Suggestions for writing alternative history

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Lately I’ve been drawn back to thinking of my long-hiatused alternative history about the rule of Tsar Aleksey II, so much so I’ve significantly bumped it up in my large queue. If a project stays in your heart, mind, and soul years after you last worked on it, you know it was meant to be. Perhaps it just wasn’t the right time yet to write it the right way.

Here are some suggestions for creating a good, original alternative history:

1. Original subject matter and setting! Some topics, like a different outcome of WWII and the American Civil War, have been done so much as to have become cliché. I’m so relieved my own alternative history isn’t some stale subject that’s been done a thousand times before. Why not try something like India still being under British rule, the Protestant Reformation never having happened, the Black Plague bypassing Eurasia and hitting the Americas, or the Shah never having been overthrown?

2. Minor alterations of history typically don’t merit an entirely changed historical trajectory. For example, say the Titanic never sunk, or there were enough lifeboats. So? How does that change the course of history beyond saving so many people’s lives? You’d have to make it so one of the newly-rescued becomes the President or discovers the cure for cancer.

3. Make sure there’s a plausible base and that it’s firmly established in history up till that altered point. While the sky’s the limit after you get going, you don’t want to completely contradict established history. You’d have to give the reader an extremely compelling reason to believe something like Stalin or Hitler being a nice guy, or why a certain battle had a much different outcome.

4. Outside events don’t all have to change too. In my hiatused alternative history, which begins in July 1918, WWII still happens. It unfolds a bit differently, but it still happens. My major difference is that the Shoah (Holocaust) happens on a much smaller scale, since Tsar Aleksey II rescues millions of people and gives them safe haven in the Russian Empire.

5. Changing who’s in office or on the throne creates endless possibilities. For example, the original heir survives an accident or disease and power doesn’t go to the ill-prepared spare; an elected official isn’t assassinated; a monarch lives 20-30 extra years; someone else is elected to office.

6. Make sure there’s an actual plot, or at least some kind of story arc and trajectory. Merely changing history isn’t compelling enough of a storyline unless something worthwhile goes along with it. Focus on big things, not the lives of ordinary people under this new reality.

7. Choose the right POV and focus. The reason I need to significantly rework what exists of my own alternative history is because the original structure was all wrong. I had about 90 years of alternative Russian history told through the journals of five young women living in different eras, including one Hungarian Jewish girl whose family were saved by the Tsar and invited to live in one of the palaces.

The intent was to show how supposedly ordinary people reacted to the rule of this strange new breed of Tsar, but it led to a lot of really telly, detached, awkward entries, supplemented with newspaper clippings. Why are we supposed to believe each of these five families would’ve known the Royal Family, or any of the nobility in St. Petersburg, and had the chance to interact with them so much, to the point where they know personal business? Epistolary books are tricky enough already, but this went one step further and just made it seem like an awkward gimmick, rather detached from the true main characters.

8. Could this really have happened, or are you just indulging a fantasy about how a tragic event could’ve been prevented? As aforementioned, give the reader a reason to go along with something much different from established history. If you’re going to write a book where WWII, the American Civil War, or the conquest of the Americas never happened, show how that was possible and what happened in its place.

9. Starting with a young historical figure is a perfect blank slate. Just as when I began this project at sixteen, I’m haunted by what might’ve been, and by that beautiful, innocent young man who’s forever thirteen. I really want to believe he would’ve become the modern, enlightened, humane, democratic, belovèd Tsar he never got a chance to be, based on his experiences with suffering (both physically and during his family’s imprisonment).

The beauty of alternative history is that you get to make your own version of history. Perhaps in some alternate universe out there, Tsar Aleksey II really did have a wonderful, long reign and lived happily ever after with his unlikely Tsaritsa, Varvara.

WeWriWa—Heartbroken Beginning

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Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors, a weekly Sunday hop where writers share 8 sentences from a book or WIP.  I’ve now moved onto sharing from the opening of my first Russian historical, You Cannot Kill a Swan: The Love Story of Lyuba and Ivan. It’s a miracle this story I began at just thirteen years old developed into a much more mature story over all the years I was writing and editing the first draft. Staying with this story all those years, and putting so much time into even more edits and revisions over the last three years, really transformed it into the historical saga and complex love story I’m so proud of.

It’s April 1917, and 18-year-old Ivan has just had his heart broken by his 17-year-old sweetheart Lyuba when she turned down his proposal of marrying and immigrating to America. Ivan’s close friend, 17-year-old Aleksey, has caught him crying in a broom closet and has just given him a handkerchief to dry his eyes.

***

“If only people really knew how overly sensitive you are.”

