Posted in 1930s, Antagonists, Atlantic City books, Cinnimin, Historical fiction, holidays, Judaism, Religion, Sparky, Urma Smart, Writing

Happy Purim!

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Since Purim begins this Saturday night, I thought I’d feature a Purim-themed excerpt. Chapter 3, “Happy Purim,” of the book formerly known as The Very Next, takes place on 4 March 1939 (also a Saturday). It’s interspersed with public domain photos of illuminated Megillot (scrolls of the Book of Esther) and a few vintage photographs. Sadly, it’s very hard to find vintage greeting cards for any Jewish holiday except Rosh Hashanah.

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That evening, Sparky reached into Cinni’s closet for her Purim costume, a Gypsy outfit she’d put together with Cinni’s help.  The dress was peacock-green, with long, flowing sleeves, a floor-length skirt, and a modest neckline.  To transform it from just an ordinary but fancy dress into a real costume, Sparky wrapped herself in a deep blue silk scarf, wrapped her hair in a dark orange velvet scarf, and exchanged her French hook ruby earrings for huge gold hoops she’d picked up at an indoor flea market last month.

“Now why are you perfectly okay with wearing a costume for this holiday, but you felt wrong for wearing a Halloween costume?” Cinni asked. “It’s exactly the same, just for a different holiday.”

“They’re completely different holidays,” Sparky said. “Purim is a Jewish holiday, and Halloween is a pagan holiday.  They’re celebrated for totally different reasons, and have completely different origins.  There are no Purim costumes with stuff like pumpkins, bats, spiders, and witches.  Even the treats we give out are different.”

“So you’re going trick-or-treating after you do your thing at synagogue?”

“We don’t trick-or-treat.  We exchange gift baskets with stuff like money and hamentaschen.  None of the gift baskets have stuff like chocolate bars, caramels, and whatever else you got on Halloween.”

“You get treats for doing nothing?”

“It ain’t nothing.  You wouldn’t get treats unless you were a member of the synagogue, or we knew you.  It ain’t a mitzvah to give Gentiles mishloach manot, but we’ll give you one ‘cause we love you so much.”

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Sparky finished changing into her costume and headed downstairs to join her family.  Cinni sat at the top of the stairs and watched them heading off to synagogue.  Mr. and Mrs. Small were dressed rather boringly, as an Army officer and flapper.  Cinni wondered where Mr. Small had found the vintage military uniform with all the medals and insignia.  He’d been too young to serve in the Great War, and since it was an American uniform, it obviously hadn’t belonged to any of his ancestors or older relatives.  Gary, just turned fifteen, was dressed just as boringly, as a sailor.

Of all their costumes, Cinni liked best Sparky’s Gypsy costume and Barry’s toreador costume.  It reminded her of Rudolph Valentino’s suit of lights in Blood and Sand, in one of the vintage movie advertisements of her namesake which she’d collected over the years.  If Barry were this beautiful from a distance, she could only imagine how much more dashing he’d look when he came back later tonight and she’d be able to see him up-close and from the front.

***

Cinni spent the next few hours listening to the radio and reading movie magazines, ignoring her small pile of homework.  She almost always saved homework for the very last moment, as many times as her mother begged her to do it immediately instead of the night or morning before.  Only the Nobodies liked homework and did it right away.

Cinni didn’t have particularly hard homework, nothing more than a few worksheets with math problems or vocabulary lists in English, French, Italian, and Portuguese.  This was nothing that needed lots of time to complete, like a twenty-page research paper or complicated trigonometry problems.  Life should be about having fun, particularly now that the wolf had been chased away from the door.  She’d had enough hard times in the first few years of the decade, hardships enough to last for the rest of her life.

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Near the time the Smalls were expected to come home, Cinni left her amusements and went downstairs to wait on the davenport.  Lucinda was on one of the other cushions, bent over the spring dresses she’d begun making for her nieces and daughter several weeks ago.  Every year, Lucinda made the girls special spring dresses from repurposed materials found around the house.  Last year, they’d been made from quilts, and this year, they were being fashioned from curtains.

The materials in prior years had included pillowcases, lightweight blankets, bedsheets, silk shawls from London, scarves from Los Angeles, pillow shams, satin bonnets from Amsterdam, and cloth shower curtains.  Before the Stock Market Crash, the family’s spring wardrobe had come from expensive catalogues and upscale department stores.  It amazed Cinni how Lucinda could be frugal and ingenious in this way, but otherwise waste so much money on fancy house embellishments and overpriced clothes for herself.

