All posts by dafiv

The Fraidy Cat


The Fraidy Cat

It’s funny how comfortable an automobile’s back seat feels until you have to sit on it for hours. And, of course, there isn’t much to do back there but look around at the passing trees, wishing that, somehow, you could have just stayed home instead of traveling through the night until dawn while trying to be quiet so as to not distract or anger your father. It was not infrequent that too much activity or noise from my younger brother or me would impel his big arm to appear over the back of his seat, swinging around in an attempt to inflict some sort of punishing equilibrium. Any near miss, or worse, a direct hit on a leg or hand, would cause us to reconsider whatever activity had triggered the attack. The ensuing peace and quiet would last for a few miles before needing reinforcement. Mother would glare or threaten, Father would actually hit, and when he did, it was most effective.

For some reason, our family always left on a trip long before dawn, and we are talking two or three in the morning. It really didn’t matter that it made no difference what time we arrived, because my mother’s kinfolk graciously welcomed any visit at any hour. Nope. We were tradition bound, and tradition dictates that a trip should start in darkness…no matter what.

My father was obsessed with last minute repairs to the car before a trip. He was no master mechanic but usually and dependably would elect to perform at least a tune-up the day before. And he was picky about how the engine sounded with its new points, plugs and fresh oil. He would take it for a quick drive, intermittently punching his foot to the floor, the accelerator pedal trapped between, while listening carefully to how the motor revved and whether there was any of the dreaded “pinging” in play. Frankly, I could never hear what he heard, and after several stops to adjust the distributor, he would either assume that the car simply could not be fixed or accept its failings as the best he could manage given the limited time available. On occasion, the repair process would go on well after dark and long after I was ready to abandon all hope that the car would run correctly the next day. Lying on the dirt, bugs swarming the single light bulb mounted on a long extension cord, does not improve a mood, and it did little to bring good cheer to my father late in the night before an early family departure the next day.

Our car tires were another worrisome item of infamy. Something was always wrong with the tires. There was either too much wear, uneven wear, or, the worst possible thing other than a blowout…cupping. Cupping cannot be detected by a child of my age at the time nor can the particularly offensive thumping or droning noise be detected by any young ears. But my father could always see and hear cupping of his tires, and it nearly drove him crazy. Resorting to his bag of tricks to control the lethal cupping conundrum, he would drive various speeds, trying to find the perfect one that would minimize the thump that only he could hear. My mother was never convinced that it was an important issue, and most of the time, she would silently ride along nodding as he pointed out the vibrating effect a bad tire made on the steering wheel. On occasion, she would have enough and observe that the sound was not loud enough for her excellent ears to discern. After that comment, my father would keep his distress over cupping to himself, driving in sullen silence while the family car’s tires slowly wore themselves into little shreds left behind on the sunlit Georgia blacktop, at least in my father’s imagination.

Back in the days of my youth, children were not treated as equals to adults, not by a long shot. We were expected to do as told and do it quietly and to keep our invalid opinions to ourselves. Questioning the declarations or actions of a parent was not well tolerated in my family and, at the time, treating children in this manner was a nationally accepted method of parenting. Mind you, I’m not complaining, just observing and remembering how it was. Personally, I had little reason to complain, because they were happy when I wasn’t home and rarely asked where I had been or where I was going. It was personal freedom at its best as long as I didn’t generate complaints from neighbors or visits by officers of the law.

My father’s sense of humor was generally confined to certain television shows, and beyond that, his life was one of of hard labor and little comfort. One time though, I saw a different side of him, a playful, devious and inventive side, a face that I had never seen before then and seldom afterward. I had heard the stories of his youth many times, and cats and dogs were frequently mentioned. He was a cat fancier in some ways and had a profound understanding of their unique character. Such knowledge could only have come from close observation, prolonged study and frequent experimentation. My father knew cats inside and out.

One fine morning, about three and long before dawn, my brother and I were aroused and compelled to mount up. We all were going to Georgia for a visit and would stop at a diner for breakfast on the way. It was one of those rare dining out occasions, visiting a real restaurant that served food right to the table, even to my mother. There wasn’t anything unusual about the food, pancakes for the boys, ham and eggs for their parents, but it was one of those unique times that we actually dined out together, the trip nearly completed, the car repaired and functional, a day of visiting ahead. By the time we finished eating, we were all in a good mood, stuffed with food, our stiff legs stretched, relaxed and ready for the last half hour of driving to Aunt Thelma’s house. Of course, her husband Clarence lived there also, but since Thelma was the blood relation, it was always her house in our minds.

My mother’s aunt and uncle were older and country but welcoming in a way that was real with no artificiality. People of that type are incapable of putting on a face for visitors. They are what they are, and they like you for what you are, and there was no getting around it. When Thelma hugged you, you knew she did it out of love and nothing else, and whatever you were, she was proud of you for it. The couple had seen a lot of life, learned to cope with very little and yearned for nothing. My father was a competent tradesman but even he would listen to Clarence discuss how to do things and make things in his country way of practicality. Clarence had been raised on a farm and knew a world about animals and how to make do without the services of a veterinarian. From somewhere, Clarence had been given a black kitten, not an ordinary kitten but a dominant, mean, ferocious little beast that, after maturation, terrorized the neighborhood dogs and cats. Even Clarence gave him a wide berth, wisely considering the right time to attempt to pet or touch him. Thelma ignored the creature, and in return, Blackie ignored her. He had run of the house, run of the yard and ruled the neighborhood. Something had to be done about Blackie and his innate hostility. The obvious solution was castration. The process was well-known to Clarence who had performed the deed on various large animals. He favored the rather simple ligature and snip procedure, and the addition of anesthesia apparently had never occurred to him as necessary. Completing this task on a tolerant herbivore confined in a tight stall was one thing, but surgery on a violent-natured cat was….one would assume, impossible. Not for Clarence. Using a combination of trickery and brute force, Clarence managed to stuff Blackie head first into an old leather boot, leaving the rear end exposed and vulnerable. After the job was completed, Blackie wasn’t seen for days, leaving Thelma and Clarence to speculate about his surviving castration.

Unfortunately, Blackie did return. His mood had not improved a bit. In fact, he was far worse and now given to random attacks consisting of biting and clawing anyone at anytime as a matter of right. Any caressing or petting by Clarence was a thing of the past. Blackie was free to come and go as he pleased. I often wondered why Clarence didn’t attempt to do away with Blackie, but as the years came and went, I realized that Clarence was a good and kind man who probably felt a great deal of responsibility of how Blackie turned out. He had enough on his conscience without adding caticide to his regrets.

And so, we arrived in Georgia at the home of Thelma and Clarence one fine summer day, tired from traveling most of the night but at least well-fed. Thelma took her hostess responsibility seriously and, as should have been expected, insisted on feeding us again, no matter how resolutely we rejected the idea. As we were sitting, talking and listlessly eating our mandatory cupcakes with tea, Blackie strolled through the living room. Our conversation suspended in mid-sentence as the shadowy black cat strode defiantly in, his long tail swinging from side to side in an aggressive display. Blackie didn’t look directly at any of us, as far as we could tell, but just stood there for a moment, obviously itching to start a fight before he sauntered off without looking back.

“New cat?” my father inquired. He, above all the others, would have had a sixth sense about Blackie and his potential.

“His name is Blackie,” Clarence spoke the obvious. “Don’t try to pet him,” he added, also the obvious, even to me.

It was a bit unsettling, the appearance of this wild creature who invited confrontation. I filed the information away for later use as conversation came back as before. Mostly, they talked about relatives, where they were, what they were doing and, at times, when they had died and what they had left behind. My brother and I were sitting there in silence, trying to escape notice as much as possible. Clarence, when he was motivated by fresh ears such as my father’s, could manage to talk non-stop. It didn’t matter in the least that my mother and Thelma were engaged in a conversation only two feet away. There were stories to be told, lessons to be learned, and Clarence went at it with his back into it. My father usually just sat there nodding, occasionally rubbing his chin with his hand and casting his eyes about the room, probably thinking about something else entirely.

