The Art of Rewriting Fiction

Right now I’m working on a new short story called “The 9th Street Gang,” part of my calendar mystery series set in Kansas City starting in January 1899.  Here’s the cover for the story that about twenty of my friends and kin helped me with.

Now I’m revising the story itself. And it’s taking me longer than I expected thought it would. Why I should be surprised I really can’t say given the length of this hand-out, one of my favorites from when I taught writing at the college level. This particular version that I prepared for a post NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) workshop focuses on fiction, especially the novel. But really you can use it for any kind of writing you do. Reviewing the handout today is helping me out, so I thought I’d share it with you, too.

Congratulations! You’ve completed the first draft of your novel and the joy of creation still surges through your veins. But don’t rest on your laurels too long, for now you have to rewrite. No I don’t, you say. I just run the spell checker and shoot it off to an agent, right? Besides, did Shakespeare rewrite? Apparently not, but his contemporary and friend Ben Jonson said, “Would that he had blotted a thousand lines.”

So now comes the time to get busy “blotting a thousand lines” (or more) because rewriting is a vital part of writing, the part that “makes the work come alive,” to quote Nancy Pickard, author of several popular mystery novels including Kansas Book of the Year, The Virgin of Small Plains. During rewriting, you “re-envision” the work and bring it closer to your original intention, obscured or lost in the heat of creating the rough draft.

Though often the writer comes up with new material during the rewriting phase, generally this last stage involves more analysis than creation, less the right side of the brain than the left. While new writers often think they can’t write unless they get it right the first time, most professionals rely on rewriting to bring their work up to par.

Effective, interesting, and vital writing is clear, coherent, concise, concrete, correct, and varied. Rewriting helps you give your work these qualities.

Okay, okay, I’m convinced, you say. So how many revisions should I do? As many as it takes, the mentor answers. If you’ve completed a work that you first drafted largely in your head, such as a flash fiction short story, you might not need many overall revisions. On the other hand, many pros freely admit to doing up to twelve major revisions of their novels. The average romance author does two and a half to three drafts, but Nancy Pickard says that she rewrites virtually up to the day of publication.

To rewrite a piece of fiction, you cut, add, change, move, and combine. But verily I say unto you, the greatest of these is CUT.

In rewriting, concentrate on these areas in this order: content, style, and mechanics. Why this order? you ask. Simple. It makes sense to get the content right before you spend hours polishing a sentence (paragraph, scene, chapter) that you might have to cut later–or worse, refuse to cut (though it no longer fits the work) because you worked so hard on it. Take the advice of Tony Hillerman who used to labor over his first chapters until he discovered that later chapters changed the first ones too much for him to use them. (He claimed to have had a drawer full of discarded but wonderful first chapters.)

On the other hand, if you’re rewriting the content of your novel and notice a sentence you can improve quickly or an error to correct, go ahead. Similarly, if you think of a great new bit of dialogue in a later stage of revision, by all means add it. (But be sure to reread this added section carefully, for often errors abound in such passages.)

ADVICE

1) To keep up your momentum and improve your chances of completing your novel, work on it everyday.

2) To minimize the number of corrections to make later in the process, initially format your manuscript in the correct form for submission later on to an editor or for production as an eBook or POD.

3) Follow the rules of punctuation like putting periods and commas inside quotation marks, etc.

4) For ease in rewriting, make separate files for all the chapters of the work.

5) If you use Microsoft Word, go to the Authoring and Proofing Tools in the Preferences menu, and in the Spelling and Grammar menu, click on “Show readability statistics.” Run your spell checker on each chapter as you complete revising it. The information will be especially valuable to you in later phases of the revising process. This document, for example, has 4% passive voice (much higher than my usual fiction percentage of 0%), 63.1% Flesch Reading Ease (considerably lower than my usual fiction reading ease of 85%), and 8.7 Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level. No, I’m not related to that Kincaid, and my fiction averages from 3.5 to 5.2 grade levels.

6) Cultivate good stylistic writing habits like avoiding passive voice and employing showing writing instead of telling writing.

Still, generally, as John Braine advises, it’s best to write the rough draft as fast as you can and take as much time as you need for revision. Danielle Steele, for instance, takes six months to research a novel and six months to rewrite, but she blasts through the rough draft in a month of crippling twenty-hour days.

REWRITING FOR IMPROVED CONTENT

When you’re ready to start rewriting your novel, be patient and don’t just dive into revising. Instead, sit down and read the book through. Then skim it and take notes on what you see and patterns you notice. For instance, does your novel have a clear “Who wants what?” established very early. Does your protagonist clearly “drive the plot car” overall? Is the outcome clear at the end?

