My Writing Life: 2

After that initial short story I wrote in high school, my next foray into fiction came about fifteen years later, when I decided to start writing novels. I had plenty of plots in mind and just needed to decide which one to start with. At the time I was working as a typesetter for the Chicago Tribune, and each work day I reported to the dark nether regions of the old Tribune Tower on Michigan Avenue. Working the night shift gave me an idea for a mystery novel. At the same time, I was interested in writing a novel about a woman playing shortstop in the major leagues.

I remember that Phil and I would talk about these two books on our evening walks. Which one should I write first? We both felt that a woman entering Major League Baseball was not that far away. After all, Pam Postema was an umpire in AAA ball, and rumor was she would soon make her way into the majors. Could a female baseball player be that far behind?

So we agreed that I would write the book that became She’s on First (which was finally published in 1987). Because, after all, we didn’t want real life (i.e., a woman entering the major leagues) to occur before my book was published.

As if. 

Here it is, 35 years after the publication of She’s on First, and women are still barred from the minor leagues — which are the gateway to the major leagues. You have no doubt heard the saying that “truth is stranger than fiction.” Well, here’s a case where truth is more backward than fiction.

From the time I wrote the first draft of She’s on First until the time it was published, I wrote lots of fiction. Lots and lots of fiction. Most of it was in the form of short (150-400 word) stories for educational publishers. Usually these stories were meant for language skills workbooks. As the writer of the educational workbook, I asked the student users questions about the story they had just read, testing their knowledge of vocabulary, figurative language, cause and effect, inference, and so on. Not only did I write the story, I wrote the questions based on the story, and then of course I had to write the answer key for the parent or teacher.

A few of the workbooks I wrote are: Vocabulary Vampire; Logical Logic; Reading Baseball; Categories; Eating Right; Geography Skills; Racing Math. And about 150 others — many of whose titles I no longer remember. 

I wrote so many activity books for so many different educational publishers that I put a cork map of the US on my office wall and inserted a pin into every home state of a publisher I had worked for. When I finally gave up writing activity books (I returned to it later, but at a slower pace), I had pins in 29 of the 50 states.

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She’s on First is available in paperback and ebook versions.

My Writing Life: 1

It’s interesting for me to consider where my writing life began. An image from my very early years comes to me: I’m holding a blue crayon and I’m “writing” all across the pages of a picture book. By the time I got to first grade I realized that was not the way to treat a book. I also realized that I hadn’t been writing — I had been scribbling lines on paper.

I was first conscious that I enjoyed writing — and that I might grow up to become a writer — when I was eleven years old and wrote a poem, “I Want a Horse.” It was a four-line poem in iambic tetrameter (I didn’t know that then) with a rhyme scheme of abcb. I still remember the poem to this day, and I’m kind of amazed that I chose to have two of the four lines not rhyme. Did I do that by myself? Or was I modeling the quatrain on poems I had heard? I suspect the latter, but I have no way of knowing..

My poem, “I Want a Horse,” stayed in my mind for so many years that, a few decades after I wrote it, I used it (exactly as I had written it) in one of the educational workbooks I’ve written. So the poem I wrote at the age of eleven was published decades later.

For who knows what reasons, after I wrote the horse poem I stopped writing poetry. For a long, long time. I finally took it up again in the early 2000s, and for several years I wrote just about everything in free verse, including my book Jack and Larry: Jack Graney and Larry, the Cleveland Baseball Dog.

I published my first book of poetry, Crossing the Skyway: Poems, in 2013. Interestingly, one of the poems in the book is about a horse, and a few years after the book was published I blogged about the horse poem. Writers, as you can tell, use things over and over, but in a different way each time. 

The first time I was published I was sixteen years old, and publication came from the encouragement of my high school English teacher, Mrs. Dorothy Drummond. One of our in-class assignments was to write a personal-experience piece. I wrote about why I hate onions. My teacher strongly encouraged me to send the piece to the local newspaper. I did, and they published it. “Wow!” I thought. “Getting published is easy!”

Of course, getting published is not easy, and I learned that soon enough when I began writing books.

