Happy Halloween!


Happy Halloween! Even though almost no one reads my blog on Fridays and Saturdays, I’m presenting Chapter 14, “Happy Halloween,” of The Very First, my chronological first Atlantic City book, set in 1938. The chapter is a bit over 5,000 words.


Even though the Filliards had been decorating their house for Halloween over the last few weeks, and their neighbors the Hitchcocks, the Vallis, and the Holidays had also been decorating, Sparky was still a bit surprised to arrive at school on Monday and find the entire school also decorated.  Halloween hadn’t even been a concept back in Amsterdam, and the elements of the holiday definitely didn’t seem very Jewish to her.  It was bad enough Cinni had gotten her to agree to wearing a cat costume instead of her usual school clothes.  It felt ridiculous to walk around school all day in a costume.

“Thank God I’m in junior high and not expected to come to school in costume,” Barry muttered as they got off the bus.

“I take it you ain’t coming to the Halloween dance for older students tonight?” Cinni asked, adjusting her derby hat. “I can’t wait till I’m old enough to go.  It’s fun to have a party in class, but it must be even more fun to have a big dance and party for the whole school.”

“I wouldn’t even have a date.” He cast a quick look over Cinni, taking in her beautiful eyes that matched her name. “You wouldn’t have a date either.  You’re too young for a boyfriend or going on dates.”

Cinni pointed to Julieanna, dressed as a French milkmaid. “Julie has a practice boyfriend already, Harry Brewster, the boy dressed like a farmer.  Perhaps I’ll be old enough for my own practice boyfriend in a few more years.”

“You never know,” he mumbled as he rushed off to the junior high side of the building.

Mr. Robinson stood by the steps near one of the entrance doors, handing out candy and chocolates.  Cinni eagerly opened her schoolbag and continued standing there smiling expectantly even after Mr. Robinson closed the large bag of treats.

“Let’s not be greedy, Cinnimin,” the principal said. “I take it you’re using Halloween as an excuse to come to school in pants?”

“What, is it against your rules to dress like the opposite sex for Halloween?  I never saw that rule in your current rulebook.  Besides, only idiots think a girl or woman in pants is really a guy.  They either need to get glasses or quit drinking.”

Mr. Robinson turned to Sparky. “Katherine Brandt, right?  Would you like some candy?”

“I don’t know if that’s kosher candy, Sir.  I have special rules about what I can and can’t eat.” Sparky looked down the hall at all the Halloween decorations. “I don’t think I should even be celebrating this holiday.  It ain’t a Jewish holiday.”

“Only heathens celebrate Halloween,” Adeline whispered smugly. “May I have some candy too, Mr. Robinson?”

“You don’t celebrate Halloween, Adeline.  You’re not like your older sister Pansy.  You’re as fun-hating and overly religious as your parents.  Let the other students who celebrate Halloween have the candy.”

“I’m surprised you didn’t dress like a dragon,” Cinni smirked. “Since your daddy is a Grand Dragon.  Do you know if he wants to get promoted to Imperial Wizard or whatever other silly titles the Klan has for higher-ups?”

“My daddy ain’t in the Klan, for the last time,” Adeline seethed.

“Sure he ain’t.  But I guess if you wanna be in denial about it forever, that’s your right.” Cinni began eating the largest candybar in her bag as she continued up the stairs.

Their first period art classroom was decorated with jack-o-lanterns, gourds, skeletons, witches, and ghouls.  Orange streamers and black and orange balloons were strung up all across the classroom.  On their tables, which they used instead of desks in this class, were bowls of candy and smaller decorations.  Miss Reinders had hung a few macabre, creepy drawings on the wall as well.

“I know some of those pictures are by Albrecht Dürer, but I don’t recognize the other ones,” Cinni said as she surveyed the new decorations. “I like dark art.  It’s more interesting and real than boring stuff like angels, flowers, religious stuff, and landscapes.”

Adeline was already shoving the candy at her seat down her throat as she gave snooty looks to the Halloween decorations.  Cinni could only laugh at her blatant, unrealized hypocrisy.

“You can have my candy, Cinni, if some of it’s not kosher,” Sparky said.

“Oh, come on, free candy,” Cinni tried to tempt her. “Your folks don’t have to know, and I’m pretty sure God understands that modern people have to do modern things.  Not everyone is lucky enough to live on a mountaintop and have no modern distractions.  I’m sure even the people who still live in Israel don’t have it as perfect as they did in ancient days.”

“Yeah, I bet you’re glad your parents picked America ‘steada the desert,” Kit said. “You don’t wanna live in a sandbox full of Arab bandits.  It’s best to move to another civilized place.  I’d be really mad if my insane mother wanted to move us to the middle of nowhere, or a place that hadn’t been really lived in for over a thousand years.”

“Is your mother really that bad?  Your dad thinks she’s nuts too.”

Kit smiled triumphantly. “Daddy always tells it like it is.  That woman can just sit and stew about it, but she knows it’s the truth.  Just wait till my birthday party on December eleventh.  You’re invited, of course.  That woman is always tryna ruin the parties me and my sisters have, or whining or shrieking about something or other when we’re tryna have a nice meal or enjoy ourselves around the house.”

