Showing posts with label Anne van Doorn. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Anne van Doorn. Show all posts

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!

18 January 2022

My American Project – Where does the story take place?

Dutch author Anne van Doorn first joined us back in August. He is a regular reader and commentator here at SleuthSayers. He's also a friend of mine. I'm pleased to share his guest column with you today.
— Barb Goffman

My American Project – Where does the story take place?

 by Anne van Doorn

When I challenged myself to write a mystery novel in American English, I confronted myself with an important question: where will my story take place? Most writers would recommend staying on familiar ground. Write about what you know. I’ve followed that advice for over twenty years. Many of my stories are set in the area where I live, in the Netherlands.

However, I discovered that few people outside this area are interested in stories taking place here. At least, bookstore owners elsewhere don’t sell my books. National newspapers don’t pay attention to them—and my country is roughly the size of New Jersey. I honestly don’t think anyone would be interested in a mystery novel set in my area, written in American English. That’s just too…outlandish.

However, write about what you know is solid advice. That's why I’ve decided to set my story in the only part of the United States I’ve ever visited: Manhattan, a borough of New York City. Even though it has been ten years ago now, in April 2011, I still have vivid memories of my time there. I have many photos and some video footage to refresh my memory. I stayed near the UN Headquarters, in a small apartment in the New York Tower on East 39th Street, just off First Avenue. I walked the streets, traveled on the subway, rode the avenues and streets, and saw many places, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the New Amsterdam Theatre to see Mary Poppins the Musical. Central Park was like a magnet to me.

The advantages

My choice for Manhattan offers, in addition to my experiences, some advantages. First and foremost, everyone around the world knows New York, whether they have visited the city or not. It’s easy for a reader to imagine the place. We’ve all seen pictures of the high-rises, the avenues, the bridges spanning the East River and the Hudson. I don’t choose New York to gain a readership there, but for everybody’s familiarity with it. The readers who love the kind of story I want to write—the whodunit—will recognize the city in their mind’s eye.

A second advantage is that New York City is a town of immigrants and ex-pats. For me, as a Dutchman, it would be difficult to write convincingly about Americans in the rural parts of the country. New York City, however, is a melting pot of nationalities and cultures. Perhaps portraying the main character with European roots—a first- or second-generation American—is easier. If he behaves in a non-American way, it’s easy to understand why. Besides, didn’t Agatha Christie have huge success with her novels about a Belgian refugee living in England? And what about our very own Josh Pachter? Didn’t he write stories about Mahboob Chaudri, a Pakistani working as police officer in Bahrain? I think he did that convincingly—an inspiring example!

A third advantage: there are tons of information on the internet: photos, videos, and firsthand experiences, including about a place I once stayed. Visiting Google Maps allows me to read dozens of reviews written by people living there. Did you know there are dead cockroaches in the laundry room? And the elevators are consistently out of order. That’s what the reviews say, at least. Oh, the internet is a voyeuristic delight!

And last but not least, wasn’t Manhattan once a colony of the Netherlands? I think it’s appropriate to firmly plant a Dutch flag on New York soil, again!

 Discovering the city

I haven’t decided yet what part of Manhattan I'll use as a base for my American Project. But what I could already do is study how other writers portray the city and its police force. I don’t think I will fool the New Yorker into believing I’m one of them, but I want to get as close as possible.

Since I started working on the American Project, I’ve read and learned from the Rex Stout and Ellery Queen books. What strikes me is that their descriptions of the city are scarce. But with only a few of them, they conjure up recognizable images. I think that’s the way to go, as I want to write a plot-oriented story—definitely not a travel guide!

On my TBR-pile are books about New York that will help me discover interesting places. In this regard, my friends, I can do with recommendations. Which book should I buy to get to know New York? What websites are worth checking out? Do you know a YouTube channel that shows Manhattan as it is: the good, the bad, the ugly?

19 September 2021

How to Speak American

This one’s for you, Anne!

When our Dutch colleague Anne van Doorn visited SleuthSayers, we discussed English competency in general, and American English in particular. Following is my own contribution, but I’ll mention Wikipedia contains a surprisingly good article on the topic.


The primary thing that’s driven me mad is the concept of mass versus collective nouns and subject-verb agreement. For example:

  • US: “Tottenham FC is expected to win.”
  • UK: “Tottenham FC are expected to win.”

When I asked a British instructor to explain, all he imparted was, “You aren’t wrong.” If you figure this one out, let me know. (Wikipedia makes a decent stab of kinda, sorta explaining it.)

In parts of Britain, articles (a, an, the) seem to disappear. In Yorkshire you might hear a construct something like, “She dropped pudding on floor.” The tendency appears occasionally in phrases such as, “I took her to hospital,” where an American would say, “I took her to the hospital.”