Especially pay attention to the big issues of structure. For instance, does your novel have a clear beginning, middle and end? That is, does it have a hook in the opening and a plot point near the end of the beginning part to set up the major story line? Is there some sort of important development in the middle section of the novel, that is, about halfway through? Is there a plot point near the end of the middle part of the book that sets up the end of the book? Do some math to see where these plot points fall in relationship to the overall length.

Consider your narrative line. Once you start your story, do you continue in a straightforward line or do you switch back and forth in time, from past to present to future to past? Think about your audience and this maxim: The larger the market you want for your novel, the easier you want to make your novel to read. That is, employ the K.I.S.S rule especially when you’re writing popular fiction and want lots of people to read your book.

Consider the type of novel you’re writing and reader expectations for that genre. If you’re writing a categorical romance, for instance, do you have at least one love scene? If you’re writing a mystery, is there a body or at least a crime?

On the basis of your observations, prepare an outline or write a narrative synopsis. Advice: Do not consider your outline or synopsis as engraved in stone.

As you write a second draft and concentrate on content, you might want to CUT all or part of ground clutter (action that leads nowhere), sections of dialogue that run on too long, unneeded characters and everything related to them, sections of description that run on too long, scenes that contribute only slightly to the plot, extended sections of background or exposition, unneeded transitions between scenes, sections that tell the reader what to think instead of letting them draw their own conclusions, unneeded or overlong passages of thought, unneeded material between the climax and denouement, and any element that impedes the pace.

On the other hand, you might need to ADD details that explain later action, descriptions to make a character or setting come alive, character development and motivation, background information, more dialogue, significant action, reminders to the reader, foreshadowing, clues and red herrings, symbols and metaphors to highlight theme, and transitions between scenes.

Often you will want to CHANGE from telling writing into showing writing, from indirect to direct speech, from indirect to direct thought, or from one point of view to another.

Sometimes, too, you might find that, in drafting, you got in a rush and tried to do everything at once. So you might need to MOVE introductory exposition to later in the story, exposition closer to the action it relates to, and thematic commentary or epiphanies closer to the end. You might also need to move scenes and plot points.

Finally, you might need to COMBINE one character with another or one scene with another.

GETTING FEEDBACK

Once you have the content about right and can think of nothing much else to do to the work, let gentle, sympathetic, knowledgeable people (preferably not family members) read your novel and give you feedback on what it’s like to experience the work for the first time. When you get your novel back from your readers, look over their comments and rewrite to improve the content at least one more time.

Once the content seems about right, move on to the next phase of rewriting, the PEP phase. Advice: At this point it’s often best to put all your chapters into a single file at this point, so you can also spot glitches in formatting for your eBook or POD versions of your novel as you edit.

REWRITING FOR IMPROVED STYLE

Now, you will P(olish the style), E(dit for grammatical correctness), and P(roofread for misspellings and typos).

Verily, again I say unto you, the greatest of these is CUT. Overall, including cuts for both content and style, try to make your final version at least ten percent shorter than earlier drafts. (Some writers draft very long and cut out nearly half.)

For concision, CUT redundancies; one, two or even three adjectives out of every three; there is/are, which is/are, it is . . . that; excessive or elaborate dialogue tags; and most adverbs.

For clarity and coherence, you might need to ADD transitions and dialogue tags.

For clarity, vitality and ease of reading, CHANGE long sentences and paragraphs into shorter ones; big, fancy words into smaller ones; uncommon words into more usual ones; over-used words into less common words; passive voice into active voice; states of being verbs into action verbs; progressive verbs into straight present or past tense; general into specific; abstract into concrete; unclear pronouns into nouns; and fuzzy word choices into just the right words.

For clarity and variety, occasionally MOVE phrases from their usual spot into more unusual ones.

For coherence and variety, occasionally COMBINE many short sentences into longer ones and many simple sentences into compound or complex ones.

But as Strunk and White say in The Elements of Style, break any of these rules rather than commit a barbarity.

REWRITING FOR CORRECTNESS

Always edit a completed manuscript with extreme care because mechanical errors and misspellings betray you as an amateur to agents, editor and readers. If you can’t spell, learn! Use a spell checker (but still proofread for homonyms, like “too,” “to,” “two”). If you don’t know how to punctuate, take a review course. And no matter how sharp your editorial skills, always proofread your material several times before you submit it or publish it.

