IWSG—Miraculously regained momentum


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:

It’s spring! Does this season inspire you to write more than others, or not?
In past years, I remember having felt more inspiration and renewal for writing as spring took bloom, though I can’t specifically recall the same experience in recent years.

Due to my shaken confidence in my usual daily wordcounts, I set my April Camp NaNo goal at only 25K. The first 5,200-odd words came from A Dream Deferred (since I had to finish that chapter before switching gears), but everything else came from my alternative history.

I reached my lowball goal on Day 14, validated as soon as Day 20 began, and ended up at just shy of 55K.

This book is written wildly out of order, which I still feel I need to do emotionally, but that strategy also makes it harder to go on a consistent, beginning-to-end emotional journey with these characters. Regularly jumping from Point A to Point D to Point R to Point Z to Point L and back again means I don’t always remember important developments or details.

I finished the last chapter in Part II, and have finished most of Part III. I also did a smidgen of work in Part I, though my primary focus during Camp NaNo was Part III. Once that’s done, I’ll spend May going through from the start, editing, rewriting, and filling in any remaining gaps.

With my rate of progress this past month, I’m confident I can power through Part IV (about 25% done), and then work on these appendices I totally forgot I’d planned.

I also realized part of the reason for my admitted emotional distance (most glaring in Part I) was because I was trying to be too close to third-person limited. That’s just not my natural voice at all, even when a book is unusually (for me) focused on just one or two characters instead of a large ensemble cast.

Thus, I developed some of the secondary characters more, even though this isn’t their story. I also finally figured out what to do with Grand Duchess Anastasiya, who had zero lines in all those words. Her reaction to the traumatic cataclysm is to shut down and barely say more than five words at a time.

Her second-cousin, Prince Roman Petrovich (who survived in real life), has a marvellous effect on her, so much so her uncle, Grand Duke Mikhail (the Regent), realizes what a good marriage match they’d be. Prior, it was just announced they’d married in early 1920.

I do think a more formal voice works for this specific book, but as it stood, it was too emotionally distant. Better to find solutions for it now, instead of going through mental gymnastics to justify it and only belatedly realizing what a snafu that was.

Near the start of April, I changed my desktop picture to feature my protagonist and his sisters. Every time I look at it, I’m held accountable for finishing the damn book already! I have an obligation to the memory of the dead.


IWSG—Fighting for writing


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:

When your writing life is a bit cloudy or filled with rain, what do you do to dig down and keep on writing?

This is a perfect question for this month, since I’d planned to address just such an issue. After dealing with so many fits and starts for so long, I finally got to the place I need to be to move forward speedily on my fourth Russian historical, A Dream Deferred: Lyuba and Ivan at University.

I also finally resumed work on my alternative history, about the rule of Tsar Aleksey II. I’d been really worried I wouldn’t have the same level of inspiration, passion, and motivation I’d been filled with during my first several rounds of work, but I needn’t have worried.

The words automatically, swiftly began flowing from the moment I got back to it, as though that dear boy were right there beside me, telling me exactly how to continue his story. I have a powerful obligation to finish this book for him, and to release it on his real-life 100th Jahrzeit (death anniversary).

In both cases, I pushed through to fight to regain my writing mojo the way an ice-skater fights for a landing after realizing s/he’s off-kilter in the air, or had bad form to begin with. Some skaters just give up the moment they realize their error, and let themselves fall like a limp ragdoll, but a skilled skater will do everything in her or his power to save a landing.

Even if a skater isn’t able to land with perfect form, it’s better to have a two-footed, bobbled, shaky, scratchy, hand-down, or far-forward landing than it is to fall. Even in the case of a landing that can’t be saved no matter what, it’s better to fall without falling apart.

The rest of the program can then proceed normally, with much better artistry and athleticism. There will always be difficult patches, but when one is committed to one’s craft, one should reach far down inside to reconnect with the initial spark.

As previously mentioned, a lot of my writing mojo was also regained thanks to writing my 12-part series on the 90th anniversary of The Jazz Singer in November. Fictional words had been so strained for so long, but creative non-fiction brought them back.

I don’t regret the decision I mentioned last month, to stop going to the local writers’ group that hadn’t worked out for me. While there were some very strong writers (like a guy writing a sci-fi comedy), a lot of them needed line-by-line critiques instead of gentle roundtable comments and suggestions.