Sparky thought it were rather disrespectful of Kit to speak that way about her own mother, but didn’t want to take her to task about it when Kit seemed to like her so far.  And Kit was sixth-most popular, and had been fifth-most popular till Cinni had readjusted the ranks to include Sparky.  It wouldn’t be very nice to sass her.  And perhaps Mrs. Green really was unbearable to be around.  She couldn’t know for sure till she actually met the woman.

“You look very serious,” Cinni said. “Are you thinking about something?”

“Maybe I’m becoming American faster than I thought.  A little while ago I woulda said you have to honor and respect your parents no matter what, since that’s onea the Ten Commandments, but sometimes real life might make it hard.  Saying you’ve gotta respect and honor your parents no matter what is all very good in an ideal world, but maybe some parents really do try their kids’ nerves so much they can’t help but speak badly about them.”

“Exactly,” Cinni nodded. “It doesn’t mean Kit’s bad or sinful, just that she’s real.  Normal people can only be squeaky-clean and so moral and pure if they don’t live in the real world.  Anyone who expects you to be perfect and obey all the laws exactly as they were obeyed a thousand years ago is very stupid and outta touch with real life.”

Sparky picked up some of the individually wrapped pieces of candy in her bowl and inspected them for hechshers. “Even if part of that’s true, I still have to keep the basic laws.  I can’t eat non-kosher food unless it’s a mistake or I’m dying.”

Cinni sighed. “I suppose you could still be a real American even if you don’t eat everything.  Laura’s still a real American even though she won’t eat meat on Fridays.”

“Are you going trick-or-treating with us tonight?” Julieanna asked. “Or will you only accept kosher candy?”

“I’m lucky my parents are even letting me go to the Halloween party Cinni is having.  And I don’t want to give the impression that I’m accepting non-kosher candy, or make people feel bad if they know they’re not really giving me candy, since I can’t eat their generous gifts.”

Cinni reached for another piece of candy. “I’ll make a proper American girl of you yet, even if I have to change some of my methods.”


That evening, instead of doing homework as usual, Sparky followed Cinni and her favorite sister Babs out of the house to trick-or-treat, which the adults called “guising.”  The hated Stacy went trick-or-treating with a group of her friends, and Cinni’s cousin Elmira went to some church-sponsored Halloween party with Lucinda.  Barry and Gary couldn’t believe what passed for fun in America and stayed home with their schoolwork.

“Hopefully next year at this time, your brothers will be normal American boys and go to the school’s Halloween party and dance,” Cinni said as they started down Maxwell Avenue after Tina, dressed as a saloon girl, had joined them. “I can’t imagine giving up a party and lots of free food.  I can’t wait till we’re old enough to go to the school dances.”

“They ain’t as fun as you think,” Babs said as she fiddled with the blue and purple fairy wings on her back. “Even when you’re popular, it’s still mostly an excuse to stand around talking with your friends.  There’s only so much time you can really have fun dancing, even if you’ve got a boyfriend.  At least they have food and music, and sometimes games.  The only dance I really like going to is the Halloween dance.  You shouldn’t be in such a hurry to grow up.”

“I can’t wait till I’m a real teenager,” Cinni asserted, savoring the feeling of wearing pants and not being punished for it. “Then I won’t have to just play at being a real grownup anymore.  All the off-limits stuff will be open to me.  Of course, some stuff I ain’t looking forward to, like being a lady.  I don’t envy Gayle for being the first girl in our circle to become a lady.”

“I thought like that too, before I started getting older.  Sometimes you just make something into what it’s not, ‘cause you’ve never experienced it before.  When it becomes real, you wonder if that’s all there is to it.  I don’t think being twelve is somehow magically more fun than being ten or eleven was, or that I’ll have more fun when I’m sixteen or eighteen.”

Cinni thought she couldn’t be more wrong, but dared not contradict her favorite sister. “How long do you wanna be out before we head home for our party?”

“The usual, I guess.  We’ll go down Maxwell and Greenhall, and try to get somea the houses on Lennon and Fairfax.”

“Can we go down Jennifer Street?  I wanna see the haunted house, or at least try to guess which one is the haunted one.”

Babs shrugged. “Sure, I don’t see why not.  It ain’t that far from us.  Pity we don’t know which one is the haunted house, since it would be kinda fun, in a scary way, to sneak inside and try to see if we could see any of the ghosts.”

“Yeah, and Julie lives on Jennifer Street,” Tina nodded. “Her parents give really good candy.”

“Laura’s Hoovershack is also on Jennifer Street,” Cinni said. “I bet you anything her old-fashioned grandma won’t give us no candy or even put lights on.  At least Laura’s parents, as nuts as they were, would come to the door and give out candy.  They probably didn’t know what they were really doing, but at least they did it.”

“Too bad we’re too young to go to the school party and dance, since it’s so close.  I wouldn’t care if I was caught sneaking in, but I guess I ain’t missing too much.  We can still have fun collecting candy and going to our own party later.” Tina smiled at Babs. “You’re really swell for going with us even though you’re old enough for the school party.”

