The F Words: Poetry and the Middle

In my previous blog I mentioned that in writing The F Words based on the advice in Write Your Novel from the Middle, by James Scott Bell, I reaped not only the benefit of writing a book more easily and more quickly, but also the benefit of improving one of my thematic elements precisely because I was writing the novel toward its middle.

That thematic element was Cole’s writing of poetry. Specifically, only poetry about words that began with the letter f. As I mentioned in a previous blog, The F Words: Poetry, I felt good about the two poems Cole wrote in Chapter 1. They reflected Cole’s experience and his deepest concerns.

And so, off to a good start, both Cole and I were quite happy to have him continue writing such poems. Whenever he was struck by an f word (and he was struck by a lot of them) he decided whether or not to write a poem about it.

He wrote one about his best friend, Felipe. And about the Ferris Wheel he and his parents used to ride when he was younger. He wrote about force. Then he learned a new word and wrote about a fusillade. And so forth.

As I approached the middle of the book in my writing, something began to nag at me, and that was that Cole’s poems all had a recipient: Mr. Nachman, his English teacher, who had made the writing of them a condition of his not telling the principal that Cole had spray-painted the high school wall. Having had wonderful English teachers in high school and college, having been an English teacher myself, I realized that Mr. Nachman was not a passive recipient of these poems. He assigned them for a reason, and he would comment on them for a reason.

As soon as that realization hit me, I understood that Mr. Nachman would help Cole understand more about language and structure. And thought and action. I also understood that what Mr. Nachman has to offer Cole should logically follow Cole’s midpoint self-assessment. So, a couple of chapters after Cole’s midpoint decision, Mr. Nachman talks to him about trying some poetic forms (which include syllable-count poetry). He explains to Cole that writing poems that fit a certain form challenges poets in a way that free verse doesn’t. What Cole has been writing up to this point are free verse poems.

Mr. Nachman gives Cole the URLs to a couple of web sites which explain poetic form. At home Cole visits these sites and dismisses many of the forms as waaaaaay too difficult. But the syllable-count cinquain appeals to him. Curious about what form will do to a poem, he rewrites one of his free verse poems, “Force,” as a cinquain. Thus the poem “Force” appears twice in the book. Cole’s gut feeling is that the more “disciplined” form poem is more more interesting. In fact, he likes the way the form poem explodes with power.

Force

Force us
into corners
where we can barely breathe,
force us back so far we explode
on you.

For the remainder of the book Cole writes both free verse poems and form poems. His last poem is a strong form poem . . . indicating both that Cole understands the need for people to fight back against oppression, and that he has internalized that the methods of fighting back must be shaped and organized.

Would these scenes and this theme (through poetry) have occurred to me if I had been writing the novel from beginning to end without thinking about what happens in the middle? The answer is, I don’t know. I like to think that they would have, but I can’t say that for certain. What I do know is that they happened because I was thinking specifically about what should happen in the middle of the novel. That was when I realized that something should happen not only to Cole, but to the poetry he writes. In so many different ways, I am so glad I took the time to read and think about Write Your Novel from the Middle.

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The F Words is available for Pre-Order wherever books are sold: from the publisher, City of Light Publishing; from IndieBound, the site for independent bookstores; from Barnes & Noble; and from Amazon. To get updates and the latest news on The F Words, subscribe to Barbara Gregorich’s Newsletter.

The F Words: Writing from the Middle

My usual method for writing a novel is to come up with a situation first (as in a woman playing major league baseball), then create both the characters and plot within that situation. As I’m thinking of these things (often this takes months and months), I envision the novel’s beginning and its ending — so that, when I sit down to write the book, I know how it starts, and I know how it ends.

Everything in between is unknown. So I usually take it step by step: event A causes event B, which causes event C, and so on, all the way to the end. Everything between the beginning (usually the first and sometimes second chapter) and the ending (usually the last and sometimes also the next-to-last chapter) is considered the novel’s Middle.

Ninety percent or so of the entire book is called its middle. Laughable, isn’t it? No wonder writers have trouble with the middle of their books. That’s little different from saying they have trouble with the whole book!

For who knows what reason, however, I didn’t write The F Words in quite the same way I had written all my other books. Back when I started writing it, I had just read about and purchased a short book titled Write Your Novel from the Middle, by James Scott Bell. I remember that I read a mention of this book somewhere and I was intrigued. Mainly because I couldn’t imagine writing a novel from the middle.