By the time I was in college I was a writer of poetry (only one poem, true), nonfiction (essays, personal experiences, humor, research papers, etc), and fiction. Although I suspect I wrote fiction in grade school and junior high, I don’t remember any of it. The first piece of fiction I remember writing came in tenth grade, when I wrote a short story about a Pony Express rider (horses again!). I remember really liking my own story. Then, several years later, when in college, I researched the Pony Express for some reason and learned that just about every detail I had made up in the story was wrong. Wrong!

Thank goodness that story was never published: it would be too embarrassing to have readers point out the inaccuracies. One thing the experience taught me is this: research fiction before you write it! That’s something I’ve done ever since.

Something else embarrassed me about my high school Pony Express story, and that was the name I gave the hero. Ashley Marathon. It sounded like a such a wonderful name to me when I was sixteen years old. But just a few years later, I began to realize that Ashley (Gone with the Wind notwithstanding) was an unlikely name for a mid-19th century young man to have. Not impossible, but definitely unlikely. The same was even more true of Marathon.

Ever since writing that Pony Express story I have paid careful attention to character names, both first and last. I use three or four different name sources each time I write fiction: Census Bureau information on common first names in each decade, as well as two excellent reference books on the history of last names in the US. 

And I enjoy knowing that a mistake I made early in my writing, when I was sixteen years old, ended up teaching me to research so that I could make stories more realistic.

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Barbara Gregorich’s most recent free verse book is not about a horse. Cookie the Cockatoo: Everything Changes is about the most famous resident of the Brookfield Zoo.

The F Words: Symbols

Although I love literature and am avidly interested in many different parts of a story and the way a story works (as you can probably tell from reading my blogs about The F Words), I have, I confess, never been much interested in symbols in literature. In fact [embarrassing], I can sometimes read a novel and entirely miss the fact that some objects work as symbols.

A symbol is a concrete object whose repeated use in a story comes to represent an abstraction. In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, for example, the Mississippi River symbolizes freedom. (I actually got that symbol the first time I read the book.) The briefcase in The Invisible Man symbolizes the lies and manipulations that political institutions have used to deny Black Americans equality. When I first read The Invisible Man, I strongly sensed that the briefcase symbolized something . . . but I was so engrossed by the story that while I realized the briefcase did stand for something, I didn’t think about what it might be.

When I was reading Moby Dick, one of my favorite novels, I was fully aware that the great while whale symbolized something. And I did ponder what that might be. Evil? Innocence? A life force? The indifference of the Universe? I decided that I didn’t know. Later, I was gratified to learn that most critics agree that the symbolism of Moby Dick is meant to be enigmatic, representing nature, evil, the ocean, the universe . . . who knows.

I can’t say that I didn’t care . . . but, for me, the use of symbols in literature is not something I yearn for or gravitate toward. I enjoy spotting symbols when I read, but I’m not sure that not spotting them makes the reading any less enjoyable for me.

As a writer, I seldom employ symbols because, as I said, I don’t gravitate toward them. But sometimes as I’m writing I realize that I’m using an object repeatedly. Then I ask myself: What does this mean? Is this object important to the story? Does it represent something?

When I ask myself these questions, my subconscious jumps in with an answer, which usually goes something like this: This object plays a role in the story. If it didn’t, it would go away, no longer be part of your writing consciousness. So figure out what role it plays and use that information to write a better story.

The subconscious can be very hard for writers to deal with. Especially since all the subconscious has to do is make statements and hints and nudges — it’s the writer who has to do the actual work.

You can see that when it comes to symbolism, I have a running battle with my subconscious, trying to ignore any of its nudges regarding symbols.

But every now and then I can’t ignore these nudges. When I’m writing I may sense that something is a symbol, but I don’t necessarily know what it symbolizes. It may be the same with other writers: I don’t know. In She’s on First, I think that the baseball itself was a symbol. In Sound Proof the drum is probably a symbol, and maybe the pitchfork, too. And in The F Words the megaphone is definitely a symbol. I noticed this as I was writing the second draft. The megaphone appeared in many places. 

More, whispered my subconscious. More places! 

