Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Killer Pancakes and a Cozy Mystery

To be perfectly honest, the only thing "killer" about these pancakes is the calorie count. On the other hand, six of them provide enough fuel for a day's hike up North Pack Monadnock Mountain in southern New Hampshire--one and a half miles trailhead to summit, with a net elevation gain of 1000 feet. 
This recipe is based on one found in Maple Syrup Cookbook by Ken Haedrich.

Killer Pancakes (serves 2 generously, 3-4 lightly)
1/2 cup cornmeal
1/2 cup whole wheat flour
1/4 cup rye flour (whole wheat or all-purpose may be substituted)
1 1/2 tsp. baking powder
2 eggs
3/4 cup milk plus a little extra
1 Tbsp molasses or honey
2 Tbsp oil or melted butter, plus some for the skillet
Extras: chopped nuts, seeds (chia, sunflower, sesame), chopped dried fruit, shredded coconut, small fresh fruit (berries, sliced bananas, chopped apples)

Stir together the dry ingredients and make a well in them.
In a different bowl, beat the eggs well, stir in the milk and oil.
Pour the egg mixture and the sweetener into the dry ingredients. Stir just until the batter is smooth; do not beat. Beating makes the pancakes tough. If the batter is thick, stir in a little more milk.
Heat the griddle or skillet (I prefer my electric griddle set at 375 degrees; yours may vary) and add the oil. 
Drop about 2 Tbsp of batter onto the griddle for each pancake; top each with one or two "extras." I like to use one crunchy and one sweet, for example coconut with banana or walnuts with dried cranberries. Cook about 1 minute on each side, just until golden. Serve hot with softened butter and warm syrup.

Excerpt from Framed, coming soon from The Wild Rose Press.

“Were they lovers?” Jenna asked, wide-eyed. “You always hear that about artists and their models.” Then she blushed.
“Oh, no! Jerry never had any interest in Abby as a woman,” Ginny answered.
“But they died,” Jenna prompted, absorbed in the story.
Ginny nodded. “Ten years ago last winter. They went missing during a snowstorm. The police went nuts trying to find them. At first, everyone assumed they had just run off together, but it wasn’t like that. Mike, her husband, really stirred things up, insisting something had happened. He forced the cops to look into it. 
“It took the authorities about three weeks to find them. A hunter came across them in the snow.” She looked rather sick. “The coyotes had been at the bodies, but it looked like he killed her and then himself. Mike moved out west and never came back.”
She sighed and returned to the present. “All of which means this painting may be a gold mine, Jenna. Let us clean it up, verify it is what I think it is. There may even be a signature under all the grease and smoke. Would you feel better if we came up with an agreement about what happens then?”
Sue and Elsie excused themselves and went to the workshop down the stairs from the gallery. “I’d forgotten he killed himself,” Sue said. 
“Don’t you believe it,” Elsie replied. “Jerry wouldn’t hurt a fly. That was no murder/suicide. It was a double murder.”

Friday, November 29, 2013

The Day After

On the day after Thanksgiving, I'm grateful for the Thanksgiving I celebrated yesterday. It was small--just my husband, our son, and me--quiet and low-key. Restful. We ate well but moderately, did the dishes and then, enjoying the effects of tryptophan, watched couple Doctor Who retrospectives. After all the upheavals of the last year, it was good to have a day like that.

I've been caught up in the fiftieth anniversary hoopla this month. How could I not be? I lived through those terrible days of November, 1963. Days that destroyed forever any hope I secretly harbored that life might ever return to normal.

It's funny how we keep returning to the traumas of our youth. I was thirteen in 1963, already hit with the double whammy of unprepared-for puberty and my family's move from New Jersey to Pennsylvania. I feel great empathy for immigrants, because I know how hard such moves are. Everything about my new home felt alien. In fact, I never called it home. I didn't feel at home again until I created my own years later.

The assassination was the final installment of a searing trilogy that year. I remember watching the sky as I walked home from school, expecting Russian bombers any minute. I remember my father's almighty cursing, for once unrestrained, at the killing of Oswald, and my dim understanding of his sense of helplessness was perhaps the most terrifying aspect of that long weekend.

As the nation struggled to piece itself back together on the day before Thanksgiving, my mother timed her labor pains while basting the turkey she knew she wouldn't be home to serve. That night I put my four siblings to bed and slept uneasily on the couch until my dad came home sometime before dawn. When my mother called to tell me I had a new brother--who now lives in Dallas--my only response was to ask how to cook sweet potatoes. At thirteen, in a bewildering new body, in a house I hated and a world gone mad, I made Thanksgiving dinner for the first time.

So a Thanksgiving like yesterday was a blessing. Sure, there were forty-nine others in between, some memorable, most blending into a haze of faces, voices, laughter, changes, traditions. But I think yesterday will stand out in my memory for its sheer sense of ordinariness. No dramas, no alarms. I even had time to relax with a new knitting pattern.

I wish I could borrow a Tardis and reassure the young girl I was. But what would I tell her? That she would be all right? She wasn't, not for a long time. That the world would settle down? It never has and it never will. Maybe just this: There will be ordinary days. Good days. Savor them.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Jessie Salisbury: Orchard Hill

Please welcome my friend and guest, Jessie Salisbury. Jessie is a member of Talespinners, a women's writing group that meets bi-monthly in a tiny but charming New Hampshire library. She is a long-time reporter for several local newspapers, a gifted poet, a font of local historical information, and a lover of great coffee. She lives in an antique farm house complete with a well, lovely gardens, and a ghostly visitor or two.

Give us a glimpse into Orchard Hill. What genre, time period?

It’s a romance, told as a flashback, set in New Hampshire in 1969. The heroine has gone back to the family orchard to recover from a nasty divorce and falls for one of the migrant apple pickers.

Deserted by her husband, Jocelyn fled home to the family orchard to recover and wait for her divorce to be settled. It is harvest time, and among the Nova Scotian apple pickers is Yvon, handsome, virile, devil-may-care, and more than willing to help Jocelyn forget her unfaithful spouse. 

