WeWriWa—May Day 1274

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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. The rules have now been relaxed to allow a few more sentences if merited, so long as they’re clearly indicated, to avoid the creative punctuation many of us have used to stay within the limit.

I’m now switching to a brand-new project, an alternative history I’ve wanted to do for 17 years but didn’t have any specific outline for till recently. Its working title is A Dream of Peacocks. You could’ve knocked me over with a feather if you’d told me this would demand to be first-person narration! I always assumed it’d be my usual third-person omniscient.

My synopsis is still a work in progress, but here’s the beginning:

What if one of the most famous love stories in history wasn’t unrequited?

When Dante Alighieri and Beatrice Portinari meet as children on May Day 1274, they’re instantly drawn to one another with a strong, precocious love. Their dreams of marriage come to an abrupt end when their fathers arrange their betrothals to other people, but an unexpected second chance comes when they’re both widowed in their early twenties.

I think the first line of the second paragraph sounds a bit clunky, so any suggestions for tinkering are appreciated. It’s based on an early line in La Vita Nuova, in which Dante describes his age relative to the cycles of the Sun (as understood in Medieval astronomy), and the description of the Sun in Canto I of Inferno as the planet which leads us straight on every path (pianeta che mena dritto altrui per ogne calle).

From the very first time I saw her, I knew Beatrice Portinari would someday be my wife. I just never realized how long, complicated, and anguished our path to a permanent happily ever after would be.

The Sun, that heavenly planet of light which leads us straight on every path, had circled back nearly to the same point nine times since my birth when my life changed forever with an invitation to the rich neighbors’ house for May Day. But as my father and I left our house that fateful morning, I was as yet unaware of the destiny which would soon begin unfolding.

The old stone streets of Piazza San Martino were full of other May Day revelers bedecked with violets and roses, carrying alder, laburnum, and more flowers, and singing auspicious songs meant to entice people into giving them sweets, wine, eggs, food, and alms. Some of these Maggerini also played instruments to accompany their sweet verses. As dearly as I wished I could stop and listen to all of them, I was compelled to keep walking alongside Babbo so as not to be late. The Portinaris were a very wealthy, important banking family, and it wouldn’t create a flattering impression if we arrived late. They might not invite us again, and as Babbo always stressed, a lesser noble family of reduced station like ours needed all the powerful friends and connections we could find. Though we had enough money to live comfortably, we weren’t equal to the city’s richest families.

The ten lines end here. A few more follow to complete the scene.

Babbo indicated the stone tower house on Via del Corso, in front of which another group of Maggerini were singing their joyous songs and playing their sweet instruments. The doors were open, and several adults were distributing gold florins, candied ginger, slices of focaccia, and honeyed almonds. When I saw the brocade, velvet, silk, and gold and silver embroidery on their clothes, I hoped my fairly humble green wool tunic and red hose would be deemed acceptable.

Presently, the Maggerini finished their performance and moved towards the next house, and Babbo moved forward and addressed a man in a brilliant Byzantine blue velvet tunic with serious bearing.

“A joyous Calendimaggio, Ser Folco. I’m Alighiero di Bellincione, and this is my son Durante. We live on Via Santa Margherita.”

How to handle wraparound narrative segments

A wraparound narrative segment is often necessary to convey important information in a story. The key is in knowing when and how to use it properly.

Deliberately long books in particular depend upon such passages to keep the story rolling along without losing much forward momentum and not sprawling to twice its already doorstopping length. Though this type of narration is all about telling instead of showing, it’s a good, necessary kind of telling. If every single second in a story were shown in detail, the wordcount could easily balloon way past your intentions.

A prime example of when a wraparound narrative segment might be necessary is in regards to a storyline about a character having a long illness or injury, plus an equally-long recovery period. It’s important to know s/he’s sick or injured, but unless the entire focus of the book is that health crisis, readers probably don’t want to know about every day during this time. Just the most vital incidents will do.

Another example is a long journey. Say your characters are returning home or moving to a new place after a war, graduating from university, or leaving a longtime job. Do we really need to know what happens every single minute of this cross-country road trip or two-week train trek? Again, lots of details are fine if that’s the book’s focus, but there’s no point in spending 35,000 extra words illustrating the journey if the meat of the plot only begins afterwards.

You also might need to quickly catch the reader up on what happened between chapters or sections. E.g., your characters were last seen starting summer vacation at one beach, and now they’re at a private cottage some distance away. Or they were about to set out trick-or-treating, and now they’re coming home with lots of candy. Just a few lines to explain the interim will suffice.

