There aren’t big enough capital letters to denote how much I LOVE Anne R. Allen. This is an older article, but it illustrates so well her basic common sense and clear explanatory power. She walks you though the past tenses in English, explaining how using “to be” affects meaning.
I especially like this article (among her many other wonderful pieces) because I’ve also written about the admonition to avoid “was” at all costs. I’ve seen writers turn sentences inside out, making a bloody hash of them, to avoid the verb “to be.” And I’ve noted many times in my own reading how successful, active-voice writers don’t hesitate to use simple “was” as in “The room was empty” when it gets them where they need to be in the shortest amount of time. I’ve just recently lamented posts that suggest that the past progressive tenses can be replaced blindly with the simple past.
I’ve also shared on this blog my own awareness that grammar “rules” are not created equal. The “rules” for forming possessives and using apostrophes are not negotiable. The “rules” that dictate style and voice depend on your choices as a writer and often aren’t so much rules as guidelines for achieving varied effects.
Anne’s post contains multiple links to other discussions of writers’ tools. As she says often, these are your basics if you want to call yourself a writer. Wonderful writers may seem to play havoc with these tools, but the chances are good that they don’t do so by accident but by choice.