Fiction Writing and Other Oddities

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Desperate for a Holiday Gift Suggestion?

Holiday Gift Suggestion
It's that time of year when desperation increases to a fever pitch as you struggle to complete your collection of gifts. I recently spent several hours--which turned into several days--searching the web for ideas.

So I humbly offer up this as a possible alternative: a cookbook. Or perhaps a cookbook along with some cooking utensils such as a muffin tin or cookie sheet. And there are always new items in the kitchen section. I know I recently became fascinated by all the silicone items for baking.

And since the holidays are a time of year devoted to friends, family, and nostalgia, what could be better than an old fashioned cookbook? The Rowley Cookbook is a collection of recipes dating from 1916 through 1960 and includes many old favorites that most adults will remember fondly.

I transcribed the recipes for the book from my grandmother's old ledger that she used as a cookbook after she got married. Much of it was, unfortunately, written in washable ink that had faded or disappeared altogether. However, thanks to new technology I was able to scan, enlarge, and see the actual indentations in the page left by the pen strokes and thereby recreate even those recipes that appeared to be gone forever.

Just reading through the table of contents brings back warm memories of all the delicious treats grandma made for us. During the holidays, she baked boxes and boxes of cookies and candies, and throughout the season, the house was filled with the aroma of vanilla, cinnamon and chocolate.

Some recipes are intended for the holidays, such as the Jule Kaga recipe collected by my grandmother from her Swedish and Norwegian friends in Wisconsin.  The list of holiday recipes in the book includes: Jule Kaga; Holiday Fruit Cake; Christmas Dixies; three varied recipes for Christmas Cookies; Sand Bakkels (2 versions); Spritz Bakkels; Kolacky and Rosettes.

Below is a recipe for sugar-coated muffins that was always a favorite of mine. It is particularly wonderful to wake up on Christmas morning to find the kitchen filled with the scent of cinnamon and these warm muffins on the counter. It was almost better than the gifts under the tree.

So if your desperation is reaching monumental proportions, how about a muffin tin and a cookbook?
Or better yet, a muffin tin, a paper bag full of sugar-coated muffins, and the cookbook that contains the recipe?

And just to wet your appetite, here is the recipe for Sugar-coated Muffins:


2 c. flour
2 Tbsp. sugar
2-½ tsp. baking powder

(Sift the 3 preceding ingredients together)

3/4 tsp. salt
1 egg
3/4 c. milk
1/3 c. shortening

Mix together and bake at 350° for approximately20 minutes.

1 c. sugar
1 tsp. cinnamon
½ c. butter

Mix sugar and cinnamon in a sack or plastic bag. Melt butter and drop muffins in melted butter and then shake in the sack of sugar & cinnamon.

Happy holidays and best wishes!
I'm going to do some baking now.  I've made myself hungry...

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Myths and Show vs Tell

Lately I was witness to an online writing class that propagated some misinformation and made my head explode. So I had to write a "rebuttal". The class was theoretically on "show versus tell" which is the writer axiom that you should "show" your reader the action or scene versus just telling them. More on that later.

So, anyway, this teacher equated telling with passive voice (NO relationship exists) and worse, equated passive voice with the use of past progressive verbs (NO relationship exists).

I was appalled because the creation and spread of "writer myths" only serves to confuse ingénue authors. It is a disservice and gives other online presenters a bad name.

So I am picking up the role of the grumpy grammarian—and this is a role to which I'm ill-suited. I'm not particularly good at this either. I mean, I've never been able to make sense of Strunk and White's "Elements of Style" so who am I to set myself up as an expert?

Well, I do check and double-check my information. And I've included the references I used to write this blog. They are at the bottom.

Note: a Tell is a gambling term meaning an involuntary or unconscious gesture, expression, or indication of what someone is thinking/planning. A tell telegraphs what an opponent has or is about to do.

In this article, a Tell is the hint or shortcut way to identify something. It should not be confused with "telling" as in "Show versus Tell". If you know what I mean. J

Here goes.

