Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Some Recommended Reads

Health concerns prevented my usual practice of recommending in January some of the books I enjoyed in the past year. To make up for that omission, I’d like to suggest some reads by friends and by a few writers I don’t know I think worthy of your time.

The prolific Wayne D. Dundee added several titles to his Western bibliography in 2015. If you like the genre, you’re in for a treat with any of them. His Joe Hannibal mysteries aren’t to be missed either:

Liz Zelvin brought out Journey of Strangers, the second in her Diego Mendoza triology. I’m already looking forward to the third novel. You might want to check out her Bruce Kohler mysteries, too.

Doug Quinn added Egret’s Cove to his fine Webb Sawyer mystery series:
A satisfying mystery with a well developed cast of characters, plenty of twists and turns and an entertaining storyline.

I don’t know Tim Bouman, but his literate debut mystery Dry Bones in the Valley, set in northeastern Pennsylvania, blew me away. Looking forward to reading more of his work:

Not a new release, but definitely worthy of mention is my friend Frank Stewart’s River Rising: A Cherokee Oddysey. Sadly, Frank is in the grip of a devastating disease, preventing his completion of the sequel to this historical novel:

Jim Callan offers Over My Dead Body, second in his delightful Father Frank mystery series. An unexpected legacy puts the parish priest at odds with his church superior and, worse, a killer.

Then there’s The Count of the Sahara by Wayne Turmel, An entertaining fictional account of a phase in the life of an actual Philadelphia born amateur archaeologist who might have been the model for the tomb-raider Indiana Jones.

Finally, another by an author I don’t know personally: Donald Smith’s The Constable’s Tale, rich with historical detail, surprising twists and a satisfying conclusion.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

The Shopping Center of Yore

Two of my fictional characters operate general stores.

Lydia Longlow, the love of Sheriff Sylvester Tilghman in a two-book series, runs a general store started by her father in the fictional community of Arahpot, Pennsylvania. And Ellen Kauffman is proprietor of a similar establishment in my latest novel, Something So Divine.

In the 19th century, the time period of both novels, general stores were the center of rural communities. Not only did they supply food and other necessities for the community, they also served as a central meeting place for gossip and business and, often, as post office, polling place and even courtroom.

But I realize younger readers more familiar with shopping centers and specialty stores might not realize the importance of these mercantile operations to our ancestors.

Unlike the spacious, orderly and convenient stores of today, these emporiums were generally cramped, cluttered and dark. An array of shelving took up wall spaces and boxes, barrels, crates and other containers crammed the floors. A main counter for dealing with customers would hold the cash register, coffee grinder and scales for weighing various items.

The air in the store would be heady with a mix of scents, both pleasant and unpleasant--ripening fruit, various spices, teas and freshly ground coffee beans, cheeses, honey and molasses, soaps, toiletries and patent medicines, cigars and tobacco, not to mention human body odor and possibly animal manure tracked in by customers who failed to wipe their feet at the door.

The average store would have a supply of any of the various items that might be needed by town-dweller or farmer, from food and wearing apparel to tools and agricultural implements, sometimes including luxury items not otherwise available in rural areas.

Since money was often scarce in such locations, storekeepers usually ran a line of credit for regular customers as well as sometimes engaging in barter for items they might sell to others.

As a youth I accompanied my father to country sales where he purchased antiques and curios, some of which he refinished and sold to dealers and other collectors. We sometimes stopped for refreshment at country stores which served the Amish and Old Order Mennonites in our area of Pennsylvania. Because I was familiar with these old-fashioned stores, it needed little research to create such establishments for my fictional characters.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

The Purloined Pie

“Didn’t think you’d be open today,” Benny Spinosa said, glancing around and seeing he had his choice of stools at the bar. Donovan, the owner, was the only other person in the place.

“What? Why would I close when I know I got friends like you with nowhere else to go. You want a beer?”

“Sure. And maybe you could fix me a sandwich, too.”

Donovan’s eyebrows rose as he gazed at his friend. “You’re gonna spoil your dinner.”

Spinosa shrugged. He was surprised Donovan had opened since most of his trade had families and other places to be on a day like this. Spinosa wouldn’t have stopped if he hadn’t seen the lights as he drove by.

“You’re not havin’ a Thanksgiving dinner?”

“Where would I have it? Like you said, I got nobody. Besides—like you—I’m workin’. Just because it’s a holiday don’t mean there aren’t people gonna need a cab.”