What you don’t want to do is stop the story’s forward momentum to tell the reader exactly what’s happened to every character since we last saw them a few years ago at the end of Part II, Part III, etc. Even worse if you do this long infodump after starting a normal scene and don’t resume it till after the infodump concludes.

Instead, convey the most pertinent tidbits naturally, as part of the overall story. E.g., a matter-of-fact mention that Name is married now and lives somewhere else, or that Name now has a higher military rank. But don’t vomit forth page after page of pointless backstory. If it were that important, you wouldn’t have left a long gap between those parts of the book.

Consider what the point of the overall story is, what’s most vitally important for readers to see depicted actively and in detail vs. merely read a short summary of between major events and scenes. Part of me wishes I could do a complete rewrite of And Jakob Flew the Fiend Away, since it covers a bit over 5.5 years in just 128K words and condenses a lot of chunks of time. Had I written it as an adult novel, it would’ve easily been twice as long, with many more chapters, or longer chapters.

But I have to remember I deliberately wrote it as mature upper YA, and that the focus is on Jakob’s frustration at being kept away from resistance activity, finally making an escape, severely breaking his foot and ankle when he does escape and spending months recovering, joining the partisans, revenging his father’s murder, becoming an official soldier near the end of the war, his unexpected feelings for a mysterious girl, and his struggle to adapt to a world he no longer remembers how to live in.

I never intended it as a paint by numbers Shoah story. If I had, Jaap would’ve remained on that train. So many other memoirs and novels detail the Shoah in The Netherlands, but I was going for a lesser-portrayed angle. Spending 100 more pages on Westerbork or the first year of occupation would’ve dragged the focus away from the theme of resistance, and it’s really not important to detail the entirety of Jakob’s 20 months as a partisan. I carefully chose the episodes I did depict.

In my alternative history, I likewise skimmed over a lot of Aleksey’s time in Paris and the apprenticeship to the throne he gets after returning home. Had I chosen to make each of the four Parts into its own book, I would’ve detailed many more things, but I intended each to be successively longer, all building towards the dramatic climax of Part IV. How would it have advanced the forward momentum if there were 15–20 chapters showing Aleksey researching Russian history and government, doing humanitarian work for the Jewish community, and learning the ins and outs of ruling? I would’ve quickly bored of writing that!

If a book is set over years instead of months, weeks, or days, it would be madness to depict every single event. Always think about which episodes are most important to your main plotlines and advancing character development.

Dina’s New Birds

For this month’s WEP contest entry, I decided to revisit some of the characters from my alternative history, set in a 20th century Russia where the monarchy was restored. Maslenitsa, Butter Week, is comparable to the Western celebration of Carnival.

Wordcount 981; MPA

Dina gazed around with wide eyes as she walked down Nevskiy Prospekt, taking in all the bright colors on display. Everywhere she looked, there were stalls offering painted wooden toys, satin ribbons, elaborate fabrics, sparkly costume jewelry, puppets, ikons, and all manner of tempting merchandise. In addition to the visual feast, the famous luxury thoroughfare was also blanketed with the delicious scents of warm gingerbread drizzled with vanilla icing, pastries, spices, fruity teas, roasted nuts, and of course butter-drenched blinchiki.

But of all the treats on offer on Nevskiy Prospekt during Maslenitsa, the most exciting were the birds. Each cage was more exquisite than the last, and housed fancier and fancier birds. Dina couldn’t make up her mind as she walked back and forth between the birdcages.

“How many birds can I adopt, Mama?”

Dina’s mother Arkadiya looked away from a blinchiki stall. “Will you still be interested in them a few months from now, and can I trust you to take care of them all by yourself? Birds aren’t as easy to care for as dogs and cats.”

“I’m almost eleven, not a little kid like Shura. My cousins get birds every year, even the ones younger than I am.” Dina pulled her rubles and kopecks out of her blue pony coat pockets. “Papa gave me lots of money before we left.”

Arkadiya smiled knowingly. “You’ve always had your papa wrapped around your finger. I’d be shocked if he didn’t give you enough money to buy this entire avenue.”

“I’ll take really good care of my birds. I want big ones with really colorful feathers. Little birds aren’t as fun as big ones.”

“They also make more noise and mess.” Arkadiya called to her older daughter Eleonora at a gingerbread stall a few feet away. “Elya, would you mind keeping birds in your room?”