In a moment of absolute boredom, I pulled out my pocket knife and entertained myself with the opening and closing of the blade. It was a discard from my father’s pocket and sported a broken plate on the left side. Nevertheless, it was a knife and with a bit of oil and persistence, it would open and close like new. The blade was another matter. My mother despised sharp blades in the hands of young boys and took it as her sacred duty to correct my father’s judgement in passing this weapon into my hands. She took it from me and in a few vigorous minutes of work, managed to not only dull the cutting edge but to remove the tip as well by drawing it over concrete found on the front stoop. It was, more or less, rendered into a butter knife which opened and closed. To injure someone, it would have to be fired from a cannon toward them. She watched for any attempt at sharpening by me, and if it would even scratch her finger, she resolutely repeated her dulling routine. Clarence finally spotted the knife in my hand and stopped his conversation abruptly.

“Say, Junior, looks like your knife needs some attention,” he correctly observed. “Remind me later, and I’ll show you how to sharpen it.” With that, he went back to his conversation about the German POW camp that had not been far out of town. I knew that Clarence would remember and that my knife would be restored to a precision tool, capable of both shaving and sticking. Then I noticed my mother’s eyes looking my way. Clarence would be wasting his time and effort. I sighed and folded the blade, putting it back in my pocket, while hoping that everyone would just forget that it was there. That was when Blackie made another appearance, this time from another direction.

He moved silently to the middle of the room and looked at each of us in turn. It was a dare that none of us chose to accept, and we looked back hoping for his voluntary retreat. That is, all of us except my father. He had fought in the World War and was tough and street-smart himself. That, and he could read cats in a way that even the cat didn’t understand. I guess, during a momentary return to his youth, he decided to take Blackie’s measure and do it while appearing innocent to the rest of us. My attention was drawn to my father’s face when the idea struck him. I knew him well enough to realize that Blackie was going to be sorry that he was itching for a fight on this particular day. The first stroke came just as Blackie was nearly out of the room, having decided that he was still master of the house and all its contents.

From somewhere low in the bowels of the earth, and too low to be noticed by most humans, a groan appeared. Blackie stopped and the hair on his back elevated slightly. His head turned to look for a threat, but the humans were engaged in boring conversation and otherwise were ignoring him. Still, the threat had arisen in this room, and Blackie was compelled by his nature not to ignore it. He turned around and stared, safely in the doorway and yet close enough to either fight or flee. I learned something about cat nature that day. They are cursed with a nervous energy that can take charge at any time, making the creature a victim of his own reflexes. Blackie stood there waiting but nothing happened. My father was innocently listening to Clarence drone on and not even looking Blackie’s way. I knew that whatever was going to happen was still on the way, and I considered that Blackie understood where the sound had arisen but not why. When Blackie was still under full alert, he turned to leave, and at the perfect moment, my father’s foot jerked just enough to make a sound, accompanied by a nearly inaudible menacing gurgle. Clarence didn’t notice, Mother didn’t notice, but Blackie did and the sound effects were enough to cause him to clear the ground by a couple of inches. This time his back hair came up all the way to his tail and stayed up.

“Clarence!” Thelma called out. “What in the heaven is wrong with that cat?” Dutifully, Clarence turned his attention to Blackie who stood there with his back arched, displaying dilation of his pupils. He studied the cat for a moment, shrugged, and continued his explanation of fishing in the Okefenokee to my father who sat there in complete innocence, giving Clarence his full concentration. The cat knew exactly who had made the noise and was looking right at him, still attempting to determine the actual threat level. As I watched, my father’s head robotically turned toward Blackie, and his eyes rolled around while wide open, giving even me a start. Blackie couldn’t take it. His entire life had revolved around conventional confrontations…not this surreal kind. He didn’t have a defense strategy for insanity, and his only options were to become stiff legged and hiss loudly at the threat.

“Clarence!” Thelma repeated, this time louder, while pointing at the cat with her arm and hand. Blackie had morphed into some sort of creature with advanced rigor mortis, even though he still stood his ground in a way, but teetering on his claws instead of the pads of his feet.
Clarence tossed a pillow at the pitiful creature, commanding “Git!” Blackie, with a flip of whatever buried reflex was still functioning, disappeared in a blur of motion.

I studied the doorway expecting the return of Clarence’s creature at any moment, but to my disappointment, he had evidently deduced that the room was too upsetting for him. Clarence droned on, and I started listening to Thelma and my mother discuss the hard times of the Depression. I felt myself being transported back in time to rural Georgia, hard red clay, acre miles of cotton shimmering in the hot sun, the local Coca Cola plant and the numberless unfortunate blacks who did backbreaking labor for nearly nothing. And the most special were the little snippets about my mother’s grandparents who took her and her three siblings in and did the best they could for them. Once I remembered the little fragments of history I had previously heard, and inserted them as filler for the memories they were recalling, I felt as though I had lived there with them, experienced the same bruising reality, and had cried the same wrenching tears when my great-grandfather died, leaving them to fend for themselves in a hard world. A glance at my younger brother told me that he had been able to completely tune out the conversations, instead focusing on the stack of funny books he had wisely managed to bring along. In a way, I envied him and his ability to shut off the world, retreating into his own imagination, allowing in only what he wanted, rejecting the rest.

Blackie’s head appeared at the lower corner of the doorway. He was cautious this time and not so ready to take on the newcomers. I couldn’t decide if some cat necessity had driven him to take a stroll through the room again or if he had to prove himself to himself. Either way, I had to admire his willingness to overcome his fright and try again. My father’s eye flicked toward Blackie. He had been waiting, expecting Blackie to return. How he knew, I’ll never understand, but Blackie would have been wiser to visit the neighborhood instead of this den of self-inflicted horror.

What you have to understand is that Blackie knew, absolutely was positive, that my father was going to give another unexpected jerk or roll of his eyes. Blackie was ready this time, and that was his problem. He was hyper-alert, his nervous system in high tune, his muscles already tensed…he expected to be surprised and that was the masterstroke in my father’s method. The cat was trapped, the inevitable was about to be evitable.

After a long moment of contemplation, Blackie made his appearance. Acting casual and relaxed, he boldly walked in, sauntering a line that would lead him to the other doorway on the other wall. His stiff and swinging tail was a dead giveaway, though, and even I could tell that Blackie was on maximum alert. About midway, and while Blackie was obviously thinking that he was going to make it out unscathed this time, my father started emitting a subsonic growl, one just loud enough for the cat to hear but not loud enough to stop Clarence from describing how he made the infamous mahogany teller’s window at the bank. Blackie’s head pivoted toward my father, like the snap of a whip, his eyes fixated on my father’s face which slowly displayed teeth and narrowed eyes. Some part of Blackie had to know it was coming and that he had asked for it and had no one else to blame but himself. Reasoning wasn’t enough to overcome reflexes, however, and Blackie went up on his toes with all four feet, legs stiff, tail bristling with hair, as he danced in crazy circles intermittently spitting a hiss between his frozen jaws. During full dance, the second stroke came when my father expertly jerked both feet at the same time. Blackie went straight up in the air, but how, I can’t imagine. It was as if an unseen force of levitation had arrived from the heavens and lifted him instantly into the thin air. After landing stiffly, and showing twenty or so teeth, he danced on toes and claws slowly out of sight, back where he had come from.

Thelma stood up, looking at the vacant doorway. “I wish you’d listen!” she said, her favorite remark when something was truly remarkable. “Clarence, did you see what Blackie just did?” Without waiting for her husband’s view of the matter, she added, “Get up and go shoo him outside.” It was not a request that Clarence could ignore, and he rose to the occasion and headed toward where Blackie had been last seen.