What did this mean, I wondered? You start writing at the middle and write some chapters backwards, to the beginning, and others forward, to the end? That didn’t sound pleasant. And, really, I wanted to know: what was this approach? How did it work?

So I bought the book and read it in one sitting. And what the author means is that a good movie or good novel is structured in such a way that the main character has a “look in the mirror” moment in almost the exact middle of the movie/novel. This is an important moment of self-assessment. All the first half of the novel leads up to that moment, and all the second half of the novel leads away from the decision of that moment. (Really, the book should be titled something like Write Your Novel Toward the Middle.)

Well, I thought: this makes a lot of sense! And so I considered the moment of self-assessment that my main character, Cole Renner, would probably have. It took me maybe a day of thinking to figure it out, but when I did, I had an Aha moment.

Knowing what Cole would think and decide at the midway point of the novel allowed me to aim toward that moment, and then, once I got there, aim toward the results of his decision: the ending. 

In my previous method of writing novels, it’s as if  I were running a Marathon with no visual markers: doable, for sure, but difficult to judge “where” one is in the book. That is, difficult for me to judge what should be happening where. I would  have been better off if I had thought of the Marathon as running from Chicago’s south side northward to the halfway point of the John Hancock Building, and then continuing northward from there. The John Hancock Building would be visible to me every step of the way for the first half of the race. It would be a visual marker of what I was heading toward and how far away (or how close) it was.

Having a middle point of my novel to aim at made the writing process much, much faster. I’m not sure why that was, but I think that’s because it’s a lot easier to think only of the events leading up to the midpoint, without having to worry about the events that come after. In other words, I thought about one half of the book, not the whole book. This didn’t seem as daunting.

For me, choosing the middle point of The F Words worked extremely well. Knowing that middle point helped me plot the story better and also really helped me strengthen the book’s theme, because Cole’s midpoint decision is strongly tied to the conclusion.

Writing toward the middle also, unexpectedly, helped me with the poetry that Cole creates. More about that in my next blog.

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The F Words is available for Pre-Order wherever books are sold: from the publisher, City of Light Publishing; from IndieBound, the site for independent bookstores; from Barnes & Noble; and from Amazon. To get updates and the latest news on The F Words, subscribe to Barbara Gregorich’s Newsletter.

The F Words: Poetry

If you’ve been reading my blogs on how I wrote The F Words, you might remember that I set out to write a YA novel about student rights, immigrant rights, and political protest. Never did it cross my mind that I would also be writing a novel about poetry. Or writing poems themselves.

But somehow, that happened. It happened in the first few pages, with the inciting incident: Cole’s English teacher, Mr. Nachman, catches him tagging the high school wall with the f word and makes him atone for it by: (1) cleaning up the graffiti, and (2) writing two poems a week for the entire school year, each about a word that begins with the letter f.

Honestly, I don’t remember how I came up with this atonement. It just seemed right, something that an English teacher such as Mr. Nachman (who has a sense of irony) would require for a student’s emotional and intellectual growth. The words came out of Mr. Nachman’s mouth . . . and suddenly both Cole and I were stuck with writing two f-word poems a week

Well, just as I went full-speed-ahead with the inciting incident, I decided to do the same with the poetry. The inciting incident occurred on a Thursday night and, as Mr. Nachman reminded Cole, the next day was Friday. Two poems were due.

So Cole goes home and pulls out a dictionary, turns to the f words, and his eye alights on the word far. He opens his tablet and writes:

Far

is not here
it is there
far is the opposite
of near

It’s hard for me to remember exactly what I was thinking as I was writing about Cole writing the poem. I was definitely into the mind of a 15-year-old working -class high school boy. He would want to do as little work as possible on this extra assignment. So: short word, short poem. Short work. Cole’s feeling pretty confident.

He scans the list of words after far and considers writing a poem about fart, but decides Nachman might not accept it. Then his eyes light on fartlek, a training technique for runners. Cole is a cross-country runner: he knows fartlek.

Cole gives the poem a title and starts copying the dictionary definition, breaking up the lines so that what he’s writing looks like a poem. He gets this far:

Fartlek

from fart, Swedish for speed
and lek,
Old Norse for play, play speed,
a training
technique for runners, 
alternating intense 
time 
with less intense 
time, 
all in one continuous workout. 

Cole wants to consider the poem done. But he realizes that Mr. Nachman will realize that he (Cole) merely copied a dictionary definition. And he was given instructions to not do that. So Cole adds another stanza, entirely his own, and the poem ends up like this:

Fartlek

from fart, Swedish for speed
and lek,
Old Norse for play, play speed,
a training
technique for runners, 
alternating intense 
time 
with less intense 
time, 
all in one continuous workout. 

