the story that World Champion boxer Jack Johnson was not permitted passage on the ship because he was black. 

By the time the program is finished the audience is immersed in the story of these ill-fated people whose loss of life was totally preventable had not human vanity (the belief that the Titanic was unsinkable) interfered. The story of the Titanic is one of history’s great ironies, and the audience appreciates that. The unsinkable ship sank because of the hubris of those in charge, and lives were lost because the White Star line considered it more important to give first-class passengers a view that did not include lifeboats than it was to provide lifeboats for all aboard.

The program truly lives up to its title: it commemorates the fateful incident and the people who died and those who lived. Both the music and the story grip the hearts of those who hear them.

As one who works hard at creating story, it is a real pleasure for me to sit back and enjoy a story created by someone else’s research and construction. 

________________

For more information on Phil Passen’s programs, contact him here. For help on how to construct a mystery story (and other stories as well,) read Barbara Gregorich’s Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies.

Mountain Passes: The Cumberland Gap

When I was in third grade, my mother gave me a book whose stories told about mountain passes in history. As a result I became fascinated by mountain passes. Once I started to drive and travel across the US, I encountered mountain passes in person and became even more interested in their location and  importance.

Years ago I wrote the manuscript of a nonfiction picture book on twelve important mountain passes in US history. For each mountain pass I wrote a poem, boxed statistics, and prose. The manuscript was almost published, but ultimately wasn’t, because to produce it the way the editor envisioned it would have cost too much. I then rewrote the information as a nonfiction Middle Grades book, but there was no interest in the subject among the publishers I queried.

5543-004-252355F0All the information I collected on mountain passes is still in storage. But this is the era of the blog, and my blog is titled “Much to Write About,” and so I’m going to write briefly about mountain passes. Not all at once, but off and on.

The first important mountain pass in US history (the land wasn’t the United States yet) was the Cumberland Gap, which was formed in the Appalachian Mountains by wind erosion over hundreds of thousands of years. For tens of thousands of years the pass was traversed by animals, and for thousands of years by Indian tribes such as the Lenape, Cherokee, Miami, and Shawnee, as they crossed from one side of the mountains to the other to engage in trade and also warfare.

The pass, or rumors of it, was known to English colonists as early as the 1670s. But it wasn’t until 1750 that Thomas Walker (physician and explorer, and the man appointed guardian of young Thomas Jefferson after the death of Peter Jefferson) mapped the location of the Cumberland Gap.

Cumberland Gap
Mountain Range: Appalachian Mountains
Elevation: 1,601 feet above sea level
Grade: about 4%
Location: Near the point where the states of
Kentucky, Virginia, and Tennessee meet.

As soon as the Gap’s location was made known, a few hardy men and women began to walk westward into the land of Indian tribes, taking the barest of possessions with them:  a knife, a gun, and the clothes on their back. Everything else they needed, they found or built on the other side of the mountains, or traded for with the Indian tribes.

Cumberland_GapMost people, though, wanted to take some possessions with them. Bedding, perhaps, and cooking utensils. So in 1775 the Transylvania Land Company hired Daniel Boone to hack a road through the Cumberland Gap. Boone and his crew of thirty men cleared away brush, axed small trees, and hauled away fallen logs, blazing the steep, rough, and narrow Wilderness Road.  The cleared path allowed people to cross on horseback. Twenty years later, the Wilderness Road was widened so that wagons could pass through.

More than 300,000 people poured through the Gap (into Indian lands) and claimed the land as their own. In 1792 Kentucky became the first state west of the Appalachian Mountains.Today the Cumberland Gap and area surrounding it are part of Cumberland Gap National Historic Park, visited by more than one million people each year.

Cumberland Gap

Nature’s wall blocked
their reach,
but not for long.

Carts, cattle, people —
through the breach
and gone.

________________

To cross a mountain pass is to enter another world. To read a book is to enter another world, too. Jack and Larry, one of Barbara Gregorich’s many books, opens into the world of 1910-1920 major league baseball.

Adventures in Self-Publishing, Part 5

After publishing my first volume of poetry, I turned to the exacting task of constructing Volume 2 of Research Notes for Women at Play. Just as with Volume 1, I first created a template and then typed my book into that template. (For all my other books, I wrote the book first and then pasted the manuscript into a blank template.)

There was so much formatting involved with all three volumes of Research Notes that I just felt more comfortable doing everything in the template itself, thus decreasing the chance that I would create some inadvertent error if I were to transfer the manuscript to the template.