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“You want a change of scenery from that boring little sewing room?” Cinni asked. “It musta been hard to lug that big old sewing machine here.”

Lucinda sighed. “How can I concentrate in there anymore, now that I have a roommate?  Samantha shows no signs of moving out, though I don’t know how she can bear to sleep on that little cot.  Your father told her she could share the attic with you and Sparky, but she likes my sewing room more.  Maybe she thinks she’s being some holy Christian martyr by depriving herself of a real bed.”

“Martyr, nothing!” Urma shouted from across the room. “My girl ain’t gonna share her sleeping quarters with some Yid!  Bad enough we have to share living quarters with five of ‘em indefinitely.  If she were younger, I’d insist she sleep in the bed Mortez and I got.  But a sewing room cot is still a bed, however pathetic.”

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“I’m going to need my sewing room back eventually.  I can handle a few days of being displaced, but I can’t keep sewing in other rooms, without any privacy.  Perhaps you and your daughter don’t understand that room is my castle, my special place all my own in this house.  I’ve always been happy to live with my dear sister’s family, but it’s nice to have a small room all my own, where I can go to be alone with my thoughts and not be bothered or distracted by anyone or anything else.”

“It’s true,” Cinni says. “Aunt Lucinda is constantly holed up in that precious sewing room of hers.  It’s her special place, and not very nice to intrude upon it.  I hope Sam ain’t gonna steal nothing from it, though it ain’t like Aunt Lucinda generally sews with fancy stuff like golden thread and silk cloth.”

“Stealing is against the Bible!” Urma thundered “My girl would never steal anything!  And why do you have such awful grammar?  I don’t want words like ‘ain’t’ and double negatives to rub off on my girl.  That’s not how proper, civilized people speak.”

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“It’s how my niece talks,” Lucinda said protectively, putting her arm around Cinni. “Most of the people in this neighborhood talk like that, even the rich people.  We live in a very strange neighborhood.  It’s hardly a crime to not speak the King’s English.  Cinni’s not hurting anyone by saying ‘ain’t’ or using double negatives most of the time.  She does use proper English sometimes, so it’s not like she’s ignorant of the existence of more refined grammar.  It’s the same way with how she speaks Russian with her father’s mother, and how my sister and I speak Polish with our parents.  You speak differently depending upon your audience.”

Urma screamed and made a hex sign. “You mean to say I’m not only sharing living space with five Yids, but also with sub-human Slavs?  I had no idea Mortez’s friend had a Pollack wife and was part Russian.”

“Yes, my sister and I are almost entirely of Polish blood, and damn proud of it.  Our maiden name is Radulski, and our birth names are Łucja and Katarzyna.  We’ve been in this country for a very long time, since the early days of Polish immigration.  H.G.’s mother is Russian, and he was born in St. Petersburg.  Since he came to America when he was only twelve, he doesn’t have a Russian accent anymore.”

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Urma was weeping. “I don’t want to live in this house anymore.  This is such a nightmare Mortez sprung on me.  I want to go back to D.C.  My sister Ursula would take us in, even if she’s got seven kids.  There’d only be eleven people in her home, as compared to seventeen here.”

“Well, it’s too late to move now,” Mortez spoke up softly. “I’m already looking for jobs here, and I’ve gotten attached to this city in the last few days.  It’s much less crowded and fast-paced than Washington.  Don’t make me move when I’ve barely started to get settled into a new place.  I’m happy here so far, and I wasn’t very happy in Washington.  This is one issue you can’t push me around regarding.  We’re staying in Atlantic City.”

Urma growled and stalked out of the room.

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“Why do you let your wife railroad over you so much?” Cinni asked after she was positive Urma was well out of earshot. “She’s even worse than the wives in Laurel and Hardy’s movies.  That’s just make-believe, and those wives ain’t really bullies or mean.  Your wife is a whole different type of henpecker.”

“She is who she is.  I can’t change that.  Sometimes we fall in love with a person with a really bad character flaw, and we have to ignore it because we love the person so much otherwise.”

“That’s more than just a character flaw like always being late or being a bad cook.  She’s outright mean, and a religious fanatic.”

“I agree, but I can’t do anything about it.  She wasn’t a fanatic when we were growing up.  That only happened after Samantha was born.  An intolerant fanatic wouldn’t have had a child out of wedlock, let alone gotten in the family way at just fifteen.”

“You can say ‘pregnant’ around me, Mr. Smart.  I ain’t some little glass flower who’s never heard that word before.  No matter what my mom thinks, I don’t consider words like ‘pregnant’ and ‘uterus’ dirty.  There are some words I refuse to say or write, but I don’t mind the milder, more basic words for adult things.”