“What about the house on Jennifer Street you said your mother’s family useta go to in the Summers?” Sparky asked, picking up her cat’s tail so it wouldn’t drag on the sidewalk.

“We’ve never been there,” Cinni said. “I couldn’t even tell you the street number.  I wonder if it’s close to the haunted house.”

“It would be even more fun if we could walk through the cemetery,” Babs smiled. “I brought up the idea to my history teacher, ‘cause he’s very interested in cemetery preservation and making grave rubbings, but he said it’s a dangerous idea to go into any cemetery at night.”

“A grown man believes in ghosts?” Sparky asked.

“He didn’t even mention ghosts.  He just said you could trip over tree trunks, branches, sticks, and smaller graves in the dark.  Even if you’ve been there many times in daylight, you probably won’t be able to find your way around as well in the dark.  Everything looks different in the dark.  And who knows if bad guys are lurking about in the shadows.  I saw one of Laurel and Hardy’s silent shorts, Habeas Corpus, at the Rerun Theatre last week, as part of their Halloween movies spotlight, and there were crooks in that cemetery at night.”

“Cinni only takes me to see the modern movies.  And she says seeing an old-time movie, as good as it could be, would be an excuse not to learn and perfect my English.  My parents like to see the movies at Rerun Theatre ‘cause they’re acted with body language and not words.”

“Well, you’re missing some good stuff.  They’re still having a few more old Halloween movies for a few more days, if you’re interested.  Off the top of my head, I know they’re playing The Phantom of the Opera with Lon Chaney, Dracula with Bela Lugosi, and a couple of Hitchcock films.”

Cinni began walking quicker when she saw Violet coming up behind them.  Violet was dressed like a queen.  When Violet caught up with them, Cinni didn’t acknowledge her and just kept walking straight ahead, looking forward.

“Mandy went to the school Halloween party, so I’m joining you,” Violet said. “I think it’s best I get out of the house anyway, even if it wasn’t Halloween.  Madeline is trying again for that stupid third baby she wants.”

Sparky almost choked. “You call your mother by her first name?”

“Everyone does.  All her friends and relatives call her Madeline or Mrs. Hitch.  Not even Mrs. Hitchcock.”

“And did you just say your parents are trying to have another baby?  Why would they tell you such private information?”

“Since last year.  A girl will be called Scarlett, since my mother loved the book Gone with the Wind, and Igor for a guy, for reasons I still don’t understand.  We ain’t Russians.  She says it’s after some famous composer she likes, but she could always pick an American or British musician so the name wouldn’t seem goofy and out of place.  Only my mom wants a baby, so she’s having to be a little tricky about getting what she wants.”

“I’m glad my folks are done with babies,” Cinni said. “I love being the youngest child.  Too bad you won’t enjoy that honor forever.”

Violet scowled as they continued up the street and towards the first house with lights on.

Sparky stood back as Cinni, Violet, Tina, and Babs rang the bell and stood back with their pillowcases.  The woman who answered the door bent down for a large pail of candy and gave each girl a 5th Avenue bar, 3 Musketeers, Tootsie Rolls, and Snickers bars.  Sparky felt a little hungry when she saw all the candy they were getting just for putting on costumes and showing up at someone’s house.

The woman peered over their shoulders. “Is that girl with you?  If she’s allergic to chocolate or has a sensitive stomach, I can always give her an apple or some coins.”

“She’s religious,” Cinni said. “She only eats food that’s kosher, and she won’t know if it’s okay unless she sees special markings on the wrapper.”

The woman looked at Sparky again. “What does kosher mean?”

“It’s a Jewish thing.  Like how Catholics don’t eat meat on Fridays, sorta.  She can eat lots of things, just needs to know for sure if it’s made with good ingredients and prepared correctly.”

“I don’t mind an apple,” Sparky finally spoke up. “Cinni’s dad bought some kosher candy so I could eat sweets at the Halloween party we’re having later.”

“Are you sure you can’t eat candy?” the woman asked. “I don’t think any normal candy has pork or shellfish in it.”

“It’s very complicated, Ma’am.  I know your candy must taste delicious, but I have to follow my rules.”

“I’m sure it is kosher, even if it ain’t got no hechsher,” Cinni said. “Maybe you can write letters to these companies to ask.”

The woman looked a little sadly at Sparky. “Well, happy Halloween, Miss.  Maybe someday you’ll be able to have a real trick-or-treating experience.”

“Maybe,” Sparky said half-heartedly, as she and the other girls turned around and headed for the next house.


After an hour and a half of traipsing around the nearest streets, Cinni, Babs, Tina, and Violet had pillowcases bulging with candies, chocolates, coins, apples, and small toys like yo-yos and rubber balls.  Sparky’s pillowcase was noticeably less full, only containing the toys, money, and apples.

“I think everyone felt sorry for you,” Cinni said as they walked down Jennifer Street. “Either that, or they thought you were a little crazy.  At least Myers stays home on Halloween night ‘steada letting everyone know she hates Halloween.  I guess at least you ain’t totally against Halloween, and you did get some stuff.  You just need a little more time to get used to American life and get over your strict rules.”