GregorichRNNotesIIKindleCoverI published Research Notes for Women at Play, Volume 2, in July of 2013. It was my second self-published book of that year, and my seventh self-published book since early 2010.

Not long after publishing Volume 2, I was hit with a desire to write a book on how to write a mystery novel. I’ve been reading mysteries since I was eleven years old, and mysteries account for perhaps 50% of all the books I read. As an avid reader, I find that over the years I’ve developed annoyances at certain things I encounter in some mystery novels — and if I encounter them, I do not continue to read that author’s books.

I’ve published two mystery novels, and while writing my second one, Sound Proof, I created charts and graphs. These allowed me to track the appearance of minor characters, track their motives, and always be aware of where all the characters were within the setting. I drew a diagram of the farm and buildings where the action took place. I made certain that the minor-character villain was present often enough to register on the reader’s consciousness. I tracked all the elements important to developing plot, character, tension, and resolution.

One day (who knows why) I was struck by a desire to explain some of the things a mystery writer should consider in order to write a mystery that doesn’t cheat, doesn’t sound improbable, and doesn’t annoy the reader. So, pulling out all my saved materials for Sound Proof, I wrote a 25-chapter outline for my to-be nonfiction book and then, week by week, wrote the manuscript. And, because most of the books I’ve written are not mysteries, the guide contains a lot of information on writing in general. (Reviews have pointed this out.)

Let me digress a moment to say that one of the truly wonderful things about self-publishing (and there are many) is that it allows writers to publish books that, because they have a small market, are unlikely to be picked up by a traditional publisher. All three volumes of Research Notes serve as an example. Th existence of high-quality self-publishing also allows writers to self-publish books that are unlikely to sell to a traditional publisher because the author isn’t a big enough name. My how-to serves as an example. I felt that traditional publishers might like my manuscript, but wouldn’t take a chance on publishing it. I love that I was able to publish it myself.

COVER-WITH-TEMPLATE

And now back to the process of self-publishing my how-to. With this how-to, which would become my eight self-published book, I ran into a word-processing roadblock. Fitting all the charts and graphs into my 6”x9” template proved impossible: there was something about Apple’s Pages program that didn’t allow a long chart (three pages long, say) to flow from one page to another. Instead, I had to chop the chart into pieces that would fit on each page. And even then, I couldn’t make it work. So, as before, I asked friend Robin Koontz if I could hire her to format the document. Robin agreed, producing a publication-ready template — but even she thought it was difficult to do.

Of all the titles I’ve come up with for my self-published books, this one is my favorite: Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies. The title promises information, lots of examples, and humor. The book, I think, delivers those things.

Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies, was published in October of 2014. It soon became my best-selling self-published book. To this day, Guide battles with Jack and Larry for the number one position in my monthly sales.

After I published Guide in 2014, I dove into the work of publishing the final volume of Research Notes to Women at Play. I self-published the first volume in 2010, and the third in October of 2015.

BookCoverNotesCoverIII-FINALIf you’ve been reading these posts on my self-publishing adventures, you may remember that I intended to donate my thousands of pages of research notes to the Baseball Hall of Fame . . . but then I got the brilliant idea of self-publishing a portion of the notes.

So, after the third volume was finally published, I began to organize my notes, so that I could deliver them to the BHOF in a neat order. I began in November, 2015, and I finished in July, 2016. The project was a big one. I delivered the notes in August, 2016. And then I spent the rest of the year catching up on what I had neglected while organizing the notes. So I did no self-publishing in 2016.

In fact, I thought it was unlikely that I’d self-publish anything for two or three years. But such was not the case.

________________

Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies vies with Jack and Larry for best-selling of Barbara Gregorich’s self-published books.

Adventures in Self-Publishing, Part 2

When I first considered self-publishing, what I was thinking of were manuscripts which, for one reason or another, would have taken years to find a home with a traditional publisher. So I was thinking of books I had already written. Or perhaps had not written yet, but soon would.

I was not, I assure you, thinking of going into my file cabinets, pulling out thousands of pages of research notes, and publishing them. Yet that’s what happened.