But whoever called it play speed
never
had to 
do it.

For a moment Cole is deeply bothered by the words intense time in the poem, so much so that he thinks of not turning the poem in. But that would mean writing a third poem, which he doesn’t want to do. So he prints out the two poems, puts them aside for the next day, and goes to sleep.

What was evident to me as I was writing this first chapter was all the anger and fear Cole feels because his father is doing time in Cook County Jail. The “Far” poem is a sign of how much he misses his father, who is no longer near. The “Fartlek” poem reflects a large part of Cole’s life and interest: his cross-country running. But the stanza he adds to the poem reflects his understanding that training is not easy. In fact, it’s very difficult, and doing it requires commitment. 

I felt good when Cole wrote these two poems in the first chapter. I felt that what was on his mind was coming out in poetry. I felt that he was well on the way toward self-reflection and change. All a result of the inciting incident. 

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The F Words is available for Pre-Order wherever books are sold: from the publisher, City of Light Publishing; from IndieBound, the site for independent bookstores; from Barnes & Noble; and from Amazon. To get updates and the latest news on The F Words, subscribe to Barbara Gregorich’s Newsletter.

The F Words: Inciting Incident

In fiction the main character experiences an “inciting incident.” The inciting incident is an event — not just any event, but one that propels the main character into the actions that will constitute the story. To state it another way, the inciting incident  (which need not be the first event in the book) triggers the primary actions of the story. 

In The F Words the inciting incident, which thrusts Cole into the actions of the story, is his spray-painting the f word on the brick wall of his high school (not just once, but fifteen times) — and getting caught by Mr. Nachman, his tenth-grade English teacher.

The inciting incident should occur early in the story: within the first three minutes of a movie, and within the first twenty pages of a novel. The inciting incident of The F Words starts on page one. (My attitude is, if you’re going to incite, don’t delay!)

In some novels there is backstory before you get to the inciting incident. But it’s the incident, not the backstory, that propels the main character forward into the conflict/journey/struggle. 

When I first started to write fiction I didn’t put my inciting incident on page one. In She’s on First, I think the inciting incident is in Chapter 2 — when Al Mowerinski signs Linda to play for the Chicago Eagles. Chapter 2 is a long way into the story for an inciting incident. I might have sensed that, because I began the novel with a strong hint of what the inciting incident would be. I then continued with backstory, and in Chapter 2 fulfilled the expectations of the inciting incident.

But by the time I was writing my second novel, Dirty Proof, I had somehow or other decided that the inciting incident should go on the first page of that particular story.

And speaking of page, it’s important for a writer to understand that the best inciting incidents are events/actions that take place on the page (not in summary or narrative or flashback). Not only should the main character experience the inciting incident, but so should the reader. The reader should be able to feel everything the main character feels about that incident, be it fear, surprise, anger, befuddlement.

A writer must make certain that the inciting incident makes the main character act in a way he or she would not have normally acted. Consider the incident of Cole being caught by his English teacher. When he catches Cole in the act of tagging the high school wall with the f word, Mr. Nachman tells Cole he will not report him to the principal if Cole fulfills two conditions. First, he must volunteer to clean the words off the wall. Second, he must, for every week of the school year, write two poems, each about a word that begins with f, and he must hand these in to Mr. Nachman every Friday morning. 

You can see that, had Cole not been caught, he would not have volunteered to clean the spray-painted words off the school wall. Nor would he have volunteered to write two poems a week for his English teacher. The inciting incident pushes Cole into a different set of actions than he would have taken without that incident. Because the inciting incident causes the main character to take actions he wouldn’t have taken otherwise, it causes the character to change — and change is important in fiction. The character on the last page of the story is different from that character as he appears on the first page of the story. He (or she) has undergone a journey and has changed.

At the end of a novel, the reader should be able to see the arc of the journey the main character has undergone. And, it is always rewarding to a reader when she can see the first step of that journey and the inevitable link between the first step and the conclusion.

The importance of the inciting incident can’t be overestimated. Yes, it grabs reader attention and kicks off the story. But more than that, it draws a line between the character’s previous life and this moment: Now. In fiction the inciting incident and its results change the character’s life forever.

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The F Words is available for pre-order wherever books are sold, including from the publisher, City of Light. To get updates and the latest news on The F Words, subscribe to Barbara Gregorich’s Newsletter.

