How not to write Russian hist-fic, Part I

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Like clockwork, I’ve yet again been disappointed by a recently-published popular historical novel. This time, it’s weak writing, gimmicky structure, reams of inaccuracies, and the author’s matter-of-fact acknowledgement of her dislike of her characters.

No one forced her to write this book. If she truly wished, a thousand times over, she’d been writing about the history of barbed wire instead, she had no business writing this! Write something you’re truly passionate about, and don’t use your Author’s Note to insult people who are truly enamoured of your subject matter.

What was wrong with this one?

1. The world does not need yet another book about Anastasiya. If not for Franziska Schanzkowska’s decades-long pretending act, she probably would’ve remained the least-known of Nicholas II’s children.

2. Backwards narration is very difficult to pull off well. I get why she moved FS backwards while moving Anastasiya forwards, but this wasn’t executed well.

3. Since everyone but delusional Anastasians knows Anna Anderson was indeed FS and not Anastasiya, there’s no real mystery. We know who she’ll be revealed as, and that Anastasiya didn’t survive.

4. Lots of confused homophones! “Heals” vs. “heels,” “peeked” vs. “peaked,” “wretched” vs. “retched,” “peeling” vs. “pealing.” And “publically” and “chuggs” are straight-up misspellings. Do big publishing houses no longer employ editors, or do their editors just give books a surface once-over?

5. On the FIRST PAGE of the 1917 story, she misidentifies Aleksey’s famous spaniel Joy as a female! Every single book on the Romanovs is quite clear Joy was MALE! Yes, Joy is typically a female name, but the dog was male!

6. Tatyana’s dog was named Ortipo, NOT Ortimo!

7. Anastasiya’s dog Jemmy (here called Jimmy) was a lapdog, NOT a giant Husky! The author decided to completely change his breed so he could escape, and because she has a huge black dog herself. Guess what, Aleksey’s dog Joy really did survive! Why not incorporate that detail into your story!

8. None of the Imperial Family’s dogs were thrown out of train windows.

9. Gleb Botkin is aged down by five years.

10. Tutors Pierre Gilliard and Sydney Gibbes are combined into one person. I hate composite characters!

11. Lady-in-waiting Anna Demidova is given the nickname Dova “because another Anna would have been too confusing.” Her real nickname was Nyuta. Guess what, lots of people in this era had the same small pool of traditional names, and somehow they were able to distinguish between all the Marys, Johns, Annes, Elizabeths, Williams, and Roberts!

12. The characterisations completely contradict the established personalities shining through in their letters, journals, and other documents.

13. Grand Duchesses Kseniya (Xenia) and Olga were the Tsar’s younger sisters, not older.

14. By 1917, Aleksey was hardly weak and frail. His physical health had improved marvellously, and he was almost as tall as his 5’7 dad.

15. Aleksey never walked again after he fell getting into bed the first night in Yekaterinburg.

16. She combines three Yakovs into the vile Yakov Yurovskiy “because I had no way of differentiating between so many Yakovs, and only room for one besides.” They have different surnames, you fool!

17. She gives Yevgeniy Koblinskiy the nickname Leshy because she’s convinced his surname is too similar to Aleksandr Kerenskiy’s. “I find these Russian names sound all the same. It’s damnably confusing to me[,] so I thought to spare the reader as best I could.” WTF! Just because YOU find Russian names confusing doesn’t mean everyone shares your Anglocentric views!

18. Tomas is not a Russian name. The Russian form of Thomas is Foma.

19. Perpetuating the almost certainly untrue story about the Grand Duchesses being raped on their way to Yekaterinburg. Ms. Lawhon changes it up by having it happen on the train, not the Rus steamer. She also falsely puts Aleksey and Anastasiya in the same cabin, and has Aleksey going back to sleep after the screams start.

20. Mariya sleeps with a Yekaterinburg guard. WHAT!

21. Russian and Polish surnames differ by sex. A woman is Romanova, not Romanov. A man is Schanzkowski, not Schanzkowska.

22. Nicholas and Aleksandra’s children called them Papa and Mama, not Father and Mother!

23. The term “gulag” did not exist in 1917. It’s an acronym for Glavnoye Upravleniye Ispravitelno-Trudovykh Lagerey (Chief/State Administration of Corrective Labour Camps). This system was officially founded in 1930, though Soviet labour camps in Siberia began in 1919.

24. Where are all the other servants who accompanied the Romanovs into exile?

25. Russian Orthodox Christians celebrate Christmas Eve on 6 January, not 24 December.

26. Ms. Lawhon’s negative attitudes towards royals shows through loud and clear. She’s perfectly entitled to those attitudes, but if she feels that strongly, there’s no point in writing about them!