In the PEP phase, you might find it helpful to read your manuscript aloud. (James Michener and his editor read one of his big novels to each other five times.) Run your spelling/grammar checker and get your overall stats on readability, etc. It’s also good to use “find and replace” to locate your personal trouble spots (one of mine is over-using the word “then”). If you have fellow writers who proofread well, you might ask them to proofread our work. Or you could hire a professional proofreader or copy editor.

THE IMPORTANCE OF PROOFREADING

As Jack Riley topped the final rise before town, he saw the buzzards circling above him. Not this time, he thought, a half smile on his face. He had just been through eighty miles of the roughest dessert anywhere . . .

 

It’s NaNoWriMo!

Just a quick note to say that I won’t be around a lot November 1 through 30 because it’s National Novel Writing Month. Best, Juliet

My Father, the Story Thief

With stories, my dad was like a magpie. Anything flashy he took. Often he polished them to his own particular shine, too.

For example, if you climb up our family tree on Daddy’s side far enough, way back to the 1760’s and then hop over to a stubby branch that started in 1763 in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, and ended in 1808 in Natchez, Mississippi, you’ve found Lewis Wetzel.

My dad freely made his own the stories about Wetzel that author Zane Grey told in his novel Betty Zane, first published in 1903, the year of my father’s birth. (Dad’s mustache looked like a white caterpillar wiggled whenever he bragged that he “was born in the year of Kitty Hawk, but I lived to see men on the moon.”) Grey based his book on family stories about his ancestor—the brave, young Betty Zane. She saved the day for settlers sheltered at Fort Henry, close to present-day Wheeling, West Virginia, when she slipped through the enemy forces, ran home and fetched gunpowder and ammunition back in her apron. Both Grey and my dad described Wetzel as the heroic Indian fighter who helped turn the tide against the British armies and their Indian allies. Thus, he won the gratitude of American settlers near the Ohio River.

In my dad’s version of the biography, Wetzel became an Indian fighter after some Indians ambushed and murdered all of his family but him. According to other sources, real events didn’t fall out quite that way. Indians did indeed kill Lew Wetzel’s father, but Wetzel had become an Indian fighter several years before that. When he was just thirteen, some Indian scouts wounded and then captured him along with his younger brother near the family farm. The boys escaped, but this event turned Wetzel into a stone-cold Indian killer.

Events of my life have brought me close to Lewis Wetzel twice. For a few weeks in the autumn of 1971, with my husband and my infant daughter, I lived in the Western Panhandle of West Virginia a mile or two from Big Wheeling Creek. Two hundred years, before the Wetzel family farmed land along the same creek. The man who rented us half a nineteenth-century farmhouse ten miles east of Wheeling let us store David’s bicycle in the original house on the property, a long, low, stone building with a dirt-floored room on either side of a fireplace.

Lew Wetzel might have visited that very house, backed into a narrow valley with a clearing in front of it. So, primed by my father’s stories, I created a mental picture of him there. Wetzel wore buckskins and hid his long, blond braids out of sight under his hat, so “the Indians wouldn’t see his hair and go after him,” Dad said. (Indians longed to take that fair-haired scalp in revenge for his taking so many of their black-haired scalps, but none of them ever managed it.) My dad said Lewis Wetzel never learned to speak English well, but spoke Pennsylvania Dutch. Probably Wetzel didn’t say much at all as he leaned in a corner of that crude house. He squinted his eyes against the smoke from the fireplace and relished the hard cider the settler’s wife handed him in a pewter mug. Dogs lay at ease at his feet and the children stared at him, open-mouthed in awe from all the stories their fathers had told them about the legendary Lewis Wetzel. Maybe a brave lad sneaked up to touch the long rifle he reloaded and used with deadly accuracy, even while he ran, or his tomahawk that had killed countless Indians, or his scalping knife. The women in the house mostly stayed away from him at least until someone thought to loan him a violin. He was a famous fiddler, his reels and jigs speaking to pioneer folk in ways he couldn’t through words.

Regardless, he wouldn’t stay long in that low, two-roomed house before he took off running east through Big Wheeling Creek, that rushed then, as it did when I lived near it two hundred years later, clear and cold over rounded stones.

The other time I came close to Lewis Wetzel was downright eerie. Some friends of mine threw a costume party with instructions to come as “our favorite Revolutionary.” Naturally, because of Dad’s stories, I instantly thought of Lewis Wetzel. So I made myself some fake buckskins, bought a black felt hat and a blond wig for a few bucks at a local five and dime (gone now). I also donned moccasin-style bedroom slippers and a rabbit fur vest I happened to own. I stuck a rubber tomahawk in a hand-woven belt and went off to my party. Later, as I danced in that costume with that blond hair swinging over my face, I felt as if Lewis Wetzel was inside me looking out through my eyes, searching for Indians to scalp. It creeped me so much I broke into a cold sweat and I ripped the hat and wig off my head fast.