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Mortez stared at her. “Aren’t you a young spitfire.  You remind me a bit of what Urma was like before that damned Minister Hodges corrupted her mind against reality and normalcy.  By the way, you don’t have to call me Mr. Smart.  My wife and I prefer to be called by our first names, even if it’s not considered proper etiquette.  It just feels so strange to go by titles when we’re not even thirty yet.  My father is Mr. Smart, but I’m just Mortez.”

“So, can I ask where your first name came from?  I’ve never heard that name before.  It sounds a little Spanish, but you can’t be Spanish with a last name like Smart.”

“My parents are of German descent, but not completely knowledgeable about the language.  They wanted to call me Moritz, but misremembered the name.  It was too late by the time they realized they’d made an embarrassing mistake.”

“That’s kinda like my name.  I know my name isn’t spelt properly, but I’m so used to the way my mom spelt it, the so-called real spelling looks odd to me.  The pronunciation is a lot more obvious with my so-called misspelling.  I’m glad my daddy’s mom didn’t get her way and name me Alexa, ‘cause that’d be too confusing in my circle of friends.  We already have an Alexandria Kate, and we couldn’t both have the same nicknames.” Cinni leapt up at the sound of the doorbell.

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To Cinni’s great delight, Barry was the first person behind the door.  He looked just as beautiful in the suit of lights as she suspected he would.  Best of all, he had a big smile for her, and what she almost thought were a special look in his eyes.

“This is yours,” Barry said, extending a large basket. “I’ve never given mishloach manot to Gentiles before, but everyone in your family deserves one for being so good to us.  Without your father, we’d still be in Europe, with God knows what kind of future.”

Cinni returned the smile and eagerly took the basket.  She headed back to the davenport with it, and delightedly discovered oranges, hamentaschen, saltwater taffy, gumdrops, chocolate-covered peanuts, a bottle of grape pop, and five silver dollars.

“I packed that one just for you,” Barry said, smiling at her again. “I know what a sweet tooth you have.  You’d never be happy with the mishloach manot we made for your parents and siblings.”

“Thank you very much.  You’re really swell to be so nice to someone your kid sister’s age.  I still can’t believe you let me be a guest of honor at your bar mitzvah.”

“I don’t care how young you are.  You’re a nice girl, and that’s all that matters.”

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Cinni looked through the contents of the basket over and over again, daydreaming about being old enough for a boyfriend in a few years and doing boy-girl things with Barry.  Forget about her fantasy crush on John.  Almost every girl in town had a crush on John, and at eighteen, he was far too old for her.  Even if Cinni were eighteen herself, she’d still think the age difference were too large, never mind that her belovèd father had been twenty-five to her mother’s eighteen at their wedding.  That was different and special, and had happened in another generation besides.  But Barry wasn’t that much older than she was.  Their age difference was large enough to be exciting, but not so large it would be inappropriate once their ages leveled out a bit more.  Only time could tell if her dream would come true someday.

“Happy Purim, Barry,” she said with a smile.

Posted in 1930s, Atlantic City books, Historical fiction, holidays, Urma Smart, Writing

WeWriWa—New Year’s Eve 1939

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Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors and Snippet Sunday, weekly Sunday hops where writers share 8 sentences from a book or WIP. This week’s snippet comes from the final chapter of the book formerly known as The Very Next, the chronological second of my Atlantic City books. Though it’s an episodic story with an ensemble cast, the main focus is on Cinnimin Filliard.

At the beginning of March, Cinni’s father gave Urma, Mortez, and Samantha Smart a temporary place to stay, and this situation has been nothing but trouble for everyone. Urma and her daughter Sam are fire and brimstone fanatics who think everything but breathing and reading the Bible their way is a sin.

This has been slightly tweaked to fit ten sentences.

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“Celebrating New Year’s is the work of the Devil,” Urma pontificated. “Don’t ask me to drink any of your demonic libations at the stroke of midnight.”

“I’d never waste my good champagne on you,” Mrs. Filliard said. “My alcohol is only for my family and friends, and you’ll never be my friend.”

“I’ll have some champagne,” Mortez said.

Urma gave him the evil eye as Mrs. Filliard filled an especially large champagne flute.  She covered her eyes when Mr. Filliard mixed a cocktail of strawberry syrup, lemonade, and champagne for all the underage members of the household, using a shaker in the shape of a penguin left over from Prohibition.

“How can you be anti-alcohol when Christ’s first miracle was changing water into wine?” Mr. Valli asked.