Blackie had other ideas, however, and after Clarence had been gone for a few moments, a black streak crossed the room, disappearing into another area of the house. The motion was too quick to actually observe and left me with the impression of a shadow flicking past, an apparition of sorts. Blackie wasn’t ready to be dismissed from this confrontation just yet. He, as the dominate cat of cats, had something left to prove. A motion caught my eye from the dark corner where the shadow had vanished. Inspection showed it to be the right ear and eye of a black cat attempting to inspect the room from a safe distance using a method of subterfuge well-known to members of the feline family. I glanced at my father and could see his eyes sparkling with delight and mirth. The cat just couldn’t take a hint. He had chosen a master of the dark arts to tangle with, an individual who had understood cat physiology by intense observation for years before Blackie’s birth.

“Come, Blackie,” Clarence commanded from somewhere distant. A cat ear twisted in that direction, but the rest of the cat was reluctant to follow. Blackie had chosen to be forced to cross the no-cat zone and found himself on the far side of the only escape route, while being aware what awaited him, causing his reflexes to fire off before he was ready. Without my father moving a muscle, or uttering a sound, or even looking menacing in any way, it was simply his presence in the room that was threatening. The demon existed, he was there waiting, and Blackie had to cross his path. What we witnessed will live in our memories for all time and will bring guffaws, smiles and head-shaking each time we think of Blackie crossing the room that last time. My side-splitting laughter brought on tears which clouded my vision, but I can still describe the scene just as it happened.

Blackie, stiffly, puppet-like, danced into the room on four stiff legs, his back arched, his eyes flaming yellow, his teeth showing but his vision and head were fixed on only one thing…my father’s face. He couldn’t make much forward progress by hopping forward one inch at a time, but honestly, it was the best the poor animal could do at the moment. He hopped, he spat, he glared, and at long last, his savior appeared with a broom above his head, rushing toward him with menace from the opposite doorway. The last we saw of Blackie was a puff of hair as the broom Clarence swung at him made contact. Then he was gone.

Alexander Francis

Logic Pro X Filters


As a last comment on building our sound booth and recording as well as editing the sound track, I wish to share our settings.  After much experimentation, we have settled on a simple set of three audio filters using Apple Logic Pro X software.

When we started, I had an idea that our narrator’s voice should change dramatically between characters she is portraying, and I made a concerted effort to find plug-ins which could handle the task.  I used both Antares and Flux, both highly rated, for voice modification.  You see, I wanted to create a male voice or a youthful voice, or even separate female voices.  Much like hiring different actors for the various parts.

It didn’t work.  Even though these add-on filters are excellent and expansive (yes, a bit expensive also), they create a strange voice instead of a natural one.  Try as I might, I could not achieve the effect I desired, and we went back to the tried and true method of voice control by the narrator.

Noise Gate

A major goal is to eliminate any unwanted sounds as  we discussed previously, and it comes down to careful editing and noise control inside the booth.  There are sounds, though, which creep into the highest and the lowest frequencies no matter how careful you are. These can be controlled with the right settings on your filters.

Channel Equalizer

Another issue is the dynamic range of the narrator.  In our case, Janel can become hyper-charged during reading of an exciting section, and the result is a very wide range of dynamics captured faithfully by the mike. Again, this is managed by the appropriate settings of the software.


Some speakers, particularly female ones, tend to emphasize the “S” sounds of words.  Good, clear speaking demands that it be so.  But, it can be too obvious and a distraction as well.  We use a nice little de-esser which diminishes the pop of an “S” sound without removing it.  Less is better than more in this case.

For our needs, the three filters produce a clear sound which converts to a high quality MP3 and is easy on the ear as well.

To be clear, we record the narration on a track without filters and do the editing and post-processing later, outside of the studio.

Good luck on your own efforts, and I hope this series has been helpful.

Alexander Francis

Cords…They Hate Me


It’s one of those things I have to get off of my chest, an admission, a coming out, and it will surprise even you, my dear readers.

I am troubled by cords…they are out to get me, and they have, many times. No, I’m not talking about musical chords. No problem there. I’ve made friends with musical chords, and we share mutual respect, even longing for each other. Its just cords, and by that inclusive word, I mean ropes, electrical wires, cables, hoses and the like. Just about anything that is rather round and linear.

My troubles started long ago, but at the time I attached no significance to it. Rather, I was self-depreciating about my experiences and travails, blaming any difficulty on myself rather than accuse an inanimate and otherwise harmless object. As a youth, I worked with my father in the summertimes, helping him with electrical work. I even got paid a minuscule sum, likely what I was actually worth. Several times, I was asked to perform a simple task…roll up the extension cord or unroll the extension cord. Never could I do this elementary task without creating a hopeless tangle…a gordian knot of electrical wire so hopelessly intertwined that I considered using a pliers and cutting myself free. More often though, my irritated father would snatch it away mumbling “gimme that” and in a few furious seconds, the matted tangle would disappear but not his scowl in my direction. It was so bad that I would even trip over any cord or line innocently lying on the ground under my clumsy feet.

How could I know that it wan’t an adolescent clumsiness at fault? It was a cord conspiracy, and it got worse over the rest of my life. Later, I took part in vertical rock climbing with my son, and during training, our instructor would frequently yell in my direction that I was “ Yo! Standing on the rope…again!” Sure I was, but what he didn’t know was that it was a protective move on my part. I was simply holding down the rope to prevent its mischief. Try as hard as I might, the habit persisted until the instructor gave up. I was hopeless. Later, my son and I hired a professional guide for some really hard climbs. Heading up Devils Tower, I was entrusted to carry the spare rope, coiled in neat even coils and tied off like experienced climbers do. All I had to do at the appointed time was to tie one end off and toss the loops into the void, supposedly allowing the rope to uncoil and hang down obediently all one hundred eighty feet along the sheer wall. You know the rest. When the time came and the rope went down, there were not one but three knots swinging defiantly along the course of the rope. After I pulled it up, nearly being pulled off the side by the rope trick of wrapping around my feet, I untangled it and tossed again. It took three tries to finally get it straight. When we started down, I gave some thought to what the rope might try to do to me as I used this single important device on which to dangle my life. I’m sure I would still be up there trying to descend, but the calming hand of my son on the lower end of the rope demanded order instead of allowing chaos. Cords don’t hate him.

By now you are convinced that either I am exaggerating or am headed for therapy and medication. I assure you that I am totally sane and physically competent. The stark truth is that cords hate me. Let me give you an example. Any time, any day, in my basement projects I have to be unusually careful about cords, air compressor hoses, pull chains. They all give me trouble and are particularly devious about it when I am not attentive. For no reason at all, the electrical cord of the saber saw will end up in under the basement door. I don’t put it there or even allow it to happen, but when I try to extract it, the plug becomes wedged on the hinge side and nearly any effort won’t budge it. Still think I’m crazy? Then here is another example. Under my computer desk there are, of course, many cables. Given my lifelong experience, I am ultra careful about routing, grouping and securing the cables, nearly to a mania. It doesn’t matter in the least, because the wires and cables, alone for a few moments will creep relentlessly into a tangle.

I’ve had to deal with my fate as best I can, coping without anger most of the time and only occasionally giving in to shredding and cutting…and cursing. Thinking it over, I surmise that one innocent day in my youth, I gave offense to a well-meaning cord, and well, so it goes.
Alexander Francis

The Learning Curve




I promised that I would discuss equipment we are using for recording our narrator’s voice, and this is the correct time to do that. After completion of the audio version of Geminknot, we have learned a few things that I want to pass along.

First of all, the size and design of the sound booth is perfect for our needs. It is both pleasant, attractive as well as functional. As I’ve said previously, you must consider how much time your narrator will spend in a small enclosure and how important it is to provide an environment conducive to good work.

