Focus: For Writers

Have a Problem with That?

People are often confused about the use of which or that. I hope to clear that up in today’s post.

That or Which?

That introduces restrictive or essential clauses. Which generally introduces non-restrictive or non-essential clauses. A restrictive clause is part of the sentence that describes a noun. Without it, the meaning of the sentence would change.  “The restaurant that my cousin opened closed yesterday.”

Without the words “that my cousin opened,” the sentence could refer to any restaurant. Thus, that my cousin opened is essential to the meaning of the sentence and does not have commas surrounding it.

“The restaurant next door, which always serves excellent soup, added pies to its menu last week.” This sentence can make it on its own without the clause “which always serves excellent soup.” Remove it and the sentence still makes sense. That makes the clause non-essential or non-restrictive. Surround it with commas.

A sunrise scene that is one reason I moved to Tucson.
A sunrise scene that is one reason I moved to Tucson.
The dog who stole our hearts! Or the dog that stole our hearts.

Of course exceptions abound. Instead of introducing more confusion, I suggest following the guidelines above.  Or go for the simplest choice and leave that out altogether:

Instead of, “The restaurant that my cousin opened closed yesterday,” opt for “The restaurant my cousin opened closed yesterday.”

However, you may not use that in a non-essential clause. “My ailing laptop, that I have always hated, will soon be replaced.” Nope. You have to use which in that clause. Or change the sentence entirely if it is too confusing: “My ailing and long hated laptop will soon be replaced.”

If you’ve already used this, that, these or those to introduce an essential clause, you may use which to introduce the next clause.

“That is a problem which many supervisors must face at evaluation time.”

“Those cartons, which should have arrived yesterday, can be stacked in my office.”

Consider streamlining your sentence by leaving out which or by revising your sentence.

“That is a problem many supervisors must face at evaluation time.”

“The cartons that should have arrived yesterday can be stacked in my office.”

Our objectives are clarity first, conciseness next. Avoiding unintentional silliness is also a good idea. “That Charlie. He doesn’t have the guts that it takes to get that business going.” Get rid of them all. “Charlie doesn’t have the guts to get a business going.”
One more point about that. That is used to refer to things or groups, who to people. “Melissa is the woman who shares my cubicle.” “She belongs to an organization that supports animal rights.”

Being a person who is fond of animals, I often refer to my pets using who. You may decide which you will use.

The purpose of grammar is to make our meaning clear. Remember that, please.








Grammar Dilemmas for the Holidays … Plus Scones!


Christmas Past
Christmas Past

Now that we’re deep into the holiday season, we’re faced with that age-old dilemma: “What should I bring to the neighbors’ party?” I’d suggest better grammar! The question should be, “What should I take to the party?” Take is used when something is being moved away from the speaker and bring when something is being moved toward the speaker.

Dr. Seuss got it right. Remember what the Grinch told little Cindy-Lou Who when she asked him why he was taking their Christmas tree? “There’s a light on this tree that won’t light on one side. So I’m taking it home to my workshop, my dear. I’ll fix it up there. Then I’ll bring it back here.”

If you are coming to my home, you may bring whatever you choose, as long as it’s tasty!

The holidays bring to mind another word challenge: sit, set, sat. Sit means to be seated. I sit at my computer. Yesterday I sat far too long. I have sat here many hours. Set (to place) needs an object. He sets the turkey on the table. Yesterday he set a turkey casserole in front of me. He has set it there every year, and it is always yummy. 

Speaking of tasty food, I’ve included a recipe for scones served at the (fictional, alas) Blind Chukar Café in Hancock, Idaho. The Chukar is a gathering place for the characters in my novel Mustard’s Last Stand.

Cranberry-Orange Scones

 1 tsp. cinnamon                                    ½ cup butter or margarine (1 stick)
Sugar (1 T, ¼ cup)                                ½ cup dried cranberries or raisins,                                                                             chopped
1 ½ cups all-purpose flour              ¼ cup sour cream
1 ½ tsp. baking powder                    ¼ cup orange juice
½ tsp. salt                                                 2 tsp. grated orange peel

Preheat oven to 400°. Grease cookie sheet or use parchment paper. Mix cinnamon and 1 T sugar, set aside.

Mix flour, baking powder, salt and ¼ cup sugar. With pastry blender, cut in butter until mixture resembles coarse crumbs.

Stir in dried cranberries, sour cream, orange juice and orange peel just until ingredients are blended.

Turn dough onto lightly floured surface. Roll to ½ inch thickness.

Cut out scones with 3-inch cookie cutter (use a star for holidays) Place two inches apart on cookie sheet. Press trimmings together and roll and cut as above. (Use a light touch!)

Sprinkle scones with cinnamon/sugar mixture.

Bake 10 to 12 minutes until golden. Serve warm or cool on wire rack.


I’m a big fan of scones (okay, of lots of pastries). Include a favorite in your comments!

A Writer’s Eye Needs Different Perspectives

The Eyes Have It

Caught of snap of this coyote as I drove out of our subdivision today. IMG_20141209_115700_119 IMG_20141206_163107_817And met up with this javelina outside a local hospital.

These recent sightings reminded me of a webinar I took from Jeff Herring on article writing and marketing a few years ago.

Jeff suggested we look at the world with “article eyes,” alert to everything that might turn into article topics.
Shortly after, I saw something sad that got me thinking about the different kinds of eyes and how they might see the same event.