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: Point of View

Character, setting, plot, and point of view are considered the four pillars of fiction. A writer needs to create interesting characters, a setting that interacts with the story, a plot based on cause-and-effect, and a point of view that tells the story the way the author wants to reveal it, or the way the author wants the reader to experience the story.

A writer need not determine these four pillars in any particular order. It’s possible that some writers determine the pillars in the exact same order for each story. It’s possible that some writers don’t consciously think about any of the pillars. And it’s possible that some writers determine the pillars in a different, random order for each story they write.

I’m in the latter category. I am pretty sure that for She’s on First, I determined the plot and the characters together. Two pillars, but I worked on them at  one and the same time. For Dirty Proof, I know that I worked on the setting first: I was determined to write a mystery that took place in a newspaper plant, and once the setting was settled, so to speak, I was then able to work on characters and plot. The same was true of the sequel, Sound Proof — I determined the setting (a folk music festival) first, and from there I worked on the plot. 

In no case in any of my writing did I determine the point of view first. In theory it is possible to decide on POV first, I suppose, as in: “Oh, I think I’ll tell a story from Third Person Limited POV.  Now that I’ve decided, what shall my story be?” Possible, yes . . .  but . . . bizarre?

It makes no sense to decide the POV for your story until and unless you have a fairly good idea of who the characters are and what their problems are. I suspect that most writers come up with their POV during the same time that they’re thinking about their characters and plot, because POV goes hand-in-hand with characters and plot.

But, at the same time, POV is distinct from both characters and plot. POV is the angle or viewpoint from which the story is told. From whose eyes the story is seen and reported. And while there is something called the Second Person POV, it’s unusual. The two main POVs are first person and third person. 

Each POV has its own advantages and disadvantages. Many readers love first-person because it feels so close: right inside the character’s head. Others love third-person because it’s so broad (and  presumably objective), allowing them to look inside the head of several or many characters.  First-person tends to capture reader interest instantly. Third-person often takes a while. First-person narration has to be looked at with some suspicion: how can a reader be sure that the character telling  the story is telling it truthfully? Third-person sometimes feels cold and distant, and maybe even long-winded. But it does offer that bigger picture.

When it comes to POV,  I feel that I don’t actually choose it. I feel it chooses me. Somehow or other, it arrives at  the same time the characters and plot do. I have written maybe 200 books (from 12 pages to 500 pages in length), and only once have I changed the POV — from third person to first person. That was in a 36-page picture book. It’s possible that I’m wrong, but I do believe that for each book I’ve written, I’ve made a good choice on POV.

She’s on First is written in third-person POV. I never thought about it at the time, but looking back on it now, I think that POV came to me because of it telling a broader story. A wider perspective. And we are used to baseball reports of one kind or another, most of them written articles that try to employ an objective voice. So that POV seemed right to me and I went with it.

Both Dirty Proof and Sound Proof are told from the first person POV, from the eyes of the private eye main character, Frank Dragovic. That seemed something of a no-brainer because so many private-eye novels are told from the first-person POV. Adventure-thriller novels seem to employ the third-person POV. I have in my files an unpublished adventure-thriller novel, and that’s told from the third person POV.

As I started to work out the characters and plot of The F Words, the POV that came to me was first-person. This is often the POV of a YA novel, and it fits with how teens experience the world — the world and everything that’s happening seems to affect them directly. They really see things from the “I” point of view. I certainly did when I was a teen.

But with The F Words, I made another choice in addition to first-person POV. I chose to tell the story in present tense — something I had never, ever done before. Here, too, it’s not accurate to say that I “chose” to do so, because when I sat down to write the first chapter, I made no conscious decision: the words just came out in present tense. It’s as if Cole Renner were telling the story and this is how he was telling it and if by some chance I wanted a different verb tense . . . too bad! 

At first I wasn’t sure I liked how Cole was relating the story. But by the middle of the second chapter I was feeling comfortable with it. And by the third chapter I was certain I could not go back and change the story to past tense: it wouldn’t feel as urgent or immediate. Or as Cole-like.

I find first-person present-tense POV somewhat compelling. So much so that when I wrote an adult novel after I finished The F Words, I used present-tense for that, too. But now I’m working on a Middle Grades story, and that comes with a third-person POV. Which feels very right for this particular story. 

If POV is difficult for you to choose, one of the best things you can do is write your first chapter from both a first-person POV and a third-person POV. Read each chapter and ask yourself which sounds like the way you want the reader to receive the story. That’s the POV you should choose.

