No story element is ever set in stone!

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Even after I finally realised the importance of editing and rewriting, it didn’t immediately dawn on me that I wasn’t beholden to every single aspect of a story as I originally envisioned it. Sometimes things must be excised. Writing around or radically rewriting rotten material won’t suddenly make garbage into gold. Smothering dross with a thousand layers of gold won’t change what still lurks beneath.

A lot of the problems I’ve had with the earlier drafts of my Atlantic City books comes from this juvenile mindset it took me far too long to ditch. I just added new material and reworded the most egregious garbage instead of starting radical rewrites and restructurings.

It’s like only removing part of a tumour, or removing the tumour and not following up with chemo and radiation. Eventually, the cancer will come back and get even worse, since you’re letting it become so embedded within the body at what should be the most opportune time to root it out completely.

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E.g., Gayle Pembroke and her siblings are stolen from their parents by an obsessed older rich woman named Mrs. Pardon. For reasons which I never explained, Mrs. Pardon framed Mr. and Mrs. Pembroke, had them thrown in jail, and was given full custody of their five kids. The baby they have in early 1943, Lacey, is given to her as well.

Granted, the framing happens in the long-hiatused second Max’s House book, but in none of the other books after that was it ever stated what exactly Mrs. Pardon framed them for, why the jury believed this story, and why a total stranger would get custody! Was it murder? Arson? Treason? Grand larceny? Embezzlement? Fraud?

I thought up this stupid storyline when I was a preteen, and just kept running with it despite it making zero sense. Also, the littlest Pembroke sister needs a new name. At least third sister Brooke’s unusual-for-the-era name can be explained by her parents liking nature names.

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As I’ve said before, I’m so glad I was forced to recreate Little Ragdoll from scratch and memory, and that the long-buggy first file was only finally resurrected after I finished the second first draft. There was zero way I could’ve salvaged a halfway-decent story from that Grimms’ fairytale on acid. Had I been able to open the first of those two old files earlier, the resulting story would’ve been absolutely terrible.

Likewise with the Max’s House books I handwrote the first drafts of (#1, #3, #7, and #8). The others need a lot of work too, but not nearly so extensively. I transcribed everything and merely added new stuff or fleshed out and reworded other stuff. Never a serious thought to outright removing the most egregious garbage!

The main storyline of #3 absolutely disgusts me now. Elaine decides she’ll kill herself after her English teacher forces her to read a bunch of books, and hatches a bizarrely detailed timeline. E.g., she begins taking poison in larger and larger doses, moves into the cellar and sleeps in a coffin, writes goofy poetry, buys dresses for her suicide and funeral, and finally “kills” herself in the outdoor pool with Max’s assistance. She has quite a long OOBE and comes back to herself in hospital.

There are so many things wrong with that storyline, perhaps worst of all treating suicide and suicidal ideation so matter-of-factly and as dark comedy! Elaine shows no signs of any sort of real depression or other mental health issues. I retained that storyline only because it was already there.

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You are never beholden to keep every last word as you originally wrote it. Same goes for plot twists, couplings, character arcs, backstories, storylines, plots, scenes, et al. Yes, it’s very difficult to dismantle a good chunk of a book and rewrite it almost from scratch, but it’s always worth it in the end.

Who cares if that was a core part of the first draft, or you feel sentimental attachment to an idea you hatched when you were very young? That’s not a solid reason to justify keeping it if it’s bad to begin with.

When you cut away rotted flesh, healthy new flesh eventually replaces it. So too is it with radically slashing and burning to create a new and improved story.

Hell’s Kitchen

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Copyright Dmadeo

Hell’s Kitchen is west of Midtown Manhattan, bordered by 34th St. on the south, 59th St. on the north, the Hudson River on the west, and Eighth Avenue on the east. It overlaps with Times Square, the Theatre District, and the Garment District, and borders the UWS, Columbus Circle, Hudson Yards, and Chelsea.

The neighborhood’s name is said to derive from a particularly nasty tenement, though accounts differ as to which one exactly. Another theory cites an 1835 Davy Crockett quote, “In my part of the country, when you meet an Irishman, you find a first-rate gentleman; but these are worse than savages; they are too mean to swab hell’s kitchen.”

Pretentious gentrifiers have called it Clinton since 1959, after nearby DeWitt Clinton Park. Some real estate agents also use this moniker, along with Midtown West and the Mid-West.