There is also Adrian, her caring long-time friend and attorney. He could not speak of his love for her while she was married, but now she is free and he is ready to bring her back where she belongs. And willing to combat Yvon for her affections.

New England is full of derelict orchards, from a time when cider was a necessity of life. Our region is blessed with several large and beautiful ones that have survived the changes in product and demand. How did your story come about? Did you base it on any life experiences? What research did you do?

I worked in a similar place in the 1960's, packing apples for a commercial grower. The pickers at that time were French Canadian, as the hero is. I did the same sort of work as described in the book.

Wow, that's hard physical labor. It must have worn you out every day. Talk about your writing process. Are you a pantser or a plotter? Do you work on a novel every day?

I generally start with a situation or a problem and usually  know how the story ends. I work toward that end, sometimes with a vague outline, sometimes not. I tend to write for a few hours every morning, doing my newspaper work first.

I should be so disciplined. I always seem to get caught up in the deadline of the moment. How do you revise? How long did it take to write your book? Do you have any rituals, such as selecting music, when you write?

I revise as I go along then do a general rewrite when I have finished the first draft. I wrote Orchard Hill originally about 1970 and redid it a couple of times. I tried once to move it the present but it was impossible because methods of apple packing have totally changed and are now mainly mechanized. And today’s migrant pickers are Jamaican.

Who are your favorite authors, and why? How do they influence your work?

I read a wide variety of stories, from science fiction (Ann McCafferty and, of course, Tolkien) and a lot of historical fiction  (Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael, Dudley Pope’s Ramage series) and Tony Hillerman’s Navajo stories. I follow several cozy murder series. I like good writing whatever the genre.

I often see you at  local town meetings, and you have a great reputation as a reporter. Tell us a little about your day job.

            I’m a correspondent for a couple of newspapers, writing both news and features and have been               a journalist since 1968. I also write a regular history column for the Nashua Telegraph.

Many authors work for years to find someone interested their work, and I know how frustrating it can be to receive rejections. How did you find your publisher?

            In an on-line newsletter. Soul Mate Publishing was the second place I sent Orchard Hill.

What inspires you? How do you keep the writing fresh?

I guess my stories just come out of the blue, so to speak. I rarely have a particular theme in mind. With poetry I wait to be inspired.

And you find inspiration in the most wonderful places, like bird feeders, pear trees, and columbines. Does where you live influence your work? If you could set a novel anywhere in the world, where would it be?

Most of my contemporary stories are set here in my neighborhood. That’s what I know best. My science fiction is another time and place entirely.

I've read some of your sci-fi and dearly hope you find a home for it soon. In the meantime, where can readers find Orchard Hill?

It is available here as a e-book from Amazon.

Jessie, thank you so much for visiting today. I've had fun asking you questions instead of the other way around. I wish you the best of luck with Orchard Hill.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Know your limits--but don't limit yourself

"It's a mile and half!" wailed the woman next to me at the trailhead kiosk. I found the dismay in her voice nearly comical, since I'm several decades older than she was and I had no qualms about hiking to the top of North Pack Monadnock.

On the flat, I can walk a mile and a half in about forty-five minutes, but North Pack isn't flat. It rises about a thousand feet in that mile and a half, though the actual climb is more because of dips in the landscape. My best time ever for the trail is an hour, on a day when I was impelled by some pretty dire stress. On average, I figure it will take me ninety minutes or a little more.

I don't know what limits that young woman had. Maybe not enough time; maybe not enough water. Certainly her footwear was inadequate for the rocky, root-snagged trail. I hope she looked at the contour map and judged herself not yet fit for the climb, and I hope she embarked on a shape-up plan. I hope I'll see her on the summit next year. 

Most of all, I hope she didn't just give up on hiking.

In the woods, knowing your limits is a survival skill. Reaching your destination without the time or energy to return can kill you. Many's the time I've stopped short of my goal because of fatigue or bad weather or because I overestimated my fitness level or underestimated the challenge. Many hikers are faster than me. I step aside with a smile and let them pass.

Some limits are immutable (I can't fly) and some change over time (I'm slower than I used to be). The neat thing about most limits, though, is they're not rigid. I can improve my fitness, return another day, get better boots. I can choose another trail to the top. 

The one thing I can't do is stay off the trails. If I stop hiking entirely because one mountain defeats me, I limit myself. And that's one thing I refuse to do. I accept that I'm aging, but the rocking chair can wait. It'll feel good after I come down off North Pack. 

Friday, October 11, 2013


Forget January; my new years start in the fall. After the languid days of summer, I’m ready for the renewed energy of autumn. I break out the more substantial clothing, hoard my garden’s bounty, and turn inward. If I regret summer’s freedom, I welcome autumn’s focus.

This year the ends of things are more prominent than usual. My grandson is leaving toddlerhood and becoming a preschooler. The salmon restoration project I’ve worked on for years has shut down. I lost a dear friend and my publisher in July.

Likewise, the beginnings are prominent. Toddlers are great, but preschoolers are real people. The salmon project will raise eels and shad. No one can replace my friend, but I’ve found a new publisher.

When Linda Houle of L&L Dreamspell passed away this summer, the publishing world lost a bright star and many of us lost a warm, caring friend. The company closed and all rights reverted to the authors. Lisa Smith, Linda’s partner, moved quickly to give us all as much opportunity as possible to re-issue our books. One of the things I loved best about being a Dreamspell author was the community Linda and Lisa built, and I feared it was lost forever. But Lisa, despite her own deep grief, kept our Yahoo! group alive so we could support each other. I will miss Linda forever; I hope I will work with Lisa again in the future; and I’m delighted I can still be in touch with a group of authors I’ve come to treasure.

In another generous gesture, Lisa arranged for Dreamspellers to submit their books to The Wild Rose Press for re-release, and TWRP graciously offered to fast-track those that suited their line. My cozy mystery, Framed, has found a new home, and I’m excited to be working with a new team of professionals. Their energy has even reinvigorated my rewrites of the sequel, A Thousand Words.

