IWSG—A plethora of progress


The Insecure Writer’s Support Group meets the first Wednesday of each month. Participants share struggles, triumphs, quandaries, and fears. This month’s question is:

What do you love about the genre you write in most often?

I love stepping back in time to another world which now lives only in memory, like 1840s Boston, 1890s St. Petersburg, or 1940s Manhattan, with all the bygone fashions, demographics, architecture, cost of living, cars, films, streetcars, social movements, technologies, etc.

I finished the surprise two new chapters and epilogue for the book formerly known as The Very First. Not counting front and back matter, it’s about 90K. The hot mess of a first draft was only 38K. I’m really proud of the work I did on this radical rewrite and restructuring.

Coupled with the fact that the book formerly known as The Very Next went from 25K to 75K, after another radical rewrite and restructuring, I’ve started thinking maybe my Atlantic City books aren’t meant to be as short as I thought they were.

Granted, by my standards, 75–90K is still pretty damn short!

Ignore the obviously non-Russian names like Amy and Leon, and the pretentious use of accent marks. I was only 21 when I made these notes.

I was inspired to type up synopses for my planned future sixth Russian novel, along with both of the prequels. (You can now find them on the About My Russian Novels page, either in the drop-down menu or the page itself.)

I also came up with titles for all three, and started pulling ideas together for the seventh book, to be set from 1966–sometime in the Seventies. Lastly, I finally typed up the Cast of Characters section for the second prequel, from the handwritten family-by-family pages I made at 21.

The Wrangels are now the Vrangels

Finally, I finished the hiatused Chapter 33, “Quintuple New Leaves,” of my fourth Russian historical, A Dream Deferred: Lyuba and Ivan at University. It clocked it at my longest of this book so far, at 17,282 words. Prior, my longest chapter was the 17,247-word “Union with a Snake” of The Twelfth Time: Lyuba and Ivan on the Rocks.

Pages counts hyphenated words, like twenty-two, as two words, so I know the wordcount is slightly higher than it really is.

Chapter 34, “False Paradise,” is going very quickly and easily. I think I’ll have an easier time from this point out, though I also still need to get back to my alternative history for a 17 July release date.

I’m confident I can finish writing and editing it in time if I approach it very strategically. Part I is done, Part II is 99% done, Part III is at least 85% done, and Part IV is maybe 25% done.

This beautiful little boy is counting on me to give him the happy ending he was cruelly denied in real life. I have an obligation more pressing than merely finishing what I started already.


Avoiding amateur writing mistakes (Hist-fic edition)

These are some of the things I’ve either been guilty of myself or seen in other historical books or films. Speaking from my own experience, these are honest mistakes pretty much everyone goes through. Some can also be applied to other genres.

1. Packing in everything but the kitchen sink syndrome. Prime examples are the TV miniseries The ’60s and The ’70s, which forced in every single major news story, social movement, political event, piece of pop culture, etc., of those decades. What are the odds every single person in one family or group of friends would be involved with every single thing that happened in a decade?

2. Not enough historical detail. So many of my earliest drafts had almost zero connection to their respective eras. This is the opposite extreme from gut-loading your story with every single thing that ever happened in that decade.

3. Clichés. E.g., thinking a 1920s story has to revolve around flappers, automatically setting your story about immigrants to the U.S. in the Lower East Side, or being unable to think outside of the Imperial Russian Court.

4. Gossip Girl in period clothes. I see too much of this in YA historicals published in the U.S. in recent years, and was guilty of it myself as a preteen. At least my excuse was extreme youth. Just make your story a contemporary and be done with it. Don’t pretend it’s a historical yet give all your characters very modern values, speech, and ideas, with cheap, lazy window-dressing like an occasional mention of popular music or news stories.

5. Assuming everyone in that decade had monolithic experiences. E.g., assuming every single person in the Sixties was a hippie and anti-war protestor. If your story’s set in a small, rural town far from a large city, that’s highly unlikely to reflect your characters’ reality.

6. Vague, generic, underdeveloped ideas. It’s good to have a general idea of where you want to go and what you want to write about, but even episodic stories that are deliberately slower-paced and more about character development need to be hung on some kind of arc. It’s not enough to aimlessly write about 1840s Boston, 1920s NYC, or 1780s Charleston.

7. Only focusing on the biggest events of a decade. While I’d look askance at, e.g., a 1940s historical where WWII is barely mentioned, or a late 1960s historical with no mention of Vietnam, it shouldn’t be the book’s entire focus. People had other things going on in their lives, and there were plenty of other major historical events! Your book doesn’t have to revolve around Vietnam, flappers, or the Spanish Inquisition.

8. Using contemporary hist-fic to waltz down memory lane. There has to be a real reason your story’s set in the last few decades, beyond happily name-dropping all your fave bands, movies, and TV shows, and rattling off jokes about then-current events. Don’t force all your memories and fave raves into the story.