“Not too long ago we skipped gymnasium and spent the day at Patriarch’s Pond,” Iván says wistfully as he wipes his eyes and follows Alekséy outside. “We were watching the swans and talking about how they mate for life.  When a swan finds its soulmate, the two swans swim together and their beaks form a heart shape.  Well, you can’t kill a swan’s pair bond, and my beautiful swan will be back where she belongs no matter how long it takes.”

“You’d have to be willfully blind to miss how she’s always looked at you.  I never bought her charade of preferring that short, chubby Malenkóv.  Anyone who knows what’s what can see Lyuba only has romantic feelings for you.”

***

Had I started this book at older than thirteen, I doubtless would’ve given my hero anything but the most common male name in Russian history, but the name Ivan just suits who he is. He’s solid, dependable, loyal, reliable, rather old-fashioned, hard-working, with a quintessentially Russian soul.  He occasionally comments how he hates having the most common male name in history, and there’s also the frequent symbolic contrast between Tsar Ivan II, the Meek, and Tsar Ivan IV, Grozniy. He was named for Tsar Ivan III, the Great, yet he too often is either too meek or lets his volatile temper get the better of him, thanks to his traumatic childhood.

Grozniy actually translates as “dreadsome,” “fearsome,” “awe-inspiring,” “menacing,” “threatening,” NOT “terrible.” That’s a horribly misleading, downright inaccurate translation of Tsar Ivan IV’s appellation, and one of my pet peeves. He definitely went over the deep end after his belovèd first wife died, and did lots of terrible things, but he was very enlightened at the start of his reign.  He corresponded with Queen Elizabeth I and helped to modernize the Russian Orthodox Church, for example. He also had a traumatic childhood he never really recovered from. The false translation “Terrible” gives a very false impression of who he actually was.

What’s Up Wednesday

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What’s Up Wednesday is a weekly hop/meme with four simple headings. Anyone can write a post and add the link to Jaime’s blog or Erin’s blog.

What I’m Reading

No real time for reading, since I’ve been doing almost nothing but editing recently.

What I’m Writing

Going back and forth between my two computers as I’m doing my final round of edits, all because the current version of Pages can’t hyperlink a table of contents. I did something wrong the first time and saved a version of the file as the wrong form of Pages and/or Word, and as a result, the converted file had a number of spots with missing text. It was a nightmare and a half to go through a full version of the file and copy and paste. Just as I suspected, I’d missed a number of spots.

Now I just edit a Pages version of the file as I’m going through it on Kindle Previewer, and save it as a Word 2004 file before I go back onto the old computer. Then I save it into html format and re-upload to Kindle. For some hair-pullingly annoying reason, my old computer insists on changing all my characters with accent marks into the butt-ugly Times New Roman, a typeface I’ve never used. When everything is good to go, I’ll have to re-hyperlink the table of contents, since that capability was lost after the first conversion back into Pages on the new computer.

I’m really happy with the few final tweaks and new passages I’ve made to my first Russian historical. During these last few rounds of edits and revisions, I also gave Part I more of a Muscovite flavour. Since these characters aren’t exactly living freely and going out in public that often, it wasn’t necessary to gut-load the book with local references, but now there’s much more of a sense it’s set in Moskva. Several streets, neighbourhoods, ring roads, and local attractions are woven into the story.

What Works for Me

One of the gimmicks I should’ve mentioned in “What Makes a Gimmick?” was the cringe-worthy way I’d been writing my long-hiatused alternative history about the rule of Tsar Aleksey II. You need to understand if you’re using a pointless gimmick instead of choosing an unusual way of telling a story because it actually serves a purpose. My original plan for that story had been to have about 90 years of alternative Russian history told through the journals of five young women in different eras, supplemented with things like newspaper clippings.

This was even more of a gimmick than having a story be narrated by someone not the protagonist. Sometimes that actually can work, as in the case of the Sherlock Holmes stories. However, in my case, in the material written so far and in the planned future sections, there had to be a way for each of these diarists to know and interact with the Royal Family. This led to a lot of awkward, detached journal entries. It just makes so much more sense to make it another third-person omniscient saga, focusing on Aleksey and his unlikely Tsaritsa, Varya.

Oh, and if you’re doing an alternative history, try to choose a fresh subject! I’m relieved to know my idea hasn’t been done hundreds of times, as in the case of WWII-themed alternate histories. I can’t wait to get back to this story, so I can make that dear young man into the enlightened, modern, belovèd Tsar he never got the chance to be. Seriously, my Aleksey successfully rehabilitates a number of high-ranking Bolsheviks (some of whom end up as his advisors and in other important government positions), gets Sigmund Freud to cure Stalin of his extreme paranoia, and saves vast amounts of people fleeing the Nazis.