“He changed wine into water, that’s all you know.  I’d be glad to lend you one of my copies of Minister Hodges’s true version of the Bible, if I trusted I’d get it back in one piece and undefaced.”

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Mortez has never had any part of his wife and daughter’s extreme religious conversion, though they usually railroad over him and shut down any attempted protests or lectures. He’s always loved Urma much more than she’s ever loved him, though he can’t forgive her for the slanderous story she told her parents after they conceived Samantha as unmarried teenagers.

Posted in 1930s, Antagonists, Atlantic City books, Historical fiction, holidays, Religion, Urma Smart, Writing

WeWriWa—A well-loved manger

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Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors and Snippet Sunday, weekly Sunday hops where writers share 8–10 sentences from a book or WIP. This scene comes right after last week’s, as antagonistic houseguest Urma Smart is horrified to see the beaten-up manger scene her hosts see fit to proudly display under their Christmas tree. Though the Filliards had plenty of money before the Stock Market crashed, and could therefore just as likely have a really beautiful, upscale crèche, I chose to model theirs after an old, beaten-up crèche I’m familiar with.

German Nativity scene made about 1920, which bears a striking resemblance to the real-life beaten-up crèche I based the Filliards’ on, Copyright Hewa

“You’re making Christ weep,” Urma said. “How dare you display such a degraded manger scene!  If that’s all you can afford, just don’t display it.  There’s no law saying you must have a crèche, though it’s certainly the best part of Christmas decorating.  All these other decorations, like the tree and wreaths, are pure paganism.”

“Well, unluckily for you, this ain’t your house to be dictating rules in,” Mrs. Filliard said. “It’s a well-loved manger scene that’s been with us for many decades.  A brand-new manger scene wouldn’t have the same type of history and emotions invested into it.”

“You people are hopeless.”

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I love seeing all the different manger scenes from various cultures. It’s so beautiful to see how every people reflects themselves and their culture in their depiction of the Holy Family, not just in terms of things like skin color, but also the manger itself, the animals, the clothes, the artistic style, and the materials used. It just shows how the Divine really does have many names and faces, none of them wrong so long as one has a true, sincere belief.

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If you’d like to come back this week, I’ll have a series about Battleship Potemkin at 90. Appropriately enough, Part I goes live on the 21st, the film’s actual 90th anniversary. My remaining posts for the year will be my usual year-end wrap-up posts, the year’s final WeWriWa post, and a post about the 120th anniversary of the first time a film was shown to a public, paying audience.

Posted in 1930s, Antagonists, Atlantic City books, Cinnimin, holidays, Urma Smart, Writing

WeWriWa—Halloween-Haters

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Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors and Snippet Sunday, weekly Sunday hops where writers share 8–10 sentences from a book or WIP. This week’s snippet comes from the book formerly known as The Very Next (new and improved title a secret till its eventual release), my chronological second Atlantic City book. It’s set from March–December 1939, and introduces mother-daughter antagonists Urma and Samantha Smart, along with the first two sets of European characters linked back to the Atlantic City characters.

I put a huge amount of work into the third draft of this book, to the point where it’s almost entirely a brand-new story. It was a 24,000-word hot mess when I began rewriting and restructuring it earlier this year, and I made it into a 75,000-word story with an actual structure and focus. 75K is pretty long by the standards of my Atlantic City books, but in this case, the length is perfect.

Chapter 33, “A Heavy Halloween,” opens with the antagonistic Urma and Samantha, unwanted longterm houseguests, sniping at Cinnimin about her household’s celebration of the holiday. Some of you may remember Cinni from the excerpts I shared in the days of Six Sentence Sunday, when she’d just met the love of her life, Levon Kevorkian, in May 1942.

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“You people are nothing but pagans,” Sam declared as she sank her fork into a sausage. “It’s a miracle my mother and I ain’t gone blind yet from looking at all your heathen decorations.”

“They’re our Halloween decorations, and if you dare rip ‘em down or otherwise destroy ‘em, you’re gonna get it.” Cinni poured more maple syrup over her chocolate chip pancakes. “Thank God your insane mom won’t force us to bring you along for trick-or-treating.  Even Sparky went last year, even though she’d never done Halloween before.  It’s just a fun holiday about dressing up, getting candy, and telling spooky stories.”

“It’s a holiday about worshipping the Devil, is what it is,” Urma said. “You even dressed up as the Devil himself.  If I find out Samantha got punished for refusing to come to school in costume today, I’ll have some very strong words for that heathen at the helm of your Satanic school.”