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As I said, Dad mostly stole his stories of Lewis Wetzel from Zane Grey, but some of his tales Dad acquired honestly. One of my favorites comes from the 1930’s when Dad was a surveyor up in the mountains of West Virginia. Dad is the short guy in the middle.

(From those days living in a two-story wooden dormitory at the camp, Dad got his insistence that the only proper surface for cards and poker chips was an army blanket, on a cot or on the kitchen table, depending on the circumstance.)

One time as Dad’s crew surveyed the routes for fire roads in the national parks up in those steep West Virginian hills, they found some old stone markers, leaning every which way, set by a surveyor who came through there in the 1760’s, back along those ancient pathways through the river gaps in the Allegheny Mountains, first laid down by deer. The Indians followed these tracks. Settlers in their lumbering wagons, pulled by oxen, called one of them the National Road. (Dad said that some of our ancestors–the Wetzels? I sometimes wonder–made the arduous journey from Long Swamp, Pennsylvania, across those mountains, probably on one of those roads, to settle in Clarion County near the western border of the state.) Nowadays eighteen-wheelers and automobiles hurtle east and west along the interstates built on these ancient routes.

Looking at those old stone mile markers, one of Dad’s buddies said, “This fellow sure was a lousy surveyor. Look how crooked these markers are. And they don’t line up at all.”

“Well, sir, you’re wrong about that,” my dad said. “He was a great surveyor. You’ve got to take into account the way creeks have eroded the land hereabouts and the hills have slumped in the past hundred and fifty years. When you do, you’ll see that surveyor had a true eye and did wonderful work, especially considering the equipment he used.”

Then Dad would briefly pause for effect before he delivered the kicker to this story. “That surveyor was George Washington, you know.” (Chill bumps would rise all up and down my arms whenever Dad told me this story.)

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But I know for a fact that Dad stole one of his best stories. Before I tell it, though, I have to lay in some background.

In 1936, Dad was still a surveyor, only for the water company instead of the CCC, when a pretty young nurse and her friend came down from New Jersey to the Monongahela National Forest of West Virginia for a vacation. An old snapshot labeled “July 19, 1936, Mingo Mountain” in my mother’s small, neat handwriting shows Mom and Dad leaning against a waist-high tree stump.

They married almost exactly a year later on “Seven Eleven Thirty-seven,” which Dad, into numerology in his seventies, always declared his lucky day and a truly lucky number.

Sometime in the fifties, perhaps after a visit to a museum in New Jersey, Dad stole the story of Miles Smith and Sir Digby Legard’s two beautiful daughters from Mom’s side of the family tree. Of course, he proceeded to make this story so thoroughly his own that my daughter grew up thinking it came from his side of the family instead of her grandmother’s.

My cousin, Sarah Faye Meurer, our mothers’ family genealogist, and I have speculated about this yarn back and forth by e-mail and I’ve decided that the way my dad tells the story and the way it happened were quite different. My cousin discovered information about Miles Smith, Esquire, in a book called Journal of the Tour in the United States of America 1794-1795 by William Strickland who traveled with Miles Smith and his family from Britain to America aboard The Fair American in 1794. The Smith family’s departure from England seems motivated partly by Miles’ troubled relationship with his father-in-law, Sir Digby Legard. (The spelling of the last name, sometimes with two d’s and sometimes with only one, varies from place to place on the family tree.) Miles’ family included his wife Jane Legard, who’d recently given birth to a baby boy that died and was buried at sea on August 24, 1794, and five or six other children. (The records are unclear on that score.) In the fall of 1794, soon after their arrival, Miles traveled with Strickland who described him as “an interesting companion, whose good humour alleviated the fatigues of a journey.” But Smith had to return to his family “who under the new circumstances of a new country, might want his assistance,” a bit of an understatement, I think.

In fact, Jane died on September 11, 1795, a little over a year after coming to America. (Quite possibly, life here or caring for her kids that Strickland described as “Savages” was too much for her.) After Jane’s death, Strickland arranged Miles’ marriage to Sir Digby’s younger daughter, Henrietta Charlotte. Though she was thirty-eight, she and Miles had a daughter and a son together. Henrietta died before Miles, who didn’t marry a third time, maybe because Sir Digby was fresh out of daughters.