We are using a professional microphone by Shure (model # SM7B) which is widely respected and for good reason.  We have found that it will pick up vocal sounds in a way that enriches a voice but will also faithfully pick up unwanted sounds,  the kind you will hear during the editing process. I want to give you a heads-up regarding several of them. We earlier identified chair squeaks during body motion and by experimentation find that most of the time we can’t do anything about it.  Our solution has been for the narrator to move in the chair as little as possible during active sessions.

Another interesting sound occurs during  touchpad use on the Apple laptop, either during  ending the recording session or during pauses. Even though this sound might be missed by the intended audience, we choose to edit them out. Speaking of the computer, we have discovered that during a long session, the computer’s ventilation fan is activated and can easily be heard in the recording. Solution: place the computer on a cool object (we use gel-based cold packs).

Unfortunately, various  human sounds, those that originate within the digestive system, are part of the listening experience and are exceptionally hard to eliminate short of starting over.

A word about our equipment, but I want to emphasize that many other systems will work as well as ours and that we make no claim to have a superior system.  I have already mentioned the mike, and you can see the wrap around sound absorber behind it.  An interface is required to input the recording into our computer (which is visible on the right side).  We are using a Track 16, which we also use for music session recordings.  It is a very high quality unit and easy to use.  Our narrator wears a pair of Shure headphones during the recording (SRH 840) which enables her to use playback to edit or continue the session.  The computer is running Logic Pro X which inputs and records the session.  The file is stored on our iCloud  and is therefore protected from loss and easily retrieved later for editing and conversion to an MP3.

To insure that there is no paper rattling, we use an Apple iPad to display the text for narration.

The results speak for themselves,  and our sample recordings will soon be updated with the latest version.  Currently we are creating music to be overlaid and blended with the narration.

Next time,  I will disclose our settings and filters for Logic Pro which have allowed us to modulate and improve what was already an excellent recording.

Alexander Francis



Annoying Trifles


Before I complete this series on setting up your sound booth, I should describe the ‘other’ important issues you will discover using your booth.  Some of these you can expect, the others will sneak up on you and manifest themselves by surprise in your finished work.

I’m largely speaking  about extraneous, unwanted sounds which creep into all our works. For instance, squeaks of the narrator’s or singer’s chair.  You know, the comfortable, heavy and expensive one you installed, foreseeing years of constant use.  Pay attention early or regret it later.  It will squeak, or worse, clunk at critical times, producing sounds which are hard to erase.  Tightening up may help but most important is to have your narrator recognize body changes which cause noise. And that also goes for static produced by some clothing. Soft cotton is best.

It took a long time, but I finally found the source of a small, audible voltage spike which was bedeviling me. Don’t put your cell phone on a charger inside the booth.  Best to turn the little devil off completely.

You wouldn’t expect it, but I’ve found that stomach gurgling can easily be heard on the recording and is hard to eliminate (excuse the pun).  I don’t have an answer for that problem.  You are on your own.

Fixing distance from the mike and setting any volume controls prior to each recording session is a must.  Even so, the time of day, your narrators state of energy and mind, and who knows…phases of the moon, have input.  Some things you can’t fight. Another obvious and mood changing dynamic is an upper respiratory infection, however mild, which will morph your narrator or singer into another person.

Be careful to avoid any page turning.  We  use an iPad which is noiseless and handy and can be prepped with emphasis, if needed.

However good your booth is, outside noise is hard to eliminate.  One of my own problems has come from remote fan noise from an air conditioner or furnace.  It was startling the first time I was able to compare two tracks, one with the noise and one without.  Yes, I was able to nearly eliminate this low frequency noise with the DAW software, but my opinion is that something in her voice is lost in the process.

In our set up, Janel uses the mouse to start and stop her recordings.  Needless to say, I usually have to edit out the soft mouse clicks later.  I could probably ignore them but I am cursed with a perfectionist nature. I may switch over to a input pad for her,  which should be noiseless.

The point of all the above is that you should listen carefully and intently to your recordings for errors such as the ones I mentioned so that your sessions will continue to improve.  After all, we should strive for perfection even if it is impossible to achieve.


Alexander Francis

Finishing Touches


Now for final little touches which make this studio charming from the inside or outside.

I wanted a pleasant scene, visible from the window since the narrator, or singer, faces that direction. Anything will do, other than a view of grey concrete. I built a small flower box, attached to the outside and then quickly found that I needed a grow light. I added a fluorescent grow light and a changeable view by hanging an inexpensive framed poster on the outside.


But, its the view from the inside that matters! Now Janel can be in Paris or in the Swiss Alps or anywhere (sort of, at least).


On the exterior, I used 1/4” plywood underlayment, reverse side out, and left it unfinished. Lastly, adding the trim and a small step and hand rail. I used a small night-light on the outside by the door, lit only when the interior lights are on. A signal to not rashly open the door during narration.


Not pictured is a reverse electrical plug like found in marine hardware suppliers, where power can be supplied via a conventional extension cord. This is mounted on the fan exhaust side of the studio. The last steps were to add a a curved desk top, the carpet underlayment and the carpet.

At last, finished! Total cost thus far was under $1000, and that was using new materials. You can do better.

Any regrets? Sure. I should have added more electrical outlets. You can always use more, and I should have included a couple of 1/4” phone jacks for outside communication, just in case. But overall, I’m happy, my narrator is happy and my singer is ecstatic.

Next time, I’ll discuss hardware and software.

Alexander Francis

Absorbing Unwanted Sound


The addition of sound absorbent panels, especially in areas of high reflection, is a long understood concept. There is no reason that your panels should not also be attractive. You may read that the ideal surface to prevent unwanted sound reflection should be matt or rough. Likely true enough. However, a gay, bright, cheerful panel will enliven an otherwise dark and drab interior and the loss of absorbent power is minimal, plus a smooth surface will not attract dust.


To built a moveable, yet efficient panel is simple. Start by constructing a frame of 1 x 4 (nominal) pine, braced at the corners and held together with glue and 2” staples. Your piece of insulating fiber should be a tight, close fit all around. I added a simple piece of blue board in the center to prevent bowing inward. Place this assembly on your chosen fabric and staple the edges accordingly. I hung mine using simple, heavy duty picture frame hangers.


For the panel needed to cover the ventilation fan, you should notice that the frame is deeper on three sides, allowing air to move under the assembly from the bottom up. An effective but simple trick.


Once all the panels are hung, you will notice a dramatic change in the room sound reflection.


Don’t forget the door, which badly needs some acoustic deadening, Also, you should be meticulous with the weather stripping around it from top to bottom. No light should be seen around the door when it is closed. If you can see light, you can hear sound. I covered the door with foam panels, attached by spray-on adhesive.


And of course the ceiling. I used a thick, drop-in style of acoustical tile (which has high ratings for sound absorption), used contact adhesive to mount them, and trimmed out with stained pine. Above and behind the tile is additional sound absorbent insulation.


Next up will be finishing touches.
Alexander Francis

Completing the Walls


Once the frame was up, I elected to sheath the interior with perforated pegboard prior to any wall finish or insulation. Peg board is inexpensive and there are plausible arguments around which give an edge to a perforated surface because it breaks sound waves differently than a flat surface. The door was inexpensive but solid, not hollow. A hollow door will act as a drum surface and amplify sound


Some finishing touches were added at this time, such as a threshold and the electrical. I chose LED recessed lights because of their lack of additional heat buildup in our enclosed structure. One reason for the choice of a below ground level location was the cooling effect of the surrounding concrete, avoiding the necessity of any active cooling other than a fan.


You can see that we have added a window, positioned just in front of the microphone location. A window allows communication with the occupant of the studio but also can add a significant visual interest, as you will see later. Any sound escaping past the absorbent barrier behind the microphone will be reflected toward the rear and absorbed by large panels on the rear wall. Yes, a better design is to avoid any flat reflective surfaces such as are found in a rectangular design like this one. However, this design is easier to construct, cheaper and works very well as it is. The next step is to provide an absorbent but attractive interior. Tile squares are inexpensive and may be mounted by contact adhesive. Some cutting is required but the work goes quickly.