The existence of easy self-publishing through CreateSpace is what made me even think about publishing a collection of research notes. As a result of all my research on the history of women who played baseball, I had thousands of pages of information in my file cabinet. My original intention was to get all these notes in good order and then donate them to the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

sc004dc527Which I would have done back in 2010 had self-publishing not come into my life. Because one day, as I was eyeing the stuffed file drawers, trying to figure out how and when I would put them in order, a thought crossed my mind. Two thoughts, actually: (1) Might baseball researchers, historians, teachers of the research paper, and others be interested in some of these notes? (2) If so, why couldn’t I self-publish the ones that were public domain (1923 or earlier)?

I was so excited by the possibility of this venture that I immediately sat on the floor in front of my file cabinet and began sorting. It soon became clear that, unless I wanted to publish a 500-page book (I did not), I would have to divide the notes into at least two volumes. Digging deeper into the files, I realized that three volumes allowed for a more logical division of the materials. Okay, then: I would self-publish three volumes of research notes!

Shoving future volumes two and three aside, I collected all the papers that would go into volume one and heaped them on my computer table. The stack was about 18 inches high.

The next day, I looked at CreateSpace book sizes again and decided that I wanted a bigger size than 6×9”, so that I could have wide margins in which people could write, and so that the book might more easily lie open. I chose the 8″x10” format and then created a document that size in my word processing — thankful that I had learned how to create such a format for my first self-published book. (See Adventures, Part 1.) CreateSpace at this time (2010) still did not offer format templates. Because I knew not only how to create a specific page size, but also how to change page margins, I ended up with a template that was 8 inches wide, with a 1-inch inside margin and a 1-inch outside margin. Because many of the newspaper articles were quoted in full and thus indented even more, readers usually saw a 1.25-inch margin.

Left Page V1              Right Page V1

From that time on (February, 2010) until early October, I daily typed notes into my 8×10 template. This was tedious work, not because the notes were uninteresting (some of them were quite lively reports from old newspaper articles), but because I had to create many headers and sub-headers and develop a style for the newspaper reproductions. In short, I was making design decisions as I created the book, entry by entry.

By October of 2010 my book was ready. Robin Koontz designed the cover for me, and in early November of 2010 I self-published Research Notes for Women at Play, Volume 1. Although both Robin and I knew there would be more than one volume of Research Notes, and although both of us knew that the CreateSpace POD process did not allow for printing on the spine of books that were fewer than 175 pages in length — neither of us anticipated something that would turn out to be a problem when I started to work on Volume 2. More about that in a later blog.

 

First Cover, V1

Cover design by Robin Koontz

This time around I was able to conquer the alternating headers problem: my left-hand pages contain the title of the book, my right-hand pages contain the names of the main players in Volume 1. But this time around I decided to put this information in the footers, not in the headers. My reasoning here was that information at the top of the page could interfere with the reader’s concentration.  The fact that I didn’t know how to create different left- and right-hand headers/footers with my first book, but was able to do it with my second, made me giddy with happiness!

If you recall, my goal was to format my second self-published book in three weeks or less. As it turned out, the process for my second book took longer than three weeks. In fact, it took eight months — but that’s because I was creating the manuscript as I went along. With She’s on First, the manuscript had been created years ago: my job was simply to format it. With Volume 1, creation, design, and formatting took place at one and the same time. This is a much slower process than pasting an existent manuscript into a template.

Also, this time around I did not use the New Pentium typeface that I had used in She’s on First. Initially I chose Palatino because I think it’s a beautiful, very readable typeface (with no problems when it comes to italics or Arabic numerals). But somewhere along the line I realized that Palatino is also a rather large typeface. I experimented with changing my document from Palatino to Times New Roman.

The result was mildly astonishing: my 8×10” book was reduced from 123 manuscript pages to 112 manuscript pages. At no cost in legibility. The reduction in page size helped me keep the price of the book at $12. (I would have preferred charging $10, but with the cuts taken by both CreateSpace and Amazon, my income per book would have been too low.)

A few days after publication I created a PDF of the document and self-published Volume 1 as a Kindle ebook. (More about PDFs as ebooks in a later blog.)

My Formatting Accomplishments
•  Created an 8″x10” Template
•  Created Wide Page Margins
•  Inserted Distinct Footers for Left- and Right-Hand Pages
•  Chose a Problem-Free Font
•  Designed the Interior with Consistent Headers and Sub-Headers
•  Decreased Total Page Count by Choosing a Different Font

________________

Research Notes for Women at Play: The Story of Women in Baseball, Volume 1 not only reports the stories of 19th century female ballplayers, it sets the stage for the dramatic intersections of these stories in Volume 3.