I’m sure I would’ve been seen as even more of a foreign intruder had I suggested doing full critiques, or given my own honest comments about everything. One gentleman even submitted a freaking tax plan! The librarian hosting another branch of this group rightly refused to accept it, since it was neither fiction nor creative non-fiction, so he took it elsewhere.

Not one person said anything about how inappropriate and off-topic that was. I care less if a character or storyline is political, regardless of how far Left or Right, so long as the writing is strong and the author isn’t doing it to force in her or his own politics, but this was a freaking tax plan!

When was the last time you fought to regain your writing mojo? Any odd stories from a writers’ group?

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.

Grigoriy Yevseyevich Zinovyev


Grigoriy Yevseyevich Zinovyev, né Ovsey-Gershon Aronovich Radomyslovskiy Apfelbaum, 11/23 September 1883–25 August 1936, courtesy of the Library of Congress

Grigoriy Ye. Zinovyev was born to Jewish dairy farmers in Yelisavetgrad, Ukraine (now Kirovohrad). From 1923–35, the city was renamed Zinovyevsk in his honour. In his early life, he adopted several monikers, before finally settling on the name Grigoriy Zinovyev. He studied history, literature, and philosophy, which perhaps led to his ultimate interest in politics. In 1901, he joined the Russian Social Democratic Workers’ Party, and joined the Bolshevik branch of the party after its 1903 inception.

Zinovyev quickly became one of the leading lights of the Bolshevik movement and one of Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (Lenin)’s closest associates. He spent the first three years of the Great War in Switzerland, and returned to Russia on the same sealed train as Lenin in April 1917. However, he opposed Lenin’s call for an armed uprising against the Provisional Government, and they had a falling-out.

After the October Revolution which put the Bolsheviks in power, he continued making himself unpopular with Lenin. He and Lev Borisovich Kamenev wanted to negotiate with Vikzhel (the All-Russian Executive Committee of the Union of Railwaymen). Vikzhel threatened a national strike unless the Bolsheviks shared power with other Socialist parties and kicked Lenin and Trotskiy out of the government. Negotiations began, but Lenin ultimately succeeded in stopping them. In response, Zinovyev, Kamenev, and several others resigned from the Central Committee. Lenin never forgot or forgave, even in his Last Will and Testament.

1908 mug shot

Zinovyev’s political career wasn’t over, however, and he was elected to the Central Committee at the 7th Party Congress in March 1918. He also became a member of the Politburo and Chairman of the Executive Committee of the Comintern. Though he enjoyed great power through most of the 1920s, he ultimately was targeted by Stalin, put through show trials in 1935 and 1936, and murdered on 25 August 1936. Kamenev was also a victim of these show trials. They were taken to the Donskoy Crematorium, and their ashes dumped into pits.

In my alternative history, Zinovyev is thrown into prison along with all the other Bolsheviks following the restoration of the monarchy and Grand Duke Mikhail declaring martial law. In August 1929, when Aleksey finally comes to the throne in his own right, he discovers his uncle’s last will and testament demands Ulyanov, Trotskiy, Zinovyev, Kamenev, and Dzhugashvili (Stalin) be hanged publicly.

From all newspaper accounts, the first four have become model prisoners over the last eleven years. It doesn’t seem fair to have them suddenly hanged so much time later, and Aleksey not only has them pardoned, but has them taken to the Aleksandr Palace for a private (but guarded) meeting. He explains he’s about to grant a constitution, and wants them to serve in his government.

Courtesy of State Museum of Political History of Russia

During all the time he’s had to prepare for coming to the throne in his own right, Aleksey has done a lot of reading and research, determined to find out why his parents were overthrown, what made people hate his family so much, and what drove people to Bolshevism. He’s gained a greater understanding of what went wrong, and how many of these people were initially motivated by understandable reasons. If only there’d been a more understanding Tsar and the kinds of reforms they desperately sought, they wouldn’t have done the half of what they did. They weren’t born evil, and they’re far from unintelligent. Zinovyev becomes the Minister of Education, a role in which he shines, and helps to bring many much-needed reforms to the Russian Empire.