Myth 1: Show versus Tell

Telling is bad, showing is good. Sometimes. Sometimes you need to tell when you just need to move the story along (or have length limits). Telling is to simply tell the reader what the character is feeling, i.e. she felt angry, rather than showing the reader, i.e. she screamed, stamped her foot, and threw a frying pan at his head in a burst of rage.

This has absolutely nothing to do with passive voice, verb tenses or the use of the much maligned word "was".

The Tell for Show versus Tell

Telling: Telling is almost always just an adjective or adverb, and it is a word or two long. Or a brief phrase. So it's really short. That's how you identify when you are telling and not showing.

Showing: Long, long, long. Takes at least a sentence and usually an entire paragraph to adequately show. May actually involve several paragraphs. It is how you "prove" the character is feeling/seeing/thinking something.


Telling, ex. 1

Terrified, she struggled with her assailant.

Telling, ex. 2

The garden was beautiful.

In the first sentence, you're telling us that she's terrified, but you've shown us nothing to make us feel her terror or prove that she's terrified. The writer might think that it's so obvious that she should be terrified if she's under attack that this brief description "says it all". But that's the seduction of telling and why it's so easy to tell versus show. Because it's efficient, particularly when dealing with the obvious.

This may be useful when you need to move a scene along, or when the scene only involves secondary, unimportant characters. But you can't always tell or your readers will never become engrossed enough in your characters to care about them. Your story will fall flat because you don't explore your character's views, feelings, perceptions, or surroundings.

In the second example, you're telling the reader that the garden is beautiful, but giving us no proof or indication that it is beautiful. Why is it beautiful? What's in the garden that makes it beautiful?


She panted in short gasps. Her arms shook as she gripped his wrist and pushed it upward. But he was strong—stronger than her—and his blade descended, closer and closer. Fear rippled through her as beads of icy sweat rolled down her sides. Her damp hands slipped a fraction. The tip was just an inch from her face. She was going to die. She could almost feel the cold, sharp metal plunging through her vulnerable eye into her brain. She blinked as if her fragile eyelid could stop that blade. Twisting, she desperately tightened her aching, trembling muscles, using her last ounce of strength to hold him off.

And so on.

In the second example, a description of the flowers in the garden, the style of gardening, and your character's opinion of the garden—what aspects she likes, for example—would show that the garden is beautiful and make it showing instead of telling.

See how long that showing paragraph was? That's the tell for showing. You are showing the reader how the character is feeling, why she is feeling it, what she's doing, and what she is thinking.

And it has absolutely nothing to do with verb tenses or passive voice.

Myth 2: "Was" + "-ing" verb is Telling

The use of was + a verb ending in –ing has absolutely nothing to do with showing versus telling—which involves how you describe your character's emotions or paint the scene. Equating "was" + "-ing" with telling is an incredibly misleading statement and perhaps the teacher of the online writing class just got carried away. Or said something she didn't really mean. It is perfectly acceptable to incorporate varied sentences including "was" + "-ing" verb forms while showing. Ironically, it would actually be hard to incorporate "was" + "-ing" verb forms into something that would be "telling" as opposed to "showing".

She was reading a book when she was attacked.

That's actually neither showing nor telling. The showing/telling point comes when you describe her reaction to this.


Terrified, she ran away.


She heard a noise and glanced up from her book, heart pounding. A man was running toward her. Light glinted off the knife in his hand. Who? How did he get in? Moving without thinking, she threw the book at him as she scrambled to her feet and sprinted toward the kitchen. If she could reach the back door, she could escape—she just had to make it make it that far. Just a few yards to the door

Unfortunately, the online teacher also compounded her misleading statement by claiming that was + a verb ending in –ing is passive voice which it is not. It is a progressive form of a verb showing a continuing action (versus an action which stopped already). As in the above example (which is showing) where: A man was running toward her.

And it isn't the verb form that identifies passive voice.

In fact, was + a verb ending in –ing is almost never passive. The only way to make it passive is to add the word "being" in between was and the verb as in: She was being hit.