“Why not?  It’ll be fun.”

“Can we take them into our schoolroom too?” Dina asked. “They might get lonely if we’re not there all the time.”

“You don’t take your dogs and cats into your schoolroom,” Arkadiya said. “If you get more than one bird, they’ll keep one another company.”

“They should have a really big cage,” Eleonora said. “Birds can’t be very happy in cages their whole lives, just like fish aren’t supposed to live in tanks. God designed them to fly and swim around the entire world.”

Dina walked back and forth among the birdcages. “Now that we don’t have to spend money on the war anymore, Papa can get an architect to add a new room to the palace. What’s the word for a special room full of birds?”

“Aviary,” Arkadiya supplied. “You can ask him, but he might not be able to do that immediately. There are a lot of other things he needs to spend money on more than building an aviary for his pet child.”

Dina stood on her toes and unhooked a large golden cage with three sun conures in brilliant shades of orange and yellow. She set it on the ground and then unhooked another large gold cage, this one housing two macaws in eye-popping shades of sapphire blue. Before Arkadiya could do or say anything to protest, Eleonora unhooked a platinum cage of four parrots in alternating swathes of reddish-orange, blue, and yellow, followed by a silver cage of seven budgies in lovely pastel shades of blue, green, and yellow. Each cage had plenty of bird toys, a water dish, and birdseed.

“That’s all my daughters are getting today, Madame,” Arkadiya called to the bird vendor. “There’s only so much room in our car.”

“You have excellent taste, Your Imperial Highnesses,” the vendor told Dina and Eleonora. “All my birds are beautiful, but these are so much more eye-catching than most of my canaries, doves, lovebirds, and finches.”

“Can Shura have a bird too?” Dina asked. “She’ll be jealous of us if we have pretty birds and she doesn’t.”

“She’s only three and a half,” Arkadiya said. “Shura shouldn’t have any pets at her age.”

The bird vendor reached behind her stall and handed a large stuffed green parrot to the youngest child of the Tsar and Empress, who greatly resembled the murdered namesake she’d never know. “Will that be all today, Your Majesty?”

“Yes, those are all the birds my daughters need. These new pets will keep them busy for a long time to come.”

Eleonora and Dina counted out the money for their colorful birds, and Arkadiya produced the money for Shura’s stuffed animal. Without waiting to be signalled, the servants who’d accompanied the Empress and her daughters came forward to transport their parcels and the birdcages to the deluxe-sized Rolls–Royce they’d arrived in.

“Your business is always appreciated, Your Majesty. Enjoy the rest of your Maslenitsa, and tell His Majesty I hope he speedily recovers from his latest injury.”

“It’s only his bad knee again, nothing more serious or life-threatening, but I’ll pass along your well wishes,” Arkadiya said. “I wouldn’t have come here if he were severely injured.”

Dina and Eleonora climbed into the car as soon as Arkadiya joined them. The entire drive back to the Aleksandr Palace, they chattered to their birds and thought up names.

“Can we come back tomorrow to buy birds for Papa?” Dina asked.

“Doesn’t he have more than enough pets already?” Arkadiya asked gently. “He’d adopt an entire zoo’s worth of animals if he could.”

“Papa must feel like a bird in a cage when he’s sick,” Eleonora said. “He knows what other people can do, but he’s stuck.”

“We all learn to adapt to our circumstances and our own version of normal. Even when the body is confined, broad horizons are open to the mind and soul.” Arkadiya reached into the conures’ cage and gently stroked them. “And sometimes the most constricting cages are the ones we can’t see. It’s all a matter of perspective.”

2018 in review

From 31 December–5 January, all my e-books are on sale for 99 cents at Amazon and B&N! You can find the links here.

Though I always feel I could’ve done better, I’m quite happy to have finally had a six-figure NaNo. I’ve hit over 100K in so many non-NaNo months, but that wordcount always eluded me when it most counted. I’m a realistic overachiever, not a humble-bragger trying to win on Day One or aiming for a million words.

I finally finished Part I of A Dream Deferred, at 484K. So far, Part II is up to 172K, and I’m on Chapter 75, up to late August 1950. So far, I’m hopeful the first draft of Part II will be shorter than Part I.

Part II contains five chapters set in Japan (in full or part), as radical Katrin investigates the true aftermath of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and overall life under American occupation. As emotionally difficult as it is to research this aspect of Japanese history (possibly the most difficult subject I’ve ever researched, of all the macabre, depressing things I’ve chosen to write about), I loved the chance to finally use a Japanese setting.

