27 June 2023

Writing an American Novel

Dutch author Anne van Doorn has previously written for SleuthSayers. Today, in the wake of the Dutch publication of the novel he's deemed his "American Project," I'm delighted to welcome him back so he can tell you about this project and possibly provide a blueprint for those who'd like to attempt something similar.
— Barb Goffman

My American Project – The Procedure

by Anne van Doorn

In two previous articles on SleuthSayers, I talked about my intention to write an American mystery novel set in New York City. Since my last post, I’ve done exactly that. Some of you may have heard of The Delft Blue Mystery, the Dutch translation of which was released at the end of May. The first copy was presented to Josh Pachter, to whom I dedicated the book. Since I’m still looking for a literary agent—and subsequently a publisher—the English version has yet to come out.

I dedicated the novel to Josh for various reasons. Basically, The Delft Blue Mystery would never have been written if he hadn’t encouraged me.

Josh contacted me in the summer of 2017 and said he’d heard I had written a short story that could be of interest to Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. This initial contact led to the publication of “The Poet Who Locked Himself In” in the September/October 2019 issue of EQMM. Through our correspondence, I have come to know Josh as a true professional. He knows a lot about getting short fiction published in magazines. He told me that my English is probably good enough to translate my stories myself and get them published. He also gave me sound advice to achieve that goal. With that encouragement, I succeeded. EQMM published “The Doctor Who Fell Into Sin” last year. Once I made that sale, I wanted to try my hand at a novel too—and why not write it in English from scratch?

This article is not intended to BSP my novel or my published short stories, but to highlight the procedure I used, which may be relevant to other non-American speakers considering writing an American (mystery) novel. My method could be a blueprint, or at least inspire others on how to go about it.

First two stages

I’m a plotter, and I write plot-driven novels. On my computer, I have a file titled “What to do” that guides me step-by-step through creating a plot and plot structure (stage 1), writing the story (stage 2), and editing it (stage 3). In this post, I will not go into detail about the creation of the plot, but I would like to show you where the procedure for The Delft Blue Mystery differs from what I normally do when I write in my own language—Dutch.

Concerning stage 1, the normal routine didn’t change much, but I read many books by American authors and wrote down words I needed to express my story. I know many English words, but in specific situations, my knowledge falls short. For example, what jargon does a Medical Examiner use? What does slang look like on the page? In my first post on SleuthSayers, I talked about creating a palette file. I used it during the first stage to determine how each character expresses themselves non-verbally.

Stage 2 was easy: write the book! As a plotter, I work with a detailed outline that shows how many scenes there will be, where each scene takes place, which characters are involved, and how the plot should develop. This detailed outline was vetted by a fellow Dutch author, Paul Dieudonné—my soundboard for this novel. I used his feedback to improve the outline.

Writing according to an outline is a routine matter. What differs from the usual procedure is that I utilized my palette file, which helped me decide which words to use. Does a character walk, stride, tiptoe, or move in another way? How does he put something down—gently or slamming it down? What forms of non-verbal communication might I use? The palette file turned out to be a very useful tool.

Third stage – The editing, part I

Most of the additional steps can be found in the third stage. After writing the first draft, I took several steps to improve the manuscript. Most of them I apply to each book: I analyzed and improved plot structure, characterization, and setting. But now on to the additions to my step-by-step guide.

Since I was taught British English at school, I created a file explaining the differences. I used it to weed out British spelling and words with (slightly) different meanings. As I write about the New York City Police Department (NYPD), I have a file of information on how the NYPD operates, and I’ve used it to enhance the story. I collected English words I didn’t know and wrote down their meanings, an example sentence, and synonyms in a file, and then consulted that file to change words in my manuscript where and when needed.

As a daily visitor to SleuthSayers, I have saved some articles on my computer. Leigh Lundin wrote an excellent piece on deadwords. I used the post to weed out overused words. John M. Floyd drew our attention to a similar topic: redundancies. He also wrote the article “Where's A Grammar Cop When You Need One?” Another valuable weed killer!

I know myself. I know I tend to repeat mistakes. Barb Goffman edited “The Doctor Who Fell Into Sin” and two other short stories I translated from Dutch. I collected the kind of errors I might repeat in a file titled “Edits by Barb Goffman.” I went over all my notes in that document to find similar mistakes I made in The Delft Blue Mystery. By the way, Josh Pachter introduced me to Barb, so he facilitated Barb’s involvement too!

Third stage – The editing, part II

Once I was confident I had done all I could, I would normally have sent the manuscript to my publisher. But not now. I added several steps to the procedure.