Much as I hate to admit it, my subconscious was right. I needed to use the megaphone in even more places than I had, just to lock down the fact that it was a symbol. And so I did. But when I say “more places,” I don’t mean twenty more places. That would be overkill. I’m talking about maybe five or six more places,  each of them visual and memorable because the scene is an  important one — as when Stacey Renner goes to the Immigrant Rights rally with Cole and his friends. As when Cole fights back against Principal Delaney.

Symbols are, remember, physical objects which stand for abstractions. River = freedom. I’m not going to tell you what I think the megaphone symbolizes, because what it symbolizes might be different to different readers. But if you’re into symbols, think about the megaphone. Feel free to post your answer!

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The F Words is available 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: Dialogue

Most readers love dialogue, probably because it reveals something happening in “real time.” That is, the action is on the page, rather than being relayed by a narrator as having happened. Dialogue isn’t “having happened,” it’s happening. Right now, as the reader sees the words. Also, I suspect that some readers (I’m one of them) like dialogue because it helps a novel move faster. Unless, that is, the dialogue is dense, with single paragraphs taking up half a page of text or more. Most readers don’t find that kind of long-winded dialogue interesting.

I enjoy writing dialogue, but not for either of the reasons mentioned above. I enjoy writing it because it helps reveal character and helps reveal plot.

Some writers I know hate writing dialogue. It terrifies them. They would much rather write narration, where the action and conflict aren’t as immediate. I’ve always felt bad for such writers, because they’re missing such a great opportunity to make their stories come alive.

Writing dialogue comes natural to me, whether I’m writing a children’s book such as Waltur Buys a Pig in a Poke, or an adult novel such as She’s on First. I’m able to immerse myself in the story and in the character (including the character’s age and background) and write dialogue that fits.

But when it came to writing The F Words, my first YA novel, I had a moment’s pause, and that was because most of the dialogue would be spoken by teen characters. The natural cadence of current teen speak was easy to reproduce, because there’s nothing abnormal about it. It’s not as if Yoda were speaking in inverted sentences. But just to be sure, I made a point of listening to teens speak wherever I encountered them.

It wasn’t the cadence or pattern of current teen speak that worried me. It was what to do with slang expressions. Such expressions are always a problem because they often have a very short life span. So, for example, a book published in 2012 might, if it contained a lot of slang, sound dated by 2021.

I read a fair number of YA novels every year, and I notice that the adjective dope is used in most of them. As in That’s dope to refer to something that’s awesome. Although this is obviously a common slang term, one that may be a permanent part of our language for the next few decades, I shied away from using it — mainly because I read it so much in YA fiction that I’m just tired of it. So: dope wasn’t dope for me.

I like many current slang terms (lit, for example), but was hesitant to use them, for fear that in a few years they would date The F Words. And so, I followed the advice given in most writing workshops: keep the slang to a minimum, and, in this case, try to convey teen characters in other ways.

So that’s what I did in The F Words. I used a minimum number of slang terms, I had the teens speak as naturally as possible. I used short sentences (because teens assume they all have the same data base of knowledge and feelings and don’t need to elaborate on much).

And, I think this works. Especially because I used brevity to help demonstrate what kind of people the teens are: sure of what’s right and wrong, full of wit. Most of the conversations are quite brief, in the sense that each character speaks few words. That seems very teen-like to me.

Here’s an example:

“This is good,” says Felipe. “Gracias.”
“We can start taking photos now,”Treva suggests.
Felipe smiles at this and looks around for kids to pose with. 
“Wait,” I say. “We need the word Familia on each photo.” 
“I can do that,” says Treva. “I’ll add Familia in text over each JPEG.”
I shake my head. “I’m thinking of something with more… participation. Something warmer. Something that the other students can be doing.” 
“Warm like me,” says Felipe, grinning.
“I can borrow a flame-thrower,”Treva says.
I really like her sense of humor.
Assuming she’s kidding.

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The F Words is available 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: Italics

Italics are a form of typography in which the letters usually slant to the right. In serif fonts such as Palatino, for example, there are slight changes in some of the letters. Notice that the italic lower-case a is different in the italic version.

In sans serif fonts such as Helvetica or Arial, the italic letters lean to the right, but there are no changes in the form of individual letters.