“They’re not that strict.  I’m not Orthodox.  They’re just important rules for me to live by.  When you study the reasons for the rules, they start making a lot of sense.  I’m not old enough yet to study them in an advanced way, but I know the basic reasons why.”

“I’ve studied a little about immigrants in my history classes,” Babs said. “A lot of immigrants in the old days, even a few decades ago, went too far in the other direction.  They thought they had to change everything about themselves to become real Americans.  And they lost their real identities, what made their culture so special.  I don’t think everyone needs to be whitewashed of their origins to become a real American.  I mean, you don’t wanna hang onto everything and pretend you never left home, but some things are too important and special to just give up.  My grandma on my dad’s side is still very Russian after thirty-three years in this country.”

Cinni pulled a flashlight out of her pillowcase and pushed the on button. “Odds are that the haunted house is onea the ones we didn’t visit.  No one’s supposed to live there no more, so there’d be no lights on.”

“You can’t just break into a house, even if it’s been abandoned for years,” Sparky tried to protest.

“We’re not that dumb.  We just wanna look in the windows, try the doors, that sorta thing.  The one my mom’s people useta live in during the Summer must be onea the dark houses too.  Wish I knew the address for either.”

“When we’re older, we can have more fun on Halloween night,” Violet said. “It’s very popular to vandalize stuff on Halloween.  I think my first target will be old man Robinson.  Max’s dad deserves some vandalism too.”

“Vandalism?” Sparky choked out. “Isn’t that against the law?”

“It’s all in good fun,” Cinni said as she continued to shine her flashlight on darkened houses. “Some of these houses are occupied.  The owners are just spoil-sports who don’t wanna have no fun on Halloween, or who are too stingy to give deserving children free candy once a year.”

Violet adjusted the crown on her head. “It’s just fun stuff like throwing eggs at houses and cars, wrapping toilet paper around trees, painting things on houses, ripping down outdoor decorations.  Nothing mean like killing pets or making bombs.”

“What if someone did that to your nice mansion?” Sparky asked.

“People do vandalize sometimes.  You have to expect it on Halloween.  Only the Nobodies wanna be goody-two-shoes who don’t want nothing to do with Halloween.”

“But that’s ruining someone else’s property for no reason!  That’s mean!”

Cinni shook her head. “You’ve still got a lot to learn about American customs.  I guess it’s a surprise to you ‘cause no one did anything for Halloween anyway back in Holland.”

Babs crept up to the next darkened house. “This might be it.  They don’t even have a car.  Everyone has a car nowadays, at least in the nice parts of the neighborhood.  This house doesn’t even have some old Model T piece of junk or anything.”

Cinni shone her flashlight into the mailbox. “No mail neither.  Boy, this thing’s got a lot of cobwebs.”

Tina squinted her eyes at it in the dark, trying to make things out from the light from nearby houses. “It does look pretty old.  I ain’t no future architecture student, but I know this ain’t the typea house they made even a hundred years ago.  Maybe it really was made in the Colonial era like the haunted house.”

Cinni tried the front door. “Won’t open.  Is anyone brave enough to wanna try the back door, or any other doors?”

“You don’t even know if this is your haunted house!” Sparky protested. “And what if someone really does live here?  He’d be really mad if he found you tryna break into his house.  And if he’s away, he’ll come back to find someone broke in.”

Babs tried the windows in front and found them all stuck too. “Perhaps this is the haunted house.  But it could also be the house my mom’s people useta have Summer vacations at.  I know that house is pretty old too, and no one’s lived in it for awhile.”

“What if the haunted house and your mother’s old family home are the same house?”

Cinni laughed. “That just ain’t possible.  They’re two different houses, wherever they are on this street.  I told you, the mystery of Charlotte Lennon’s descendants will probably always be a town unsolved mystery.  No one decent wants to admit to being descended from someone who was born outta wedlock, so that family tree, whoever has it, is lost to the ages.”

“Don’t they have records or anything in the library or wherever else they keep archives?  There were people on both sides of my family who served in the military when Germany was still Prussia, and my father took copies of the documents with him when we left Germany.  All important countries are supposed to keep records in the modern era.”

“Charlotte Lennon died in 1645.  I doubt most places in America even keep records that far back.” Cinni stepped back and craned her neck up at the upper stories, shining her flashlight into the windows. “Can anyone see movement?”

“I’m getting cold,” Violet whined. “And my feet hurt.  Plus we need to go to your party.  If I was Most Popular Girl, I’d never neglect my responsibilities as hostess to go playing detective and creeping around supposed haunted houses.”

Cinni shone the flashlight into her eyes, and Violet immediately threw her hands over her eyes. “You never will be Most Popular Girl, you damn dirty schemer.  At least you pretended you don’t have designs on my title by saying ‘if,’ not ‘when.’  Remember I’ve got eyes everywhere, you skinny twit.  I know what you’re thinking and planning before you do.  Any fantasies you have of stealing my throne will stay in your head.  Got that?”