Before the modern gritty name took hold, Hell’s Kitchen was a hamlet known as Great Kill (from the Dutch kille, riverbed), formed from three small, converging streams. Many people had large farms, and carriage-making was a major industry.

The coming of the railroad in 1849 industrialized this sleepy rural hamlet, and many Irish and German immigrants moved there to work in tanneries, railways, and docks. Most of them lived in shantytowns in the southern section.

Immigration from all over Europe significantly picked up after the Civil War, and a big percentage of them stayed in NYC because they had no money or connections to start new lives elsewhere. Hell’s Kitchen became stuffed with overcrowded tenements, and as so often happens, poverty begat crime and gangs.

Gang activity intensified with Prohibition, and the many warehouses became bootlegging distilleries. Some of the gangs controlling the neighborhood morphed into organized criminal enterprises. Hell’s Kitchen became known as the “most dangerous area on the American Continent.”

After Prohibition’s repeal, gangsters moved into other illegal activities, like union shakedowns, pimping, the black market, and gambling dens. Juxtaposingly, this era coincided with a flourishing waterfront, where jobs were plentiful.

With the advent of containerized shipping In the late 1950s, the piers declined, and many dockworkers and longshoremen found themselves as obsolete as buggy drivers and chimney sweeps. The evil Robert Moses also hastened the neighborhood’s sharp decline by destroying large areas to build roads and tunnels.

The old gangs might’ve been violent, but neighborhoods under gang rule were relatively safe. Crimes had to be accounted for; e.g., putting a hit on rivals vs. murdering innocents for the sheer sadistic delight. Businesses also were left alone if they paid their dues and didn’t bother the gangsters.

All that changed when people began hightailing it to suburbia, coupled with interlinked factors like redlining and blockbusting. Once the most privileged demographic was gone, the proletariat fell into poverty, and the already-poor became even poorer.

The powers that be didn’t want to invest time, money, and resources on them. Robert Moses also continued displacing entire neighborhoods and districts to build unwanted roads and housing projects.

This happened in cities all over the U.S. in the postwar era. All these things came together to create a perfect storm for once-great cities to sharply sink into poverty, gang violence, crime, and drugs. Until the 1980s, Hell’s Kitchen was the home base of the Westies, allied with the Gambino crime family.

Copyright Beyond My Ken

Gentrification began haltingly, and with much opposition, in the 1970s, though Hell’s Kitchen continued to be racked by poverty, crime, and urban decay. Eventually, the gentrifiers were successful, and rent prices are now as exorbitant as in most of the rest of Manhattan.

At least zoning regulations prevent much new construction, so the neighborhood is still occupied primarily by old walk-up apartments instead of ugly high-rise luxury condos which unsurprisingly have a hard time being filled to capacity.

Professional Performing Arts School, Copyright Jazz Guy

Hell’s Kitchen is one of the main settings of my contemporary historical Bildungsroman Little Ragdoll. After protagonist Adicia Troy’s mother gets out of jail for embezzling in December 1962, she ruins what would’ve been Adicia’s first real Christmas by forcing her and her sisters Emeline and Justine to leave their big brother Allen in the West Village and move to the family’s new tenement in Hell’s Kitchen.

Adicia spends the next seven years there, until her mother moves them back to the Lower East Side. During this time, she has a rendezvous with destiny, the real-life event that inspired me to write this story. Adicia became the little girl who washed Bob Gaudio’s windshield at a long red light, got a $10 tip, and inspired The Four Seasons’ 1964 #1 song “Rag Doll.”

East River Park

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Copyright David Shankbone

The East River Park opened 27 July 1939, replacing an active shipping yard. The waterfront was also home to many factories, tenements for the poorest of the poor, railway yards, slaughterhouses, power stations, and glassworks. Who else but Robert Moses decided to tear it all down!

This park was developed in tandem with East River Drive (also known as FDR Drive). Though I’m hardly a fan of Mr. Moses’s aggressive remodelling of the city, the Lower East Side desperately needed more parkland and recreational facilities.

Though the Lower East Side has several other parks, this is the largest of them all. Unfortunately, it’s shrunk somewhat over the years due to road expansions. That’s more like the Robert Moses I know and hate.