Josh Pachter told me one day that he uses Google Translate to translate stories from Chinese, Spanish, and other languages, into English. A splendid idea. I used the tool to translate my English manuscript into Dutch. It only took an hour or so. That translation wasn’t too bad. Eighty percent of the sentences turned out to be fine. But I had to edit the other twenty. And the punctuation was off. I created a file with common Google Translate errors for future use. That will make it easier next time.

I finished the Dutch version and sent it to publisher Hans van den Boom. Based on his feedback, I made some changes to the plot of both versions. Then I ran the Dutch text through Google Translate, from Dutch into English, and I used that new version to improve my own English draft. Most of the changes concerned word choice and the sequence of words. Then I ran that improved English text through the free version of Grammarly. That tool helped me improve punctuation—especially comma use—and change wordy sentences.

Third stage – The editing, part III

I’m not an American, and I have never worked for any of the police departments in the USA. While I’ve carefully researched the NYPD (for example, their radio communication procedures; I have two files about this subject on my computer), I can make mistakes. I take certain liberties to create a readable and suspenseful story, but it shouldn’t deviate too far from reality. Therefore, I needed a beta reader who is—or had been—a policeman.

Tom Mead

As far as I can remember, it was (again) Josh Pachter who introduced me to David Dean, a retired police chief, who served with a police department in New Jersey. He’s also a very accomplished short-story writer. I was much impressed by his “The Duelist,” and consider it one of the three best stories I’ve read in EQMM since I subscribed in 2019. I think he’s a far better author than I am.

When I approached him, David was most kind. He was keen on reading my manuscript (which still hadn’t been professionally edited), which he then did, giving me useful feedback. I made a couple of necessary changes to both versions.

British author Tom Mead, writer of Death and the Conjuror—a mystery novel I thoroughly enjoyed—was my second beta reader. I write whodunits and sometimes dabble in locked-room mysteries, which The Delft Blue Mystery is. I needed a beta reader to assess that aspect of my manuscript: the fine-tuning of the plot, the clues, the red herrings, and the final revelation. Tom gave me some ideas to improve the plot.

Third stage – The editing, part IV

At last, I had the story ready for my editor, the aforementioned Barb Goffman. Does she need an introduction? Not only is Barb a professional developmental, copy, and line editor, but she’s also an award-winning short fiction author. She won so many awards and received so many nominations, I should probably go back to school and learn how to count again. What can I say about what she did with The Delft Blue Mystery? Well, a lot had to be done! So much so, that I’m still amazed that David Dean and Tom Mead were willing to read an early, unedited version. It can’t have been easy for them.

Naturally, I’ve updated my “Edits by Barb Goffman” file for future use.

Josh Pachter

Do you think the manuscript was finished now? Almost. Barb’s edits also impacted the Dutch version. Hans van den Boom and his wife, Erna Teunissen, did a final round of corrections of Het Delfts blauw mysterie, as the novel is titled in Dutch. Some of their corrections necessitated changes to the English version as well.

Thus The Delft Blue Mystery is completed (for now). Much of this was made possible by Josh Pachter. Hence my decision to dedicate the novel to him—to express my gratitude and admiration for what he did. The first copy of the Dutch version was handed to Josh by his wife, Laurie Stahl Pachter, whom I had asked for assistance. The photos she took of the memorable event commemorate this high point in my career. I feel very fortunate to have worked with him and with so many other talented people.

Thank you all!


  1. Thank you for the opportunity to tell about my procedure on SleuthSayers, Barb! And thanks for adding photos. I should've thought of that!

    1. You're welcome, Anne. I'm happy to help in whatever way I can. I hope you find a US publisher soon. People need to read this book!

  2. It has been and continues to be a pleasure to watch you develop your command of English and your art! Many thanks for dedicating The Delft Blue Mystery to me, and best of luck with it in both languages!

  3. Wow! What an amazing story about who to write a story in another language. Congratulations!

    1. Thank you, Eve! One of my main characters is originally from South Dakota. One of your SleuthSayers posts also had a small influence on the novel.

  4. It was a pleasure working with you, Anne! I think you've got a winner there, and like Barb and Josh, I wish you the very best of luck with it! Congrats!

    1. Thanks for replying, David. Your involvement means a lot to me!

  5. Great to have you here again, Anne. Sincere congratulations on the book, and I wish you the very best!

    1. John, thank you for your posts on SleuthSayers. As you can see, I use them to improve my writings.

  6. Anne, glad to see you back with a new novel! I thoroughly enjoy whodunits and well-written locked room mysteries. Do you have a publish date yet? And congratulations!

    1. Hey, Leigh--thanks! I'm currently querying literary agents, without much luck, though. But I know other writers also had a hard time getting through.


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