Bookshelf

Death by Past Perfect

Death by Past Perfect

I recently read a good short story, "Dry Whiskey" by David B. Silva (The Best American Mystery Stories 1999, ed. Ed McBain). The story builds unassumingly to a subtly powerful ending. However, the author struggles with the use of past perfect tense, enough so that it interferes with a smooth reading experience.

Past perfect tense is formed by combining the auxiliary verb had with a verb's past participle (had written, for example).

Rule 12 and Lady Audley's Secret

In The Elements of Style, rule 12, William Strunk Jr. writes, “Choose a suitable design and hold to it ... Writing, to be effective, must follow closely the thoughts of the writer, but not necessarily in the order in which those thoughts occur.” Strunk goes on to say that “design” can refer to something as loosely structured as a personal letter or rigidly organized as a sonnet. The point is to know what we are trying to communicate and choose the appropriate organizing principle so we can write it effectively.

Of course, this is easier said than done, especially when it comes to fiction.

A Children's Biography of Frances Hodgson Burnett

A Children's Biography of Frances Hodgson Burnett

Last fall I attended a children’s book festival and came away with Frances Hodgson Burnett: Beyond the Secret Garden by Angelica Shirley Carpenter (who autographed my book) and Jean Shirley (Minneapolis: Lerner Publications Company, 1990). Children’s biographies about children’s authors are doubly intriguing, and it had been years since I had read a children’s biography.

I remember reading a children’s biography of Louisa May Alcott as a child. I was sorely disappointed by the black-and-white photographs, in which Louisa’s and her family’s faces were massive and severe, and by the facts of Louisa’s life, which was nothing so romantic (I thought at the time) as Jo March’s.

As I began reading Frances Hodgson Burnett, I was prepared for the unglamorous truth about her life and the pictures of her as a sturdy lady corseted up in bizarre Victorian ensembles. What I didn’t expect was the sheer joy of reading a biography written for middle-grade children.

How to Write about Ships for a Landlubber Audience

How to Write about Ships for a Landlubber Audience

One of the many reasons people read is to experience unfamiliar places, people, and events. Books (both fiction and non) are written about space travel, aristocracies, Regency balls, cults, dreamland, Mexico, and sports figures. Authors must sufficiently describe these things so that readers who know nothing about space, inherited titles, or dancing in Empire gowns are able to imagine them.

We don’t want to confuse or alienate readers by not explaining things with which they are likely to be unfamiliar. Nor do we want to interrupt our stories or talk down to our readers by overexplaining.

Finding that balance—a story that sweeps readers along into new, exciting, and imaginable territory—requires a sense of your audience. If you are writing a mystery novel that will likely be read by mystery aficionados, it is not necessary to explain what dusting for fingerprints is. If you are writing a mystery novel that features a person being murdered in a grain silo, it is probably necessary to describe the silo rather than assume that all of your readers have seen the inside of one (unless your novel is for a niche audience of mystery-reading farmers).