In Defense of Grammar

Years ago, before any of my novels or articles were published, I decided that if I was going to get serious about writing I needed a writing class. The instructor wrote children’s books. Past middle age, her long gray hair was twisted into a knot at the back of her neck. She was given to smock tops, tights under her long denim skirts, Birkenstocks, and she was delightfully vague. My perfect mental image of what a children’s author should look like, maybe any author. I’ve learned a lot since then.

She was a lovely person, but she wasn’t a very good teacher. She had no idea how to explain how an author constructed a story, built characters, and incorporated tension. Those things I would learn much later.

What she did do was emphasize the importance of story. And she inadvertently introduced me to the importance of grammar.

There was a man in the class who, from the first day, interrupted constantly to correct her grammar and everyone else’s. He brushed away the idea of story entirely and concentrated on correct sentence structure. Poor lady, she didn’t know how to stop him and fumbled around each class, trying to tell him that it didn’t really matter how correct the sentence was if it didn’t say something interesting. If it didn’t push the story line forward, didn’t build empathy for the characters, it didn’t matter if it wasn’t grammatically correct. No one was going to read it anyway. He finally dropped out.

It took me awhile to realize they were both right.

I grew up in Catholic schools, back in the days when nuns wearing habits, who were addicted to diagramming sentences, staffed them. Maybe that’s why I hated grammar. I didn’t really care if my participles dangled, if my page was littered with commas all in the wrong place, and if my spelling was atrocious. I was a reader; I had no thought of becoming a writer, and didn’t want all those little annoying details to get in the way of a good story.

It is only now, years later, that I realize the importance of grammar. How, for instance, a misplaced comma can impart a different meaning to a sentence than the one you intended. That a complete sentence is not a luxury but a necessity. That misspelled words are like a jumbled jigsaw puzzle and the story stops while the reader tries to figure out what the writer is trying to say. That the best story in the world is no good if poor grammar and misspelling is so distracting that the reader puts it down in frustration.

Where I have really noticed how distracting poor grammar and spelling can be is on the Internet. Today, anyone can comment on anything and post it for the world to see. Those comments are often vitriolic, lambasting everything and everybody. The government, people of other nations, people of faith other than the commentator’s, or merely their neighbor who lets her kids dare to play on the sidewalk, they all get a liberal dose of abuse. The Internet is awash in comments, posted by people who seem to take pride in the fact that their tweet has turned into a squawk. When I’m in the mood for a puzzle, I read some of them. Mostly, I don’t feel strong enough to unravel the wandering thoughts that never seem to come to a conclusion, the lack of punctuation, and the words that are so misspelled you have to guess at them. That’s when I thank Sister Mary St. Herbert for her love affair with the semi-colon and Sister Mary Katherine Patrice for her insistence on complete sentences with proper punctuation. Some of what they taught me actually rubbed off. I wonder, where were these people’s sixth grade teachers? Or are they so intent on posting their pearls of wisdom they don’t re-read what they have written? Maybe they’ve missed the button that takes you to spell check. I’m sure they don’t know where the delete button is or some of their postings would come down before they go up.

One of the first things writers learn is to re-read, and then re-write, what they have written. Does it make sense? Do the words flow together to present the thought accurately, and is the sentence a complete thought? Does that comma really belong there? Should there be a question mark at the end? If you make a point important to you, shouldn’t you take the time to express it in a way that makes sense? More people will read your comments on Facebook or Twitter than will ever read a novel, a scary thought. It doesn’t matter if you’re not a “writer,” just someone who wishes to make an occasional comment. You still need to go back and re-read what you just wrote. You may want to revise that a little. Or a lot. And, in case you missed it, Spell check is under Tools on your space bar and Delete is under your right hand’s little finger.

Those Pesky Dead Bodies

This last weekend I attended the Writers’ Police Academy. It was awesome. It had an impressive list of classes and an equally impressive array of instructors. My first class included walking through the house used to teach cadets how to navigate through billowing smoke. There was no smoke but the smell remained and it was dark. Very dark. My respect for firemen rose about 100%. We learned how to shake down a cell for contraband—it turns out prisoners can be very creative—then how a police dog is trained. After working, she lay at her handlers’ feet, contentedly letting us all pet her while she bit a rubber chew toy instead of an arm.