“Yes, Your Majesty,” Violet seethed as they started the walk back to Maxwell Avenue.


Sparky took a seat between Cinni and Mickey when they came back home.  Violet gave Cinni a smug, knowing look when they found most of the guests already there.  As though Cinni expected everyone to wait for her to get home and would know exactly when she would come home and when they were supposed to arrive.

“It’s too bad you can’t eat more of our delicious food,” Mickey said as she ate a cupcake. “Did your parents make you and your brothers any special kosher food you can eat for the party?”

“My parents don’t celebrate Halloween.  No one does in Holland or Germany.  And my brothers ain’t interested in the party.  They’re upstairs doing schoolwork.”

“Oh, boring.  At least you’re making an effort to become a real American.  Maybe your brothers need to learn the hard way that they shouldn’t keep all their old customs if they wanna fit in.”

“At least she’s doing something for Halloween,” Cinni said. “She ain’t fun-hating like that snit Myers or Laura’s fanatic grandma.”

“My grandma thinks I went to some church-sponsored Halloween alternative party at someone else’s house,” Laura said. “Star used the same lie, and took Jon, Aimee, and Jayne to the babysitting service they have at the school.”

“Your school has a babysitting service at dances?” Sparky asked. “For who?  Are there many married older students who go there?”

“Naw, it’s for students who have to babysit siblings or neighborhood kids but don’t wanna miss dances and parties,” Cinni said. “And since there are a bunch of people in thirteenth grade and Final Year, there are always bound to be a few married people with kids.”

“Do you intend to make a habit of lying to your grandma, Laura?” Sparky pulled on her cat ears, still not entirely comfortable with wearing a costume even after spending the entire day in it. “I thought Christianity had similar rules to Judaism about honoring your elders and parents.”

“She’s a religious fanatic,” Laura said, reaching for a handful of candy corn. “I know a lot of people think I’m a religious fanatic too, but those people don’t really know me if they can think that.  They’re judging me on appearances and rumors.  I’d probably be kicked outta church if my priest knew how I really feel about some stuff.  In another century, I might’ve even been burnt at the stake for my opinions.”

“Sometimes it’s better to tell a couple of white lies to maintain peace at home,” Cinni said. “Like a husband who tells his wife he likes her new clothes when he really thinks they’re ugly.  It’s better to avoid a fight than tell the truth.  And Laura and Star deserve to have fun and do real stuff on Halloween ‘steada sitting around that drab Hoovershack reading the Bible, or whatever else their grandma thinks is fun.”

“They have a concept like that in Judaism too,” Sparky said. “It’s called shalom bayit, peace in the house.  Sometimes it’s more important than always getting your own way or telling the truth no matter what.  You can even be allowed to do stuff you normally ain’t allowed to do if observing some laws would cause a big fight.  Sometimes after enough time, the person who didn’t want you to observe those laws becomes more religious or understanding, and then you can do the things you wanted to do.”

Cinni’s eyes lit up. “So then this means you can eat non-kosher food if it’s the only stuff available, or if it’s too hard to get kosher food?”

“It’s best to talk to a rabbi about it, or at least a person who knows the laws very well.  You can’t just decide what to do and what not to do on your own.  That’s like letting a kid pick her own bedtime or letting her eat candy all day.  And I don’t think any rabbi would say it’s okay for me to eat non-kosher food just to fit in.  That ain’t what shalom bayit is supposed to be all about.”

“But you can eat apples.  Would you like to bob for apples with us?”

“Is that a game?”

“Yup.  My daddy will be coming in soon with a big tub of water and apples.  It’s a traditional Halloween party game.  You lean into the tub and try to get an apple with only your mouth and teeth.”

“Would you like to try our fortunetelling games too?” Gayle asked. “My little sister T.J. over there always lets me tell her fortune at home.  It’s good practice for when I’m a grownup and can do it for my job.”

“And there’s other stuff you can do to tell your own fortune,” Mickey said. “If you walk backwards out the door at night, pick some grass, and put it under your pillow, you’ll dream of your future.  Eating a stale crust of bread at night will also grant you a wish.”

“And there are some games Babs taught me about how to guess your future husband’s identity,” Cinni said. “Did you ever try those sorts of games back home?  Surely not all kinds of fortunetelling are forbidden.”

“Why do I need to try to guess who my husband will be when I’m only in elementary school?” Sparky asked. “And I already know who he’ll be anyway.  Lazarus von Hinderburg.  God willing, he’ll be in America soon with his family.”

“But for now, he ain’t in America.” Cinni’s face lit up when she saw her father struggling into the room with the tub of water and apples. “I get to go first!”

“Doesn’t your father have a weak heart?” Sparky whispered. “Why are you making him carry that heavy thing alone?”

“I ain’t strong enough to carry it, and it ain’t like Daddy is at death’s door.  Lots of people have rheumatic fever and don’t die from it.  That idiot doctor who told him his heart would keep getting weaker was an idiot.  He probably just wants more money.  Doctors ain’t God.”