Because they are a form of typography, it stands to reason that italics were first created by typographers. In this case by the Italian (hence the name italics) typographers Aldus Manutius and Ludovico Arrighi during the 1400s and early 1500s.

The original purpose of the italics  was to reproduce the look of handwriting, and to print “little” books: those that could be held in the palm of one’s hand, or carried in a pocket. Both the thinner font and the fact that it approximated handwriting made these little books feel quite intimate. Personal. Up-close. One would not print a book of political thoughts or scientific treatises in italics — those works still demanded the easier-to-read, less-intimate block fonts of the time: Garamond and Goudy Old Style. (Today the purpose of italics is different: they are no longer meant to be little or intimate.)

By now you may be wondering what all of this has to do with The F Words. Simply put, the connection is this: there are a lot of italics in The F Words. And that’s because the use of italics has evolved over the centuries.

In English, italics are used primarily for titles (books and movies) and for emphasis.  But they have other uses, two of which are especially important to The F Words.

Foreign Words — In English, foreign words are italicized, to indicate that they are not English words. Comprenez vous? Verstehst du? Because Felipe Ramirez and his family speak Spanish, The F Words is full of italicized Spanish words and phrases.

Words Referred to As Words — When, in writing, a word is being referred to as a word (and not to its meaning), it is italicized. Such italics help make the meaning of the sentence clear. Without the italics, meaning would seem garbled. 

The this that she uttered wasn’t the this that I knew she meant.

Whenever I see the word myrrh in print, I’m struck by the fact that it ends in rrh.

Whenever Cole Renner is thinking about f words as words, they must be italicized, so that the reader knows Cole is thinking about the word.

The existence of all these italics (along with Cole’s poems)  gives The F Words an interesting, textured look. More open. Different. Not all block letter serif straight narrative.  If you flip through the book’s pages, you can see immediately that there are interesting things going on.

And for me, the author (and also for my editor and for the book’s designer) the existence of all the italicized words meant we had to proofread Very. Carefully. And we had to proofread Many. Times. Just to make sure we caught every instance of necessary italics. Felipe says Si a lot. Did any of his Si’s escape us? And Cole thinks about words a lot. Did any of those words escape us?

I hope not. And I hope that you want to read The F Words — whose title, of course, is italicized.

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The F Words is available 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: Foreshadowing

Foreshadowing can be delicious, as in anticipating a birthday present. Or it can be terrifying, as in anticipating a hurricane. In literature foreshadowing works to indicate or warn the reader that something may happen. It’s never as exact as the date of a birthday, nor as specific as “Hurricane winds exceed 160 mph.”  

And — unlike a birthday or a hurricane — the happening that readers anticipate may not happen at all. Not everything is foreshadowing. However, when something is foreshadowing, the reader is usually very, very satisfied: anticipation has been realized.

Probably my favorite foreshadowing in one of my own books is the pitchfork in Sound Proof. I like that so much that I’ve considered carrying a pitchfork with me wherever I go.

That, however, would be cumbersome, and maybe even weird, so I’ve resorted to fewer specific-object foreshadowings in my recent work. And, next to the pitchfork in Sound Proof, my favorite foreshadowings are in The F Words.

Without telling you exactly what the words foreshadow (wouldn’t want to ruin your reading pleasure), I’ll list some of my favorites from The F Words.

page 1 — But as it turns out he has fast reflexes or maybe just knows which direction to move in . . .   That’s Cole Renner, the 15-year-old narrator, reacting to the fact that he can’t escape from Mr. Nachman, his English teacher.

page 39 — And that’s when I notice something in my sideways vision.
Tall and straight, like a pillar.   That’s Cole noticing Treva Soldat for the first time.

page 55 — “You don’t want to be a cabbage. A coleto is a jacket.”   That’s six-year-old Felipe telling six-year-old Cole what cole and coleto mean in Spanish.

page 123 — You need both kinds of muscles, so you’re ready for any situation.”  That’s Cole’s Coach, talking to the cross-country team.

page 170 — “. . . in jail you’re punished no matter which end of the fight you’re on.”  That’s Della Kazarian, Hank Renner’s defense attorney.

page 192 — “Holidays can be tough. Very tough.” That’s Mr. Nachman.

page 214 — “She organized it. He was merely the chauffeur.”  That’s Emerald, describing how members of Cole’s English class ended up at his track meet.