We watched EMTs roar up and save a gunshot victim’s life. They made the scene was so real that for a moment I thought the victim had actually been shot. We learned about blood spatter patterns and how hard it is to get rid of blood from a murder scene. They even dug a shallow grave in a grove of trees, filled with an obliging dummy and lots of bugs and bad smells. We had a vivid lecture on how hard it is to dispose of a dead body and why cemeteries don’t use shallow graves.

Every mystery/thriller writer knows that the body is always a problem. You can leave it in plain sight, in the dining room where someone is sure to find it quickly, or you can hide it in the woods, where it may take a while before it’s found. That’s where the information we gleaned from this class comes in handy. Most murderers use a shallow grave because they don’t want to put in the hours, or work, it takes to dig a deeper one. After all, the longer you are out there digging, the better the chance someone may notice. However, they also want the evidence to disappear. A totally decayed body is much harder to identify, or so most folks think. But, the decaying process is messy, smelly and takes a while. Ergo, lime.I perked up when he mentioned that, as I’d had some personal experience with it.

Years ago, lime was used a lot in mysteries. So when a neighbor came over one day and complained that a mouse had managed to wedge itself behind her wall board and die, and that the smell was about to drive them into a motel, I suggested pouring lime down the wall. Worked beautifully on corpses in the mysteries I’d read. The only way to do it was to remove the light switch plate and pour a large quantity down the opening so that we’d have a better chance of covering the body. We got rid of the mouse and the smell all right, but we also took out all of the wiring on that wall of the house. I knew what lime did to mice and wires, and was interested in what it might do to bodies. Turns out it’s not nearly as effective, or as quick as it was with the mouse. It is effective at keeping the noxious odors from seeping up to give away the location of the body, but burying it wrapped in heavy plastic is better. It’s bugs and worms that assist in the decaying of a body. If it’s wrapped in plastic, they can’t get to it. However, you’d better bring a piece of plywood to put over the body because all that loose dirt is going to settle. A dead giveaway that something is buried there.

Interesting as all of this has been, I think I’ve given up on shallow graves. After all, I write cozies. It somehow seems more fitting, and a lot tidier, to stick with Miss Scarlet with the pistol in the study.

The Tortuous Path from Idea to Story

Yesterday, I taught a workshop for the OLLI at Clemson University. OLLI, for those of you too young to know, is continuing education for seniors and a chapter can be found at many universities. They delve into all kinds of subjects; from teaching you how to clean your computer of extra stuff you don’t want (a class I need to take) to the history of Jewish Folklore (a class I took) My workshop has been included in their curriculum.

The object of the workshop isn’t to teach people how to write a novel, that pretty much takes a lifetime, but to show them the difference between an idea and a story, and the steps an author takes to make that leap. I handed out an outline I’d brought and started with an idea. We could start to build a story from it several ways but we still needed the basic ingredients. Like baking a cake, only in this case the ingredients were the antagonist, the protagonist, conflict, setting and so on. After we spent a few minutes discussing the outline, I passed out cards and everyone wrote down an idea of their own. We picked one at random and we were off.

An hour later, we had a protagonist who actually was fleshed out. We knew what he looked like, what his childhood had been like, that he was a widower, and a lot about his frustration with getting old and loosing his independence. Not an unusual topic in a class filled with sixty pluses. We had a secondary character we also knew a lot about. We’d explored his background, knew how he was raised by a single mother, knew his struggles with his sexuality, his resentment against the world and particularly with the great uncle who he was obliged to drive cross country. We knew the journey was going to be the adversary and that it would change both of these people. Did we have a story?

No. Not yet.

Stories are about what happens to people. About events that change them, in little ways and profound ones. About conflict and how the person, or persons, in our story react to that conflict. No two people would react the same way to the same situation. One might burst into tears at, for instance, the injury or death of a loved one. Another might retreat into private misery. One might freeze in the face of danger, another might attack. It depends on the person. Given a couple more hours, we might have constructed a story about Frank and Kevin’s trip and the things that happened to change them. What we did do was lay down the foundation for a story, by breathing a little life into two characters.

Every time I do this workshop, I’m reminded that stories are about people and what happens to them. What happens to Frank and Kevin is yet to be discovered, but now that we know them, we’ve got a place to start. What fun!