Of course, the way my dad told this story was a lot different. His Miles Smith, far from being a lawyer, family man, and gentleman sheep farmer, greatly resembled Sir Walter Scott’s young Lochinvar, come riding out of the West. As my dad told the tale (and I pictured it), Miles Smith, dashingly dressed, drop-dead handsome, his hair long and blond and flowing, sailed to Britain from a savage new world where single-handedly he’d fought off hordes of Indians and hacked a homestead from the wilderness. After Miles landed in England, he laid eyes on Sir Digby Legard’s beautiful older daughter, in a virginally white gown with a Juliet cap on her dark tresses, as she stood on a moonlit balcony of a grand mansion. Instantly he fell in love with her. Once he’d climbed up the rose vines to her, she fell in love with him. So he swept her up in his arms, carried her down the vines and set her in front of him on his horse. Embracing her with his brawny arms, he galloped away with her to the ship that sailed off into the sunset. When Jane died tragically (with no mention of the five or six savage children), Miles Smith sailed back to England to make off with Jane’s equally beautiful younger sister Henrietta (replay of virginally white gown, Juliet cap, moonlit balcony, etc.) much to Sir Digby Legard’s anger and dismay.

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Not at all surprisingly, my father and parts of his stories appear in my stories and novels. For example, Cinderella’s dad in my Cinderella, P. I. fairy tale mysteries for grown-up is a civil engineer like my father and physically greatly resembles my father. Ambrose Gibbs, a Kansas City police officer who appears in January Jinx, the first novel in my calendar historical mystery series, and Mischief in March, the third, looks like my daddy, too. It’s not at all by accident that the garment factory in Fatal February, the second book of the calendar mysteries, is named Digby, Ledgard, and Smith. In“The Barn Door,” a forthcoming prequel short story to the calendar mysteries, a character has a wiggly white mustache like my dad’s. Finally, and in a very real way, almost every time I write dialogue for the characters in my calendar mysteries, I hear the story-telling voice of my father, Homer Dale Willman, Sr., who was  born on November 27, 1903, and who died on June 19, 1991.

Happy Father’s Day, Daddy

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The Cinderella, P. I. fairy tale mystery novels and story collections and calendar historical mystery novels are available as eBooks and trade paperbacks from Amazon.com. Here’s the link to my Amazon Author Central page:

https://www.amazon.com/Juliet-Kincaid/e/B00DB4HWRG/ref=dp_byline_cont_ebooks_1

 

The Gardener

Recently, while working on a prequel story for my calendar mystery series called “The Barn Door” that takes place on the 4th of July weekend in 1898, I decided to give one of the characters a vegetable garden. And that led me to think about my dad and his gardens. Here’s my piece on that subject, originally published on my website in 2011 as “My Father’s Gardens.”

My father, Homer Dale Willman, Sr., used to say, “When the Corps hired me, they took a great farmer and made him into a half-assed engineer.”

Still, though he worked over twenty years for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, my father always had a garden if only three strips around the patio. Until his last summer, he grew at least a little something, maybe vibrant begonias, a geranium in a big pot, a climbing rose, possibly hollyhocks, usually mint so he could watch the telecast of the Kentucky Derby on the first Saturday in May with an icy julep in hand. And always, always, he had a tomato plant or two.

Back in the fifties and sixties, the prime years of his backyard gardens, he put lots of effort into his tomatoes. We lived in the tri-state region of Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia where winters were mild (though Dad always hoped for some snow to put nitrogen into the dirt). After the ground warmed and softened along about Easter, Dad took his shovel out to his garden patch to prepare the soil.

My mom used to kid my dad about “digging to China” because to him preparation meant digging a pit eighteen inches across and three feet deep for each tomato plant. He partially refilled each hole with compost, manure and other nourishing substances mixed with loose dirt.

The newly planted tomato plants–named Big Boy, Better Boy, Early Boy and Rutgers–looked scrawny so far apart, their sparse leaves insufficient to fuel growth. They did grow though. Usually by the Fourth of July, Dad would push aside those leaves, releasing the acrid odor that set our stomachs to growling, and with a gentle tug, pick the first tomato of the season. Mom, Dad, my brother Dale, and I fought over that first tomato, so ripe the skin peeled off clean and biting the tongue with its acidity. By late summer, the plants, lovingly tied to their stakes with strips of old sheet, stood eight feet high and loaded with tomatoes Mom canned, made juice with or begged neighbors to haul away.

Maybe the secret of Dad’s tomatoes lay in his compost pile that he researched, built and maintained like a true engineer. The compost pile I remember best was a four-foot cube of vegetable peels and melon rinds, musty grass clippings, twigs, lime, and goat manure he got as partial payment for a ship model he built for a friend who owned a herd of goats.

