An award-winning author of biographies and books about American history, Leslie Wheeler now writes the Miranda Lewis “living history” mystery series. Titles include MURDER AT PLIMOTH PLANTATION, MURDER AT GETTYSBURG, and the recently published, MURDER AT SPOUTERS POINT. Her short crime fiction has appeared in five anthologies published by Level Best Books, including the current anthology, THIN ICE, to which she is now a contributing editor. A member of Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime, Leslie serves as Speakers Bureau Coordinator for the New England Chapter. Visit her website at http://www.lesliewheeler.com.
Eat, Dash—Hesitate . . .
by Leslie Wheeler
When did it begin, my love affair with Dash and Ellipsis? Not in college, surely. If I used an ellipsis at all, it would have been within quoted material to show that certain parts of the quotation had been omitted. And I don’t recall any dashes in those carefully written, carefully punctuated college and graduate school essays of yore.
As I glance at my later non-fiction writing, which includes JIMMY WHO?, a popular biography of former President Jimmy Carter, written during the 1976 campaign, and LOVING WARRIORS, a more scholarly biography in letters of the nineteenth-century feminist and abolitionist, Lucy Stone, I note the occasional dash, but not in the quantity that would eventually appear in my fiction.
My first fiction was a long, unpublished historical novel. A look at a chapter from that novel, which was published as a short story, shows a growing number of dashes as the story progresses—one in the first paragraph, two in second, and so on. But it wasn’t until I began to write mystery fiction that I adopted a truly colloquial style—replete with dashes and ellipses. Why? They just seemed to appear on the page—the way characters sometimes do without warning. I even think of Dash and Ellipsis as characters.
Dash, after all, is short for Dashiell, a name made famous by the mystery author, Dashiell Hammett. In the baby name book from the 1980s, BEYOND JENNIFER AND JASON, Dashiell shows up on a list of new manly names that, according to the authors, “bespeak a transformed masculine ideal—sensitized, enlightened, liberated from the manacles of machismo.” But this doesn’t describe my Dash. No: He’s tall, handsome and—dashing. He’s also impatient, interrupts frequently, departs abruptly and returns unexpectedly. Dash is bold, strong, and sure of himself.
And Ellipsis? She’s just the opposite: shy and well . . . hesitant. Because of her name, I picture her as a figure out of Greek mythology, a mortal whose beauty attracts one of the many lascivious male gods like Zeus or Apollo. He pursues, she flees, and is about to be overtaken and ravished when a sympathetic Diana whisks her into the ether, leaving behind a series of small, rounded, evenly spaced footprints.
Dash and Ellipsis figure prominently in my first mystery novel, MURDER AT PLIMOTH PLANTATION. My editor for that book didn’t raise an eyebrow at their abundance, but she did insist they be done correctly. No weak, half-hearted double hyphens for him, but the long, unbroken line of a true Dash. My galleys were red-penciled with 1/m marks lest the printer mistake my shorter, broken lines for the real thing. Red pencil marks also revealed Ellipsis in her full glory as a series of spaced periods, instead of the scrunched-together dots I’d been doing.
I use Dash and Ellipsis most often in writing dialogue to show how people really speak with all the interruptions, sudden halts, pauses, and trailing-offs. By my third mystery, MURDER AT SPOUTERS POINT, I’d become so enamored of Dash and Ellipsis that I could barely write a paragraph without using several of my darlings. My editor decided I’d gone too far. “You really don’t need all the dashes,” she wrote on the manuscript. And so, reluctantly, I changed some to commas. But those sentences seemed weak and emasculated without Dash’s force and energy. At my editor’s suggestion, I also eliminated some of my Ellipses, but again, I wasn’t happy with the result. Instead of fading away with gradual grace, those sentences had a clipped, brusque feel. Oh well . . .
Although I caved in a bit on that book, I remained a fierce champion of Dash and Ellipsis in THIN ICE, Level Best Books’ eighth anthology of short crime fiction by New England authors, to which I recently became a contributing editor. The Dashes and Ellipses I fought for didn’t just appear in my own story, but in the stories of twenty-four other authors. And I insisted that they be done right. Now I was the one wielding the red pencil and fixing every Dash that looked like a hyphen, every Ellipsis that wasn’t properly spaced—much to the dismay of the co-editor who was handling the production end of the book. She even began referring to the correct way of indicating an ellipsis as “Leslie’s preferred method.” Another co-editor spoke openly in a half-joking, half-serious manner about battles over ellipses that nearly led to blows.
But if you care about someone or something as much as I do Dash and Ellipsis, you have to stand up for them, right?