To cite a truism, every ending is also a beginning. Janus, the two-faced god of doorways and changes, may claim January, but the prime number seven, September, wins my devotion.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Update on Pirates--How to find an ISP

Last week I talked a bit about online piracy and the help you can get using the DMCA. Some people were interested in learning how to figure out which ISP  hosts the offending website. Here is a link that may help. The National Professional Photographers Assn. has many of the same concerns we writers do in this regard. The NPPA suggests searching for the provider through a website such as, or using a DNS lookup like 

(Now you're all going to think I know a lot about this stuff, since I'm tossing around terms like DNS. So not true. One can use a phrase appropriately without understanding what it means, as I learned a long time ago in a cafe in Aix-en-Provence. A pair of French university students taught me a "very useful saying," but when I repeated it aloud, the couple at the next table left in high dudgeon.) 

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Pirates and the DMCA

Nancy Means Wright, on Get It Write, posts about pirates real and virtual. (See her excellent post here.) How sad is it that we have to waste our precious time tracking down villains instead of creating them? Yet the brave new online world has more than a few snakes in the grass. If someone is stealing my furniture, I call the cops. If they're stealing my intellectual property by offering free downloads of my books without my permission, I call the feds. 

The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) provides a way to stop the piracy. Alas, it is only reactive. It does nothing to prevent piracy, but once it starts you can do something about it. Below I've pasted a take-down letter, courtesy of the wonderful folks at Champagne Books, that you can customize to suit your situation. Reports from authors who've sent the letter show the pirated materials are removed within a few days, sometimes hours. If you'd like more information, you can find several sites devoted to online privacy. Here's one I've used:

It pays to keep a watch for piracy of your books. Set up a Google alert and/or search weekly for your pen name free books. Use as many search engines as you can think of. If you find an unauthorized use, send the letter and let everyone know you've done so. Follow up if you have to; the law is on your side.

Here's the letter:

Re: Copyright Claim

To: the ISP Hosting Company/company name

I am the copyright owner of the eBooks being infringed at: 

This letter is official notification under the provisions of Section 512(c) of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act ("DMCA") to effect removal of the above-reported infringements. I request that you immediately issue a cancellation message as specified in RFC 1036 for the specified postings and prevent the infringer, who is identified by its Web address, from posting the infringing material to your servers in the future. Please be advised that law requires you, as a service provider, to "expeditiously remove or disable access to" the infringing material upon receiving this notice. Noncompliance may result in a loss of immunity for liability under the DMCA.

I have a good faith belief that use of the material in the manner complained of here is not authorized by me, the copyright holder, or the law. The information provided here is accurate to the best of my knowledge. I swear under penalty of perjury that I am the copyright holder.

Please send me at the address noted below a prompt response indicating the actions you have taken to resolve this matter.

your name

Email: your email address

Friday, May 24, 2013

Punc-EEK! Possessives, Plurals, and 'Postrophes

A number of eateries around here go by the name of Athens Pizza, and I've heard such good reviews of them, I'm tempted to give them a try. However, although their menus and online presence use "Athens," each restaurant proudly proclaims, on at least one outside wall, "Athen's Pizza." 

If they're as sloppy with their food as they are with their apostrophes...

It's a shame that the plural and the possessive both involve the letter s. Some folks get so uptight about it, they toss in esses and apostrophes in the vain hope that some will stick in the right place. Girl's' room, hers'elf, Athen's, Lan'sdale. The rules are simple in concept, even though the exceptions are numerous. Pay attention, now.

Most singular English nouns, including nouns that end in s, x, or z, form the possessive by adding 's. The horse's bridle, a girl's hat, the car's brakes, a worker's income, the class's assignment. You get the idea. Most plural nouns form the possessive by adding just the apostrophe. The horses' bridles, the girls' hats, the cars' brakes, the classes' assignments, the workers' incomes. 

These rules are pretty obvious when applied to common nouns, as above. What about proper nouns (that is, nouns that apply to a particular person, place or thing)? According to CMOS, the same rules apply. Secretariat's bridle, Lois's hat, the Lexus's brakes; the Lincolns' legacy, the Andrewses' house. Yes, that last one, funny as it looks, is correct. My last name is Andrews; my husband, kids and I are the Andrewses; we live in the Andrewses' house. Good thing I don't lisp. Theriouthly, when you run into a situation like this, rewrite to avoid such a silly-looking word.

To be honest, there is some leeway here. Some publishers will allow Lucas' as the possessive of Lucas, for instance, as long as you're consistent. 

You knew it would be more complicated than this, didn't you? Well, you're right. Some common nouns end in s and look plural, like politics, economics, species. These words take only an apostrophe to form the possessive: politics' effect on government, economics' beginnings, a species' evolution. If I knew an easy way to remember this, I'd tell you. Honest, you just have to memorize it, or check CMOS or your dictionary. By the way, the singular form of species is...species. Not specie. Shudder.

I could go on about the exceptions to the general rules about possessives, but the best thing to do is to put a sticky note at the relevant page in CMOS. And trust your editor.

I do want to mention what Lynne Truss calls "the greengrocer's apostrophe" or the singular possessive where the simple plural is needed. If you've ever seen Lemon's for sale and wondered, "Lemon's what is for sale?" or even "Who is Lemon and why is he/she for sale?" then you've encountered the greengrocer's apostrophe. Of course, the correct phrase is Lemons for sale. And, while it's not strictly about punctuation, here's one final note. The plural of potato is potatoes; tomato/tomatoes. However, it's banana/bananas, papaya/papayas. English is a little schizophrenic when it comes to foreign words ending in vowels. But please, no videoes.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Punc--EEK! Apostrophes