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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: Naming Treva

My first thought in naming the third character in The F Words was this: should her name end in a? That may strike you as a weird thought, but it’s one that always crosses my mind when naming a female character.

Fully one-third of all girls’ names in English end with the letter a. Of the current top ten girls’ names (Emma, Olivia, Ava, Isabella, Sophia, Charlotte, Mia, Amelia, Harper, Evelyn), seven end with a. This propensity of names to end in a is true in most Indo-European languages, partly because a was the ending of female Roman names, partly because adding a became the way a  male name was changed into a female name, as in Oliver/Olivia or Henry/Henrietta, Lauren or Lawrence/Laura.

Names from the Romance languages and Slavic languages are particularly high in female names ending in a. And, maybe because my own name ends in a, I gravitate toward such names. In She’s on First the hero is named Linda. (Though in Dirty Proof the protagonist is named Suzanne — so I’m not wedded to the a ending.)

Once I knew the character’s name would end in a, I proceeded to think about what it would be. Because Cole and Felipe’s names start with letters in the first-half of the alphabet, I wanted a name that started with a letter from the second-half of the alphabet. (Believe me, these considerations and decisions do help readers differentiate characters and recognize them as soon as they appear in another scene.)

Okay, then —  the third character would have a name that started with a letter from N-Z, and end in A. I had a gut feeling that the name should start with a blend, probably because neither Cole nor Felipe’s name starts with a blend. 

This feeling that the name should have a blend led me to consider the initial letters P (Pl, Pr), S (Sl, Sm, Sp, St), and T (Tr). I immediately seized on Tr and came up with the name Treva. As you can infer, it’s Trevor/Treva. The name satisfied me, and it’s a two-syllable name (though I wasn’t consciously trying for that), so there’s a nice balance in the syllable-count of Cole, Treva, Felipe.

I think it could become very boring if I discussed how and why I named each of the minor and not-so-minor characters in The F Words, so I won’t do that. But I do want to say something about naming one other character, and that is Cole’s ex-girlfriend, whom I first named Sydnye. I don’t remember why. But I do remember that everybody in my writing group objected to the name and to the spelling of the name. Every time they read a section of the book that contained Sydnye, they felt they were reading a typo. And they couldn’t remember who she was. (Maybe because of my exaggerated spelling of the name.)

Okay. I had to get rid of not only the weird spelling, but the name itself. But I couldn’t figure out what to replace it with. For weeks and weeks I went through baby-naming books and websites, skimming the names, hoping that a name would grab me as just-right for the character.

Nada.

And then one day I was reading about a current-day girls’ baseball team on which one of the players was named Paloma. Hmmm. Paloma. That was different. Contemporary. So in the second and third drafts of the The F Words, I named the character Paloma.

This time it was me, not my writing group, who couldn’t remember the name. As I was writing the drafts and came to a scene with Cole and . . . Cole and . . . what’s her name again? I kept having to look it up!

Obviously, no matter how lovely a name Paloma is, it wasn’t working for my character.

Back to the drawing board. Which meant back to the baby-naming books. This time I settled down into an easy chair with a pen and paper in hand and a cup of coffee by my side. I s-l-o-w-l-y went through the names again.

And when I got to the J’s — I found it! Jillian. Don’t know how or why I missed it the first time around. But it sounded right and felt right. And, as it turns out, the name works very well in one of the campaign-for-class-president scenes in which Jillian and Felipe are both running for the same office.

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The F Words is now available for Pre-Order on Amazon.

The F Words: Naming Cole and Felipe

Once a story idea comes to me, I spend months (sometimes years) getting to know my characters. Their sex and age come to me immediately, when I conceive of the story — but their names don’t. The names take a lot of thinking about. In the case of The F Words, the first name of the main character came to me after several days: Cole.

Cole is a modern-sounding first name. In the Middle Ages it was a shortened form of Nicholas, which it can still be today; but it’s also a shortened form of more modern-sounding first names such as Colton and Coleman. And, it has become a name in itself. So that part of it felt right.

When I looked up Nicholas, I was reminded that it comes from the Greek and means “victory of the people.” (Nike is the winged goddess of victory.) That felt super-right for my character, who, due to cause-and-effect, comes to fight for “the people.”

Even though it often plays no role whatsoever in a novel, I do like to give my characters an ethnic background. In Cole’s case, I decided that his forebears came from both Denmark and the Netherlands. Cole is tall, and people from northern Europe are genetically taller than people from southern Europe. Cole is also a cross-country runner. I don’t remember if I thought of that before I realized he was tall, or after I realized it. 