Sparky watched as Cinni knelt over the tub and tried to pick up an apple as Mickey held back her long curly hair.  She counted thirty apples in the tub, enough for Cinni, her friends, and a few of the younger siblings who’d also come.  Back in Amsterdam, she’d probably be listening to the radio and maybe doing schoolwork tonight, not going to a Halloween party with a bunch of people she hadn’t even known had existed a few months ago.  Even if some of the things were off-limits to her, at least it felt nice to be included in this big group of new friends and to take part in American activities.

What’s Up Wednesday



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

A Lifelong Passion: Nicholas and Alexandra: Their Own Story, edited by Andrei Maylunas and Sergei Mironenko. With all due respect to the dead, particularly considering the horrific, nauseating, cold-blooded way they were taken from this world, it’s so much easier for me as an adult to understand why the Russian Revolution happened. The Imperial Family were so out of touch with how the vast majority of normal Russians lived.

Nicky was writing about how much fun he was having with royal relatives in England, Germany, and Denmark, complete with palaces, balls, parties, teas, and hunting, while normal Russians were just struggling to survive. He also barely had any Russian blood, due to centuries of back-and-forth royal intermarriage. Too many people still romanticise the last Tsar’s family, without looking beyond the beautiful love story and close-knit family to see what weak, disastrous rulers Nicky and Alix were, the wrong people for the wrong job at the wrong time, and how their daughters in particular were emotionally immature and severely sheltered, with no outside friends or lives due to all that emotional incest and parent-child enmeshment. It was NOT normal in the 1910s for royal women of that age to still be unmarried!

What I’m Writing

Just finished Chapter 95 of my WIP and up to about 721,000 words. I’m staying positive I can cap this in at 800K, particularly considering I’m in Part IV and finally heading towards the homestretch. It’s such a beautiful miracle and blessing that it naturally worked out so each Part reads like its own self-contained story, with a focus on different characters and storylines. This book can easily be put out in four volumes without a loss of continuity or dramatic momentum.

Chapter 95, “Andrey Opens the Door,” ended up the longest Part IV chapter so far, and also one of the longest overall chapters. Darya and Andrey are such a cute, sweet couple, each what the other needs and wants most. I saved their first kiss and declaration of love for the end of the chapter, though they’ve been falling for one another more and more over most of the chapter. Delayed gratification and slow build is much superior to the annoying instalove. They’re both 21, yet have no reason to feel embarrassed these are all first-time experiences. The best things in life are worth waiting for.

Chapter 96, “Fedya’s Homecoming,” is one I’ve had memorised in my head for a long time. No one has any idea Fedya has been demobbed and come home, so it’s a huge surprise for everyone. He’s coming home on his mother’s birthday, and gives her quite a shock!

What Works for Me

If you’re writing a family/town saga, you absolutely need to start making family trees and lists of characters by family. I’ve been doing this for years with my Atlantic City characters, and also have a family tree and relation lists I started in 2001 for my Russian characters. When you have lots of characters to keep track of, over many generations, and more than a few couples also have numerous children, you have to have a place to keep track of birthdates, marriages, relationships, etc. If you don’t start compiling this data while you’re ahead, it’ll be a nightmare to sift back through so many pages and start from the beginning.

It’s also good to get as much as you can down in advance, so you don’t forget, along the way to getting there, who’s going to marry whom, and the names you have planned for these couples’ children. Then again, I’m an Aspie, so my brain works overtime and retains obscene amounts of detailed information like it’s no big deal.

What Else I’ve Been Up To

My first Russian historical, You Cannot Kill a Swan: The Love Story of Lyuba and Ivan, is now available for pre-order. I initially had second thoughts about my cover, but I returned to liking the image I’d worked so hard on creating. The two covers I illustrated myself were intended as a two-off, not a regular habit. I know I’m not the world’s most experienced, professional artist, but I love hand-drawn covers, and sometimes a whimsical, simple picture is better than a high-tech, trendy, digital image. That’s not to say I’ll never upgrade those two covers to something digital, but for now, they are what they are.

After the release date of 7 November, the price is going up to $7.99, based on the length and all the years I slaved away on this book. I’m only putting it at $3.99 now to see if it’ll help with pre-order sales.

And if you’re wondering, I mostly created the cover with Caran d’Ache Pablo coloured pencils (oil-based) and Portfolio Series oil pastels, with a few touches of Caran d’Ache Neocolor II wax pastels, Derwent Inktense watercolour pencils, and Koh-I-Noor wax-based coloured pencils.

Writing an arm amputee character


Happy 56th birthday to my stuffed froggy’s handsome namesake! Today also would’ve been my paternal grandma’s 87th birthday.

As regular readers might remember, one of the leading characters of my WIP, my third Russian historical, is a below-elbow arm amputee. Ipatiy Zakharovich Siyanchuk (Patya) loses his right arm by the Battle of Saipan in mid-June 1944, while protecting his best friend, Rodion Petrovich Duranichev (Rodya). I based the loss of Patya’s arm on the loss of the late Sen. Daniel Inouye’s right arm. Both were hit by a rifle grenade, though Patya, unlike Sen. Inouye, lost consciousness instead of continuing to lead a charge and take some more woundings.