When I think of apostrophes, I think of riding in the backseat of our green, split-windshield Chevy on the Route 1 bridge across the Raritan River. That’s because when I was a second-grader, reading in the car, I asked my dad how to pronounce I-S-A-A-C-that comma thing but up in the air-S. He insisted I dredge the word up out of my memory instead of helping me out. Thanks a lot, Dad.
Apostrophe usage can be broken down into two main categories—as a stand in for dropped letters in contractions or dropped figures in dates (can’t, didn’t, ‘tis, the ‘80s) or in non-standard English (Look ‘ere, mate); or as an indication of the possessive (the cat’s bowl, Isaac’s book). Both seem relatively straightforward, but hey, we’re dealing with the English language here. It’s always more complicated than it seems. For today, I’ll just look at the apostrophe as a substitute. Next week I’ll tackle those pugnacious possessives.
[While I’m here, let me point something out. Notice that all but three of the above apostrophes have the tail pointing down and to the left. That’s as it should be. But many word processing programs treat an apostrophe at the start of a word (‘tis, ‘80s, ‘ere) like an opening single quote, with the tail pointing up and to the right. What a pain. Your work will look more professional and your editors will bless you if you correct this error. Here’s a tip: click CTRL + the apostrophe, release, then type the apostrophe. This tip also works when you need close quotes after a dash. The program will want to use opening quotes. Just click CTRL + Shift + quote key then release and type the quote. Ta-da!]
Contractions shouldn’t (should not) be much of a problem. We use them all the time. They’re (they are) often associated with forms of the verbs to be, to have, the various forms of will, would, should and with the negative not. Some examples:
I’m (I am)
You’re (you are)
It’s (it is)
We’ve (we have)
They’d (they had or they would)
Shouldn’t, wouldn’t, won’t, aren’t, haven’t, hadn’t

You can have double contractions. They’d’ve for they would have is somewhat colloquial but perfectly acceptable.
Its vs. it’s
Its is a possessive pronoun meaning “belonging to it.” Every dog has its day. It’s is a contraction for “it is” or “it has.” It’s a three dog night. It’s been a hard day’s night.

Your vs. you’re
Your is a possessive pronoun meaning “belonging to you.” Is that your dog? You’re is a contraction for “you are.” You’re sugar, you’re spice, you’re everything nice, and you’re Daddy’s little girl.”

Their vs. they’re vs. there
Their is a possessive pronoun meaning “belonging to them.” Their dog chases my chickens. They’re is a contraction for “they are.” They’re afraid of dogs. There is an adverb meaning “in that place” (Stand over there) or a pronoun used to introduce a sentence or clause (There is no reason to confuse these words).
For a delightful excursion into the history and use of apostrophes, check out Lynne Truss’ book Eats, Shoots & Leaves. I promise you’ve never laughed so hard about punctuation.
Next week: Why I refuse to eat at Athen’s (sic) Pizza.


Friday, May 10, 2013

Punc--EEK! Capping it off redux

Last week we took a look at capitalization. Several comments came up that deserve clarification.

First of all, I'm not ashamed to admit I got part of it wrong. Or at least, I wasn't clear enough. I included endearments in the list of words that should be capitalized--honey, dear, sweetie. Most often those words should not be capped. Only cap them if they replace the person's actual name. For instance, if I call my sister Grumpyface rather than her given name, I'd cap it. (In point of fact, I do not call her Grumpyface. I call her Runs with Bears. But that's a whole 'nuther story.)

Regarding the names of relatives: If you call you father's sister Aunt Alice when you talk to her, do you also capitalize aunt when you talk about her (indirect address)? Yes, you do. Hi, Aunt Alice. I'll drive Aunt Alice to the store. However, there is an exception. If you're talking about an aunt named Alice, don't cap aunt. I'll drive my aunt Alice to the store, and my brother will drive my aunt Gert to church. 

Thanks to my gentle readers and fellow editors who questioned me on these issues and made me think harder and more clearly about them. Learning never ends.

The permutations of capital letters are nearly endless, especially when language is changing as fast as it is now. When I was learning grammar--heck, when my kids were learning grammar--a capital letter in the middle of word was unheard of. Now we have so many of them--LinkedIn, BrainBashers, InDesign--a new term had to be invented for them. Camel caps. When in doubt, do as I do and refer to CMOS (Chicago Manual of Style). 

Next time, the most misunderstood punctuation mark of them all--the apostrophe.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Punc--EEK! Capping it off

A capital letter can change the pronunciation of one word in English. Do you know what word that is? Answer at the end.

Strictly speaking, capital letters, aka upper-case letters, are not punctuation, but we'll treat them as such here. The basic rules for capitals are very easy:

1. Start sentences with a capital letter. Most word-processing programs will do this for you if you forget. 
2. Use a capital letter for proper nouns. (Improper nouns don't deserve them.)

As always in English, there are exceptions. If the first word of a sentence is a proper noun that is not capitalized, you don't have to cap it here. For instance, my son Jack used "jaQ" as his musical nom de guerre. jaQ Andrews is a guitar-pickin' genius is therefore correct. As is e.e. cummings is an intriguing poet. (For foreign names that include a particle, such as Jaques de Vaillancourt, consult CMOS.)

The second rule is the one that trips people up. Not because it's hard to understand--if it's a proper noun, capitalize it--but because the definition of a proper noun is a bit hazy. In theory, it's straightforward. A proper noun is the name of a particular person, place or thing. Nikki Andrews, Pennsylvania, Legos are all proper nouns. But some nouns can be proper sometimes, common other times. Everyone has a mom. You're special, Mom. Or The doctor is ready. Thanks for your help, Doctor. When a noun is used as a name or a form of address, cap it. Some examples would be relatives (mom, dad, uncle, aunt, cousin, grampa), officials, ranks, or professionals (doctor, nurse, officer, duke, chief), endearments (honey, love, sugar). 

Don't use a capital letter for occupations, even when combined with a name: writer Jessie Salisbury, architect I.M. Pei, poet Walt Whitman, district attorney Lee. Don't use them for titles that indicate  rank or office, unless a name is also used: the president but President Kennedythe sergeant but Sergeant Smith. Hint: if you can use the with the occupation, rank or office, don't capitalize.

When in doubt, check with CMOS or another reliable style manual,  or your publishers usage guide. Remember that modern usage tends to minimize capitals. Next time I'll go into some more detailed examples. If you have a question or a situation that puzzles you, I'd be glad to hear from you.

Click here to listen to an excerpt from jaQ Andrews' CD Stars or Streetlamps.

Oh, and that word I mentioned at the beginning ? It's Polish/polish. 