27. The Tsar’s wife was called Empress and Tsaritsa. Tsarina is an inaccurate English word that doesn’t exist in Russian.

To be continued.

Boredom and oversharing on the frontier

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Like many people, I loved the Little House series growing up, and read the books many times. I even read a number of the ephemeral books, like The Little House Cookbook, A Little House Sampler, and On the Way Home. Thus, I expected to enjoy this book too.

Was I wrong.

What didn’t I like about this book? Let me count the ways.

1. It moved SO slowly! This is one of those books where 200 pages feel more like 800. This wasn’t an engaging, gripping page-turner.

2. Ms. Miller needs a lot more practice writing third-person. Her previous novels were first-person present tense, so the classic third-person past tense is quite a departure for her. I never felt fully in Caroline’s head, because the prose was so emotionally detached and distant.

3. Overdescribing the dullest things, with the same detached prose. How does it either move the story or character development along to know every little detail about rope burn, fording rivers, drying the wagon canvas after a storm?

4. Over half the book depicts the journey from Wisconsin to Indian Territory. Apart from a few people the Ingallses encounter along the way, the only four characters are Ma, Pa, Mary, and Laura. Books about, e.g., the Oregon Trail work best when there are many other people besides the main family.

Those books also feature gripping emotional, dramatic events, like disease, drought, exhaustion, childbirth, quarrels with other pioneers. This is just a boring, long-drawn-out travelogue.

5. I REALLY did not need to read sex scenes with Ma and Pa! I feel so uncomfortable reading sex scenes with real-life people. Unless we’re talking about someone like Casanova, how do you think they’d feel knowing a total stranger, 100+ years later, would depict the imagined details of their most private, intimate moments for the entire world to read?

6. Ditto reading about Pa tasting Ma’s breastmilk!

7. I’m not sure what the point of this retelling was. This is little more than a direct retelling of Little House on the Prairie from Ma’s POV.

8. Enough already with the excretory scenes! Reading about real-life people relieving themselves squicks me out even more than reading about them having sex! I did not need to read so many scenes of Ma and the girls using the necessary, digging holes and squatting over them, and emptying chamber pots!

9. Lots of purple prose and weird metaphors. Enough said.

10. Was the real Caroline really that dour, serious, depressing, and joyless? I get that Laura wrote the books from her POV, and didn’t have personal insight into her mother’s feelings, but Ms. Miller’s Caroline seems really off the mark. Pioneer women had difficult lives, and were the product of a much different society and culture, but there were still moments of joy!

It also feels like stereotyping of Victorian women in general, who were anything but prudish and repressed.

11. Spending way too much time describing things that don’t move the story along. Not every single day, week, month of a story needs detailed!

12. Ms. Miller doesn’t use enough commas. Where was her editor?

Overall, I’m tired of the trend of hist-fic about real-life people. So many of these books would work so much better were they about fictional people with similar circumstances. Then there’d be more leeway to stray from established history and personalities. At least in alternative history, there’s a reason for characters to do things they never did in real life!

At least Ms. Miller accurately depicts the Ingallses as voluntarily returning to Wisconsin because the man who bought their cabin reneged on his payments, instead of, as Laura depicts, being forced out by the government.

How to write a book in the style of Beatrice Sparks

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It’s been too long since I wrote a post ripping the late fraud “Dr.” Beatrice Sparks a new one. So, let’s do that!

Ordinarily, I wouldn’t care if someone wrote books I didn’t click with. One person’s lousy writing is another’s treasure. But in the case of “Dr.” Sparks, this isn’t just about bad writing or books that aren’t my style at all. Since more than a few people, esp. in her target audience, believe these are true stories, she was dangerous and unethical in addition to a fraud.

Some of her books are marginally better than others. They’re not all pure horse dung. But with the obvious exception of the 25 real entries from Alden Barrett in Jay’s Journal, they all read like the work of an over the hill, extremely conservative and religious person pretending to be a teen.

We now know Sparks lied about her training, education, credentials, experience, etc. People who know what’s what also understand she was the true authors of all those books, and what she did to the poor Barrett family.

I have NO problem with either a real-life or fictional teen being religious, frequently praying, having a close-knit relationship with her or his mother, trying to live a G-rated life, being conservative, etc.

What I DO have an issue with is how Sparks injected this into each and every one of her books, making her characters clones of herself. The way her characters express these things is so unrealistic, ridiculous, over the top, identical.