Donovan tapped a Yuengling and sat the mug on the bar. Spinosa straddled a stool and drew it closer. The legs of the stool made an irritating noise as they scraped the linoleum. “You gonna make that sandwich or what?”

Donovan studied him a moment, then he grinned. “Tell you what,” he said, coming around from behind the bar and crossing to the door. He flipped the lock and turned toward Spinosa.

“What?” Spinosa asked, scrunching up his face.

“Whyncha bring that beer and come on upstairs.”
Spinosa scowled. “Upstairs? To your apartment?”

“Uh-huh. You can have dinner with us. Ain’t gonna be no trade down here anyways.”

Spinosa didn’t argue but his doubts were confirmed when he followed Donovan upstairs and Charmaine gave him a look that froze him in his tracks. Donovan’s wife was on the sofa watching the Macy’s parade. “What’s he doin’ here?” she snapped in a voice as cold as winter wind.

“I invited him to join us for dinner. We got plenty and he don’t got no place else to go.” He gestured to a chair opposite Charmaine. “Have a seat.”

Reluctantly, Spinosa folded his thin frame into the chair, shooting a cursory glance at Charmaine. She worked her lips and rolled her eyes for a moment, but didn’t say anything more. Then: “You close up?” she asked her husband.

“Yeah.” He sat next to her on the sofa. “Don’t seem like nobody else is comin’ around. If anyone gets desperate for a drink, they can ring the bell.”

Charmaine turned her attention back to their guest. “Didn’t think your people celebrated Thanksgiving.”

“What, you think because I’m a Jew I don’t like turkey?”

“How the hell would I know? I’m a Catholic. Don’t know nothin’ about your kind.”

“Everybody celebrates Thanksgiving, babe,” Donovan told her.

She shot him a look. “Just so’s he don’t go lightin’ up none of those stinky cigars he likes while he’s in my house.”

“Don’t worry,” Spinosa said, “I won’t. I’m tryin’ to quit anyways.”

They sat in silence, Spinosa sipping his beer and having a look around the place while Donovan and Charmaine stared at the TV. Benny figured he was probably the only one of Donovan’s customers who’d ever been invited up to the living quarters. If it weren’t for Charmaine’s attitude he might have considered it an honor.

“Everything’s ready,” a dulcet voice broke into his reverie.

Kelly, Donovan’s daughter, leaned in the doorway to what must be the dining room. If he was ten—well, okay, twenty—years younger and a bit better looking, Spinosa thought he might have been inclined to ask Kelly out. She was the prettiest, nicest girl he’d ever met. Okay, so she wouldn’t go out with a schmuck like him even if he was twenty years younger and had a lot more money than he did. You can’t blame a man for dreaming. Anyway, he was glad she was the one doing the cooking and not her mother. Charmaine would probably lace his food with arsenic if she had her way.

“Come on,” Donovan said, waving him up from his seat.

“How are you, Benny?” Kelly said and she patted his shoulder as he walked by her. “Glad you could join us. There’s plenty of food. So be sure and eat up.” Her smile melted his hesitation. “I’ll bring the rest of the food.”

Donovan took a seat at the head of the table where a platter with a golden-brown turkey awaited carving. “Sit,” he said to Spinosa. “Anywhere you want.”

Charmaine flopped onto the chair at the other end of the table, which meant the place left for him would be opposite Kelly. “Can I help you, Kelly?” he asked, taking a step toward her.

She graced him with another smile that made him blush. “Why that’s so nice of you, Benny.”

They bumped hips and elbows entering the tiny kitchen and Spinosa experienced a reaction he hoped none of them would notice. “Just grab whatever you can and put it wherever there’s room on the table,” Kelly told him, hefting a large bowl of mashed and sweet potatoes. The pleasant odor of the food and the sweet scent of her swept over him as they passed in the close quarters. Spinosa grabbed a couple more bowls and followed her back to the dining room.

“You don’t have to work for your dinner,” Donovan said, looking up from slicing the turkey.

“He’s a gentleman, Daddy,” Kelly said, giving Spinosa another pat on the shoulder. “Not like some of the other lugs who come in downstairs.” Their hips bumped again as they made another foray to the kitchen. Spinosa felt the heat rise over him and quickly turned his back to Kelly.