9. Reading too much and understanding too little (i.e., failing to research important details). E.g., seeing a list of movies from a certain year, and having your characters see them months before they were in theatres, or having guys of all ages randomly being drafted to Vietnam. When I discovered how the draft lottery really worked, I had to make Ricky two years older than Adicia in Little Ragdoll. That important storyline wouldn’t have worked had they been the same age.

10. Assuming your setting’s modern-day demographics were historically true as well. Just recently I discovered Atlantic City had quite a large Jewish community in the first half of the 20th century, a far cry from its modern form. There were dozens of synagogues; many kosher restaurants, groceries, bakeries, candy store, and restaurants; religious schools; and Jewish hotels and other businesses.

11. Perpetuating popular misunderstandings. E.g., having everyone married by 18, and marrying your female characters to men several decades older. Outside of royalty, high society, and the American frontier, large age gaps weren’t that common, and most women weren’t married till their twenties.

Are there any other amateur mistakes you’d add?

WeWriWa—Inga meets Yuriy


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 right after last week’s, when Yuriy introduced himself to Inga as a Russian-speaking Canadian army medic and offered to treat her injured knee.

Though Yuriy is a veterinary student, not a human med student, he still has basic training in people medicine. It’s not unheard-of for vets to serve as medics, just as some medics have treated animals wounded in warzones.

Inga lets him pull her up, and grips his arm as she hops along on her left leg.  After she’s settled on a wide brick windowsill of a nearby building, Yuriy retrieves her luggage.

“How old are you?” he asks as he lifts her right leg onto his lap. “Did you just come here, and are you alone?”

“I turned eighteen in June.  My grandparents sent me to Shanghai when we were in Vladivostok for my graduation trip.  Then I got permission to come to America, since my father’s a citizen.  I’m supposed to meet some immigration officials and other authorities, and then we’re going to see my father together.  He has no idea I exist.”

Writing about ice-skating in historical fiction, Part III

American ballet dancer Jackson Haines (1840–75) envisioned a style of ice-skating beyond the rigid, formal, prim and proper British style popular at the time. Drawing upon his background in ballet, he created artistic, graceful programs accompanied by music.

Another of his innovations was, for the very first time, permanently attaching skating blades to boots. Prior, skaters had fastened them with leather straps. With permanently attached blades, skaters gained greater balance, and more room to safely jump and spin.

Americans and the British hated this new style, so Haines went to Europe to teach and perform. His style, dubbed the International Style, became very popular in Vienna in particular. His Vienna School students created the International Skating Union in 1892.

The first European Figure Skating Championships were held in Hamburg in 1891, and in 1896, the first World Figure Skating Championships were held in St. Petersburg. The sport came to the Olympics in 1908, in London. Since the Winter Olympics didn’t exist yet, ice-skating was part of the summer games.

At the time, there were four divisions, but not the ones we know today. They had men’s singles, ladies’ singles, pair skating, and special figures. The lattermost involved figures far more elaborate than the now-discontinued compulsory school figures portion of competition.

Copyright User:Voyager; derived from image by User:Saippuakauppias (Jonas Haller); Source Lessons in Skating, George A. Meagher, 1900

Copyright Helena Grigar

Though these beautiful, artistic figures dominated the sport at the time, even after the International Style soon rose to prominence, a more athletic aspect quickly emerged.

Swedish skater Ulrich Salchow (after whom a jump was named), winner of 23 gold medals, three silvers, and one bronze from the Olympics, World Championships, European Championships, and Swedish Championships, developed slightly serrated blades enabling the launching of long jumps.

Norwegian figure and speed skater Axel Paulsen (1855–1938) invented the axel in 1882. The lutz was invented by Austrian Alois Lutz in 1913, and the loop (a.k.a. Rittberger) was invented by German Werner Rittberger in 1910. American Bruce Mapes invented the toe loop in 1920.

In the early days, women who did jumps were reprimanded for their “unladylike” behavior.

Skates remained mid-calf-length, and women continued wearing long, bulky skirts and dresses. Men competed in suits and ties.

One of the first indoor skating rinks was the Boston Arena, built in 1909. Organized public skating came to Boston in the mid-19th century, by Frog Pond in Boston Common (a large, historic park).

Like women jumping, pair skating too was originally considered scandalous and/or taboo by certain countries and people, since it involves very personal contact between a man and woman who often aren’t related.

Skating rose to new athletic heights with the advent of Norwegian Sonja Henie. Though she still wore high skating boots, her skirts were much shorter than previously deemed appropriate, and her skates were white.

She also showed the world female skaters could be true sportswomen, instead of just gracefully tracing pretty figures on the ice.