Myth 3: Passive Voice and "Was" + Verb Ending in "-ing"

Definition: "Was" + verb ending in "-ing" is past progressive. Past progressive means the action is continuing. This verb form is often used to indicate some continuing action that occurs concurrent with some other action, i.e. She was thinking of work when the bus hit her. That sentence is active, not passive. The action of thinking was underway, continuing and concurrent with the action of the bus hitting her.

To break it down:

She was thinking of work when the bus hit her.

Active voice for both clauses: "She was thinking" and the adverbial clause "when the bus hit her".

"She" is taking the action of "thinking".

In the adverbial clause, the "bus" is taking the action of "hitting" the object of the action, "her".

She was thinking of work when she was hit by the bus.

This complex sentence has an active component and a passive adverbial clause.

Active clause: "She" is taking the action of "thinking".

Passive adverbial clause: "She" is both the subject and the object of the action. The action is "hit" and the doer of the action is the "bus". But the "bus" is not the subject. "She" is the subject. So the recipient (object) of the action is also the subject. That is what makes it passive.

Note: in that sentence you probably want the passive construction to keep the focus of the reader on the woman, rather than switching focus to the bus. Who cares about the bus except in the aspect of what it did to the woman?

And "was" + "-ing" verbs are not and will never be tells for telling versus showing. Past progressive is related to how you construct your sentence, not what your sentence is describing. Showing versus telling is about what your sentences are describing, not how the sentences are constructed.

Myth 4: Passive Voice and "Was"

Definition: Passive voice is where the subject of the sentence is the recipient (object) of the action, rather than the doer of the action. It has to do with the subject/object of the verb, not the particular verb form used. "Was" is much maligned. Writers need to get over the idea that using "was" is bad or always indicative of passive voice.

And get over the idea that passive voice is always bad while active is good. This is only sometimes true. Sometimes you need passive voice to retain the focus on the subject (i.e. your character) rather than changing the focus to an unimportant object. However, the reasons to use passive voice aren't the subject of this blog.

The Tell for Passive Voice

Passive Voice: Passive is indicated by the subject. Is the subject doing the action or the recipient (object) of the action?

Another way to look at it

She was hitting the bus. This is active. It is also past progressive.
And most likely, no one got hurt. The object of the action is the bus.

She was hit by the bus. This is passive. It is past and passive. And it is this form that gives "was" a bad rap, and why so many people assume that when you see "was" it is passive. But as you can see, "was" isn't a good tell, because the real tell is if the subject is also the object of the action. The subject and the object of the action are both the woman.

You'll notice that in order to make it passive, you have to remove the –ing verb and replace it. Hinting that "was" + "-ing" is rarely a passive construction.

I've written previous blogs about passive, so I won't go further into it at this point.

And, as promised, here are the references I used in writing this blog:

"Instant English Handbook" by Madeline Semmelmeyer and Donald Bolander

"Harbrace College Handbook" by John Hodges and Mary Whitten

"Plain English Handbook" by J. Martyn Walsh and Anna Kathleen Walsh *This is my favorite

"Creating Character Emotions" by Ann Hood

Good luck and don't believe everything you read on the Internet. Not even me. J

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Quickie Holiday Post

Just a quick, short holiday post as I'm trying to clean house and do all my chores in one day. Blogging is a great way to temporarily avoid housework.

We got our tree up--well, that sounds a lot more impressive than it is, because we just have a cheap little tree sans decorations, although I also got some cheap little clear plastic boxes with twinkly lights inside to be the "presents" around the tree. But at night it does look sweet. And if I get more ambitious, I might even put out some of my hundreds of other holiday decorations like little Santa candles and so on.

And yesterday, I spent some time making minature moss gardens to give as gifts.  The substrate is some old bark from trees decomposing in our woods, then I added the moss which grows everywhere here.

Finally, I added some more small fragments of bark to act as tiny tree stumps growing out of the mossy ground. They came out a lot better than I thought they would. For the jars themselves, I used some Weck canning jars. I ran out of the rubber gaskets to use them "for real" for canning, so I'm putting them to good use, now, in another way.