Copyright David Shankbone

In 1941, an amphitheatre was added south of Grand St., with an adjacent limestone recreational building. There were frequent concerts in the park here during the 1950s, as well as plays including Shakespeare and classic Greek dramas. Local schools also held their graduations here.

Sadly, the theatre closed due to budget cuts in 1973, and then vandals attacked it. By 1980, it was unfit for purpose.

Copyright David Shankbone

In the 1990s, when the city began coming back from its absolute nadir, the park was extensively rehabilitated, and many new features were added. In 1998, the Lower East Side Ecology Center became the park’s steward. Their education center and offices are in the Fireboat House near the Williamsburg Bridge. Every year, they shepherd thousands of volunteers through gardening and upkeep.

Other 1990s developments include the Brian Watkins Tennis Center and the 10th St. comfort station. Handicapped accessibility was added recently, and for the first time since the 1930s, the seawall offers East River views.

The East River Park is part of the East River Esplanade, a series of linked parks and walkways forming an almost uninterrupted greenway around Manhattan’s perimeter. To the south of the park, Pier 42 has been transformed from an unused shipping terminal to a place of recreation.

Copyright David Shankbone

In 2001, the City Council voted to rename the park John V. Lindsay East River Park, after the city’s 103rd mayor who served from 1966–73, one of the most difficult periods of both U.S. and NYC history. This was rather controversial, since Lindsay came under fire many times during his mayoralty and was frequently criticised for being out of touch with the common people. Some consider him the worst NYC mayor of the 20th century.

However, there were some positives in his stormy political career. Mayor Lindsay helped to revive artists’ communities by ordering code enforcement officers to go lightly on squatters and artists’ living and working spaces, instead of evicting and imprisoning them.

He also transformed the Civilian Complaint Review Board from an internal cop-run department to a public agency with a majority-citizen board. Most importantly, his efforts to preserve racial harmony spared New York the riots found in other big cities during this era.

The renaming ceremony took place 19 December 2001, on his first Jahrzeit (death anniversary).

Copyright David Shankbone

East River Park appears in two chapters of my contemporary historical Bildungsroman Little Ragdoll, and is mentioned a few other times. In Chapter 2, “Going Fishing,” protagonist Adicia is sent down to the East River with four of her siblings to wrangle up dinner, and her one decent brother Allen is pulled into the river from a feisty fish on his line, all while a cop watches him fishing with a fake license.

In Chapter 6, “A New Decade Still in Poverty,” Adicia and three of her sisters go sledding in the park with garbage pail can lids.

WeWriWa—In loving memory of John

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weekend_writing_warriorsveteransbadge_4

Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors and Snippet Sunday, weekly Sunday hops where writers share 8–10 sentences from a book or WIP. In honor of John Lennon’s 39th Jahrzeit (death anniversary), I’m taking a detour from my holiday-themed snippets.

This excerpt comes from Chapter 25, “Ernestine and Girl Are Beatlemaniacs,” of Little Ragdoll. It’s set over 9 February 1964, the day The Beatles first played Ed Sullivan. This is the first time young Ernestine Troy or her friends the Ryans (whose disinterested parents called them simply Girl, Boy, Baby, and Infant) have ever watched television.

The Ryans eventually take the names Deirdre, David, Fiona, and Aoife (EE-fa).

Ernestine thinks it’s pretty rude how the majority of the girls in the studio audience are screaming. Even if one really likes a band and is excited to see them perform, that’s no excuse for screaming nonstop. They’re probably making it hard for the band to hear themselves play, and are missing the entire show because all they’re doing is screaming.

During the next song, a cover of what Mrs. van Niftrik says is a Broadway tune, “Till There Was You,” there are closeups of each bandmember, providing each one’s name. Ernestine rolls her eyes when a caption appears under John’s name, saying, “Sorry girls, he’s married.” As though any of the girls in the audience or watching at home stand a chance of marrying someone that much older and that famous. She and Girl both think he’s the handsomest, married or not. The others are cute, but John has a more mature face, like a handsome adult man, not carrying the look of a cute, soft-faced boy into early adulthood. Girl also feels a special energy coming from him, an aura she has a very good feeling about.

Carlos on the Witness Stand

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There are still quite a lot of posts that need moved out of my drafts folder already. This was originally scheduled for 31 March 2012, intended for the long-discontinued Sweet Saturday Samples bloghop, and set aside indefinitely. It differs slightly from the published version.