Friday, April 26, 2013

Punc--EEK! Putting on the Breaks (Dashes, parentheses, colons and semi-colons)

Okay, another bad pun. Sorry about that.

English punctuation has a sliding scale of stopping power. From the gentle lift-off-the-accelerator of a comma to the stomp-on-the-brakes of a period (and its relatives, the question mark and exclamation point), a full range of pauses is at your command. Let’s look at each one, shall we?

We’ve spent several sessions on the comma, which can be used to indicate the briefest of pauses or simply to provide clarity. Commas give you a chance to take a quick breath and let you know when you need to watch for a minor change in direction or a lower speed limit.

One step up from the comma is the semi-colon (;). It’s a signal you should move from the accelerator to the brake, but you don’t need to panic. In fiction, use it with restraint in narrative but rarely if ever in dialogue. Most often you’ll see it used to replace a conjunction between two short independent clauses: Fernando drives a Ferrari; Sebastian drives a Red Bull. In this instance, the conjunction could be and, while, or but. The two halves of the sentence should be closely related, just as they would be if you used a conjunction. Fernando drives a Ferrari; the sky is blue just won’t work.

Next up you’ll find the paired punc, parentheses and dashes. Parentheses are so lackadaisical they must always be in pairs. Fernando drives a Ferrari (the red car), while Sebastian drives a Red Bull (the blue car). Notice the closing parenthesis at the end of the sentence. The closing punctuation, whether a comma, period, exclamation point, or question mark, goes outside the parentheses unless it belongs to the words inside. Fernando drives a Ferrari (the red car), while Sebastian drives a Red Bull (is that the blue car?). Yes, you need the question mark, close parenthesis, and the period. 

If a sentence were the Indy 500, parentheses would be caution periods. The race goes on but not a lot happens. You can safely go for a hot dog and ignore what happens inside the parentheses or during the caution. Some publishers prefer to have no parentheses in fiction.
Dashes, in the Indy 500 scenario, are pitstops. They’re loud and important. What goes on during a pitstop or within dashes can make a huge difference in the race or in the sentence. Plan your pitstops carefully and use them only when you really want to make a point: Fernando drives a Ferrari—the fastest  car on the track—while Sebastian drives a Red Bull—the most fuel-efficient car. Two things to notice here. First, when dashes occur in the middle of a sentence, you must use two of them. Don’t start the pitstop with a dash and finish with a comma. Second, a dash preempts a comma or semi-colon. See how I had to rewrite the sentence to delete the semi-colon and include a conjunction (while)?
Because the dash is so noticeable, use it with care. Make sure the information it encloses is something you want to emphasize.

Finally, the colon (:) is a red flag.  It yells, “STOP THE RACE. PAY ATTENTION. SOMETHING BIG IS GOING ON.” The colon usually prefaces “an element or series of elements amplifying or illustrating what has preceded the colon.” (CMOS 15, 6.65.) I used the colon in this way in the fourth and sixth paragraphs in this post. In UK usage it sometimes serves as an emphatic stop, but this use is generally not accepted in North America. The colon is seldom used in most modern fiction.

To sum up: to go from 60 mph to a standstill, use a comma, then a semi-colon, parentheses, dashes, colon, and period. 

Enjoy the race!

Friday, April 19, 2013

Oh, the agony! The what?

I don't know about you, but I've just about had it with commas. Let's talk about something else for a change. I know! Ever wonder about question marks and exclamation points? 

These two punctuation marks are pretty easy to understand. Just don't ask me to explain why one is a "mark" and the other is a "point."

Use question marks at the end of questions, and exclamation points at the end of exclamatory sentences. So far, so good. Want a few examples? You got it.

What was he doing? Was she wrong? These are clearly questions, so you need the question mark. But let's rewrite the sentences a bit. She wondered what he was doing. She asked if she was wrong. Although these sound like a question, they aren't. They are indirect questions and do not need question marks.  What was he doing? she wondered.  Yes, you're seeing right. That's a question mark in the middle of a sentence, and it's correct. Notice there is no comma.

A one-word question doesn't need a question mark: My dad said I couldn't go. I asked him why. You could also say I asked him why not and still not need a question mark.

Exclamation points are even easier. Use them to express an emphatic or strong emotion, like anger or surprise. Danger, Will Robinson! Oh, you startled me!  Sometimes a sentence that is a question in form, like Why do computers hate me? is really an exclamation, and should be punctuated so. Why do computers hate me! 

In order to be effective, exclamation points should be used with restraint. How many times a day are you really scared or really surprised? Let your text convey the emotion. Can you use both a question mark and an exclamation point!? No. Choose which mark will best express your intent, and go with that one. And never ever use multiple exclamation points!!!

I once edited a non-fiction book by a local author. Great guy and a fascinating read, but boy, did he he love exclamation points!!!!!!! I kept taking them out and taking them out, and he joked he'd lose three pages of manuscript before I was done. When I went to his release party, I gave him the hundreds of exclamation points I'd cut from his work, contained in a little drawstring bag. He tells me he uses it as a paper weight.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Punc--EEK! Comma Chameleon

Comma Comma Comma Comma Comma Chameleon
Okay, my age is showing. Please don’t laugh at me. The point is, commas can do a chameleon job on a sentence.  For example:

The driver who won the race was awarded a trophy.
The driver, who won the race, was awarded a trophy.

Although both of these sentences are punctuated correctly, they mean very different things.

In the first sentence, with no commas, any driver who won got a trophy. In grammatical terms, “who won the race” is restrictive. It restricts who gets the trophy.

In the second sentence, the driver, who just happened to win the race, got a trophy. In grammatical terms, “who won the race” is nonrestrictive. The driver got a trophy, and oh by the way, also won the race.

Maybe it will make more sense in context:
1. The driver who won the race was awarded a trophy. The driver who came in second got a bottle of champagne. The other drivers were awarded a dashboard plaque.
2. The driver, who won the race, was awarded a trophy. The pit crew was treated to a party. The team owner received a large check.

In example 1, “who won the race” specifies which driver. Only the winner gets a trophy. The paragraph concerns the rewards given to the participants in the race. In example 2, which concerns the rewards given to the members of a racing team, “who won the race” is just a bit of extra information and could be eliminated without changing the meaning.