All the food transferred, they joined her parents at the table. Spinosa’s gaze swept over the array of vittles and he was amazed. His usual idea of a meal was a can of Campbell’s soup or a corned beef sandwich. This was a feast in comparison. There was the turkey, half a ham (glazed with pineapple), mashed potatoes and sweets, several varieties of vegetables (including a few he couldn’t identify), cranberry sauce, and an array of other holiday treats.

Spreading a napkin across his lap, Spinosa shook his head in wonder. “This is amazing,” he said to Kelly. “I never seen so much food on one table. And it all looks so delicious. It must have taken you a week to do all this.”

It was Kelly’s turn to blush. “Ah, it was nothing,” she said, waving a hand and lowering her head. “I love cooking.”

“Kel does all our cookin’ now,” Donovan said, pride in his voice. “She went to culinary school you know. Wants to be a chef.”

“Really? I didn’t know that.”

“It’s not like she’d be advertisin’ it to the likes of you,” Charmaine snarled.

“I hope you enjoy it,” Kelly said, ignoring her mother. “Please. Eat up. Before it gets cold.”

Spinosa took the suggestion as soon as he saw they were done with their Catholic ministrations. And he was right—everything was delicious.  He took a moment to compliment Kelly again.

“My Grammy taught me to cook,” she told him, her face going a pleasant rosy hue. “These are all her recipes.”

“Well you’ve made good use of the training.” He felt the heat of Charmaine’s gaze upon him. What? She don’t even like somebody complimenting her daughter?

“We lost Grammy last year, but I wish Poppy could be here,” Kelly said.

“They’d both be proud of you, honey,” Donovan said.

Charmaine snorted. “Only thing the old lady could do was cook—I’ll grant her that. But your old man is a lush.”


Spinosa had no idea what this was about. He concentrated on cleaning his plate as a pall of silence fell over the room. He was so stuffed he didn’t think he could eat another bite when Kelly finally broke the silence. “Anybody ready for dessert?”

“I shouldn’t,” Donovan said, “but…”

“There wasn’t room in the fridge,” Kelly said. “It’s downstairs in the cooler.”

Donovan pushed back his chair and started to rise.

“Lemme get it,” Spinosa said.

“Nah. You’re a guest…”
Spinosa tossed his napkin aside and stood. “Please. It’s the least I can do after what you guys have done for me today. Besides, I’ll need the exercise if I’m gonna eat anything else.”

With no further protests, Spinosa went downstairs, passed behind the bar and opened the big cooler. A pumpkin pie with whipped cream topping sat on the shelf.  Spinosa smiled. Hang around this girl long and I’ll look like a blimp.

“Where’s the mince-meat?” Donovan asked as Spinosa sat the pumpkin pie on the table.

“Huh? I didn’t see no other pie.”

Kelly gave him a chagrined look. “I put them both in the cooler this morning. Maybe you didn’t see it.”

Spinosa shook his head. “There was nothin’ else but bar stuff.”

Kelly was headed for the stairs. “It’s got to be there.”

Spinosa and Donovan followed in her wake.

“Oh, Daddy,” Kelly wailed as she peered in the cooler. “Somebody must have stole it.”

“But who? I locked the door when we came up.”

“There were some people in the bar when I brought the pies down this morning.”

“Do you remember who?” Spinosa asked.

Donovan scratched his head, thinking. “Jimmy Steele. He was here—like he is every day for his morning pick-me-up. And—oh, yeah—Rod, the refrigerator guy. Remember, Kel? We been havin’ problems with the little cooler. Rod was kind of miffed I called him out on a holiday.”

Kelly waved a hand in dismissal. “I don’t see Rod as the kind who would steal a pie. Besides I’m sure he’ll add a stiff surcharge on his bill. Was there anyone else?”

“What about Jimmy?” Spinosa asked.

Donovan and Kelly both laughed. “If it haint alcohol Jimmy haint interested,” Donovan said.

“But isn’t there some booze in mince-meat?”

“Not enough for a guy like Jimmy to notice.”
Kelly pondered. “There was someone else when I came down. Over there,” she said, pointing to a stool at the far end of the bar.

“Sparky,” Donovan said, dipping his head in agreement.

“Sparky Kohl?” Benny asked. “That old guy who’s always bragging about his high school football days?”

“He left before you came,” Donovan said. Then, exchanging a quick glance with Kelly, he crossed to the door and turned the knob. “Damn him,” he grumbled as the door opened.