Today, almost all female skaters wear white skates (sometimes beige or tan). Men wear black skates. Proud tomboy I am, I’m going to get a pair of black skates when I’m back in an area with real skating rinks.

There were twelve compulsory figures till 1947, after which it changed to six, due to time constraints and number of competitors. They represented 60% of the total score till 1968, when it changed to 50%. In 1973, the compulsories were shortened from six to three, and the short program was added.

Also in 1973, compulsories were down to 40% of the total score. In 1988, they became 20%, and were discontinued in 1990.

Indoor competitions became the rule in 1968. Costumes for both sexes also became more artistic.

Ice dancing became a World Championship event in 1952, and was added to the Olympics in 1976 (after appearing as a demo sport in 1968).

Today, skating is a far cry from the winter scenes on frozen ponds of yore. Neither the Medieval Dutch nor Manhattan’s 19th century élite would recognize it as the same winter sport they so loved. Even the scoring system is different.

Writing about ice-skating in historical fiction, Part II

Manhattan’s first skating pond for the upper classes was opened and operated by Major Oscar Oatman, head of Park Slope’s hoity-toity Washington Skating Club, in 1862. Fifth Avenue Pond was one of several in the vicinity, and formed from a spring.

This pond was fenced, with a cloakroom and saloon with warming stoves. Employees constantly swept up debris to keep the ice spotless, and Oatman was also there around the clock. It spanned 11 acres, between 59th and 57th Sts., and Fourth and Fifth Aves.

Fifth Avenue Pond, in a hollow shielding it from the wind, had been used for years by boys, esp. ones from the Beekman estate around 61st St., between Fourth (today Park) and Fifth Aves. In 1862, Madison Ave. didn’t yet cut through the pond.

A raised thoroughfare cut through it in 1865, shrinking the pond’s size. The pond remained open through 1868.

Skating lessons were offered for women and kids, and chairs on large runners were available to those who couldn’t and didn’t want to learn to skate. By night, limelights (calcium lights) and large reflectors lit up the pond.

Each afternoon, a brass band played a range of operatic and national music. They played even in sub-zero temperatures in January 1866.

Oatman charged $10 for a season pass, only given to those who could produce so-called quality references. His pond was only for people of “character and respectability.”

The pond opened at 7 AM, for the many wealthy and fashionable people who had a habit of skating before breakfast. It closed at midnight, and wasn’t open on Sundays, the only day most normal people had off.

Skates in that era were long boots coming as far up as the knee, and were often utilitarian colours like brown, black, and tan. Forget about custom-dying skates to reflect one’s personality, or women and girls predominantly wearing the white skates popularised and made de rigueur by Sonja Henie in the 1920s.

These old-school, custom-made skates cost as much as $50 ($700 today). Dresses ending just above the ankle were considered short, again decades before Sonja Henie made shorter dresses and skirts fashionable and the sport’s standard.

Men wore Scottish wool trousers and chinchilla pea coats.

Every season, Harper’s Bazaar gave detailed recommendations for fashionable skating apparel. Outfits included bright colours (dark deemed too sombre), short jackets, fur-trimmed Russian suits, fur muffs, Highland plaids, beribboned caps, calfskin skates with chamois lining, and plumed sealskin toquet hats.

HB advised against white undergarments in favour of blue merino stockings. This was an era when women had to wear long skirts and dresses on the ice, and could neither wear pants nor shorter skirts and dresses enabling them to move more freely.

Elaborate hairstyles for women were considered bad taste. One of the hairstyles HB recommended instead was a braided chignon with a crimped tress.

Costume balls and carnivals were the highlight of the skating season. These events included fireworks, and many elaborate costumes. During the Civil War, some men dressed as Zouaves, a popular regiment with very bright uniforms.

Oatman also hosted women’s skating matches, which drew many crowds. Not only did the winner get a gold medal, but also all of her competitors. Members of the NY Skating Club were judges. The club, founded in 1863, had its HQ by Fifth Ave. Pond from 1865–68.

One of the club’s members, champion skater Alexander McMillan, designed an expensive, custom skate made of solid iron and steel.

After Oatman’s pond closed in 1868 (due to much nearby construction), the action moved to Mitchell’s Pond (the current site of Plaza Hotel). This pond too offered live music, contests, and carnivals. It was paved over in 1871 to build the Windsor Hotel.

After Mitchell’s Pond closed, patrons moved to McMillan’s Pond by 46th St. and Fifth Ave. As always, the city’s élites flocked to it.

Yet another move followed upon the heels of construction moving uptown. Artificial rinks began appearing, such as Empire City Skating Rink by 63rd St. and Third Ave. in 1868. It boasted hundreds of gas lights, a 70-foot high arched ceiling, and many refreshment rooms.

This era coincided with skating’s evolution into a real sport.