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This week, I’m featuring an excerpt from Chapter 36 of Adicia’s story, “Carlos Goes to Prison.” Carlos, Adicia’s oldest brother and the next-oldest Troy sibling, was paralyzed in an accident at work in early July of 1962, and while he was in the hospital, a number of charges were brought against him for his drug-related activities, stealing at work, and (accidentally) starting the fire that destroyed the Troys’ original tenement. Five years later, he’s finally mentally and physically fit enough to stand trial. Now he gets a chance to take the stand, and unwittingly incriminates himself for basically everything. The rating is PG-13.

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“Will you raise your right hand and swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, nothing but the truth, so help you God?”

“Yup,” Carlos says.

It is the second week in September, and the prosecution has decided to put Carlos on the stand.  The defense declined to use him as a witness, citing his alleged diminished mental capacity and the fact that he’s already been through enough trauma, but the prosecution lawyer thinks he’s either crazy like a fox or so genuinely stupid he’ll be putty in their hands.

“Will you please state your name?”

“Carlos Ghislain Troy.”

“Now, Mr. Troy, at the time of your accident, July 3, 1962, Wednesday, you were working at Mighty Mike’s Mechanics on the Lower East Side, correct?”

“It was the second job I had in my life,” he says proudly. “I was a car repairman and mechanic.”

“And what did this job entail?”

“I fixed people’s cars and performed basic maintenance services.”

“Did you ever take anything out of the cars you were entrusted with?”

“All the time.  That’s onea the reasons I wanted the job after I was fired from my first job.  I knew some rich folks would be taking their cars in, and I’d help myself to their belongings.  They either wouldn’t miss ‘em or would just buy new stuff.  Hell, my own mother right there told me she hoped I’d be stealing from the cars the same way I useta help myself to cereal when I worked in a cereal factory.”

Mrs. Troy hangs her head in her hands.

“So you are basically admitting to stealing from your customers and pleading guilty to the thirty counts of petty theft you are facing?”

“All poor folks steal.  We deserve nice stuff, and rich folks deserve to be put in their place.  Besides, I was told they found mosta the stuff in my work locker.  That problem is solved and the charges should be waived.”

“That’s not up to you, Mr. Troy.  That’s up to the judge and jury.  Now here’s another question for you.  Can you remember when you started using or selling drugs?”

“I was fourteen, maybe?” he guesses. “I think I waited till I started high school to start joining my parents in the wonderful world of drugs.  We useta have a whole drug lab in our old tenement, before it was destroyed by fire.”

Now Mr. Troy hangs his head in his hands.

“Did you start selling them at the same time you began using them?”

“I want to say yes.  I sold and used all kinds of drugs you can imagine, though my favorite to use was meth.  Speaking of, I’m dying for some meth right now.  Can anyone oblige me?”

Mrs. Troy wishes she could run out of the courtroom right about now.

“Mr. Troy, are you aware you are incriminating yourself by your testimony?  You do have Fifth Amendment rights to refuse to answer any of these questions.”

“You asked if I’d tell the whole truth, and I agreed.  I ain’t got nothing to hide.  I’m proud of my roots and what I’ve done.”

“Fine.  Now that we’ve quickly established you did steal from your customers at the car shop and that you’re a drug user and pusher, let’s move onto the most serious charges you’re facing.  Do you remember what you were doing on the late afternoon of June 27, 1962, Wednesday?”

“Using meth, probably.  Is that supposed to be the day our old tenement burned down?”

“Yes it is.  Does that jog your memory now that you know what exactly I’m asking about?”

“That was the day I got my job at Mighty Mike’s Mechanics.  On my way home, I siphoned off some gas from a fancy car for my buddy Nick and his wife Louise, onea the few families I knew with their own automobile.  Nick and his wife lived on the fourth floor of our old tenement.  Nick told me their electricity had gotten shut off ‘cause they hadn’t paid their utility bill, and asked if I’d please go into the basement to try to fix it by fiddling with the fuse box.  I gladly obliged.  I saw the cheapskate landlord had taken out the penny I’d put into the socket last time I’d been working with the fuse, so I stuck another one in.  It was really dark down there, so I lit a match to see.  After I was done fiddling with the fuse, I threw the match on the ground.  It musta come in contact with somea the gasoline I’d accidentally spilled when I was setting the gasoline canister down on the ground.  So as you can see, this fire was a total accident.  I did not maliciously set a fire or intend to kill nobody.”