Remember the example from a couple weeks ago? “I’d like you to meet my brother Dave.” The same rule applies. What this sentence means is, “I’d like to introduce you to my brother named Dave. My brother named Tom isn’t here.” Dave and Tom are restrictive because they specify which brother. (Not that either of my brothers has ever been able to restrict me. Hah.)

Got a headache yet? Don’t get too hung about the definition of restrictive vs. nonrestrictive. Just remember this--if the information in the phrase or clause could be deleted without changing the meaning of the sentence, you need to put commas around it. If the information specifies a particular person or thing, do not use commas.

Incidentally, another way to determine whether or not to use commas is to try putting dashes or parentheses around the words. If you could do so without changing the meaning, use commas. Be aware, however, that dashes are very emphatic, and parentheses are generally frowned on in fiction.

Note to my readers in southern New Hampshire: I’ll be speaking at noon about “Place as a Character” at the Southern NH Outdoor Recreation Show tomorrow, April 13, 2013. For more information, go to

Monday, April 8, 2013

Last week Shellie Saunders introduced her new novel, Broken Vessels. This week she releases the lovely trailer for it. Click on the image below to watch.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Punc--EEK! Commas Pt. 2

“Officer, I’m sorry I was speeding.”
“I’m sorry I was speeding, Officer.”
“I was speeding, Officer, and I’m sorry.”

Hands up if you’ve used one or more of the above. Me, me, and me. I drive like Danica Patrick, but I’m not as pretty. And I don’t crash as often.

Since we’re talking about commas, take a note of them in those first three sentences. See how they separate “Officer” from the rest of the sentence? That’s a rule for you to follow: Commas set off words of direct address. I’m sure you’ve seen books in which the comma is omitted before the name: “I’m sorry I was speeding Officer, and I’m sorry.” According to UK usage, you can do that. Publishers in North America frown on the omission, however.

I have to admit this is a pet peeve of mine, drilled into me by Sister Lucille in second grade. I can still hear one of the less gifted readers in that class. “See Spot run comma pause Jane period drop your voice. Run comma pause Spot comma pause run period drop your voice.” Poor guy. But the rest of us sure got clued in to using commas around words of address.

If you need a comma or two for setting off names, you can shift them from their erroneous positions after conjunctions. But she wasn’t speeding. And she didn’t get a ticket. So she got to the track on time. This rule highlights another pet peeve of mine: Do not use commas after conjunctions, even if the conjunction starts a sentence.

But, I hear you complain, you said to put a comma where you would take a pause if you were reading aloud. (And what about that comma after the first word of this paragraph? We’ll get to that.) A lot of writers use a comma to indicate the emphasis put on a conjunction. I like to drive fast. But, I hate to get a ticket. Yes, you can imitate spoken words this way, but that doesn’t make it correct. If you want to emphasize the conjunction, use a dash: But—I hate to get a ticket. Better yet, rewrite to avoid the problem altogether by making the rest of the sentence stronger. I like to drive fast, but getting a ticket is the pits. Or Even though I like to drive fast, getting a ticket sucks.

About that But, I wrote in the preceding paragraph. In this instance the comma is one of two setting off the interjection I hear you complain. The sentence would be complete and make sense without the interjection, right? It’s not essential to the sentence, so you need to set it off with commas. The interjection can be an independent clause (one that could stand alone as a complete sentence) a dependent clause (I bet you can figure that out), or a single word or short phrase (But, hey, you said…) Commas set off interjections.

Wow, three rules in one week! You’re on your way to comma mastery. For really fun discussions, see Lynne Truss’ wonderful book Eats, Shoots & Leaves. Really detailed but not so much fun discussions can be found in CMOS (Chicago Manual of Style).
Next time: Comma comma comma chameleon.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Introducing Shellie M. Saunders

Please welcome Shellie M. Saunders, author of the newly released self-published novel, Broken Vessels. I had the privilege and joy of editing the book, and I was moved by this heart-warming novel of loss, redemption, and family strength. I’m glad you’re here, Shellie, and congratulations.

Shellie has 15 years’ experience in writing and publishing  everything from children’s stories to marketing materials. She has degrees in Print Journalism and Written Communications. She lives in Detroit with her husband and daughter.

Here is the blurb for Broken Vessels:
By all outward appearances, 27-year-old Trinity Porter has everything figured out. In reality, she has spent years hiding behind a fa├žade, and now it's starting to crumble. With her world turned upside down, she questions her faith and must make a decision. Will Trinity get out of God’s way or continue to do things her way?

Tell us about writing Broken Vessels. How did you get started?
Thanks, Nikki! Although much of my writing has been nonfiction, I’ve wanted a career as a novelist since college. I started Broken Vessels years ago after getting the idea for a scene that later became part of Chapter 2. I sat down and wrote it. Then I had no idea what to do with it, so I put it away and went on with life. Over the course of about a year, I wrote down plot ideas. When I was ready, I began working on character development, revisited that first scene and looked at it against my notebook to determine if anything could be integrated into the story. From there I started to write and let the characters tell me where they wanted to go.

Did you do a lot of research or did it come out of life experience?
It’s funny you ask, because the answer is both. I have a vivid imagination and a background in technical writing, which complements my analytical nature. Much of what I wrote--like the setting--started with life experience. Broken Vessels is set in Detroit, and I’m from metro Detroit. I integrated jewels and staples of the area to promote familiarity and nostalgia to those who know Detroit and to reveal a refreshing side of the city to those who know it only from the media. Once I got started writing, the technical writer in me came out and I got into the research. I had to blend historical factors, explore Biblical messages and create believable scenes. I enjoy merging imagination with research because it helps create realistic scenes. I want readers to say, “I’ve been there” about a place they’ve never been.

You certainly succeeded in that. I had a very clear picture of your settings. What was the hardest part of writing or publishing the novel?
Finishing. Even when I completed the manuscript, it wasn’t done because I am a perfectionist. The manuscript went through two rounds of editing, where you helped me to tighten up the flow. Then it went through several rounds of proofreading because I wanted to ensure that any spelling errors and inconsistencies were fixed. It was worth the extra attention to detail, because I now have a better product.