Dad made a hole in the center of the compost pile so air got inside and furthered the controlled decay. Once, out of curiosity, he tied some string to a thermometer and lowered it into the hole. In less than a minute, the thermometer broke. Later, with Mom’s candy thermometer, Dad discovered that the compost pile had reached 135 degrees.

Usually, Dad scaled his gardens small, but back in the late forties when we lived in the aptly named Garden Court, he almost filled the back yard with his vegetable plot. Forty by sixty feet, it ran from the house back almost to the tree-lined creek. Pieces of string stretched between sticks defined the plot so meticulously it looked like Dad had laid the garden out with a surveyor’s transit.

Dad bragged about that garden having fifty different varieties of plants. They included tomatoes of course, potatoes, corn, green peppers, red peppers, scallions, onions, cucumbers, and Black-seeded Simpson leaf lettuce. Instead of cantaloupe, that Dad said didn’t prosper in our climate, he grew muskmelons. Radishes started the growing season and beets finished it. Many of the vegetables I’ve forgotten now, but I still love to recite exotic names like zucchini, kohlrabi, and cocazelle.

We all got involved in Dad’s gardens. One year we had so much cabbage that Mom canned it. Dad paid Dale a penny a hundred head to pick bugs and beetles out of the garden. Dad never let me forget that those pretty yellow hollyhocks I picked one year were actually squash blossoms. Once, we tried to shell tough-hulled soybeans by putting them through Mom’s washer wringer. The beans popped out the other side and Dale and I chased them as they bounced around the kitchen floor.

My father’s gardens . . . Whenever I think of them, I see a picture of him in my mind.

Small-boned, with a mustache, my father wears a billed cap to keep his scalp from burning, a tan shirt dark with sweat under the arms, tan pants cut off and neatly hemmed above his knobby knees, and muddy shoes too worn to wear to work anymore. He leans against a shovel stuck into a pile of dirt. And dreaming of fresh tomatoes by the Fourth of July, he grins.

I don’t have a picture of my dad in his gardening togs, but here’s one of him, taken around 1973 when he was 70, that shows his wonderful grin.

January Jinx, Fatal February, and Mischief in March, the first three calendar mysteries set in Kansas City a hundred years or so ago, are available as eBooks and trade paperbacks from Amazon.com. Look for “The Barn Door,” a calendar mystery prequel short story, coming soon as a Kindle eBook.

A Family Story

A Family Story

Part of the backstory for my calendar mysteries explains how Minty Wilcox, her mother, and the two youngest members of the family came to live in Kansas City. This story focuses on Minty’s youngest brother, Eddie, born with a clubfoot. When Eddie was around six or so and going to a country school, the other kids made fun of him for the way he walked. Similar to the way Lord Byron was said to move, first he thrust one foot forward and then dragged the other up next to it.

After Eddie came home from school crying day after day, his mother Laura Girard Wilcox moved her youngest three children (Minty, Eddie, and Peach) into Kansas City where she could find much better medical care than she could in rural Kansas at the time. Her effort paid off, and several operations partly cured Eddie’s condition though when we first see him in January Jinx, he wears special shoes and sometimes limps.

The boy with the clubfoot is based on my great uncle Croswell Doane Perkins, also born with a clubfoot. Not long after my uncle Doane’s birth on October 15, 1884, our great grandmother Laura Wilcox Perkins sold the family farm in Hobart, NY, and moved to New Brunswick, NJ. From there, she took her baby son by train into New York City for several surgeries, so he spent much of his infancy with a foot and leg inside casts.

Please note that the family story credits only my great grandmother Perkins with saving our uncle Doane from a cripple’s life. It doesn’t mention our great grandfather Charles Samuel Perkins, born around 1844. My cousin Sarah Faye Morse recently checked the family records for me and confirmed that Charles S. Perkins fathered two more children with his Laura and died in 1905. So he undoubtedly was around in 1884/5 to help make important decisions like selling the family farm and moving his family from the place his forbears settled in the late 18th century if not earlier. But perhaps my mother, born on November 1, 1910, and Faye’s mother, born on March 12, 1913, omitted our great grandfather Perkins from the story because he died before they had a chance to meet him.

Suffice it to say, both our great grandparents Perkins made considerable sacrifices to ensure that their fourth-born child lived and prospered. Indeed, after he grew up and got married, our great uncle Doane won dancing contests with his wife. Or so the family story goes . . .

In this photograph, taken around 1896, Uncle Doane is the boy on the right, slightly behind his mother, Laura Perkins. The girl in the back is my great aunt Melicent Perkins. The young woman on the left is my grandmother Juliet Perkins Smith, for whom I’m named. The little boy in front is the youngest boy, Charles Andrew Perkins, and the little girl is Faye Marguerite Perkins, for whom my cousin is named.