How to write in the style of “Dr.” Sparks:

1. Always give the time of day at the start of each entry, and every time you return to an entry later in the day.

2. Everyone loves RANDOM CAPS! In fact, readers have even more love for ENTIRE SENTENCES IN ALL CAPS, or, better, yet, COMPLETE PARAGRAPHS IN ALL CAPS!

3. We all love random italics too!

4. The best of both worlds is RANDOM CAPS IN ITALICS!

5. Who doesn’t love excessive exclamation points!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

6. PUT THEM ALL TOGETHER REGULARLY FOR EVEN BETTER, MORE INTENSE WRITING!!!!!!!!!!

7. Repeat words thrice for emphasis; e.g., “We’ve heard he’s loud loud loud” and “My mom is soooo very wonderful. I love love love her.”

8. Randomly use advanced, fancy-sounding words while pretending you have no idea where you heard them. Even better if you use distinctively Mormon concepts and terminology while feigning ignorance about their meanings.

9. At the same time, talk like a preschool kid, with beyond-babyish language. Who wouldn’t believe a 15-year-old ex-gangbanger would say “Goobly-goop-poop”?!

10. Make up baby words and sprinkle in lots of connected nonsense syllables even a doo-wop song would reject, like kit-kit-kit-kat-kat-doodle.

11. Oversimplify complex issues, and solve them in record time.

12. Use the stock line, “Ooh, I’m sooo glad my dear, sweet, precious Mom is MY dear, sweet, precious Mom!”

13. Engage in hardcore, fetishistic maternal worship, where all things Mommykins and mothers are pure, holy, angelic, never negative.

14. Make sure your character comes from a broken home, and depict divorced families as the worst moral crisis ever, bound to lead to all manner of social ills and sins.

15. Trawl through psychology textbooks and after school specials for “serious” lines to sprinkle in, like a mean girl quickly admitting she only acts like an aloof snob who doesn’t want friends because she’s insecure and afraid of rejection.

16. Pack in as many problems as possible, no matter how disconnected.

17. Make your characters mentally much younger; e.g., a 14-year-old who sounds like a 3-year-old.

18. Your characters are never drawn into drug use, premarital sex, pregnancy, gangs, cults, etc., through their own actions. It’s always the fault of bad friends tricking, abusing, exploiting them.

19. Everything is always Magickally alright again after your narrator tearfully confides in Mommykins, who’s amazingly loving, forgiving, accepting, an angel on Earth.

20. Use lines no teen ever would utter, like, “Wowee! Now I know what hormones are!”

21. Immediately apologize for cursing; thinking negative, unappreciative thoughts; or saying less than worshipful things about parents. E.g., “Ew, Mom! You are such a gross bitch!” (Five minutes later.) “ZOMG! How dare I curse at my dear, sweet, precious Mommykins in the pages of my own journal! I’m worse than Hitler! I might as well kill myself now!”

22. Jump into relationships at lightning-speed, and act like you’ve already got a serious, eternal pair-bond with a total stranger.

Beatrice Sparks, I hate you. May you continue to be exposed as the vile fraud you were. Teens learn best by honest examples delivered respectfully, not by being lied to, preached at, scared, and emotionally manipulated.

When a book’s contents and description are mismatched

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Seeing as how I ran out of time to put together an original blog post yet again, this is a book review I wrote for my old Angelfire site, probably in 2003. It’s edited down from 900-some words.

3 stars

I expected more from this book, and was rather disappointed it didn’t delve more deeply into anything. The way it changed names and events was also annoying. It’s one thing to change names, but I dislike composite characters. That doesn’t give us a real picture of these people. So we have people like Jered, who goes from raving anti-Semite to loving leader of his church’s tolerance movement overnight, and Willow, who flits from religion to religion without any real, deep attachments to any of them.

Some of the events actually happened in her third and fourth years of divinity school, but she had them taking place in her first two years to give intellectual background. Why not just write about all four years from start to finish instead of making everything a composite?!

The author is an intermarried writer living in the San Francisco area when the book begins, but she wants to learn more about her native Judaism for material in an article or book. How does she solve this quandary? She enrolls in Vanderbilt Divinity School in Tennessee! Why would you uproot your family and spend so much money on a non-Jewish divinity school to try to return to your roots?

Mrs. Orsborn wants to be in a shul for Rosh Hashanah, and there are a number to pick from. She’s standing at the door of an Orthodox shul, ready to go in, but walks away and goes to a Reform shul when she remembers a bad experience in another Orthodox shul.