Here are some things to keep in mind if you’re writing an arm amputee character:

1. How much of the arm came off? A below-elbow amputee like Patya is better-off than an above-elbow amputee, since there’s more of a residual arm to, e.g., balance an object he’s carrying or steady a package he’s opening.

2. Does your character wear a prosthesis, and if so, what type? Patya may be getting a hook hand in future (the preferred prosthesis of many WWII vets), though at the moment, he’s chosen to just go natural and get around as best he can. Think about how many hours a day your amputee might choose to wear a prosthesis, and what the options were in various historical eras.

3. Try getting around with only one arm as close-enough first-hand research. See how hard or easy it is to perform basic tasks using only one arm, and keep in mind how much of the missing arm is left. You can use the upper arm for balance and such if your character’s a below-elbow amputee, but you can’t do that if the character’s an above-elbow amputee. See what kinds of tricks you can find for a complex task like tying shoes or peeling an egg.

4. It takes time to develop strength and dexterity in your non-dominant hand. There are many iterations of handedness, and I’m blessed enough to have ambidexterity for writing, eating, sewing, and a few other things, in spite of being predominantly left-handed. But if you don’t have such a gift, it takes a lot of practice to develop the fine motor skills used in a task like writing and sewing. Brushing your teeth with your opposite hand is said to help with developing better fine motor coordination for writing with that hand.

5. What kinds of things would your character normally do, and how would the loss of an arm impact that? For example, what kind of work does s/he do, does s/he care for a pet, is the character male or female, what religion is s/he, is s/he a student? Typically, men and women wear different types of clothes, and so your male amputee wouldn’t have to learn how to put on a bra one-handed. If your character is Jewish, there’s the issue of putting on tefillin (phylacteries). A certain job might have to have physical modifications made, or the character might have to search for a more appropriate job.

6. How did the arm come to be lost? Someone who loses a limb to a long-festering wound or illness will have more time to come to terms with the limb loss than someone who suddenly, violently loses a limb in battle or in an accident.

7. Try to be consistent with how you refer to the limb. Like other terminologies, preferred terms can vary from person to person. Some people will be offended by the word “stump,” while others don’t mind it, or use it in certain settings. I frequently hear “vestigial arm” and “residual arm.”

8. How old was your character when the arm was lost? Someone who’s a childhood amputee will have had a lot of time to get used to it and learn how to function with only one arm, whereas Patya loses his arm at 28 and needs some time to stop being so angry, bitter, and depressed. For a congenital amputee, having only one arm is his or her normal.

9. How does the character wear sleeves? They can hang loose, be doubled or tripled over, or be twisted around and then doubled over in cold weather. Many amputees also wear a sock over the stump, to protect against chafing.

10. Intimacy after amputation does exist! The Feronia Project has a really good article on this topic, with links to a few other resources. It’s a shame more respectful, tasteful resources like this are hard to find when Googling, instead of mostly links to porn and amputee fetishism. Patya definitely feels like more of a man when he realizes his wife Vladlena still finds him sexually desirable and isn’t at all off-put at the thought of being with an amputee.

11. Every amputee will be different. There’s no one size fits all model when it comes to topics such as emotional reactions, new ways of doing things, coming to terms with it, and developing a dark sense of humor about it. You know your character better than anyone, so incorporate that into his or her amputation.

WeWriWa—Lyuba and her antithesis



Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors, a weekly Sunday hop where writers share 8 sentences from a book or WIP.  I’m now sharing from the opening of my first Russian historical, You Cannot Kill a Swan: The Love Story of Lyuba and Ivan (available for pre-order here).

Eighteen-year-old Ivan has just been jilted by his secret sweetheart, 17-year-old Lyuba, who’s also his best friend. He and his close friend Aleksey have been discussing why they think this might’ve happened, along with the hope that Lyuba will come back where she belongs before long. Then the tram home pulls up Arbat Street, and they go to find seats. Among the passengers are three new girls who just moved from Estonia, each a little bit different.

First we briefly see Eliisabet, who has a mutual crush on Aleksey, and then we meet the shallow, materialistic Anastasiya. Ivan hasn’t the heart to sit beside Lyuba, and the seat he finds all the way in back is right next to the woman who becomes Lyuba’s antithesis and rival for Ivan’s attentions. Ivan never has any feelings for Anastasiya, but he later makes the mistake of using this delusional woman to make Lyuba jealous. They end up having an on-and-off pretend relationship that never goes beyond hand-holding, but in the very Victorian, delusional Anastasiya’s mind, this is true love and serious business.


One of Eliisabet’s friends, a delicate blonde who bit her nails all day, takes a seat next to him and smiles flirtatiously.  He takes in this stranger, immediately sensing she’s nothing like Lyuba.  She looks like she stepped from the pages of a fashion magazine, with her painted face and nails, Jeanne Paquin gown, and tango shoes.  She also has a very large sketchpad of dresses she spent the day drawing in lieu of classwork.  Lyuba meanwhile has never painted her face or nails, wears comfortable over fashionable clothes, and enjoys reading newspapers and classic novels instead of keeping up with the latest fashions and the lives of the rich and famous.