At the end of Part IV, 13-year-old Grand Duke Nikolay (Kolya), named for the grandfather he’ll never know, asks his father why he did it. Aleksey says he was motivated by love, sympathy, empathy, and forgiveness. He could’ve chosen to hate and become a ruthless autocrat in response to what happened, but instead, he chose to understand what motivated them, to see them as fellow humans made in the image of God, and to rule with love and understanding.

Ultimately, Zinovyev and the others weren’t beyond forgiveness. All they needed was a Tsar who ruled with love in his heart, who saw his subjects as his friends, not impersonal masses. As Lao-Tzu said, “Sometimes the softest thing in the Universe/Can overcome the hardest thing in the Universe.” And as the final three intertitles of Faust say:

The Word that rings joyfully throughout the Universe,
The Word that appeases every pain and grief,
The Word that expiates all human guilt,
The Eternal Word…dost thou not know it?

Tell me the word!

Liebe (Love)



Bleeding Disease Headline

Not the most original choice of topic, but it was the first thing that sprang to mind, particularly since there’s no letter H in Russian. And really, a lot of folks don’t seem to understand what exactly this disease is, and that people who have it aren’t 24/7 invalids, clumsy, bleeding all the time, and wilting lilies.

My Tsar Aleksey II, in my alternative history, defies expectations by surviving into adulthood with pretty decent health, and has four healthy children, two boys and two girls. In his real, too-short life, he constantly challenged the bounds of his disease, and was a very active boy doing his best to live a normal life. There are numerous photos of him doing things like standing on a cannon, going down a slide, balancing on a chair, riding a bicycle, and driving a car. He even had a toy Mercedes Benz which he loved driving. Many of his injuries came about precisely because he was so active, and refused to be defined by his disease.


Hemophilia is inherited through the maternal line. The carrier has a normal X chromosome and a hemophiliac X chromosome. When a boy gets the wrong X chromosome, there’s no second X chromosome to cancel it out. When a hemophiliac has children with a non-carrier, all the girls will be automatic carriers, but the boys can’t have hemophilia themselves. However, just because a woman is a carrier doesn’t mean all her daughters will be automatic carriers, nor does it mean all her sons will have hemophilia.


Attacks will often be more frequent and/or severe in childhood. Children don’t have the maturity and self-awareness to understand what it means to have a disease like this, nor how to avoid potential injuries. Aleksey had a lot of attacks as a boy, the most famous and severe suffered in 1912, but he got a lot stronger and healthier. He wasn’t clumsy and careless, but just trying to be a normal boy. He wasn’t some wilting lily staying inside reading and drawing all day.


Until the 1960s, life expectancy was about 13 years, but there were always exceptions. A number of the hemophiliacs from Europe’s royal houses lived into adulthood; the longest-lived was Prince Waldemar of Prussia, who died at 56 in May 1945. A lot of people seem to have this false perception of the disease as constant, uncontrollable bleeding, from things as minor as a handshake or bumping an elbow. This disease is unpredictable. A child could appear to be fine after a nasty fall, only to develop a subcutaneous hemorrhage the next day, or slam his fingers in a door without incident.


Sometimes an attack isn’t a cut that bleeds for days, but internal bleeding. A lot of Aleksey’s injuries were subcutaneous hemorrhages, bleeding under the skin that swelled up and took as long as months to be reabsorbed. The injury in 1912 was particularly life-threatening because it was a hemorrhage in the groin and stomach. One of his 1918 injuries was also a hemorrhage to the groin, caused by riding a sled down the staircase out of sheer boredom. These hemorrhages put pressure on his veins, nerves, capillaries, and joints. His left leg in particular was weakened after so many injuries.


There were so many things Aleksey was forbidden to do, like play tennis, ride horses (all the photos of him on horseback were staged), climb trees, ride a bicycle, all sorts of fun things so-called normal children take for granted being able to do. His parents really seemed to have a contradictory attitude towards his disease, both being too overprotective and not vigilant enough. For example, one doctor was fired for telling him to wear calipers all the time, and another doctor was horrified to find Aleksey already out of bed and playing at least a week before his orders dictated.

In my alternative history, his uncle and Regent, Grand Duke Mikhail, institutes a lot of new rules, in the hopes this tough love strategy will enable him to regain somewhat normal health and live to adulthood. It does work, and he gets used to this quiet, interior life of the mind he’s been forced into. No more being carried in public well past babyhood or spending months in bed.

For more detailed information, please see my post on Writing a hemophiliac character.