These are just a few of my favorites, but they’re far from being the only examples of foreshadowing in The F Words. Other foreshadowing includes Jared Anderson threatening Cole; ICE’s appearance throughout the novel; Felipe’s mother being worried about his attending the pro-immigrant demonstration.

And more. In fact, there are probably foreshadowings that I don’t even recognize as such, mainly because I wasn’t conscious of writing them as such. 

The fact is, I’m almost never aware of consciously writing a foreshadowing in the first draft, and often in the second draft as well. It’s only when I get into the third draft, where I’m starting to tie things together and make connections of all kinds, that I begin to recognize some of the foreshadowing. This is fun for me as a writer, and I hope it’s fun for you as a reader.

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The F Words is available 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: Subplots

Subplots are delicious. These little stories within the larger story give readers a great taste of something else: they are breathers from the tension of the main plot. They also show us, indirectly, more about the main character. I’ve written about the importance of subplots before (see The Beguilement of Subplots).

I can’t really say that I think a lot about subplots when I’m writing a book. They seem to come naturally to me. The story is moving along, and something happens and I realize: Oh. This is an important part of the story, in a subplot fashion. And then I think of ways to develop that subplot.

Picture books don’t have subplots. (Or, if they do, the subplots are generally expressed through the illustrations.) Early chapter books might have one subplot per story. Middle Grade novels of 30,000 or 40,000 words might have two subplots. Adult novels . . . my best guess is that four or five subplots are the limit. I’ve read novels with more than four or five subplots, and I find that I start twitching: too many subplots detract from the main story line. I catch myself asking something like, What is this novel about, anyway?

It’s important to understand that each subplot has its own story arc: a conflict with its own beginning, middle, and end. And subplots are usually resolved, mostly in the order in which they were introduced.

But with all those arcs floating around, you don’t want to let them entangle each other, the way clothes hangers might, giving your book an overly complicated, overly involved, or snarled feel. As I learned the hard way, there is such a thing as too many subplots. Thank goodness for my critique group, which pointed this out to me through the first four drafts of The F Words.

Let’s look at how many subplots I had in the first draft:

Cross-country
Working on the school newspaper
Felipe running for class president
Cousin Bianca
Self-defense classes
Hunger strike by parents against the closing of grade school
Relationship with Treva
Ms. Delaney out to get Cole

That’s eight subplots! No wonder the members of my critique group kept mentioning the number of subplots, even going so far as to state they weren’t sure what the main story was.

Okay. I can take a hint. In the second draft, I dropped the school newspaper and the subplot about Felipe’s cousin Bianca. I kept Bianca in the story, but in a different way: without a story arc. Dropping those two, I was down to six subplots.

Still too many. In the third draft I dropped the self-defense classes subplot, which had me down to five subplots.

As I started to write the fourth draft, I felt there was still one subplot too many. Correcting this turned out to be easy, because the hunger strike subplot (based on actual events in the struggles against the closing of Chicago schools) spanned only two chapters in the book. That’s probably enough of a span to constitute a subplot, but it’s also a sign that the subplot is inserted into the plot in one big chunk, and isn’t woven into the story. So the hunger strike subplot had to go.

By the end of the fourth draft, I had four strong subplots in the story:

Cross-country
Felipe running for class president
Ms. Delaney out to get Cole
Relationship with Treva

The first subplot is about sport, the second one is political. The third can go in the political category, or it could go in the same category as the fourth subplot, which is coming-of-age (for lack of a better term). The main plot centers on Cole’s father being in jail and Cole agreeing to write poetry for Mr. Nachman: the first of these is political, the second is literary.

Architect Mies van de Rohe gave us the statement, “Less is more” as a way of looking at art. The less there is cluttering up the work, be it a building or a novel, the more impact there is as the intent of the piece shines through.

Analyzing the plot and subplots in this way, with a less-is-more approach, I felt I had a strong story going — and in the case of subplots it was subtraction, not addition, which helped me make that story stronger.

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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: 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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