It’s a truism that no writer can edit her own work, but it’s always a thrill to see it shine after the red pencil does its job. Are you a pantser or a plotter? A little of both?
Without a doubt, I was born a pantser. In school I used to write a paper first then do the outline, so it is no surprise that style carried over to writing a book. With Broken Vessels, I had no idea how the book would end. As the story evolved, I was inspired to write about finding faith despite tribulation. I let the characters to take me on a journey without realizing that I would actually grow with them—especially Trinity, whom I admire for her strength, sense of humor and deep-seated desire to follow her moral compass. In the future, I will probably do things more traditionally and use an outline, but there won’t be a great departure from allowing my imagination to drive the writing process.

Umm, a word of experience. My characters look at my outline, laugh hysterically, and do whatever they want. It’s like herding butterflies. I know you work full time in business writing. Do you have a routine for your fiction writing? What distracts you? How do you deal with dry spells? (I don’t like to call them blocks.)
Because of my work schedule and the fact that my husband and I are raising a toddler, I end up writing on nights and weekends. Whenever I do get a little down time, I’m writing. My husband jokes that my laptop is an appendage. Ironically, what tends to distract me is my laptop because I end up floating over to Facebook or e-mail. I’ve figured out one solution, though. Starting a Facebook Fanpage (Shellie M. Saunders) has let me write and be on Facebook at the same time. How’s that for a little ingenuity?

When I get a dry spell, I find that it’s best to step away and regroup. That may mean working out, taking a walk, listening to music or calling an old friend. And you never know if something you see or someone you talk to will spark your creativity. When I have to take a writing break, I try to keep a pocket-sized notebook nearby so I can jot down any inspiration.

I have notebooks everywhere, but my tidy husband keeps putting them “away.” Do you remember the first book you ever read?  The first story you wrote?
The first book I remember was A Light in the Attic by Shel Silverstein, but the first story I remember reading was Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret. by Judy Blume. I think I was nine when I read it, and though I was several years younger than Margaret (the protagonist) I connected with her. The first story I remember writing was called “He Can’t Hurt Me Anymore.” It was a ninth grade English project about a girl dealing with the death of her abusive father. The story was a distinct deviation from my own upbringing, but it let me test my ability to create a character whose experiences and family were very different from my own.

What about the book are you most pleased with/proud of?
The aspect that pleases me most about Broken Vessels is that it addresses topics that are usually off limits for stories with a Bible-based message. Broken Vessels reflects real people, using realistic language and scenarios, so I think it offers something that everyone can relate to.

What are you working on now? Is it related to Broken Vessels?
I have two projects that I will soon be putting to paper. One is a sequel to Broken Vessels and the other puts a modern day spin on a scandalous Bible story.

Thanks for being here, Shellie. It's been a lot of fun, and I wish you all the best with Broken Vessels.

Where can we find you? 
Twitter: @ShellieWrites

Friday, March 29, 2013

Punc--EEK! Commas

"Let's eat Grandma." 
"Let's eat, Grandma." 
See? Commas really do save lives.

All kidding aside, let's not knock the ubiquitous comma. It's the most common punctuation mark, which pretty much guarantees it's the most misused one. Writers have a lot of leeway with commas, but there are some rather hard and fast rules.

A little history might help. Back in the day, when most people had to have books read to them, commas provided a visual cue to the reader: Take a brief pause here! Here is a break in the rythmn! In our age of widespread literacy, commas serve much the same purpose. They set off sentence parts, indicate short pauses, and help avoid confusion. If you think of them that way, the rules will make more sense. Most of the time. There are exceptions, I'm afraid, but we'll get into those later.

Serial commas
Everyone wants to know about the serial comma, so I'll talk about that first. When the text includes a series of words or phrases,  the preferred usage demands a comma between them. When the final words/phrases are joined by a conjunction, put the comma before the conjunction. The flag is red, white, and blue. I ate breakfast, went for a walk, and collected the mail. My brother likes steak, I prefer chicken, and my sister is vegan. 

These sentences would not be incorrect without the final commas, but take a second look at the final sentence. Suppose it was in a book, and the line broke after the word "sister."
My brother likes steak, I prefer chicken and my sister 
is vegan. 
Without the comma after chicken, a slight chance exists that someone could think I prefer (to eat) chicken and my sister. Eww.

If all the elements of a sentence are short and joined by conjunctions, you don't need any commas. Sally ordered eggs and bacon and toast.  If they're long or complicated, use commas to indicate pauses. If you think about reading the text aloud, you'll see where you need to insert commas.

When items in a series include internal punc of their own, separate them with semi-colons. I'd like to introduce my mother, Ginny; my father, Walt; my brother, Tom; and my sister, Peg. 

(I might as well point out here that, yes, you do need a comma after father, mother, brother, sister unless you have more than one of any of them. My brother Tom [no comma] indicates "not my brother Dave." This is one of those nitpicky rules you just have to learn.)

Note that some writers and publishers don't like the serial comma. Be guided by your publisher's wishes and, above all, by clarity. If a comma would make your writing clearer, by all means use it. 

Okay, that's enough for one lesson. More on commas next week.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Punc--EEK Part 4-Quotes within quotes

Quotes within quotes. *Evil laughter* No, seriously, this isn't so bad. You've already mastered the basics of punctuating dialogue and splitting it in several different ways. What do you have to worry about?

First, what is a quote within a quote? At its most basic, it's a character citing what someone else said.
Like this:
John said,"Billy told me, 'Sue is going to get you' yesterday."  Notice John's dialogue is punctuated normally, and Billy's dialogue within John's uses single quotes. That's it. The fun starts with more complicated sentences.

John said, "Billy told me, 'Sue is going to get you,' so I'm not going to school today."  In this sentence, Billy's quote is followed by a comma (inside the single quote) because of the ensuing dependent clause (so I'm not going to school today.) Make sense so far? Let's ramp up the fun.