January Jinx, Fatal February, and Mischief in March, the first three novels in the calendar mystery series that feature Minty Wilcox and Daniel Price from newly met to newly wed and beyond in Kansas City  a place that could get downright deadly a hundred years or so ago, are available as Kindle eBooks and trade paperbacks at Amazon.com.

 

 

Looking for Old Kansas City, Part 2

Inside the New England Building

(See my blog post of August 25, 2016, for Part 1.)

When I began researching and writing my calendar mystery series set in Kansas City around a hundred years ago, I decided to place the detective agency my heroine Minty Wilcox works for in the historic New England Building, a handsome brownstone seven-story structure with a distinctive oriel on its southwest corner. It was the first building in Kansas City to have elevators.

Originally, Price Investigations was on an upper floor of the New York Life Insurance Building. But during a site visit several years ago, I discovered that I couldn’t get above the first floor of the New York Life Building, so I decided to move the agency just a little west on Ninth Street to the New England Life Insurance Building on Wyandotte. When I visited that building several years ago, I climbed the stairs inside to the third floor and looked around. But I didn’t go inside any of the offices. Still, taking a leap of imagination, I decided to place the agency in the third floor office that had the oriel.

This location served me well for the end of January Jinx and all of Fatal February. However, once I started Mischief in March, I realized I would have to know the interior layout of that two-room office suite because in the course of the first part of the book, it would become a crime scene! Yikes! The Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps, an exquisite poster of the building showing four of its seven floors, and the original architectural drawings offered limited help. Particularly troublesome was that pesky oriel. Was it big enough for a chair? I wondered, or just for a Boston fern?

And so I decided I simply had to get into that building and walk around in that space. However, by that time, a new wrinkle to my search had developed. The New England Building had become a construction site as it was being converted into apartments and thus was off limits to the public.

Nevertheless, I called the company that now owns the building and they said they’d give me a tour. Another problem arose. When I actually got inside the New England Building, I discovered most of the interior walls were gone, but there still were marks on the floor showing where they’d been, so I got a feeling for the space. Here’s a shot of an original door with the mail slot and one of the fireplaces with a cast iron mantel.

And I got inside the oriel. It turns out it’s big enough to hold an easy chair where the agency manager might sit to read the Kansas City Star, and maybe also a potted Boston fern. But the big surprise to me, something I wouldn’t have known until I actually went there, is the oriel is two stories high both outside and inside as well. Here are some pictures. Isn’t that oriel the coolest thing?

 

 

 

 

 

 

January Jinx is available as a trade paperback and as a Kindle eBook for $3.99 at www.amazon.com/dp/B00HSSSBE4

Fatal February is available as a trade paperback and as a Kindle eBook for $3.99 at www.amazon.com/dp/B017081JHM

Mischief in March will soon be available as a trade paperback and now is available as a Kindle eBook  at www.amazon.com/dp/B06XR1STRN  for $3.99.

Almost Done Doing Mischief

WiP Report # 19

This morning—I’m very pleased to say—I finished the current draft of Mischief in March, the third in my Calendar Mystery series featuring mystery and romance in Kansas City, a place that could get downright deadly a hundred years or so ago. January Jinx, Fatal February, Mischief in March, nine other novels and possibly some short stories to follow, tell the story of Minty Wilcox and Daniel Price from newly met to newly wed and beyond. (We authors must practice our elevator speeches as much as possible.) Tomorrow I’ll start the final edit.

Overall, I’m quite pleased with this book. It’s very much the favorite among the ten or so novels I’ve at least drafted so far. The characters still surprise me and make me laugh or sometimes cry.

But I did have a  thorny problem to resolve in this draft. I went way too far in naming my characters.

At this point, I must thank those who read the first half of the previous draft of MiM, as I call it, and gave me helpful feedback: Ann F, Barbara O, Denise G, Joyce B, Peg N, and Valerie B.

Special thanks to Valerie for the effort she went to in creating the charts shown here. Whew! What a lot of work for her to do for another writer’s book, but what a help these charts were to me. As the first one shows, I introduced two-dozen characters in Chapter One. That’s a lot! As the second chart shows, I used names that started with the letter M thirteen times in the first half of the book! Yikes!

Once Valerie pointed out the errors of my ways, I addressed the problem.

1) I cut a number of characters from MiM altogether including characters who appeared in previous books, but didn’t in MiM.

2) I limited the number of characters appearing in any one chapter and tried to introduce them one or two at a time instead of all at once.