“But I saw you lock it before we went upstairs.”

Donovan nodded. “Sparky was a locksmith.”

Spinosa gave him a puzzled look. “He always seemed like an honest old guy to me. Why would he steal your pie?”

Kelly exchanged another look with her father. “I think we know why. Benny, you have your cab, don’t you? Care to go for a little ride?”

“Sure. Just tell me…”

Kelly turned to Donovan. “Daddy?”

Donovan shook his head. “Just let it go, Kel.”

“No, Daddy. It’s your fault. Your’s and Mom’s. You should have made up with him along ago. The past is past. Live and forgive. He should have been here with us today. Are you coming?”

“You know I can’t, sweetie. Your Mom would skin me alive.”

“Well, I’m going. Benny?”

“Sure.” He opened the door for her and they went out to his cab. Spinosa turned the key in the ignition. He rubbed his hands together, briskly. “Brrr, maybe we should have grabbed our coats.”

“It’s not far. Turn your heater up. We’ll survive.”

“Okay. Just tell me where we’re going.”

Kelly snapped on her seatbelt and gave him directions.

“I still don’t understand why Sparky would steal your pie.”

“You’ll see,” Kelly said. “Family feuds are a bitch.” She leaned back in the seat next to him, staring straight ahead.

Puzzled, Spinosa drove.

Kelly jumped out as soon as he pulled into the parking lot of the Comfort Retirement Home. By the time Spinosa switched off the engine and followed she was already halfway up the steps to the entrance of the brick facility. “Wait up,” he called after her.

“Come on.”

“Does Sparky live here?”

“His best buddy does.” Kelly signed in at the reception desk and walked quickly down a hallway paying no attention to a cluster of elderly men and women whose attention she’d drawn away from a blaring TV.

“I’m glad you know where you’re going,” Spinosa complained, hurrying after her. “I sure don’t.”

He nearly bumped into her as she drew up suddenly at the open door of one of the rooms. “A-hah!” Kelly said and darted into the room. A white-haired man who looked vaguely familiar to Benny sat facing them in a rocking chair. Sparky Kohl was in an armchair next to him. The remains of Kelly’s pie sat on a coffee table between the two.

“Hello, sweetie,” the old man said to Kelly and gave her a toothy grin.

Kelly went over and gave him a hug. “Hello, Poppy,” she said, straightening up. “I see you enjoyed my pie.”

“Sure did. Your mince-meat has always been my favorite,” he said with a wink. “Thanks for sendin’ it over with Sparky.”

Hands on her hips, Kelly smiled down at Sparky who sank lower in his seat with a sheepish grin.

Kelly’s grandfather tilted to look past her at Spinosa standing in the doorway. “Whose this, darlin’, your boyfriend?”

Kelly grinned at Spinosa. “A friend, Poppy. Benny Spinosa. A good friend.”

“Spinosa? Your old man the cabbie?”

“He’s retired now. I drive the hack.”
“Youse want some pie?” Sparky asked. “There’s still some left.”

“No, thanks. We just came by to wish Poppy a happy Thanksgiving and see if you guys enjoyed the pie.” She knelt to give her grandfather a hug, then went over and hugged Sparky, too. “You’re a good friend, Mr. Kohl.” Placing a hand on her grandfather’s shoulder, she added, “Sorry you couldn’t come for dinner today. I’ll stop by to see you again over the weekend.”

As they walked back out the hall, Kelly brushed tears from her eyes.

“What’s the beef between him and your parents?” Spinosa asked.

Kelly made a sound half between a laugh and a sob. “Something that happened so long ago none of them remember exactly what it was. But you know my Mom, how she can hold a grudge. I hope one of these days Daddy will get the nerve to stand up to her on this. Poppy isn’t getting any younger.”

“Well, at least he has you.” He threw an arm around Kelly’s shoulders and was glad when she didn’t object.

They were nearly back to the bar before he built up the courage to blurt out, “Kelly, I was wondering—that is—if you’d like to—do you think we could go out sometime?”

Kelly shifted a little closer on the seat and laid a hand on his arm. “I thought you’d never get around to asking.”


Thursday, November 5, 2015

A Woman's Compassion May Have Helped

"The grim expressions of the twelve men gave little doubt as to how the circumstantial evidence stacked up for them. Roth almost wished women were allowed to serve on juries, though he doubted even a feminine presence would have earned the boy much compassion."