The next step is to isolate the booth by using sound absorbent insulation on the walls, placed from the outside. I chose Roxul Safe’n Sound in 2’x4’ by 3”. Four bags were enough to insulate all the external walls and to construct several interior sound absorbent panels, to be described in another blog.



More later,

Alexander Francis



I started my project with an idea to build a small studio just large enough to accommodate a seated narrator or singer but also to allow a standing musician, two, or even an assistant. I’ve had as many as five people at one time in this small space, but I wouldn’t recommend it.

Given my criteria, I gauged that a 5’ by 7’ floor plan would suffice. The height would be as close to room size as I could allow. I was fortunate that my allocated area had rather high ceilings. A trip to a big box lumber and hardware store, and I had my start.


I decided on a plywood sandwich for the floor using inexpensive 1/2” underlayment with insulating blue board in-between, supported by a 2 by 4 frame.




Later, the floor will be covered by a thick carpet pad under a plush carpet. Once the floor assembly was completed, I added heavy duty castors. One mistake I made was to not use three castors on the long sides, an error I eventually corrected.

Next, I assembled the frame using standard construction techniques, as seen in the following photograph.


One area deserving mention is the ventilation fan. I obtained a multi-speed, ultra-quiet fan and mounted it on the rear wall. As you shall see, the fan will be covered by a thick, sound deadening unit absorbing any sound from the fan or the exterior of the sound booth but allowing ventilation to flow under the sound barrier via a slot in its lower board.


More to follow.
Alexander Francis

Building Your Own Sound Booth


Building your own sound booth is possible. I make that statement after recently creating one. My goals were to have a convenient, high quality and attractive booth for narration of my novels. Other uses have happily emerged, such as recording a singer’s voice over a provided melody, to be modified later in a digital audio workstation where additional tracks are created and modified. It turns out that this little studio is nearly perfect for both tasks. In this multi-part blog, we will focus on the narration.

A narrator will spend many hours in the booth you create. I have seen, as I’m sure you also have, the use of closet space, complete with hanging clothes to deaden sound. Or the opposite: a full room of foam, walls and ceiling, where no reflected sound is possible. Between those two extremes seems to be an area of compromise where a quality sound can be recorded in a pleasant and suitably sized package.

Mood is important…and happiness is reflected in a recording booth the same as sound waves. Where possible, we need to make the narrator (or singer) feel surrounded by the energy of comfort, visually and otherwise. It will surely pay dividends in what is laid down on the track.

My situation might be somewhat unique in that I chose to build a moveable booth in a corner of a semi-industrial facility. My booth can be moved accordingly, if necessary. However, there was no compromise in making it both attractive and remarkably dead to outside sounds, as long as no active work was taking place outside of the booth at the time of recording.

This little booth has good ventilation, good lighting and a little trick of my own design to make it seem that the narrator is someplace other than a concrete walled enclosure.

To start, I dedicated myself to an extensive search of the Internet regarding construction of a sound booth. The results were a vast array of differing opinions and techniques. One concept that I came away with was that the recording studio should not be dead flat. Every echo, every live sound, should not be removed. To do so is both expensive and unnecessary. Aren’t our ears used to hearing some sound along with the human voice? Is it necessary to have the perception that the speaker is someplace in outer space? I say no…and so do others. Therefore, some items in your booth can reflect sound and still the recording will be successful. You can’t, however, avoid controlling unwanted echoes which will bounce around in an unpredictable manner unless you take the necessary steps to absorb those reflections.

I am going to discuss the construction of this booth from the ground up, or at least from the floor up. Following blogs will discuss my selection of recording equipment.  There is no unique, perfect solution and many combinations of hardware and software will do as well if not better than the ones I selected.  But I must say that my choices work well for me and I am very happy thus far. At some future date I will include a discussion about the DAW (Logic Pro X) I use.  I don’t claim to be a sound engineer or even a moderate expert, but I will share what I have learned.

Alexander  Francis

Introducing Janel Ridenhour


Introducing Janel Ridenhour, our new narrator.  She has plenty going on at the moment,  not only with the time-consuming labor of narrating a full-length book, but also completion of her first album of jazz recordings.

Janel is a longtime friend and graciously gave consent for me to use an on-stage photo of her for the cover of Are We A Band Yet?, and of course, her eyes grace the cover of The Green Scarf, also one of her eyes is seen in the rear view mirror on the cover of Spy Hunt.

We created a recording studio just for herstudio


and discovered that she can do her best singing  over a pre-recorded track instead of live in a larger studio. Separation of the instrumental tracks and the voice tracks have improved the quality and excitement of her recordings enormously.  We’ll have much more to say about the creation of a professional studio for the do-it-yourselfers, and a discussion of what hardware and software we chose as well as an explanation of good practice using a DAW for voice.

Here is a sample of her narration of my book Geminknot:


      Geminknot Audio Sample


Janel’s album is nearing completion, and we will post a sample of her work in a future blog.


Refining with a text editor


At the end of the last blog, we had finished with our word processor document, and created a new text editor document by copying and pasting your novel.  This example uses the well-known editor TextEdit, popular with programmers.

In case you don’t know, an .html file requires each paragraph to be wrapped with the starting <p> and ending </p>  A variation is to use some of the special utility features such as <p class=”first_paragraph”> which you may notice I have done. This will be presented in the style sheet attachment blog later.

Again, this is our starting document after some preliminary changes in Word, then pasted into our text editor


<p class = “chapter_title”>Prologue
<p class = “location”></p>Western Iranian Desert
The rising sun sent a shaft of piercing yellow light across the arid world of the desert, impacting the pale sand, instantly raising its temperature, unofficially marking the start of another hot day in western Iran.


As it stands, the document needs changes to properly function in .html.  One glaring issue is that the </p> paragraph markers are not in the correct place.  Since our document is many thousands of words in length, we need some help to correct it, That is the job of the editor…to save you a lot of hand work.  The first step is to use the advanced search and replace feature. This requires the regular expression mode of your search and replace window as follows:

regular expression search                [\r\n]+</(.*?)>
replace        </$1>\n

The above instructions are strangely wonderful and will result in the following changes throughout your document.


<i> </i>

<p class = “chapter_number”>Chapter 1
<p class = “chapter_title”></p>Target
<p class = “location></p>Sunrise Beach County Park…Tacoma
1900 Hours</p>

The last remaining rays of the sun were being consumed by the trees on Vashon Island, across the narrow channel of fast moving water, and evening was extending its big hand across the little park, the light fading by the minute. The deep sound of a motorcycle moving slowly wafted in little bites, riding on humid air


That helped, but we now have paragraphs with  no endings and inappropriate paragraph endings within a sentence.  The next step is to find and replace unwanted paragraph endings as follows:

find      <p class = “location></p>
replace        <p class = “location>

And this will be necessary using any place that you see the </p> other than at the end of a paragraph.


And the next step is to add paragraph endings where needed with the following.  This time you need the regular expression search and replace (a check box in the search and replace window):


regular expression search      ^(.+)$
replace      <p>$1</p>


Those two actions resulted in the following:


<p class = “chapter_number”>Chapter 2</p>
<p class = “chapter_title”>Reunion</p>
<p class = “location>Interstate 5, South of Seattle</p>

<p>Special Agent April Chauncy couldn’t shake the feeling that she was being watched. She had used her FBI training, her best spycraft methods, to detect her pursuers but had no luck spotting them. It was probably a team, a very good one,


Looks a lot better, doesn’t it? But wait! We are adding another step to add flourish to your otherwise boring ebook.  We are going to change the first line of the first paragraph in each chapter. This will allow you to insert a fancy, large and distinctive letter to start the chapter and, as you will see, makes a great difference. Sorry. This time you have to do each chapter by hand by selecting the <p> which starts the paragraph and inserting the following:


<p class=”first_paragraph”><span class=”scrollfont cap”>T</span>


By the way, the letter T between the > < is the first letter you want revised.  You have to delete the first letter in your text and place it between the > < for it to work. In this case I was using a T.