You can’t give up because of ONE isolated experience! She could’ve had a beautiful, spiritual experience, but with the mindset that it’d be terrible simply because it was Orthodox and behind a mechitza, maybe it would’ve been a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Mrs. Orsborn winds up at a fairly new Reform congregation without a permanent building. She also is ready to walk away from that one because it was so crowded and unfamiliar. The High Holy Days experience isn’t representative, since many people are only there then, and the topics of the sermons will be different.

She comes to like this new shul, however, and it’s very dear to her because it split off from the larger Reform shul in the area after the rabbi gave a speech denouncing intermarriage. A lot of intermarried families left to form their own community after that. Tell me how much sense it makes to settle on one shul when you’ve never given any of the others test drives. That was not an informed decision.

Her whole spiritual struggle was nothing more than deciding whether or not to join a fairly standard American Reform shul! If she really missed the atmosphere at Shabbos Shul so much, she should’ve tried to form her own group, not gotten upset the only area shul she ever set foot in wasn’t similar enough to her old shul.

This book was really disappointing. There are better, more compelling accounts of people’s return to their native faiths, not just accounts of waffling over whether or not to join a typical house of worship.

The invisible editor

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Like clockwork, yet again I’ve been bitterly disappointed by a bestselling hist-fic published in the U.S. within the last ten years. So many times I’m left wondering if I read the same book everyone else raved about!

This book was written about in the local newspaper I used to work for, either because the author has some kind of connection to that area, or she were doing an author event locally. From the description, it sounded just like the type of book I love, and I couldn’t wait to check it out.

Wrong!

Let me count the ways in which this bloated book fails:

1. So many things were overdescribed, in such overwrought prose! It was like reading an Anna Godbersen book, only without the halfway decent storylines and characters. Nobody freaking cares about the minute details of everyone’s clothes, architecture, pastries, staircases, watches, or opera sets!

2. Million-dollar thesaurus words. I wish I’d kept a list, because she uses so many of them! I know not everyone has the same vocab, but I can’t think of anyone whose everyday language (in either speech or writing) includes words like “mullioned” and “panchromium”!

3. Showing off her research. I personally like when street names are included, since it helps to more fully evoke the setting and create a sense of the city as a character. But I don’t need to know the name of every freaking street or landmark during a walk or drive in Paris!

5. Showing off her language knowledge. I’m all for using foreign language for flavor, but not obnoxiously using it out of context and to show off! So many times, she uses French or Hungarian for no apparent reason. She doesn’t even have a glossary, which I always build for my books with non-Anglophone characters. And what’s with using the Hungarian word gimnázium? “Gymnasium” is the standard English word for continental European secondary schools!

6. Falsely marketed as a sweeping saga about three brothers in France, Italy, and Hungary in the years leading up and during WWII. It quickly becomes obvious this is only about one of the brothers and his insipid love story with an older woman. There should’ve been no shame in marketing this as a very long historical romance!

7. Third-person limited was a mistake in a book with so many characters. I would’ve loved to follow a lot of these other people more than the Mary Sue protagonist!

8. Ms. Orringer doesn’t know how to write a convincing male protagonist! While I’d like to think I’m pretty good at writing characters of the opposite sex, I know I’ll never be 100% accurate. I only have firsthand knowledge of being female, as tomboyish as I’ve always been. Andras reads like a woman’s idealized perfect man.

9. How many 22-year-old university freshmen not only fall passionately in love with women nine years older, but are dying to marry them and have babies with them? Let alone if that woman has a teenage daughter, and this is the guy’s first-ever relationship!

10. As someone who deliberately writes at saga length myself, I’ve developed a strong sense of when length is justified by the story vs. when it’s an overwritten hot mess. The latter is true in this book.

11. One-dimensional characters. Enough said.

12. Historical anachronisms and inaccuracies galore. E.g., blaming the wrong country for the entire cast having to leave Paris and return to Hungary over visa issues; everyone’s amazingly accepting attitude towards Polaner’s gayness; mistitling Bertolt Brecht’s famous play Mother Courage and Her Children as “The Mother.”

13. Overwrought prose, constantly telling the reader what to think and how to react.

14. At least 95% is telling and summarizing! “This happened. Then that happened. Over the summer, Name did this. Then Name did that. Tell tell telling telly telling lots of telling! During the winter, these things happened. Stilted, infodumpy dialogue. Flashback with even more telling. Did I mention, I can’t write an active scene to save my life?”

I’m shocked multiple editors and advance readers were credited. This book shows absolutely zero evidence of any editing. Ms. Orringer won lots of awards for a short story collection, and got many fellowships to research and write a novel. Clearly, no one had the guts to tell her the painful truth.

Newbie novelists deserve honesty and guidance, not mindless praise and carte blanche based on previous triumphs.