So then I slowly went through New Dictionary of American Family names, looking for a last name for Cole. Eventually I came across the name Renner, which sounded right. It’s of Dutch origin. And — here’s the interesting part — it means “One who carried messages on foot or horseback, a runner.” In the process of writing The F Words (a process that took eighteen months, counting rewrites) I completely forgot that Cole’s last name originally meant “one who carried messages.” But carrying messages ends up being an important part of the plot! Amazing how these things seep into a writer’s consciousness and come out when they’re needed.

Before I started to write my novel, I knew that Cole would have a best friend, and that friend would be Mexican-American. And — I felt the friend’s name had to start with F. That just seemed right for a book titled The F Words.

The first name that came to mind was Felipe . . . but I was also aware of Fernando and Francisco. Using online research, I found a list of the most popular Mexican boys’ names. Francisco was sixth in popularity. Fernando was fifteenth. Lower down in popularity (but still in the top 120) were Felipe, Fabiano, and Facundo. 

Out of these five, my first choice just felt right — and so Cole’s best friend since first grade is named Felipe.

Full Disclosure: My husband’s name is Phil, and I suspect that might have had something to do with my name choice. Phil is a kind, caring, gregarious person — and so is Felipe.

I like the fact that Cole is a one-syllable name and Felipe is a three-syllable name. This difference in syllable count adds a nice texture to the writing: a different texture than if both characters had one-syllable first names.

In a novel it often pays to have three main characters rather than two. With two characters, A and B, the writer can examine the relationship A-to-B and B-to-A.

But with three characters, a different dynamic enters the picture. A-to-B; B-to-A; A-to-C; C-to-A; B-to-C; C-to-B. By adding just one more character, the writer gets three times as many relationship and conflict situations to explore. In literature, “three” seems to be a magic number. Three attempts. Three wishes. Three little pigs. You get the point.

So I knew I’d have a third main character. I just didn’t know what her name would be.

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The F Words: Political Protests

I’ve been a professional writer for a long time. My first novel, She’s on First, was called “the best book that’s written on the idea of the first woman to play professional baseball,” and was reviewed by Sara Paretsky on the front page of the Chicago Tribune features section. My nonfiction title, Women at Play: The Story of Women in Baseball, was featured in the Sunday New York Times and won the SABR-Macmillan Award for Best Baseball Research of the Year.

In children’s literature I’ve published more than 150 educational activity books. As a freelance editor/writer at School Zone Publishing I wrote eighteen Start to Read books and developed and wrote their Read and Think series. I’ve written many BrainQuest cards for Workman Publishing and my BrainQuest Workbook Grade 4 is very popular. My early reader, Waltur Buys a Pig in a Poke and Other Stories (Houghton, 2005) received excellent reviews in Kirkus, Booklist, Publishers Weekly, and School Library Journal and was named Book of the Week by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center.

And yet — I had never written a YA novel. 

I had started one, way back in 2001. But I never got beyond the first chapter. I thought that maybe it would be about freedom of speech in a high school context. 

As with many projects, I put this one aside on the assumption that if it was meant to be, it would happen.

At long last (well, 2018 to be exact) it did happen. I did write a YA novel. That novel, The F Words, will be published by City of Light Publishing on September 1, 2021. In other words: this year.

What caused my single chapter, sitting there in a lonely file on my computer, to come to life? It had to do with a protest demonstration. One day (I think it was in 2016), I was one of  perhaps 20,000 participants in an immigrant-rights march in Chicago. All around me I observed teens: thousands of them. 

I was very happy to see them. Their presence reminded me of politically active teens from the Sixties, when we protested for civil rights, for women’s liberation, and against the war in Vietnam. And this made me wonder: What are the circumstances that make a teen of today politically active? That help make him or her protest injustice? (This was before the 2020 police murder of George Floyd and the outpouring of mass protest, so much of it fueled by teens and even preteens.)

My question was the germ of the idea that led me to revisit the first chapter of The F Words and write the rest of the story — another forty-nine chapters.

The first draft was rough, carrying forward ideas of free speech and the school newspaper and public demonstrations. In the second draft I dropped the school newspaper part of the story and stuck with the heart of the first chapter — my character, 15-year-old Cole Renner, spray-painting the F word on the school walls.  

If I hadn’t been on that demonstration with all those teens, and hadn’t asked myself the question of what makes them political in these times, I may never have written The F Words. Just one more reason I’m glad to participate in protest demonstrations.

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The F Words will be published by City of Light Publishing on September 1, 2021.