Someday, I plan to write a few Japanese historicals, at least one set in the Heian era (794–1185, the last era of classical Japanese history). I’ve been a Nipponophile since age 14, the more traditional type (i.e., interested in history, language, culture, and religion instead of modern pop culture).

At the end of January, I finished the final draft of the book formerly known as The Very First (after believing for years it already ended where it needed to). I’m glad I added in two more chapters and an Epilogue. In 2019, after final polishing, I plan to release both it and the book formerly known as The Very Next.

I can’t wait to finally reveal their new and improved titles! I also came up with a better title for the book formerly known as The Very Last, inspired by a line in a Charlie Chaplin talkie.

I released my alternative history 17 July, on my protagonist’s real-life 100th death anniversary. I knew I should’ve gone back to it at least several months earlier, to avoid that mad race to the finish line by the deadline, which included final edits. I was embarrassed to catch a number of little errors post-publication (obviously corrected immediately). Never again!

From formatting four books for physical copies, I also learnt a very important lesson about inside margins based on page count and trim size. I only saw them onscreen, not in print, and so didn’t realise 0.7″ is on the tight side for 6×9, esp. with a high page count. I’ll be redoing Little Ragdoll with one-inch inside margins.

I also learnt about the importance of double-checking the left and right headers are correct! Odd pages (including the first page of any book) are always on the right, and evens are always on the left.

I released my second Russian historical on 6 September, after having it finished for years. It just needed one final polishing. I also released Journey Through a Dark Forest, the third book with my Russian characters, on 11 December, in four volumes.

Additionally, I designed a new and improved cover for my first Russian historical. It was a big mistake to use my own artwork for the original 2014 cover, though those were probably the best human figures I ever drew! I also made some changes to the text, for a fourth edition.

In 2018, my Top 10 most-viewed posts were:

“A primer on Russian names” (2,901 views)
“No, I will not get sucked into the cult of Arbonne!” (1,899 views)
“Favorite Decameron stories, Part I” (1,438 views)
“Writing an arm amputee character” (1,226 views)
“The importance of stylistic consistency” (769 views)
“Why I HATED The Book Thief (644 views)
“A primer on Tatar names” (596 views)
“A primer on Yiddish names” (590 views)
“A primer on Albanian names” (496 views)
“A primer on Occitan names” (422 views)

The first four posts are also my most-viewed posts of all time, to date. It’s not even close between the first two, 41,553 to 7,415. I still want nothing to do with Arbonne or any other MLMs!

WeWriWa—How it should’ve ended

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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. I’ve been sharing from my alternative history, And Aleksey Lived, which released 17 July, on my primary protagonist’s real-life 100th death anniversary. Once I’ve earned enough money from sales, I’ll use some of it to make donations to the National Hemophilia Foundation and the National Hemophilia Federation, in memory of Aleksey.

This will be the last sample I’ll share from this book for awhile. These are the final lines, from the second section of the short Epilogue. Like the end of the main text of my magnum opus Cinnimin, it’s also based on the wording of Deuteronomy 34, the final chapter of the Torah. Those final paragraphs always give me goosebumps.

The time had come for Aleksey to die.  He was one hundred years old at the time of his death, his eyesight undimmed, his mind as sharp as ever, his intellect unabated, his overwhelming sense of compassion as strong as it’d been throughout his whole life.  He and his belovèd Arkadiya breathed their last breaths together, holding hands.  Just as Arkadiya had always promised, she’d made it to one hundred seven to ensure Aleksey survived a full century.

The Imperial Family bewailed their passing for forty days and forty nights, in keeping with Russian Orthodox tradition, unable to believe the couple who’d led their empire for so many decades was suddenly no more.

The period of mourning for Aleksey and Arkadiya came to an end.  Following the period of mourning, Yarik was coronated.  Now Yarik was filled with the spirit of wisdom and compassion, because of the lifelong example he’d gotten from his parents; and since he was cut from the same cloth as his father, the people of Russia heeded him and did as he said.

Never again did there arise a leader like Tsar Aleksey II, called Tsar Aleksey the Savior, who was the most compassionate, intelligent, humane, enlightened Tsar who ever lived; lived through ten decades of history; survived longer than any other hemophiliac; who was snatched from certain Death the month before his fourteenth birthday by a last-minute miracle; and who demonstrated a powerful harnessing of might and compassion before all the peoples of the world.