I had much the same reaction to the original, unfinished version of my alternative history as I did to finally seeing the discontinued first draft of Little Ragdoll 17 years later—am I glad I started over and only kept the same general concept and timeline! I’m so embarrassed I wrote that and thought it was good!
Among the lessons learnt from this particular Version 1.0, which can be applied beyond just this particular project:
1. A first-person narrator who isn’t the protagonist is an awkward gimmick if not done right. This narration style isn’t necessarily gimmicky; for example, it can work really well in a story about a queen as told by her chambermaid, or in a psychological thriller narrated by the stalker and focusing primarily on the intended victim. But my method? Five young women’s journals, in five major eras of the 20th century, living under Tsar Aleksey II and reacting to his rule and the evolving tide of Russian history. So? It was a well-meaning idea, but it ultimately comes off like an awkward gimmick taking the story away from the real protagonist.
2. Epistolary books are tricky to pull off properly. I’m not nitpicky enough to insist there needs to be a pressing reason why a book must be told via letters or journal entries instead of traditional prose, but the narrative should at least read like a natural story. Just like with first-person vs. third-person or past vs. present tense, the story should be so compelling and engrossing, the reader isn’t consciously paying attention to the mode of delivery.
3. First-person narration, contrary to current belief, is hard to do well, not as easy as the classic, standard default of third-person. My narrator has no personality, is just some diarist blandly reporting events, acting as a silly cipher, mindlessly parroting catch phrases, doing nothing but recording unfolding history and the stupid, short-lived soap opera re: the new Tsar and her old friend Varya. We don’t even know her name until she signs off on the final entry in 1933, on the eve of her marriage. And relating to #1 and #2, there always needed to be a reason she knew about all these happenings in the palace and the capital, since she lived in Yekaterinburg.
4. Make sure the right person is telling the story or serving as the main character. A lot of the journal entries were extremely telly, awkwardly conveying updates and details from afar or after the fact. When my heart compelled me back to this story so many years later, I realized it could only be my usual third-person omniscient.
5. Don’t be afraid to change a character’s name. Obviously, I couldn’t change the names of any of the real characters. But with the fictional characters, I had a choice. The unlikely Tsaritsa’s name was changed from Varvara/Varya to Arkadiya, and the new Tsesarevich’s name went from Stepan to Yaroslav/Yarik. Their original names no longer appealed to me, though I kept Varvara as her baptismal name, given the lack of a Saint Arkadiya. The name Varvara is as old-fashioned and heavy in Russia these days as the name Barbara is in the English-speaking world. I wanted a name that wasn’t so dated. I also changed the name of the oldest Grand Duchess of the new generation from Darya to Dina, since I already have a Darya among another set of characters.
6. Don’t be afraid to revise a storyline. The original storyline about the unlikely Tsaritsa was such soap opera-esque garbage. The only details I kept were that Arkadiya also comes from Yekaterinburg, it’s not an immediate love match, and Aleksey has resisted taking a bride out of fear of passing on hemophilia. Though Arkadiya has lived her whole life like a commoner, her father is a prince from the House of Gagarin, which makes her a morganatic princess, and a full-blooded, native-born Russian. The perfect bride for the unusual new Tsar. No more constantly running away, sleeping in different bedrooms, and thinking her betrothed is a madman on account of his liberal reforms, until the cheesy scene where they realize they’re in love, at a ball on the eve of their planned annulment.
7. Know the history and culture of the era and place you’re writing about. The original material was so detached from actual history and real Russian culture. Trains travel WAY too fast, and along bizarre routes. Commoners are able to attend coronations. The new Tsaritsa is a commoner instead of a princess. After his rescue, Nicholas immediately becomes the strong ruler he should’ve been from the jump. Aleksey is coronated days after his father’s death, and in St. Petersburg. Etc., etc., etc.
8. Don’t skimp on character and plot development. These were paper-thin to non-existent, and the story just rushed along. Things just happened, without any apparent motivation or gradual development. No character ever came alive as more than a name on a page, reciting dialogue and doing things.
9. Vet your sources. Let’s just say there were a couple of conspiracy theories I believed and passed off as absolutely true, like the claim that the Romanovs would’ve been rescued had not Baroness Sophie Buxhoeveden betrayed them.