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Urma and Sam became Methodist fundamentalists in 1936, and now firmly believe everything but breathing and reading the Bible their way is a sin. Deep down, Sam just wants to be a normal kid and is afraid of her mother, but she’s years away from being strong enough to develop her own life and stand up to her mother.

Posted in Antagonists, Boris, Urma Smart, Writing

Antagonists and extremists should still be three-dimensional characters

It’s too easy to make your villain or an extremist character one-dimensionally evil. Making them well-rounded characters, with well-developed motivations, backstories, and distinguishing characteristics is a skill that doesn’t come overnight, but it’s worth it to learn how to develop it.

The primary antagonist of my first two Russian novels, Boris Aleksandrovich Malenkov, started out as a good guy, the one who was supposed to eventually marry Lyuba (then called Amy), the one she was supposed to like best of all her suitors. Gradually, he changed into a worse and worse character, which involved a fair amount of rewriting and revising the original sections of the first 7 chapters. But after his personality switch, I never made him into some cartoonish, simplistic villain.

Boris starts out kind of like Esau. He’s more uncouth and impulsive than a truly mean, uncaring guy. (Side note: I’m very uncomfortable with the vilification of Esau, and Ishmael, in the Midrash, a collection of rabbinic elaborations and interpretations of the Bible. Nowhere in the straight Torah text is it ever suggested that Esau is such a monster and anti-Semite.)

Boris is essentially a decent guy who wants to do the right thing, but he has some troubling hints of a darker side. However, those negative character traits, like a quick temper and gluttony, have always been held in check by his parents and teachers. Once he’s out on his own, expelled from gymnasium, in hiding near Ryazan, his parents in Siberia, he no longer has anyone to hold him in line, and combined with his frustration over his plight as a White, his evil inclination gets the better of him.

Over the years, he goes through some periods where he’s fairly good, but he’s always sucked back into sinning. The taste of sin is so sweet, and it’s easier to go with what’s familiar than to tackle the hard work of self-examination and permanent repentance. However, many of his dark periods and sins are motivated by what he feels to be good intentions. He can actually be a bit funny to write, in a dark way. He’s not some one-dimensionally evil person with no motivation behind his depraved acts, and he certainly wasn’t born evil.

Even a villain who’s intended to be a static character shouldn’t be one-dimensional or without motivation. You can give the villain an interesting backstory, and imbue him or her with distinguishing characteristics. Urma Smart, the town psycho of my Atlantic City books, didn’t start out a fire and brimstone fanatic in league with a deranged pseudominister and constantly launching sick schemes against her so-called enemies. And Urma might talk the talk, but she doesn’t completely walk the walk. She always wears the pants in her family and railroads over her passive, weak-willed husband for years, for example.

Urma’s daughter Samantha is a very complex character. At first glance, she’s as fundy as her mother, but deep down, she just wants to be a normal kid. Sam doesn’t have the nerve to stand up to her fanatical mother, and it takes years before she finally finds her voice and breaks away from the crazy, joining a mainstream Methodist church and becoming a moderate Republican. Originally Sam was too pure and good for words, before I changed the storyline to make her and her mother fundies. Then I completely rewrote it so that she and Urma were rather one-dimensionally annoying, fanatical pains in the ass. Finally Sam emerged as a well-rounded, conflicted young woman, and became so much more interesting in the process.

Even if you’re writing about a group of people we can all agree are/were villains, like Nazis or Bolsheviks, you still don’t have to make them cartoonishly evil or buffoonish. The majority of people in those movements started out as ordinary people who were attracted to the leader’s promises. They didn’t think of themselves as villains or hate-mongers. And there were some Nazis, like Oskar Schindler, who belonged to the party but privately used that position to help people. Obviously that wouldn’t have been anywhere near the majority, but it makes for a very interesting character and story if written properly.

I tried to give distinguishing characteristics to the Nazis and NSBers (Dutch Nazis) in Jakob’s story. It would be too easy and simplistic to show them all as beady-eyed villains or incompetent buffoons. Some of the features included a face full of liver spots, ugly measles or chickenpox scars, a disgusting deep, hacking cough, a high-pitched voice, a huge Adam’s apple, and an oddly-shaped nose. They weren’t just trotted out as faceless symbols of evil.

Even if we’re not supposed to be cheering for the antagonist, it helps to understand where s/he’s coming from and to make him or her a fully fleshed-out character. After all, they’re humans too, and no real person is pure evil. Don’t write your characters like people out of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. No one is as purely evil as Simon Legree, as unquestioningly subservient as Uncle Tom, or as pious as Little Eva. Seriously, there’s something really wrong with you if you’re happy you’re sick and can’t wait to die.