This quote from my novel Something So Divine illustrates one of those injustices afflicting women throughout our history--they did not serve on juries in the 19th century in the United States. In fact, it wasn't until late in the 20th century they were finally accorded that right in all states of the union (And the rest of the world wasn't more advanced).

In my novel, Ned Gebhardt, a mentally challenged youth, has been accused in the murder of a 16-year-old girl in 1897. Though the evidence against him is circumstantial, only Ellen Kauffman, village storekeeper, and Iris, Ned's stepsister, believe him innocent. Influenced by them, Simon Roth, the investigator, is inclined to give Ned benefit of the doubt, pending discovery of more evidence.

The Judiciary Act of 1789 gave states authority to set rules for jury service. As with suffrage, Wyoming was the first state to permit women to serve on juries in 1870. Eliza Stewart Boyd, a Pennsylvania native, was the first U.S. woman to serve when her name was drawn for that Wyoming  jury.  Unfortunately, objection by lawyers and the press put an end to the practice the following year.

Utah opened jury service to women in 1898 and more states followed in the first decades of the 20th century. Women in Pennsylvania--where my story takes place--didn't win the right to serve on juries until 1921.

Many reasons were espoused over the years for denying women this fundamental right. These included the old saws women lacked the mental and emotional capacities to render a just decision. Another standard argument was the belief  jury duty would take women away from their responsibilities as wives, mothers and homemakers--this opinion was particularly strong in agricultural communities. Even many women's organizations advocating female rights stood in the way of jury service, contending it would expose women to unseemly and disgusting situations.

By the 1960s most states permitted women to serve on juries, though some made it a voluntary and not a mandatory issue. A few states complied but with the added provision a judge could bar women from serving at his discretion.  It wasn't until 1975 when a U.S. Supreme Court decision affirmed that states must treat men and women equally with respect to jury service.

Of course, by then it was way too late for my character.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Memory, Imagination, Research

John Daniel is my guest today, and he offers three tools needed for writing historical fiction. Welcome, John.

I feel honored to appear on John Lindermuth’s blog. I think of John as a prolific and successful writer of historical fiction, and I also happen to know of his interest in genealogy. So if you read John’s novels, or if you frequently read his blog posts, I suspect you read, or maybe even write, historical fiction; and you probably share at least a passing interest in family history, as I do.

As much as I like to read historical fiction, I’ve never considered myself a historical novelist. It’s true that most of my novels are set in the past, but most of them have been inspired by turning points in my own life, which means they take place in the second half of the twentieth century. How historical is that? Although they are entirely fiction, and therefore rely primarily on my own imagination, they are also informed by my memory of changes major and minor (JFK’s assassination, changes in the publishing industry, the Loma Prieta earthquake, for example). So my two primary tools have always been memory and imagination.

There’s a third tool, though, that I learned I must use to write a novel that takes place in the first half of the twentieth century, between the Saint Louis Worlds Fair in 1904 and the Stock Market crash of 1929. Writing this novel, Geronimo’s Skull, I did use memory (of what I’d heard about my uncle’s youth, his college exploits, his experience in World War I, and his subsequent meteoric rise in the world of business). I also used my imagination plenty (the novel is, after all, a ghost story). But in writing Geronimo’s Skull I also learned the great pleasure of research.

I surfed the Internet for all I could find about the Louisiana Purchase Exposition (St. Louis, 1904). Did you know that was the birthplace of cotton candy, Dr. Pepper, and hot dogs, or that there was a life-size statue of President Theodore Roosevelt made entirely of butter? Or that the Apache Geronimo, a captive of the U.S. Army, was put on display at the fair, for palefaces to gawk at?

I delved into the life and exploits of Geronimo, who was, I found out, a brilliant warrior and charismatic leader, a spiritual guide, an escape artist, and a sideshow celebrity who sold autographed photos of himself and once rode in a parade alongside President Teddy. He is buried at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, and legend has it his grave was robbed one moonlit night, and his skull was stolen by a gang of Yalies who belonged to the secret society Skull and Bones—including my Uncle Neil, and Prescott Bush, the father and grandfather of two U.S. presidents.

I researched the life story of Uncle Neil. That meant researching Europe in the 1920s, the oil business, the history of Route 66, and much, much more. What fun that was! Of course I made up most of the story and the man I called Fergus Powers was a product of my imagination and my memories of family gossip. But I couldn’t have written Geronimo’s Skull without first discovering the sheer joy of research.

