Posted in 1940s, Fourth Russian novel, Historical fiction, Sonyechka/Sonya Koneva

WeWriWa—Run over at the rink


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, I’m shifting to Chapter 52, “Lyuba’s Golden Jubilee,” of my WIP, A Dream Deferred: Lyuba and Ivan at UniversityIt’s December 1949, and the Konevs have gone to New York City to celebrate Lyuba’s 50th birthday. Lyuba, Ivan, and their youngest daughters are staying at the Waldorf–Astoria.

While Lyuba and Ivan spend the day before Lyuba’s birthday with their friends and relatives, their daughters Irina and Sonyechka go skating at Rockefeller Center with cousins and family friends their age. Sonyechka, who’s just turned eleven, is having a great time until she encounters a very rude skater.

Sonyechka raises her right leg to copy the more advanced skaters gliding along on one foot, and leans forward as far as she can. She then tries copying the jumps she sees, making sure to stay as low to the ice as possible. Most of the time, she lands on two feet, or very shakily and sloppily. She’s thinking about how to execute a one-footed spin with one leg out, in a crouching position, when a boy about Irina’s age knocks her forwards onto the ice and proceeds to skate over her right hand. Sonyechka’s hand throbs in agony, blood gushing from it.

“Why don’t you watch where you’re going?” an unfamiliar voice shouts in a Russian accent. “Skate into someone your own size!”

“Accidents happen,” the guilty party calls as he skates off.

Posted in Writing

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?

Posted in Historical fiction, Writing

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.

Posted in Historical fiction, Writing

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.

Posted in Historical fiction, Writing

Writing about ice-skating in historical fiction, Part I

My favourite vintage skating photo in my virtual collection so far!

Humans have been ice-skating since at least 3000 BCE, as evidenced by animal bone skating shoes found in present-day Russia and Scandinavia. The first written record of skating came in the 12th century, describing children in Canterbury, England, playing on the ice with animal bones attached to their boots.

Edges came in the 13th or 14th century, by whom else but the skating-loving Dutch. For the first time, the blades attached to footwear were steel instead of bone. About the same time, blades took on proportions very close to their modern ones.

Skating first appeared in artwork in the 15th century, depicting the Dutch St. Lidwina, patron saint of ice-skaters, falling on the ice. This fall broke her leg and left her progressively disabled for life.

Then as now, the Dutch people loved ice-skating. Historical records and artwork testify to people from all walks of life enjoying the winter sport. Many people also skated as a means of transportation, since connecting waterways were often frozen for months.

In other places, only members of the upper classes were allowed to skate. Skating came to France during the reign of Louis XVI, and Emperor Rudolf II of the Holy Roman Empire loved it so much, a large ice carnival was built in his court in 1610 to popularize it.

Skating slowly began taking on its modern form in the 18th century. In 1742, the Edinburgh Skating Club became the very first ice-skating association, and in 1772, the very first instructional book, A Treatise on Skating, was published by Robert Jones in London.

Jones, a former artillery lieutenant, was instrumental in popularizing ice-skating in Great Britain. Sadly, his book was published the same year as a high-profile trial in which he was convicted of sodomizing a 12-year-old boy several times. His death sentence was commuted by King George III, on condition he leave Britain forever.

Jones’s book was intended only for men, as British women typically didn’t ice-skate in that era, even without all the jumps we expect today. This book also split ice-skating into its two main forms, figure skating and speed skating.

The next major development was the opening of several skating ponds in Central Park. This became the highlight of the winter social season for the upper classes. The first skating pond opened in 1858, and reignited New Yorkers’ interest in the sport. Earlier skating ponds downtown had long since been built over.

People who didn’t live within walking distance took carriages and horse-drawn railway cars. Sex segregation quickly disappeared, and skating became one of the few things single men and women could do together unchaperoned.

The sport’s growing popularity led to further skating ponds in Brooklyn, Staten Island, Jersey City, and Hoboken. In 1863, the Skating Club of New York was founded.

Park commissioners opened the ponds when 4–5 inches of ice had built up. When they felt it was safe to hold thousands of skaters at a time, they raised a red ball by the belltower, just south of the reservoir. “The ball is up” became code for a skating day, and created a great to-do.

The city railroad cars also signified skating days by flying white flags with red balls on the end of each vehicle. Some cars falsely displayed flags to attract customers.

Many surrounding buildings rented skates and provided fires to warm up by. On the southern side of the main pond, the “rude but comfortable” Casino (run by Charles A. Stetson, owner of luxury hotel The Astor House) sold hot cocoa, beer, and cream soda. For a quarter or less, skaters could also get cakes, fried oysters, clam chowder, pickled tongue, and sandwiches.

Other park restaurants catered to a less moneyed clientele.

Unsurprisingly, the haves soon backed away from rubbing elbows with the have-nots and suffering the crowds of Central Park. In 1862, they moved to the Fifth Avenue Pond, Manhattan’s first private skating pond.

To be continued.