What Else I’ve Been Up To

The end of Sukkot begins on Wednesday night, with Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah. As I’ve mentioned several times before, I just love Simchat Torah and the bittersweet end of the Torah, Deuteronomy 34. I even based the four ending paragraphs of Cinnimin (the meat of the book, at least) on it. I also love how no sooner has it ended than it immediately begins all over again, an ending begetting a beginning begetting an ending, an endless Möbius strip.

I’m also still really enjoying walking to shul (synagogue), particularly Saturday evening services. It’s a very small crowd, but it means a lot to me, particularly when I remember how much that service meant to one of our deceased members. She always came to that service, and got nice food for us to eat at seudat shlishit, the third meal of the Sabbath. The committed core members of the Saturday evening minyan have continued this sparsely-attended service in part because of how much it meant to her.

Lucy Stoners in your writing

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I’m guest-blogging today at the A to Z Challenge blog! Come by and check it out!

A Lucy Stoner is a woman who keeps her birth surname after marriage, so named after Lucy Stone, the first woman in the English-speaking world who kept her own name. She had to go through some unbelievable court battles for this basic right to call herself what she wanted. Please be advised that this is meant as an informative post, not a forum for debate. Frankly, I’m very saddened that so many people in the 21st century still get so bent out of shape over a woman keeping her birth surname.

Since my mother and aunts all kept their birth surnames after marriage, I’ve always seen that as normal. The last name on my birth certificate is the last name I’ll die with, marriage or not. I’d love to give my name to any future child(ren), or at least alternate surnames with a potential husband. Therefore, it’s only been natural for me to make a preponderance of my characters Lucy Stoners. Many people may be surprised to discover this isn’t some recent movement, and that it’s the norm in much of the world.

The custom of a woman changing her birth name is largely a convention of the English-speaking world, and certain European countries. Other countries might have many women who’ve historically changed their names, but it’s not a legal requirement, and men are equally welcome to change their names. Only a few countries, like Japan, make women change their names. Some countries which required it in the past, such as Greece, now respect women’s rights to use whichever name they want. Indeed, Greek women by and large no longer change their names.

Women have always kept their birth surnames in places including Italy, France (since 1789), Québec, China (though usually children get the husband’s surname), The Netherlands, Belgium, Switzerland, Iran, Korea, Singapore, the Arab world, Cambodia, the Spanish-speaking world, Sweden, Iceland, Vietnam, Guam, The Philippines, and the Portuguese-speaking world. In some places, like The Netherlands, a woman might choose to go by her husband’s name socially, but her legal name is the one she was born with.

Giving your characters hyphenated names really shouldn’t be a big deal. Somehow the Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking world has managed multiple surnames just fine for centuries. The father’s first surname comes first, then the mother’s first surname, though since 1999 in Spain, names can be in any order, so long as it’s the same for every child. The rest of the surnames aren’t used in everyday life. So in the English-speaking world, if Mr. Jones-Smith marries Ms. Taylor-Williams, their children could be Jones-Taylor or Smith-Williams. Not that hard to figure out!

There were court cases in the 19th and 20th centuries in the U.S. (some going all the way to the Supreme Court) requiring Lucy Stoners to register to vote; file for citizenship; co-sign a loan; get a driver’s license, passport, library card, insurance policy, telephone or store account, or copyright; receive paychecks; register at a hotel; sign checks; register in the Census; and have bank accounts as Mrs. Husband’s Full Name. Authorities didn’t respect or recognise that their legal names were not the same as their husbands’ names. The judges’ rulings were typically sexist and dismissive, as though a woman keeping her birth surname were so disrespectful and somehow disrupting the natural order of society. In the U.S., a woman’s right to use her own name to do all these basic things wasn’t guaranteed across the land till 9 October 1972.

The Lucy Stone League was founded in 1921, and quite active. Their motto was “A wife should no more take her husband’s name than he should hers. My name is my identity and must not be lost.” (Teddy Roosevelt also had a great line about how he felt a woman shouldn’t have to take her husband’s name.) They were involved in many of the abovementioned court battles, though by the early Thirties it was inactive. In 1950, it restarted, and naturally was hugely active during the tumultuous decades to follow. It had largely become inactive again by the early 1990s, but got new life in 1997.

You should make it realistic by having outsiders around your Lucy Stoners (if they’re in the English-speaking world) reacting to their surname choices. Some of my Lucy Stoners will frequently say it’s normal in their home country, or they thought all modern women kept their names, and can’t understand why it’s such a big deal. Or the outsiders could trot out the usual insulting caveats about how Lucy Stoners must not really love their husbands, think they’re superior to men, are bad cooks and mothers, are ugly, and are confusing their kids.