“Sir, are you aware of what putting a penny into a socket or fuse breaker can do?”

“I guess it could cause a fire hazard, but that ain’t no reason to never do it.  Tons of people get in cars every day, and they ain’t avoiding ‘em for fear of dying in accidents.”

“And are you aware of how flammable gasoline is, and even more so when it comes into direct contact with a flame such as a match?”

Carlos waves his hand dismissively. “Those were complete accidents.  It was actually pretty funny when we looked out our door and saw a fire at the bottom of the steps.  It was onea them ‘Did little old me do that?’ moments.”

“You find it funny that you caused a massive gasoline and electrical fire that completely consumed a ten-floor tenement building where roughly two hundred people lived, claimed twenty lives, and left everyone homeless?”

“Of course that part wasn’t funny!  It’s like how you laugh when someone falls on a banana peel.  You know it ain’t funny for him, but it’s funny to watch since it ain’t you, and ‘cause people getting hurt are funny.”

Mr. and Mrs. Troy’s mouths are hanging open in shock by now.  They’ll have no reputation left if any of their friends, family, or neighbors read about this in the papers or hear about it through the grapevine.

“Sir, are you aware of how quickly a gasoline fire spreads, and that when combined with a concurrent electrical fire, the end results will be disastrous?”

“You act like I did this on purpose!  I hated losing everything I owned and being made homeless, though at least we was able to move right into my older sister and her ex-husband’s apartment in Two Bridges, since she’d just divorced him and he’d moved back in with his parents.”

“Did you make any efforts to report this to the police, or let the firemen know how it had started?”

“Now why in the hell would I incriminate myself like that?  Accidents happen.  That don’t mean all harmless accidents need to be treated like criminal matters.”

“Now I’m going to read you a list of names, and you can tell me if you recognize any of them or know how these names relate to one another.  Angela Barbieri, Maria Delmonico, Edward Gallagher, Hannah Gallagher, Stanley Houlihan, Jane Johnson, Lisa Jones, Nathan Jones, Timothy Jones, Adela Levine, Charles Levine, Peter MacIntosh, Georgia McIntyre, Philip McNulty, Alexander Nankin, Vera O’Loughlin, Richard Rogers, Randolph Spirnak, Jerry Teitelbaum, and Sharon Zoltanovsky.”

“My mother was friends with a Mrs. Nankin on onea the lower floors, but I don’t remember if I personally knew that family. The only name on that list that rings a bell is Spirnak, who moved in across the hall from us that May. He had a daughter Julie who’d just turned eight. Spirnak sold drugs as his full-time job. My parents and I became somea his best clients. There was no Mrs. Spirnak, since they’d divorced a couple of years prior. That bitch tried to tell the cops and lawyers he was doing degenerate things to their daughter, but we all know how girls and women make stuff up when they’re desperate for attention or trying to get people to take their side. The girl, Julie, disappeared not that long after they moved in, and I have no idea where she went to. Why, are these people the ones who are charging me for accidentally burning down the building?”

“No, they can’t do anything now, because they are all dead.  Most of them were found dead when the firemen arrived too late to save the building or anyone inside, and Mrs. O’Loughlin, Mr. MacIntosh, and Miss Lisa Jones, who was only nine years old, died shortly thereafter in the hospital of their injuries.  Do you feel any remorse, now that you’ve learnt the names attached to the people who died in the fire you started?”

“Why should I feel bad for something that I didn’t do on purpose?  I ain’t some pansy like my brother Allen, who was pathetic enough to quit all drugs, alcohol, and even cigarettes, and who don’t mind being surrounded by more girls than guys.”

The prosecuting attorney smirks and turns to the defense. “Mr. Hoffman, would you like to cross-examine this hapless witness?”

Carlos’s lawyer feels like throwing his hands up. “No, that’s fine.  I don’t think my client will be able to get out of the hole he’s just dug for himself no matter what I ask him.”

Mrs. Troy looks like she wants to murder Carlos as he wheels himself off of the witness stand.  Mr. Troy has to suppress the urge to reach out and smack his firstborn son upside the head.  Just about the only thing a poor family can claim to be proud of is its name, and now they probably don’t even have any name left after Carlos has cavalierly admitted in court to using and selling drugs, stealing at work, and starting a fire.