This accomplishes two tasks. It allows you to have special formatting for the first line. For example, you may want to follow a long tradition using no indentation for the first line in a chapter. And it allows you to define in your style sheet the font you wish to display for the first letter.  You have to trust me for now and will understand completely when you see the style sheet and, later, the complete document.  Your book should be looking like the following:


<p class = “chapter_number”>Chapter 37</p>
<p class = “chapter_title”>From Out Of Nowhere</p>
<p class = “location”>Montgomery County Airpark, Gaithersburg, MD</p>

<p class=”first_paragraph”><span class=”scrollfont cap”>T</span>he plane was nearly finished and the tools and men gone. It sat on the smooth concrete gleaming like a new toy, an 18,000 pound one. All unnecessary hardware had been stripped, and the markings removed and


Don’t be confused by the display in your browser. The lines are set to display on your monitor but are actually full length in your text editor.

One last but important issue is the use of parentheses. The ones you used in your document are fine, but you should be aware that html statements use a special character parenthesis which is hard to detect visually.  You should do another search and replace for both right and left parenthesis, especially if you find unexplained errors.


Hope this gives you a little help or at least more insight into creating your own ebook.  Really, it isn’t as hard as it looks, and once you get the hang of it, it goes quickly and gives you all the control to present a very lovely ebook.


Alexander Francis



From word processor to HTML— Creating your own ebook file


In a previous blog, I briefly discussed taking your book from a word processor file to an html file and then to a format suitable for upload,  publication, and distribution as an e-book.

Now that I have ten books in print and also releases of them in ebook formats, including the Kindle version and the .epub versions, I have some comments about the process for my readers which may give more insight into doing the work yourself. You should know that I am not a professional programmer or web developer, and likely just like you, a struggling writer trying to get my books out to be read. In my case, I also created the covers and this web site you are now visiting.

I currently use Apple products after many years of using MS Windows.  Although I am a fan of Apple, I have issues with their primary word processor, Pages, which is easy to use but has created endless problems for me when I try to use my finished copy and produce a .pdf file for submission to Ingram Spark for printing and distribution.  Pages simply isn’t up to the task.  I have resorted to using a Mac version of MS Word for the final product, and yes, there are problems with that also,  but Word is capable of producing a fine finished product, given some caveats.

First all, NEVER use tabs when creating your book. Always use Styles for formatting and the reason will be shortly clear. Same with spaces.  Both extra spaces and all tabs will have to be eliminated before you can create proper html code.  Speaking of HTML, you should know that a typical  book uses very little sophisticated html programming code, and once you get the hang of it, you might find that you like it better than using  word processors with all their complex settings.

About an ellipsis in your work: That’s the little row of three dots … These are not simply three periods, though that’s how you create the ellipsis when typing.  An ellipsis is a unique character in the world of computer character sets, not three periods.  Your word processor (hopefully) will take your three periods and convert them to a single ellipsis character. The reason I’m discussing this is to outline a problem with Word and other processors such as Pages.  Copying your text from Pages and inserting it into Word does not convert your three periods to a proper ellipsis.  Only typing the three  periods in Word produces the ellipsis. Searching in Word won’t find what you thought was a proper ellipsis.  Be warned.  The reason I bring this up is because of how your sentences are handled during formatting and your particular wishes of how to display your ellipsis.  Correct form of using the ellipsis is controversial and you may choose to use a leading or following space, both or even none. All more difficult to  do if your word processor isn’t seeing an ellipsis  as a single character.

Assuming you took my advice and used Word to produce your final version of your book, you now want to convert your document to an .html file. I will give you some examples of how I do it. There are more steps after conversion but more on that later. A word of advice regarding Word. There is a feature that ‘automatically’ coverts your document to an .html file. Save yourself the agony because it won’t work and will be large and overly complex.  There are also sites on the web which offer to convert your finished pdf file to a .html or even a .epub or Kindle format.  Perhaps. But they won’t do as good a job as you can and their output will never be as beautiful as your hand finished work where you have control over the smallest detail.


Below is a small sample from my book Elapid.  I can’t display the fonts and style I actually used in the book on this web page, so you can either go look at the original or try to have some imagination.  My book was created using styles for the chapter numbers, the chapter titles and the location, as well as formatting for the first and following paragraphs. While still in Word, you should prepare your work as follows:

Eliminate your fancy dropped cap or graphic for the first letter in the chapter.

Remove any graphics, and as mentioned, all tabs and extra spaces.

Change your style settings to remove any use of italics, but don’t remove the italics used in the body of the text of your book.

Don’t forget to save your file using another name unless you want to lose your valuable original!

Original Example


Western Iranian Desert

The rising sun sent a shaft of piercing yellow light across the arid world of the desert, impacting the pale sand, instantly raising its temperature, unofficially marking the start of another hot day in western Iran. The snake understood, by experience and by genetics, that a sheltered place, hidden in shadow, would be necessary to survive another day, and

Using the Advanced Search tool (Find and Replace) in Word, select the Format button and search for Font…Italics.

Then use the following expression in the Replace With area:


This will outline your italicized text for proper display using HTML.


Now we are going to do the same with all our style settings so that our style sheets in HTML can do the same thing your word processor was doing.

My Word style for my chapter titles was named  chapter_title and I search for all occurrences by selecting that style in the Find and Replace tool.  Then replace with the following:

<p class = “chapter_title”>^&</p>


Do the same for your chapter number style and your location style (if any).  Your document will start to look like this:


Second Example:

<p class = “chapter_number”>Chapter 1
</p><p class = “chapter_title”>
<p class = “location”></p>Sunrise Beach County Park…Tacoma
1900 Hours
The last remaining rays of the sun were being consumed by the trees on Vashon Island, across the narrow channel of fast moving water, and evening was extending its big hand across the little park, the light fading by the minute. The deep sound of a motorcycle moving slowly wafted in little bites,

Not very pretty, is it?  And you may have noticed that the  formatting extends across lines.  We’ll fix that using the text editor, not to worry.

You are done with the word processor.  Select the entire document and copy it into memory.  Using a text editor (I use TextMate), paste your book into a new document.  Now the fun starts.


Look for another blog on what to do next!


Alexander Francis


About Fonts


When creating an e-book, you should not attempt to make the body of the text conform to your latest fancy font.  The platform and the reader’s preferences should, and mostly will, prevail anyway.  Save the fancy font for the front matter of your book and the chapter and title headings.  Other than making sure that it is legible, you can use a font which will add distinction to your e-book. The problem, though, is that many older and more primitive readers, such as the original Kindles, will not use your fonts and will respond to a change in font size or italics only.  Too bad for us, because the page then becomes bland and ordinary.

The other issue is concerning the old bugaboo, the copyright.  Yes, many fonts, even ones resident on your computer, may not be used commercially without authorization.  That means a fee, in case you are wondering. The other issue is that postscript fonts will not be displayed by all e-readers.  You should use, therefore, a TrueType font.  The TrueType was developed early in the 80’s by a joint effort between Microsoft and Apple.

Don’t be discouraged, however, because there are many places on the web to obtain free, copyright free, fonts in the TrueType style. has both free fonts and a converter for changing nearly any font to a TrueType.  You have to be sure that the font you use from your own system is in fact free to use before you proceed.  Fonts that you select should be installed in the folder that you are using and will be called by your style sheet (more on this later.)

