Lettrine and other packages

TeX and its descendants (LaTeX, et al.) have a vast array of add-on packages for an author to use. Most of these are so specific that they’d probably only be useful to a handful of people, but some are almost universal. Memoir, of course, is one of them, though I’ve already spoken about it. This time, I’d like to look at a few others that I use.


The lettrine package is what I use to make drop caps and raised initials, as you’ll recall from the debacle that is my Pandoc filters. For paperback books, especially fiction, these are a nice typographic touch, the kind of thing that, I feel, makes a book look more professional. Personally, I prefer raised initials rather than the dropped capitals, but lettrine works for both.

It’s geared towards European languages, and the examples are actually only in French and German, not English. The documentation, however, is perfectly readable.

Using lettrine isn’t that hard. Unless you need some serious customization, you can get by with just putting the first letter (the one you want to raise or drop) in one set of braces, then anything you’d like in small caps in another: \lettrine{L}{ike this}.

By default, that gives you a two-line dropped capital, but you can change that with options that you place in square brackets before the text. So, to get my preferred raising, I would do: \lettrine[lines=1]{T}{his}. The manual has more options you can use, mostly for tweaking problem letters like J and Q, typesetting opening quotation marks in normal size, and even adding images for something like a medieval manuscript.


The second package, microtype, is one of the more complicated ones. Fortunately, there’s not a lot you have to do to use it. Just including it in your document already gets you something subtly better.

What microtype actually does is hard to explain without delving deep into typography. Basically, it gives you a way to change aspects of a font such as kerning and have those changes affect the entire document. I’ll freely admit that I don’t understand everything it does, nor how it works. And the manual is over 240 pages long, so that won’t change anytime soon. Still, I can’t deny its usefulness.


Finally, we have selnolig. This one is a bit obscure, compared to the other two, but it turned out to be exactly what I needed for one very specific scenario. Thus, I thought it made a good illustration of the breadth of TeX packages.

If you look closely at a (good) printed book, you’ll notice that the letters aren’t always distinct. In printing, we use a number of ligatures to join letters, which helps them “flow” together. Letter pairs and triplets like “fl”, “ffi”, and “ft” are often combined like this, though there are cases where it’s recommended that you don’t.

The selnolig package handles all that for you, breaking up the automatic ligatures TeX likes to add in the words where they don’t necessarily belong. It also activates some “historic” ligatures, if you want them, so your book can look like it was written in the 1700s.

Far more important, however, is the ability to selectively disable ligatures that gives the package its name. The font I used in Before I Wake (which I’ll probably continue to use in future books) has a very annoying “Th” ligature. Personally, I just don’t like the way it looks; it makes that combination of letters look too…thin. So I went looking for a way to get rid of it, and I found selnolig. Ridding myself of this pesky addition was a single line of code: \nolig{Th}{T|h}. That tells selnolig to always break “Th” into a separate “T” and “h”, with an invisible space in between. This space stops the ligature from forming, which is exactly what I wanted.

Everything else

I haven’t even touched on the myriad other TeX packages out there. There’s not enough time in my life to go through them. Of course, there are quite a few that I couldn’t live without: geometry, fontspec, graphicx, etc. For my aborted attempt at a popular book on mathematics, I used tikz to draw diagrams. I tried to write a book about conlangs almost ten years ago, and I used tipa for that one. Whatever you’re looking for, you’ll probably find it over at CTAN.

And that concludes this little series. Now, it’s back to writing books, rather than writing about writing them. Look for the latest fruit borne from my work with Pandoc, LaTeX, Memoir, and all the rest coming in July.

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