For some reason, North Americans don’t have a similar problem with school: “I went to school today.” To be clear, that means attending classes, whereas, “I went to the school today,” more likely implies visiting the campus or schoolhouse. We might say, “I attended college,” but also confusingly say, “I attended the university.”

fanny covering (girl in shorts)
fanny covering (girl in shorts)
also fanny

In the US, bath is strictly a noun and bathe is the corresponding verb. In the UK, bath can be both. My ears still aren’t used to someone saying, “I’ll bath this evening,” (where it’s pronounced bawth). When I try to say it, I sound like a smartass. Er, smartarse.


Thanks to internationalism, Americanisms have filtered into the UK and vice versa. However, a few words differ in meaning.

In North America, corn means a particular type of maize. The British use a broader sense of a cereal crop including oats, wheat, and barley.

North Americans tend to use the adjective ‘mad’ when they mean angry. The British limit the word to mean insane.

How do I put this delicately: Never, ever, pat an Englishwoman on the fanny. Bad enough in America, but just… don’t… do it. In the UK, it’s probably not what you think it is.


We come to one of my least favorite (least favourite) words. Feel free to skip to the next topic. I wouldn’t go into this at all, except the English insist upon inserting some derivation of the word piss in every third paragraph– more often if they’re watching a football match in their local pub. North Americans lean toward two meanings, urinate and anger, but the British have come up with many, many more, confusing us poor Americans. These include:

Someone who’s ‘on the piss’ is engaging in a heavy drinking bout until they’re thoroughly ‘pissed’, i.e, drunk. ‘Taking a piss’ can refer to misleading someone, but ‘taking the piss out of’ someone is mocking them. A ‘piece of piss’ refers to something easy to do. A ‘pisser’ is someone or something funny. Telling someone to ‘piss off’ means leave immediately. ‘Piss about’ is to waste time and resources on something foolish. ‘Piss up’ means to ruin something, but plain ‘piss’ means something that tastes bad. Finally the English exploit the word’s versatility with ‘piss on’ implying great contempt and ‘piss in one’s pocket’ meaning virtually its opposite, to ingratiate oneself.

I’m convinced a writer could invent his or her own combination in the form of piss+preposition, and people on that side of the English Channel would intuit exactly what was meant. A wiser choice might be to avoid it altogether. Now excuse me whilst I bath.

French Influence

Despite time and distance, some French spellings and pronunciations have survived in the US. When I was a child, my mother pronounced pot-pourri the French way, ‘POH-puhREE’, but thanks to dumbing down by television and radio, the pronunciation is shifting to ‘pot-porry’. Ugh.

We still pronounce filet mignon as ‘FEElay MIN-yon’ whereas the British say fillet (‘fill-it’) steak. We retain other words the French either seldom use (derrière, double entendre) or the meaning has altered (brassiere). In some cases, North Americans have retained French spelling, such as valor versus valour.

maths symbols

baseball, soccer ball, basketball, football

tyre by the kerb, tire by the curb

Canadians still use serviette but Americans seem to be losing this elegant and useful word in favor (favour) of table napkin.


Math in the US, maths in the UK. Sports in the US, sport in the UK. Consistent, right? And of course US soccer = UK football.

British contrast certain nouns ending in -ce with their corresponding verb forms ending in -se. For example: licence/license, practice/practise. Americans (but less so Canadians) often narrow the spelling of noun and verb to -ce endings. Outside US borders, my memory aid associates the ‘c’ ending with ‘concrete noun’.

Then we have variant spellings: kerb/curb, tyre/tire, gaol/jail. If I could get away with it, I’d use kerb and tyre, being unambiguous with their homonyms. We see a precedent in the word clew that retains its spelling for maritime use, but evolved to clue in the crime and mystery world.

A few authors have proposed we Americans adopt British spellings regarding two ‘writerly’ words. One is cosy (instead of cozy), which one SleuthSayer or another uses. The other is storey (instead of story) when referring to the floor of a building. For example, “She was reading a cosy on her second storey balcony.” Your choice.

Finally, the dot at the end of a sentence… the British refer to it as fullstop whereas Americans usually call it a period. That’s a clue to wrap up.

Good luck, Anne!

03 August 2021

My American Project—How to Write Like an American

Anne van Doorn is a regular reader and back blogger here at SleuthSayers. He's also an author (with a charming way with words) and a friend of mine. I'm pleased to share his guest column with you today. Welcome, Anne. 

                                                                                                            -- Barb Goffman

My American Project—How to Write Like an American

Avid readers of SleuthSayers may have seen my name appear in the comments section here. I came across this blog through Google and instantly liked how professional writers shared their experiences. It's an honest, entertaining, and informative bloga tempting combination. Now I have also been invited to write an article too, which I consider a great honor.