By the way, sizing your font in HTML is different than in a word processor and once you get used to the idea and technique, far easier and more reliable.  As I mentioned previously, I recommend that you purchase Guido Henkel’s book, Zen of eBook Formatting.  He lays it out for you concerning font use.  We both recommend use of the em sizing method, as you shall see.

So far, in this and the previous blog, I keep postponing detail with the “more on this later.”  The reason is that I will present all the necessary information in one spot to keep you from digging through the text to find the next step.

There is one more thing I would like to mention about fonts.  The first letter of a new chapter is, by custom, larger and florid, or at least descendent into the following line. It does look better than simply starting the chapter with an ordinary letter.  I have two methods that have worked for me and both have good and bad issues.  The first method is to use a fancy font, larger in size with no indent.  This method works well in most cases, but there are problems, particularly with the Apple readers. The other alternative also works well with your printed book. With this method you will need the imaging software we discussed earlier.  I use Photoshop but other products will work.  The font is converted to an image (jpg) and sized slightly larger than you will require.  After inserting the image into your html file, the image is sized using the em method, your text starting on the same line.  I will include an example of this in the final blog on this topic.

Alexander Francis

Some Pointers Regarding Tools


As you know, the first thing you need to write a book is a good word processor, one that is simple enough to allow concentration on your ideas and not the struggle with software.  Therefore, it doesn’t matter at an early stage which word processor you choose. At a later date, you will be able to export the text  to a more comprehensive and complex environment.

Bad habits are hard to break, but I’ll name a few that you would be wise to overcome while writing.  Never use tabs to format your text. They will give you problems later. Same with spaces.  I always struggle with the temptation to add two, sometimes three spaces after a period.  To me, it just looks better.  But they are hard to deal with later, so take my advice and avoid overuse of spaces.  You should learn to use the style sheet concept to set your text in the position you want.  You can rename the styles or create your own, but, whatever you do, be consistent from book to book.  If you use style names that are easily remembered, you will find the conversion to HTML a breeze. Don’t get carried away with chapter numbers or names during the early phases of writing your book, and postpone formatting for style and font until the last. It’s much easier later, and since you will be more consistent after the book is complete, it will lead to fewer errors.

After many years of using Windows, I switched to the Mac.  I love Apple products and wouldn’t go back for gold, but Pages has limitations.  You will find that you require a fully featured word processor as you near completion of your manuscript. An example is the use of headers and footers which differ on odd and even pages. That, of course, doesn’t apply to an e-book format which cannot use headers or footers.  Converting your document to an HTML file requires functions that Pages doesn’t supply.  On the advice of some very enthusiastic supporters of free software, I tried two alternatives: LibreOffice and OpenOffice.  Both are fully featured and free, but I just couldn’t get comfortable with either one of them. Against my inner instinct, I paid for a version of MS Word for my Mac. It crashes frequently for no reason, has a long list of quirks, is overly complex and exasperatingly poorly written for a product so long on the market.  Nevertheless, it works and, with patience and some insight, will produce a flawless copy of your book for print and make the transition to HTML possible.

My advice is to not use the feature Word offers of conversion to HTML.  It includes more text than you want to deal with and produces a file of ponderous size.  You simply want to go from a word processor file to a text file in HTML format.  Bringing in your work with styles already imbedded saves a tremendous effort later. My workflow  had been reduced to the following simplified overview:

1. Replace all double quotation marks with “.  Sounds ridiculous but the step will find errors that you didn’t know you have.  It turns out that there are three characters which look like quotation marks and are hard to detect when in a text file.  Same thing for single quotation  marks.

2. Remove any tab characters.

3. Remove spaces, except for single spaces.

3. Using the search and replace functions in Word,  bracket the text marked with a certain style with the name of the style (more later on this).

4. Using the advanced search and replace, bracket each paragraph with the HTML code <p>your text here</p>.  The same goes for italics. More on this later also.

4. Select the entire document and copy and paste it into a text processor. I suggest TextMate.

Now you are done with your word processor, but be sure and save any changes into a separate file for possible later corrections.

As you can see, so far the process is not challenging.  The next steps are more complex, however, but you are well on your way to the creation of an e-book.  Congratulations!  To be continued….

Alexander Francis

Making An E-book


When I watch old movies about an author and his/her interaction with a publisher or an agent, I get jealous.  That’s what I thought it would be like, and of course, it does still happen that way for some writers.  You remember the scene I’m talking about.  The writer comes in with either a large folder or perhaps a cardboard box full of handwritten or poorly typed pages of his recent masterpiece, and they take it from there. Simple.

Now I (we) know that it doesn’t happen that way any more, at least for the likes of me and others like me.  Publishers and agents want a sure thing, a name, notorious or otherwise famous.  You and I are on our own in a strange world of competition and marketing.

After my first two books were printed (an entirely different but interesting story), I was proud as a new father to hold them, the physical manifestation of all that labor. To me, there is nothing which will ever replace the printed book. The feel of it, the smell of the pages, and the fact that it will last nearly forever makes a book a very desirable thing.  Nonetheless, there is a trend toward the electronic transmission of music, video, and books which is not going to go away.  Likely, both forms will co-exist for some time yet, but as an author, you will sell more books in electronic form than printed and make more money doing it.

Creating a perfect printed book is possible, but a perfect digital version is elusive. There are several versions of e-readers, some incompatible with each other.  Creating a book which can be read by all of them requires making your book more simple than you might want. The fancy font, in particular, is nearly the first thing lost.  To be sure, the requirements vary not only as to the individual device being used but also its size, its color, resolution and also its users’ whims. There is no universal solution, only  solutions of compromise.

Some organizations will claim that a writer only need to supply a .pdf or even a .doc version of their book, and their proprietary conversion software will turn it into a e-book.  Easy? Sure is tempting but don’t fully believe it. To get the best array of compromise and to be sure what your work is going to look like, it is best to get yourself involved  in the conversion process, and better still, to do it yourself.

You will need some help to start, most of which is available on the Web. By that, I mean the explanation of how to do a conversion, not the actual doing of it.  Be careful of where you send your valuable manuscript, and be sure and have it copyrighted before you release it to anyone. No exceptions.

If you are still interested, then I have some suggestions for reading. Obtain the Kindle book by Guido Henkel called “Zen of eBook Formatting.” Henkel gives an interesting and enthusiastic view of ebook creation.  I used this book to get started and to convince myself that I could do it. Be warned that his book is not a complete guide and has some omissions that will prevent you from actually producing a finished e-book on your own. It will, however,  give you a leg up and does provide a tremendous insight into the process.

In the  next installment of this series, I will give you a more detailed summary of problems I encountered, and my solutions.  Using this method, I have completed seven books so far, and they range in size from 75,000 to 135,000 words. Two are published and widely distributed for a variety of devices, and yes, both are also in printed format.


Alexander Francis


Image manipulation


As an example of the process, I will demonstrate, in part,  creation of the cover of my book Geminknot.  The novel centers on the fate and life of female twins, one of which was switched for a male baby shortly after birth.  I had the idea that, in some way, an image of famous twins would complement my novel.  The cover was forming in my head while I was busily writing the book and one morning I discovered the perfect setting for a scene in the novel which involved the very famous Roman structure called Ara Pacis. Two ideas came together in perfect harmony and the cover and a climatic scene were born together.

The Ara Pacis  or Altar of Augustan Peace was created early in the first century AD to honor the first Roman Emperor.  It was submerged in mud by the second century and wasn’t seen again until its partial rediscovery during the Renaissance.  The monument wasn’t fully unearthed until the early twentieth century and is widely considered to be one of the best examples of design and creation in stone.  The central figure representing Tellus, or Mother Earth dominates one panel of the monument and it is this figure of mother and twins which inspired me to create my cover. An engraving made in the early eighteenth century can be found in the public manuscript Inscriptiones antiquae in Etruriae urbibus exstantes dating from 1740, and published on the web for copyright free download by the University of Michigan.

ara pacis from book

This print of an engraving was not exactly what I was looking for but a close friend supplied an actual photograph from his travels in Italy and gave me his permission to use it. Not a high quality photo, full of lens distortions and exposure errors,  but it’s all I had at the time.

