Posted in 1940s, Contests, Writing

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.”

Posted in 2000s, Aleksey Romanov, Writing

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.

Posted in Aleksey Romanov, Writing

We write books as they’re meant to be written

While I was cramming in my final edits for my alternative history, to have it ready by its 17 July release date, I realized I should’ve gone back to it at least two months earlier. Not only would that have given me the leisure of more time to perfect it, without being so under the gun, but it also would’ve given me time for more radical rewrites and expansions of certain sections.

I wrote this book wildly out of order, with the exception of most of Part IV. I went back and forth between the four parts and different chapters. Part I in particular was very emotionally grueling. All I could think about was that most of these people were murdered in real life, never had these miraculous rescues and happy endings. To avoid being overwhelmed by emotions, I wouldn’t let myself become emotionally close to them.

Parts I and II are rather short; after changing the leading from 2 to 1 and the typeface from Palatino to Baskerville, Part I is only 93 pages, and Part II is 122. In comparison, Part III is 203 and Part IV is 288. Were I only starting this book now, or had I written it in order, without that fear of becoming too emotional to write, I definitely would’ve covered more ground in Parts I and II.

But then I think about how it shows the progression of a life, from age 13–40 (not counting the one-page Epilogue), with all that entails. If Part I had more chapters and covered more events during that first year after Aleksey’s rescue, and if Part II went into more detail about his life and humanitarian relief work in Paris, or the training he receives to rule in his own right after coming home, the book would be even longer than it already is.

Not only that, but the focus would be too rambling, not on the most important events in the storyline. I also like how it naturally builds, becoming more detailed, until finally the climactic Part IV. Everything that came before was in preparation for that greatest act of heroism.

I removed the clunkiest, most obnoxious, most emotionally distant God-mode passages, but I kept or reworked other passages which are in more of an old-fashioned voice than I’ve developed into. In a saga-length book, sometimes it’s necessary to summarize the events of a longer period. It’s not that they’re unimportant, but rather that it’d slow the main narrative down if they were featured in detail.

Part I takes place in a very disconnected period. Everyone’s head is so full of clutter, trying to readjust to a normal world when they’ll never be normal again. So many disparate thoughts are rattling around in Aleksey’s mind, along with the feeling he’s not quite in reality anymore. On top of that, he’s wracked by nightmares, and forced to adopt a much more restrictive life.

He’s physically restricted, either by necessity or choice, and doesn’t have many outside friends. Another consideration was that I didn’t want too much focus on his sisters. How many books have been written about them so far?

He also says many times he was only half-living till he found his wife Arkadiya. The first 25 years of his life were preparation for meeting her and realizing the greatest happiness of his life. His life has meaning because his Arya loves him. Everything in his life, he owes to this most unusual of all Empresses. She awoke his full potential as Emperor.

Greatly expanding or radically changing Parts I and II would’ve made this a completely different story. It’s possible I’ll someday expand them as their own separate spin-off volumes, but I like how the story shows an overall progression to greater and greater detail and intensity.

We can only write each line, scene, section, chapter, part, volume, book, series in that exact way once, and then never again. We write them the way they were meant to be written, even allowing for later revisions. There are so many books I never could’ve written that well, or at all, at another date.

Posted in 1930s, Aleksey Romanov, Arkadiya Gagarina, Writing

WeWriWa—The yearly nightmare

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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.

This snippet takes place in the middle of the night on 17 July 1930, on the eve of a memorial service for Aleksey’s parents. Aleksey and his newlywed wife Arkadiya, who’s now seven months pregnant, have relocated to the suburb of Peterhof to get away from the worst of the summer heat. They’re staying in Znamenka, an estate that’s part of a large complex of palaces, whose owners are now Grand Duchess Anastasiya, her husband Prince Roman Petrovich, and their surviving children.

This night proves to be Arkadiya’s first disturbed night of sleep, as she discovers her new husband is wracked by nightmares every year on this date.

“You’re safe with me, golubchik,” she soothed him as she stroked his sweaty auburn hair. “I can guess what you dreamt.”

“The same nightmare I always have on this date, at exactly this time.” His voice shook. “The White soldiers don’t get into the cellar in time to save me, and the murderers chase my sisters around the room with bayonets before shooting them in their heads.  Then the ringleader tries to stab me with a bayonet, and shoots me in the head when he can’t get past the jewels sewn into my undershirt.  If not for those jewels, my sisters and I would’ve been dead for twelve years.”

Arkadiya laid her head on his chest. “If I could take those bad memories and nightmares away from you, I would.  You didn’t deserve to almost be murdered at thirteen.”

Sometimes, the greatest heroes are those no one expects.

Aleksey, the miraculously rescued boy Tsar, knows he may not have a long life, but he’s determined to do all he can, as long as he’s alive, to bring his empire into the modern era and rule with love. But since real life isn’t a fairytale, there are a number of obstacles standing in his way.

Aleksey’s uncle Mikhail, his regent and guardian, radically transforms into a revenge-minded autocrat, and expects him to rule with the same iron fist. Mikhail’s behavior as Regent alienates and horrifies an increasing number of people.

As much as Aleksey wants to take power and start making everything right, he’s held back by his youth and inexperience. In order to gain real-world experience outside palace walls, he heads off to the Sorbonne for four years. After graduation, he begins co-ruling with his uncle.

Shortly before his twenty-fifth birthday, Aleksey is finally compelled onto the throne in his own right. Determined to endear himself to the people and demonstrate how modern and compassionate he is, he begins granting sweeping reforms. However, before he can be formally coronated, he’s ordered to find an Empress.

Arkadiya Gagarina is the least-likely Empress anyone could imagine. Not only is she a morganatic princess, but she’s also seven years older than Aleksey, walks with a limp, and carries several large, hidden burn scars. Regardless, Aleksey wants her and no one else.

Aleksey’s choice of a bride endears him even further to the people, and the reigning couple’s popularity increases even more with the birth of their first child. But just when it seems like Russia has finally come into the modern era, the biggest challenge yet comes when another war breaks out.

And thus begins the most heroic act of his life.

Posted in 1920s, Arkadiya Gagarina, Writing

WeWriWa—No shame in imperfections

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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 releases 17 July, on my primary protagonist’s real-life 100th death anniversary.

This week’s snippet comes a bit after last week’s, when soon-to-be-Empress Arkadiya began looking at fashion books and magazines with her future sister-in-law Tatyana, to get ideas for her wedding gown. Tatyana has explained each style of neckline and sleeve, and Arkadiya has said she’d prefer not to show her arms. Though the engagement photographs printed all over the world showed the burn scars on her arms, she wants to pretend everyone has forgotten about that.

Arkadiya also references the limp in her right leg, and the additional burn scars on her stomach and abdomen. She laments how she’ll be such a blemished bride.

Tatyana put her hand on Arkadiya’s left arm. “Everyone in this world who’s lived outside of a glass bubble has scars of some sort, be they physical, emotional, or mental.  Many people who appear physically unblemished are deeply scarred where no one can see it.  After what my siblings and I escaped, and what we saw, our hearts, souls, and minds have been riddled by scars we can never get rid of.  These scars make us who we are, and tell stories of survival.  Hiding them and pretending to be perfect gives a false impression.  There’s no shame in having an imperfect body or state of mind.  That’s one of the reasons Sunbeam likes you so much, because you’re not perfect, and have known suffering on a personal level just like he has.”