A word of caution, though. It’s possible to do too much research, and when that happens the research may delay or even replace the writing. Also it’s tempting to include in your story everything you’ve learned in your research. I made that mistake on my first draft of Geronimo’s Skull, and as a result that first chapter about the Worlds Fair dragged on and on, to my delight, but it was self-indulgent and it didn’t advance the plot. An agent I showed my manuscript to said, “This needs a big dose of caffeine.” So I cut the first chapter by half, and the book got its life back.

To read more about Geronimo’s Skull:'s_skull.html

John M. Daniel is a freelance editor and writer. He has published dozens of stories in literary magazines and is the author of fifteen published books, including four mystery novels, two of which (The Poet’s Funeral and Hooperman) earned starred reviews in Publishers Weekly. He and his wife, Susan, own a small-press publishing company in Humboldt County, California.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Justice Isn't Always a Straight Path

Ned Gebhardt, a murder suspect in my latest novel, Something So Divine, is considered feeble-minded by his family and neighbors.

Though common in the 19th century, the definition is frowned upon today, as are other more derogatory terms applied to illnesses or deficiencies of the mind.

Look at censuses from the period and you'll find people labeled as idiots, imbeciles, morons and the like who may have suffered from some degree of mental incapacity or even a physical limitation which hampered normal function.

Ned is not insane, though in 1897, the time of the story, there wasn't even agreement on what constituted sanity, let alone assurance mental capacity could even be considered as a legal defense.
If Ned were arrested and charged with murder today his lawyer would immediately set about arranging a series of psychological tests to determine his competence and probable defense.

Though there are others, Ned is the prime suspect due to his obsession with the victim and a local reputation founded on rumor and gossip. Because the evidence against him is mainly circumstantial, Simon Roth, the investigator, is inclined to give Ned the benefit of the doubt--until he finds damaging evidence.

It is only then Billy McKinney, the lawyer Roth has found for him, decides an insanity plea is the only hope for Ned.

Based on an 1843 British case, the M'Naghten rule had become the standard in both the U.S. and the United Kingdom by which a jury was to decide after hearing testimony by prosecution and defense experts.

In 1972, the American Law Institute developed a new rule for insanity under the Model Penal Code, though some argue that even this is too vague and leaves too much up to the discretion of a jury. About half the states continue to rely on the M'Naghten rule.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Who Says 'Was' is a Bad Word?

Some writers are like religious fundamentalists.

They read, or hear someone discuss a rule they’ve heard about, and it becomes gospel. It doesn’t have to come from Strunk and White to start them red penciling whole paragraphs of a novel. Just mention “rule” and it immediately becomes scripture, part of a revised Talmud, and you couldn’t pay them to violate it.

They forget rules are intended to be guides and not a new version of the Quran. Rules are not absolute law. Generally there’s good reasoning behind them and it pays to abide by them. There are also times when they can and should be violated. And, if you should break one of these rules, you won’t have the Taliban pursuing you (though some critic may lambast you).

Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing are observed with ritual devotion by some of these scriveners. I love Leonard’s work. I think he’s a great stylist and the rules are a sound selection. But, with little effort, I’m sure you can find many admirable writers who’ve broken some of these rules at one time or another. In fact, if you read a lot of Elmore’s stories (as I have) you’ll see even he occasionally drifts from the canon. This isn’t blasphemy. Leonard sometimes spoke with tongue in cheek and was aware of Somerset Maugham’s dictum: “There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”

The Elements of Style, among other scriptures, urges us to use the active voice. It does not say “always.” A passive sentence isn’t always bad. Knowing how and when to use them makes the difference.

We are given lists of words to avoid in our writing and some believe it means they should never be used. Wrong. There is no such thing as a bad word. It all depends on how and when you use them.

One of those words you’ll find on many lists is “was,” a perfectly good Old English verb. It’s on the list because it’s been deemed passive. As mentioned above, that isn’t always a bad thing. Opening a novel by Elmore Leonard to a random page I found he used the word “was” 10 times. Sometimes there just isn’t another word to substitute.

Where words like “was” become bad is when we allow them to become habits weakening our writing. When we get lazy and fail to revise without using all our senses that’s the real deal-breaker. Don’t just blindly follow rules because they exist. Use common sense and experimentation to see why they’ve become standard. Your writing will improve and your readers will thank you.