I decided to combine the two images, overlapping the drawing over the photograph and fusing the two together.  It required a good deal of manipulation and


adjustment, and my first version is illustrated above.  Still, it didn’t make me happy, though I felt that I was on the right track.  Notice that the author’s name (mine) is not readable and overall, the cover is rather bland.  Several additional hours were given to the project using trial and error to achieve the final version included below.


A close up shows the contribution of the engraving.


In this case, as in others, the final version of the book’s cover preceded completion of my novel and added to my vision of the story.  I hope this brief illustration will help you understand that there is no set formula for book cover design.  You should be persistent, creative and reflect the book’s content, and above all, keep at it.

Alexander Francis

Images on this page and on this site, other than specifically indicated, are copyright by Alexander Francis and may not be used without written permission.

Using an image editor


Although I have used imaging editing software for many years, I don’t consider myself an expert or an authority.  I am simply a fairly experienced user. There are many areas of book publication which will require use of image editing, and you will quickly see the need to learn the ropes.

Creating a cover is the theme of this blog, but also consider any graphics placed on the chapter headings, elaborate leading characters, decorative touches and flourishes.  Not only creating the images but sizing them for your page and converting them to the appropriate image type will require a photo or graphic editor.  You need to be able to work in layers, use transparent backgrounds and effects such as painting and drawing when indicated.  It sounds like a lot to learn, and it is, but a quality end product justifies the means. I believe there are many inexpensive imaging editors out there and more on the way.  At this writing, none are as versatile as Photoshop.  No endorsement intended, just fact.  It’s expensive and has a long learning curve but can accomplish nearly any task required.  Your software of choice will be used to output the file in pdf format using CMYK color mode stipulated by commercial printers, if you are creating a book for print. You will also need to create images in RGB for use on the web.

If your book is to be e-book only, you will simply create a cover page for display on the web.  Remember that the small thumbnail is all most people will see and keeping it interesting and readable at that size is the challenge. The proportions of the image are important, but there are no fixed rules.  You will find advice on the web which conflicts. Start with a minimum of 1600 x 1000 pixels using a resolution of 72 (web only).  You should also have a copy prepared using 2560 by 1600 pixels with a 72 resolution.  This gives a more dense image for the agencies to size to their needs.  More about this later.

If you are attempting a cover for a printed book, you need to create the front cover, spline area and back.  Most printing firms including CreateSpace and IngramSpark will create a file to your book specifications that you can use to size and place your image prior to submission. To use this template, you would download the file (in pdf or eps), load it into your image software, and overlay and size your graphic images.  It may sound difficult, but I assure you, it is an easy process.  Before you begin, you need to know the size of your book, the number of pages and choose the type of paper.  This is more difficult than first glance suggests.  You need to consider the font style and size, the margins, and any additional pages required to allow the chapters to start on the right (odd number) side. The so called ‘front matter’ and any marketing pages at the rear will add pages and thickness.  The front cover design should come last, but with me, it rarely does.  It seems to help me write the book if my cover page is nearly complete.  Odd, isn’t it, to use the cover to guide the book contents? I usually change the cover or modify it several times before I’m happy. Perhaps if I used more simple cover designs, it would not be so problematic.

I don’t intend this blog to be an instructional manual for Photoshop. There is a wealth of information available to help you in the form of books, websites,  and YouTube videos.  At the next blog, I will demonstrate some images I created for books and posters which may spark interest and get your creative juices flowing.

Alexander Francis

Creating a book cover


Many people have commented favorably regarding my book covers, and in this column, I will give you some insight about my thought process and creative tools that I use.

The first thing which has to be emphasized is that images found on the web are, in general, off-limits for your commercial use no matter how tempting it may be to use them.  However, there are many sites providing  large image libraries that you can browse  and purchase an image for your use.  You don’t need a large, expensive image to make a cover.  For some situations, buying an image may be the practical solution. For instance, there may be a structure or place in a distant country you need to represent in your creation which may be otherwise impossible for you to obtain.  I’ve found that Wikipedia has many images which are clear of copyright and could be used.  Be sure and give Wikipedia credit someplace and also make a donation, at least periodically and read the fine print at the bottom of the page concerning copyrights before you use the image.

Because actual photographs are, in my humble opinion, a bit cheap looking on your cover, you are going to need to render the original photograph into a graphic image so that it can be manipulated and combined with other images.  It’s too obvious, but you need to consider the outside as a representation of the inside of your book.  Quality on the outside, quality on the inside.  Think about Apple products and how they are packaged!

The truth is that the poorest, most plain covers frequently wrap important and memorable books.  When you get famous you can get by with that approach.  Disregarding that disturbing fact for a moment, I will proceed with a brief explanation of the tools you need.

Just to let you know, at one time I was a passionate photographer, acquiring an extensive collection of gear.  I have even worked professionally in the field.  I’m the one who can tell you that, in most cases, you don’t need a high resolution photograph taken through a multi-thousand dollar lens to get a usable photo.  Since no one is listening, I’ll admit to you that I frequently use my cell phone camera these days.  Why not?  It’s at hand, and the images are usually very good.  With your little camera, you are free to take images of just about everything.  Notice I said almost. Today, you have to be a bit careful when you use an image commercially.  You and I aren’t newspeople; we are using an image for profit, and we will run into the same army of lawyers when we use an image of certain historical and copyright sites or products.  Don’t use a person’s image without permission either unless, you want to enable some attorney to retire early on your money.  Get permission in writing.

Now that we have the images we want to use, we need to combine bits and pieces of them, along with text, fashioning our creative cover. For me, the essential software is Photoshop by Adobe.  I don’t endorse Photoshop, and I have problems with the latest Adobe scheme for using their products.  I am using an older version which works just fine for now, and I am hoping competitors catch up soon. But first, I want to add a few words about the design of your book cover.  If you look at book listings on Amazon or Apple, you will see that the best images still look good when reduced to a thumbnail size. Print that is too small or placed on a background with inadequate contrast won’t look enticing or even legible to your potential readers (customers). Notice, also, that many  popular authors display their name prominently, often larger than the actual name of the book. This is a reflection of how people buy books, or see movies. The previous pleasant reading experience promotes the  purchase of his/her new book.  Or perhaps, it’s simply name recognition, much like the political arena.  If you are reading this, your name is  likely not well-known yet, and you should display the catchy title of your book larger than your pen name.

–more about the process at the next post.

Alexander Francis

So you want to create an audio book?


If there is any hot area left in the book publishing industry, creating an audio version of your book is it.  If you are an author, you must have had at least a fleeting dream about seeing your pet book converted into an audio form. Well, so have I.  A reasonable person will be stunned at the complexity of the process, or the cost, or both.  Surely, it is a daunting endeavor and also bound to fail unless every step is carefully considered.

The best narrator you can’t afford can make your novel appealing in ways you couldn’t imagine. The better or more famous the voice actor, the higher his or her fee, which is a reasonable concept, but that fabulous voice will make up for it in higher sales of your book. That is, if the marketing is done correctly.  A poor narrator, or the wrong reader for a book, will guarantee disaster no matter how superb the novel is.

Then, there is the issue of the recording process and editing of the voice files, not to mention selecting accompanying music.  Of course you know that any music under copyright (nearly everything) can’t be used without both permission and fees.  Want to give up yet?

If you are still interested, then follow this blog as I head down that path toward creation of an audio book.  I plan to be honest about what works and what doesn’t during the process.  Success or disaster?  Wait and see.  If you have any advice to offer, please contribute your ideas here for others to read.

Alexander Francis