3) I only named the characters when they physically appeared instead of referring to them by name earlier.

4) I didn’t name minor characters like an elevator attendant.

5) By studying Valerie’s second chart, I identified the letters of the alphabet I used too often and the ones I hadn’t used much if at all. And so, the Sullenbergers in the earlier draft now are the Quillens and the book now has a Zappa and a Ziegenhorn.

Mischief in March will be out soon. If you haven’t read January Jinx, you can buy it for $3.99 at www.amazon.com/dp/B00HSSSBE4. You can also buy Fatal February for $4.99 at www.amazon.com/dp/B017081JHM. Please note, British friends, that Fatal February will be available for only £0.99 at www.amazon.co.uk/B017081JHM from February 27, 2017, until March 4, 2017.

Best, Juliet

Calling Long Distance in 1900

Making a long distance telephone call in 1900 was pretty complicated.

For instance, in Mischief in March, the third in my Calendar mystery series, when Minty Wilcox wants to make a call from Kansas City to her uncle Charles in St. Joseph, MO, she can’t just grab her cell or even pick up her home phone and do it. Instead, she has to go through a fairly long process.

1) A day or so before Minty wants to make her call, she goes to the Coates House Hotel to make an appointment. She also pays for the call up front. At 50 cents, or about $50 today, it was expensive, too.

2) In the interim between making the appointment for the call and making the call, the operator sets up the connections on the lines to the destination for the call. (When the first commercial telephone exchanges opened began providing service in 1878, the operators were young men or boys. They soon proved to be too impatient for the job, so by 1900 most telephone operators were women.)

3) The next day Minty returns to the hotel and goes inside a telephone booth, also called a “silence cabinet.” When the telephone rings, she picks up the earpiece from the wall phone. And finally, after the operator completes the connection, Minty talks to her uncle Charles.

We can count our blessings that long distance calling is so easy these days.

 

 

 

 

January Jinx, the first Calendar mystery, is available for $3.99 at www.amazon.com/dp/B00HSSSBE4 and Fatal February, the second, is available for $4.99 at www.amazon.com/dp/B017081JHM. Both eBooks are free from Kindle Unlimited. Look for Mischief in March coming in 2017.

Dare I Say Bah Humbug?

WiP Report # 18

What I’ve named “my week from H3LL” threatened to turn me all Scroogish as I began the annual trek through the holidays this year.

You see, during the first week of every month, I usually have four meetings and a lunch in addition to my usual weekly activities of attending an art class; teaching a novel writing class; self-maintenance like going to four Jazzercise classes; running a household; and continuing my career as a self-published author.

But the first week of December 2016 became a week from H3LL for me even though I cut a meeting and a class.

Here are the extra things I did during the first week of December 2016.

1) I went to lunch not once but twice. (I spent the second lunch worrying about completing chore # 4 listed below in a timely fashion.)

2) I copyrighted and promoted the last book in my Cinderella, P. I. fairy tale mystery series.

3) I participated in an indie author event. Here I am, dressed up as Minty Wilcox, the heroine of my Calendar Mystery series, with fellow indie authors Joyce Ann Brown and Terry Showalter at Readers World in Lees Summit, MO, on December 3, 2016.

4) Recently, we bought a new car that I licensed on December 5.

5) I had to appear for jury duty at federal court. (I’m happy to report that I was dismissed so that I didn’t have to cancel any more of my novel-writing classes.)

All these tasks didn’t help me at all as I struggled to find time for the goal I’d set for myself—completing the current draft of my WiP, Mischief in March, the third novel in my Calendar Mystery series.

To add to the stress of performing these tasks, even the fun ones like a very special holiday dinner book club meeting, I developed insomnia. My novelist’s habit of creating worst-case scenarios at every turn compounded the stress. (You don’t want to hear the worst-case scenarios I’ve come up with since Donald J. Trump got elected.)

Still, I hung in there and I completed it though on the second Monday of the month, not the first. At 102,000 words, this draft is a bit longer than I like. But I’m pretty pleased with it otherwise. (An early reader said, “Mischief in March had a delightful sauciness to it.” Thank you so much, Peg.)

So now I’ve cast bah-humbugs aside and set myself free to enjoy holiday tasks like signing and addressing greeting cards and decorating a tiny Christmas tree.

Happy holidays to all of you, my friends.

P. S. You’ll find Cinderella, P. I., First Case to Last for $2.99 and free on Kindle Unlimited at www.amazon.com/dp/B01MXC0MED

P. S. S. My New Year’s resolution is to cut way back on extra commitments in 2017, especially those scheduled for the first week of the month, so I can write more. What’s yours?