As I drove down a busy street, a car hit and killed a squirrel. Nothing to be done for the poor little critter but mourn its loss. On the way home I thought about different eyes.

Article eyes:

Driving Safety Tips: Five Reasons You Should Never Swerve to Avoid an Animal in the Street, Unless it is Larger than Your Car

Automobile Care Tips: How to Clean Fur, Blood and Guts from Your Wheels

Cooking Tips: Seven Recipes for Fresh Squirrel

Cooking Tips: Roadkill: the Ultimate in Recycling

Novelist Eyes:

Romance — She stomped the brakes but didn’t dare swerve. When she heard the faint, horrid thump beneath her tires, her eyes clouded with tears and she pulled to the side of the road. The driver behind her also slowed and stopped. As she stood outside her vehicle, sobbing, looking into the road at the lump that had once been a living creature, a deep, soft voice, said “You did the right thing, you know. Nothing else you could do.”

Mystery — Somehow, some way, someone threw several stuffed squirrels from the bed of the battered old pick-up. No one was visible, yet the little beasts flew out and hit the road in front of Cheri. The way they bounced made it clear they were toys. But why so many? And why wasn’t the tosser visible? She missed most of the stuffed animals and sped up, following the truck. The license plate was smeared with mud. Who was back there? What were they trying to tell her?

Thank you, Jeff. Great idea. We as writers need to stay alert to what’s going on and then put our own personal spins on the events we see. If it doesn’t fit the w.i.p., then make a note and put it in your idea file. I keep little 3 x 5 cards with me most of the time to capture those fleeting ideas.

What would your writer eyes make of my two desert critters?


What to Say When Readers’ To-Read Lists Need Some Help

If someone said “Nothing against women writers, but all of my favorite crime fiction authors happen to be men,” how would you respond?

My first response would be to deck the sexist annoyance! However, if I’m able to restrain myself, I might try a gentler approach.

My bookshelf smallerEven before responding, however, I’d consider whether or not it is worth the effort to convince someone to try something new. I have a friend who always orders turkey sandwiches when we go out for lunch. She does not welcome my suggestion that she try sushi, say.  Or my brother-in-law, who prefers his steak cooked beyond chewy.

Some people are not open to change.

However, a person who brings up that question either wants to provoke me or is actually open to suggestion. With the sincere person, I’d ask who those favorite authors are and what they like about the authors’ books.

Then I’d silently curse my memory for not coming up with a great list on the spot and offer to email some suggestions. I’d race home, look at my bookshelf (and my Kindle) and come up with a list. I’d send it with the reminder that these are only my impressions of the moment and that a great place to find new authors is the local public library.  I remind readers of this post that my list is way too short and includes only a few of my current reads.

I would also send them to the Sisters in Crime website’s Author Search. When I moved to the Bay Area, I sought out local authors with books set in my new community. That’s how I found Marcia Muller, whose first novel, Edwin of the Iron Shoes, became a favorite. Now that I’ve moved to Tucson, via a long and wonderful time in Boise, Idaho, I’ll be searching for local authors.

Action:  Peg Brantley, Gayle Lynds, Marcia Muller, Sara Paretsky

Police procedurals: Frankie Bailey, Deborah Crombie, Elizabeth George, Martha Grimes, Elizabeth Gunn, L.J. Sellers

Private investigators: Linda Barnes, Sue Grafton, Laura Lippman, Val McDermid

Humor: Conda Douglas, Kathy McIntosh, Kris Neri

Great characters: My list would become overwhelming!

I probably wouldn’t add the names of the many cozy writers I read and love. When someone thinks only men write the best crime novels, ya gotta bring ’em around slowly.

Yes, I would add my name to the list of recommended reading, unless I knew it simply would not be to this person’s taste. Because we as authors need to be proud of what we write and able to actually suggest that a reader buy our books.

You probably have oodles of authors to suggest and I so welcome your thoughts.

This blog post was inspired and created for the Sisters In Crime bloghop. You can find out more here,

You may have hopped here on the advice of my dear friend and fellow writer Conda Douglas, whose name is on my list of humorous authors. Her Starke series is a hoot. If you haven’t yet read it, her post contains great advice for new authors. Make that for all authors.

The Perplexing Prologue

“There are three rules to writing fiction. Unfortunately, no one can agree on what they are.” 

– Somerset Maugham

We may never agree, but writers can and do argue endlessly about those rules. Prologues seem to be a frequent subject of discussion, and a major concern to beginning writers. What’s the big deal? Do prologues enrich good writing or are they useless appendages, to be cut off whenever they sprout? Continue reading

In 50 words or less

A few years ago, I won a contest for my advice to writers, in 50 words or less. I’m still proud of it!

Best advice I can offer other writers?

Make writing a whole body experience. Keep your chin up, your feet on the ground, your mind limber and open to new lessons and ideas, your heart set on the goal of becoming a published writer, and your butt in the chair.

Three Pass Self-Editing

Just as painting can take more than one coat, even using the best of materials, our writing generally needs going over a few times before it’s ready for viewing. In this article, I will review three necessary phases of editing our fiction. In the first pass, we check for the essential elements in each scene. The second pass is a good time to check grammar and tighten our words. Next comes the polishing phase.

What I’m talking about is editing your novel after the hard part (for many of us) is done; getting that first (as Anne Lamott says) shitty draft on paper. Continue reading