John said, "Billy told me, 'Sue is going to get you!' so I'm not going to school today."  See the exclamation point? Notice there is no comma? Very good. If Billy's quote ended with a question mark in this sentence there would be no comma there, either.

I know you're all dying to hear about the weird punc I mentioned in last week's post. Such weirdness usually occurs at the ends of sentences.

John said, "I'm not going to school today because Billy told me, 'Sue is going to get you.'"  Aha. Look at that weird '" at the end. Three apostrophes? No. It's a single quote ' to end Billy's dialogue, followed by a double quote " to end John's dialogue.

Suppose you want to inject some excitement. John said, "I'm not going to school today because Billy told me, 'Sue is going to get you!'"  Punctuated like this, the sentence indicates that Billy is excited. Why? Because the exclamation point is inside Billy's dialogue. Suppose Billy doesn't care, but John does. You'd punc it like this: John said, "I'm not going to school today because Billy told me, 'Sue is going to get you'!"  I know, I know. That looks weird. Please don't cry. Remember my basic rule: Punctuate the dialogue. Decide which of your speakers needs the exclamation point, and put it in his speech.

Here's a variant with a question mark in it: Mom said, "You're not going to school because Billy told you,'Sue is going to get you'?"  You could replace the question mark with an exclamation point, but you can't use both. Sorry, but you can't.

In general, exclamation points and question marks stay with the dialogue they belong to, while commas and periods go inside the quote marks. As we saw in the preceding paragraphs, there may sometimes be flexibility. When that happens, the writer gets to make the decision based on where the emphasis needs to be.

One more example, then I'll let your tired minds rest. Who wrote, "All the world's a stage"? The question mark does not belong to the quotation, so it goes outside the quote marks. But: Shakespeare wrote, "All the world's a stage." 

I know you'll find plenty of variations and have tons of questions. Keep remembering to punctuate the dialogue, and you'll get through most situations. If you're still puzzled, consult Chicago Manual of Style or Strunk and White's Elements of Style. Ask your editor, or ask me (and I'll run straight to CMOS or EOS)!

Next time, we'll start on commas.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Punc--EEK! Pt. 3 More dialogue

As we saw last time, dialogue can be split by a tag, and I gave you some tips for how to punctuate that. Again, always remember that you are punctuating the dialogue.

Sometimes you need to split dialogue with an action, and the punc for that looks very strange to a lot of people. Here's an example:

"I think we should go"--she pointed down the hallway--"to the left."

Now I know a lot of you are scratching your heads and wondering if I've gone nuts. Because you want to put those dashes inside the quotes, right? But what's the rule? Punctuate the dialogue. The dashes don't belong to the spoken words, they belong to the tag because it interrupts the dialogue. So they surround the tag. They don't go inside the quotes.

By the way, the action should be a complete sentence in its own right. Please, please, please, don't write something like this:  "I think we should go"--pointing down the hallway--"to the left." An alternative version like "I think we should go," she said, pointing down the hallway, "to the left." is acceptable. However, the tighter, more active "she pointed down the hallway" is preferred.

ALERT: Word processing programs will want to use close quotes after the second dash. Don't let them get away with that. One way to get around the program's proclivity is to put a space after the dash, type the opening quotes, then delete the space. A bit cumbersome, I agree, and if someone knows of a shortcut, I'd love to hear from you.

Sometimes a long speech spills over into a new paragraph. You don't see this much anymore, but it does still happen. In that case, use close quotes at the end of the last paragraph only. Use opening quotes at the beginning of every paragraph:

     "I was born in a small town in northern Arizona," he said. "My parents and grandparents were born there, too, and everyone assumed I'd raise my family in that same small town.
     "But I have itchy feet, can't stand staying in one place for too long. So I left that town behind as soon as I got out of high school, and never looked back. How can a guy stand the same old faces and places all his life?
     "Paris, Calcutta, Adelaide--I love seeing new cities. Gotta keep moving. Someday I'm gonna make it to the moon."

 Okay, that's an awful example, but you get the idea. All the punc stays the same, except you don't use close quotes until the very end. 

Next time, we'll play with quotes within quotes and the weird-looking punctuation that sometimes results.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Punc--EEK Part 2-Splitting dialogue

Last week we talked about  punctuating basic dialogue. The first rule is that punctuation almost always goes inside the quote marks--we'll get to the exceptions later. Let's take it one step further today, and split the dialogue before and after a dialogue tag (he said, asked John, etc.).

The important thing to remember is to punctuate the spoken words as you would any other sentence. The dialogue tag in the middle needs to be separated from these words by commas and quote marks.

"I think," said Jack, "you're making a mountain out of a molehill." Note the commas after think and Jack, the lower case letters at the beginning of said and you're. Also note quote marks after think, and before you're. There is a space between the quotes and the tag. I've marked the spaces in red to make it clear.

Here's another example. "Carol," he asked, "are you sure?" Again, there is a comma at the end of the first part of the dialogue and at the end of the tag. The first letter of the tag and the first letter of the second part of the dialogue are lower case (unless either one begins a name). Most especially, note that the question mark comes at the end of the sentence and inside the quote marks.

Naturally, there are exceptions and variations. Be guided by how you want the reader to "hear" the dialogue. If you read the first example aloud, notice that you slow down a bit when you come to the tag. This suggests to the reader that Jack is speaking slowly, perhaps with an emphasis on I to differentiate his opinion from someone else's, or that he's not entirely sure of what he's saying.

Let's try something a bit more advanced. It's not really complicated if you remember that you are punctuating sentences.

"I'll remember that," said Jack. "Punctuation is really complicated." Here the dialogue consists of two sentences: I'll remember that. Punctuation is really complicated. So you put a period after Jack. Many writers think that if dialogue continues, the tag is always followed by a comma. Not true. If the dialogue consists of two or more sentences, put a period after the tag.

One last consideration today. The rules about question marks and exclamation marks we learned last week also apply to split dialogue.

"I'll remember that!" said Jack. "It's complicated."
"Can you remember that?" the teacher asked. "It's not that hard."

Homework: if you have an example of split dialogue that puzzles you, ask me.