Theda Bara, the ultimate Vamp

Though Iván has never dared tell her this, Lyuba has long reminded him of Theda Bara, both in appearance and personality, and that excites him deep down.  He’s more attracted by what the ruthless, man-eating, domineering, dark-haired, dark-eyed, voluptuous Vamp represents than what a sweet, innocent, virginal, blonde, blue-eyed ingénue like Mary Pickford represents.  A so-called good girl might guarantee a safe, normal, predictable life, and an easily-attained happily ever after, but the so-called bad girl, the one with a haunted past and scars where no one can see them, represents a more interesting, complicated life, and the thrill of the chase.

Pickford675Mary Pickford, America’s Sweetheart


 Jeanne Paquin was a very popular fashion designer of the early 20th century. A Vamp, in the silent film era, did not refer to an actual Vampyre, but rather a sexually aggressive, assertive, take-charge woman who actively pursued men instead of smiling and keeping sweet.

What’s Up Wednesday



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

My three new library books are Anatoliy Rybakov’s Children of the Arbat (the first in a trilogy set during the Great Terror); Carolly Erickson’s biography Alexandra: The Last Tsarina; and A Lifelong Passion: Nicholas and Alexandra: Their Own Story, edited from letters and journal entries, and with commentary, by Andrei Maylunas and Sergei Mironenko. Lifelong passion is exactly how I’d describe my Russophilia.

I still remember the disgusted, exasperated noise made by some meathead at my second high school, when I started writing the Cyrillic alphabet on the blackboard in our Communications class. He’d already sat through my two research papers on Russian historical topics in the research paper class we’d had the first half of the year, and was probably annoyed I was giving yet another presentation on a Russian topic. Dude, sorry if I were too intellectual for you at 16–17, or if my interests annoyed and offended you. Your own speeches and research paper topics weren’t exactly memorable, deep, or scintillating, and one of your speeches was really, really bigoted and offensive, a topic I’m shocked our teacher okayed.

What I’m Writing

Finally was able to go back to my WIP, and finished Chapter 94, “A Species Apart,” in which Lyuba and Ivan discover just what happened to Darya when she fell into Nazi hands in late 1942. Ivan, true to his nature, was typically in denial that an American Christian girl could’ve ended up in concentration-camps. Now I’m starting Chapter 95, “Andrey Opens the Door,” in which Darya and her lifelong friend and neighbour Andrey Vishinskiy fall in love.

Darya is initially very angry Andrey sat out the war with a draft deferment as a university student, while her big brother, cousin, and two uncles risked their lives to try to save her and Oliivia. Andrey is cut from the same rather passive, intellectual, idealist cloth as his father, and argues that he never would’ve fit even a noncombatant role. He asks her if she’s considered how he’s felt, constantly attacked and mocked as unmanly, cowardly, and unpatriotic, even by his own siblings.

As soon as I’m done with my massive WIP, I’m going back to my long-hiatused alternative history, or perhaps might even work on both at the same time. I have so many awesome ideas for how I’m going to rework it. So many books, both non-fiction and historical fiction, have been written about the last Tsar’s daughters, but poor little Alyoshka is often left out in the cold. He really deserves a story that’s all his own.

I’m also booming through the first round of edits on The Twelfth Time, my Russian novel sequel.

What Works for Me

If your characters are from a place that uses a non-Roman alphabet, find your own transliteration system and be consistent. I’m sure many people would accuse me of being nit-picky and too purist for how I do letter-for-letter Cyrillic transliteration and even use accent marks as a pronunciation guide, but that’s the style I came to at age sixteen. Maybe some people might think a spelling like Aleksandr, Mariya, or Yuriy is weird or non-intuitive, but I personally dislike transliteration systems which, for example, use an I instead of a Y (as in Andrei vs. Andrey) or use just I or Y instead of IY (as in Vasili or Vasily vs. Vasiliy). Just be consistent and stick with what you’re familiar with.

On a related note, please don’t “translate” your characters’ names! Unless they’re nobility or royalty, odds are they won’t go by Western versions of their names, or use Western nicknames. I was messed up for a very long time on account of how many books I’ve read which “translated” Russian characters’ names, or historicals set in Russia which used blatantly Western names, like Peter or Elizabeth. I innocently copied what I saw. (I give a pass to the nickname Kitty, given the precedent in Anna Karenina, where it’s consistently, phonetically written out.)

What Else I’ve Been Up To

I had a very nice Simchat Torah, at the university community for the evening services and dancing, and at my Conservative shul for the morning/afternoon services. A couple of years ago, during the evening Simchat Torah festivities, I saw the plastic tablecloth underneath the candles on fire and managed to get the attention of the men’s side of the room. Thankfully, it was caught in time to prevent a disaster, though the table had to be repaired/covered over with a beautiful cut-glass design. I’m amazed I actually saw that clear across the room, esp. with my gimpy right eye!

This year during daytime services, the Torah I carried during the seventh Hakafah (circle) turned out to be one of the three scrolls we needed for the Torah service, so I ended up holding it for the opening of the ark and carrying it through the sanctuary. A very nice privilege!