As far as care, well, they don't need much.  Just a little watering now and again and indirect light. The bigger jars were old potpourri jars that folks gave me over the year.  The largest jar has an additional "boulder" at the base of the "tree stumps" to give it a little more interest.

So if you're running out of ideas for gifts, this is one.  Of course, I'm also encouraging folks to get their very own copy of my cookbook, The Rowley Cookbook, available from  It's got a bunch of old recipes that you probably won't find elsewhere, although there are plenty of the more common ones as well.  Most of the recipes are from the years of the Great Depression, so there are a lot of "hot dishes" (i.e. casseroles) that make the most of a few ingredients.

But one of the better reasons to buy it during the holiday season is the huge number of cookie and cake recipes.  My grandmother always baked boxes of cookies for the holidays--so many that the house had a delicious aroma of cinnamon and vanilla all through the Season.

I'm hoping to make a few of her recipes this year--since I'm being severely stricken with nostalgia. (I'm also stricken with a complete inability to spell, but that's another story.)

So have a wonderful holiday and enjoy the Season.

Warmest of wishes for the best year ever!

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Research May Be Key

Before I get started with my main topic for this blog, I wanted to share some good news. Over the summer, I transcribed my grandmother's cookbook with nearly 200 recipes from 1916 through 1960. It's called The Rowley Cookbook, and it's now available, just in time for the holiday season from It was a true labor of love and I'm very glad to have it published for all my family, friends, and anyone who enjoys good, home cooking.

It is interesting to talk to other authors, particularly about the research they do for their novels. I may have said this before, but I have noticed that those authors who do the most background work are often the ones who also "make it big". And this is true even for those authors who write complete fantasies like Harry Potter.

Fantasy writers spend months, if not years, developing their worlds and working out all the rules and inner workings of their universe. The more richly complex and yet consistent that setting is, the higher the quality of the story. And yet often, while the author spends a considerable amount of time working out that background, it may be only briefly visible to the reader.

Research is like that. You do a great deal—perhaps months of research—just to have one small reference ring true.

So a lot of writers decide to skim through the research, or perhaps decide it is simply not that important. For example, there are a great many writers who will write a historical and their research is simply reading other historical novels. They often say that modern readers find too much accuracy to be off-putting and that it produces a stilted, unreadable novel.

What they don't realize is that the research must be done to produce a setting for the characters that strikes the reader as true to life. You can't, for example, have a reader believe that your Regency heroine whips a revolver out of her petticoat and squeezes off five or six shots (depending upon the revolver). Revolvers weren't in common use until the middle of the 19th century, around the time of the Civil War, although early models were available slightly before that. And there were oddities such as the pepper box earlier. However, the point is that it would be anachronistic to include a revolver in a Regency story.

And the inclusion or rather, exclusion, of anachronistic details so your book is accurate will not make a stilted, unreadable manuscript. Writers should not confuse the use of detailed accurate settings with the belief that accuracy equates to a boring story. What makes a stilted, boring story is stilted, boring dialogue, poor plotting, and cardboard characters.

This holds as true for contemporary as it does for historical books. The stories that end up hitting the best seller lists are those which are well grounded in a realistic setting. I believe this is why so many folks give (and get) the advice to "write what you know". That is, in essence, short hand for saying, do your research. If you are writing what you know, then one presumes you don't need to do as much research, since you've already, in essence, done it. You know it.

But it would be equally wise to say, "write whatever you wish as long as it's well-researched." And if it's fantasy, then plan out the rules to your universe to keep it consistent. That is the "research" for fantasy worlds.

Well, I'm repeating myself now so I'll stop. I really wrote this because I'm shortly planning on expanding my website with information I've collected in doing research for my latest work in progress, Deadliest Rose. Some of it is downright gross, because for some inexplicable reason, I've become absorbed in medical developments and techniques of the early 19th century. But I find it fascinating and hope sometime soon to include some of my research on my website ( If nothing else, it will help m keep track of information I may need in later novels.

That's all for this evening. Hope you are having a wonderful holiday season!