Naming children really isn’t the big deal many people think it is. They simply get the surname of one parent or the other, or hyphenate, or the parents alternate their surnames. My characters Cinnimin and Levon alternated their surnames on their eventual ten kids, starting with Cinni’s name. And my Laurel-Esterházy family gave the boys their mother’s surname and the girls their father’s surname. Some modern couples also both hyphenate their names, create a portmanteau name (e.g., Lehrer+Silver=Lehrver), or use a new name entirely.

Before the title Ms. was created, Mrs. was the proper, respectful title for an adult married woman, even if she’d kept her name. Lucy Stone herself started going by Mrs. after she married Henry Blackwell (brother of Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell). France and Germany have repurposed their two existing titles instead of creating a third, so now all adult women are Frau/Madame, and all young girls are Fräulein/Mademoiselle.

Please don’t be too historically accurate with your characters who do change their names! It makes me so sad to see old newspaper stories and group photo identifications which passively identify women and write them out of existence as Mrs. Husband’s Full Name. Just because that was considered correct at one time doesn’t mean you have to perpetuate it in a historical written in the modern era.

WeWriWa—Heartbroken Beginning

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Tomorrow I’ll be guest-blogging at The A to Z Challenge blog! I’ll be sharing my thoughts and reflections on my theme of cities I’ve featured in my writing.

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Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors, a weekly Sunday hop where writers share 8 sentences from a book or WIP. After so many years, my first Russian historical is slated for release on 7 November, available for pre-order on 28 October. I wrote and edited the first draft from 1993-2001, and have put in an obscene amount of time on edits, revisions, polishing, and rewrites since I finally got access to the files again in 2011. This book is the pride of my writing life and probably my greatest labor of love.

You Cannot Kill a Swan: The Love Story of Lyuba and Ivan opens in April 1917 in Moskva, and ends in March 1924 in Manhattan (with a brief Epilogue in Siberia). I know this is the one comparison you’re not supposed to make, but it really does remind me a bit of a Russian Gone with the Wind, in terms of epic scope and a tumultuous on-again, off-again relationship between a pair of soulmates.

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve redone the opening pages since 1993, but the final version opens right after 18-year-old Ivan has had his heart broken by his 17-year-old sweetheart Lyubov (Lyuba). He proposed to her as they were leaving gymnasium (i.e., an academic, élite high school) at the end of the day, and didn’t exactly get the response he expected.

***

Instead of walking to St. Basil’s Cathedral to marry his dream girl, Iván Ivánovich Kónev is crying his eyes out in a broom closet.

His heartbeat quickens when he hears approaching footsteps and the door opening.  Perhaps his belovèd Lyuba already changed her mind, he thinks as he turns around.

Instead his eyes fill with the sight of his good friend Alekséy Vladímirovich Tvardóvskiy, one of the only people who knew about their clandestine romance.

“Lyuba jilted me when I asked her to marry me and go to America!”

“What?  That doesn’t make any sense!  Why don’t you dry your eyes and we can talk about this while we’re waiting for the tram.”

 ***

Synopsis:

Seventeen-year-old Lyuba Zhukova is left behind in Russia when her mother and aunt immigrate to America, forcing her to go into hiding from the Bolsheviks and sometimes flee at a moment’s notice.  By the time the Civil War has turned in favor of the Reds, Lyuba has also become an unwed mother.  But she still has her best friend and soulmate Ivan Konev, a cousin, and a band of friends, and together they’re determined to survive the Bolsheviks and escape to America.

As Lyuba runs for her life from during the terror and uncertainty of the Civil War, she’s committed to protecting her daughter and staying together with Ivan, her on-again, off-again boyfriend in addition to her best friend and the man who’s raised her child as his own since the night she was born.  The race to get out of Russia, into Estonia, and over to America intensifies after Ivan commits a murder to protect her and becomes a wanted criminal.

Once in America, Lyuba discovers the streets aren’t lined with gold and that she’s just another Lower East Side tenement-dweller.  Ivan brings in dirt wages from an iron factory, forcing them to largely live off the savings they brought from Russia and to indefinitely defer their dream of having their own farm in the Midwest.  And though the Red Terror is just a nightmarish memory, Lyuba is still scarred in ways that have long prevented her and Ivan from becoming husband and wife and living happily ever after.  Can she ever heal from her traumatic past and have the life she always dreamt of with the man she loves before Ivan gets tired of waiting?