My name is Anne van Doorn. It's one of my two pen names; the other is M.P.O. Books. I'm a professional writer from the Netherlands, where I earn a modest but sufficient income. In my spare time, I work on a book on 600 years of my family's history.

None other than Josh Pachter introduced me to an international readership. He translated from Dutch my story "The Poet Who Locked Himself In." It was published in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine's Sept/Oct 2019 issue. I feel very grateful to Josh and the staff at EQMM for giving me this opportunity. Editor Janet Hutchings even gave me the chance to write a guest post for her blog Something is Going to Happen.

In case you're starting to think I'm writing this post to BSP myself—no, I'm here to enlist your assistance, dear SleuthSayers. 

I like a challenge. My introduction to an international audience made me wonder if I would be able to write an American detective novel. I'm sure I can—but to what level of performance? How convincing will it be? Your help is direly needed!

Dutch Writers Crossing Borders

Other writers from the Netherlands have tried this before—writing in English. Maarten Maartens (1858-1915), who lived the last years of his life in my hometown of Doorn, is said to be the first Dutchman to have written a detective novel for adults. It was titled The Black Box Murder (Remington & Co, London, 1889), and he wrote it in English. In fact, the novel has never been translated into Dutch. Maartens, who lived in England from 1864-1870, wrote almost exclusively in English. Regrettably, The Black Box Murder is his only detective novel. 

Other glowing examples are Robert van Gulik (1910-1967), who is famed for his wonderful Judge Dee stories, set in ancient China, and Janwillem van de Wetering (1931-2008), noted for his characters Grijpstra and De Gier, two Amsterdam police detectives. By the way, Josh Pachter translated two short stories by Janwillem van de Wetering for EQMM. One of them, "There Goes Ravelaar!," was nominated for the Edgar Award for Best Short Story of 1986 by Mystery Writers of America. 

It was also Josh Pachter who encouraged me to translate my short stories and gave me solid advice. Last year, I took on the challenge of translating "The Doctor Who Fell Into Sin" and submitted it to EQMM. I inked their contract in November. It was all the encouragement I needed. Apparently, my English is good enoughat least in short form.

The American Project

At the moment, my full-length so-called "American Project" is in the preliminary stages. I'm improving my understanding of the language and creating what I call my "palette."

I learned British English in school, so now I need to know how it differs from American English. I've made a list of idioms. I also study from the Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation. Furthermore, I've created an extensive list of words I don't use and write down their meanings and synonyms to discover their connotations. This should allow me to use them. I also list police jargon, slang, abbreviations, and terms of abuse. As a Christian, I don't like expletives, so I'm selective in this regard. 

And I'm making my palette. It's a document full of all kinds of expressions for motions and positions. Take for instance the way you move through a room. There are many variations for it. You can walk, run, stroll, tiptoe, lumber, and so on. Some of these words are new to me, so I need to write them down. While writing a novel, I can consult my palette document, choose the best option, adapt it to the situation, and use it. 

And by positions, I mean variations like these:

    "The statuette rested on a shelf."

    "The statuette was displayed on a shelf."

The same applies to non-verbal communicationthe way we express our emotions and thoughts. I'm talking about shrugs, frowns, blushes, looks, and so on. You probably know them all, but I have to write them down to choose the best option for a given situation. And, of course, I also need to know all the ways of speaking: saying, whispering, screaming, stammering, and all other variants. 

Eventually, my palette will be a helpful tool.

Learn by Reading Others

I read a lot of American English. Besides a daily visit to SleuthSayers, I read a short story every day. To cater to my needs, I subscribed to EQMM. Recently, I purchased Black Cat Mystery Magazine #8, Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine #13, and Shanks on Crime by Robert Lopresti in ebook format. Crime novels by Lou Manfredo (Rizzo's War), Anthony Boucher (The Case of the Baker Street Irregulars), and Steven Torres (Precinct Puerto Rico) are at the top of my TBR pile. I'm sure all these books will help me in one way or another.

Even then, I'm well aware that I will make mistakes. I'm not a flawless writer. But thank God there are copy editors who can save me from my follies! Dis article, for a sample, was copi-editit by Barb Goffmanaccept vor dis sentins. (Yeah, copy editing is hard labor!) I hope she's willing to help me on my American Project too, but I'm not sure she can, as this brave lady is learning to say no.

Now, my dear SleuthSayers, I turn to you. Over the years, this blog has published countless articles on the use of language, grammar, punctuation, and related topics. You've spotted my gravest mistakes in my comments on your posts. What particular article would you recommend to get me started?