Ready. Set. Write! Week Two



Alison MillerKaty UppermanJaime Morrow, and Erin Funk are once again hosting the summerlong Ready. Set. Write! initiative. Each week there will be a few headings, with short responses to allow for more writing time.

  • How I did on last week’s goal(s)

Baruch Hashem, I finished up my book cover, figured out how to edit in the title and byline using Gimp instead of waiting a day to use my father’s Photoshop, and had everything ready by my release date of the 20th. That was the largest artwork I did since I was sixteen. I also finished up the last little bits of stuff in the Appendices and “The Story Behind the Story.”

  • My goal(s) for this week

Get my vendor account verified with Nook so I can put Little Ragdoll up there. I’ve already registered everything else, and went through a quick, steep learning curve with Calibre and the EPUB format. I replaced the Kindle ISBN with the EPUB ISBN, temporarily changed the text into Times New Roman (the least of the three evils allowed), and went through the document to put in section instead of page breaks for chapters.

  • A favorite line from my story OR a word or phrase that sums up what I wrote/revised

I put a few more paragraphs into “The Story Behind the Story.” One of those paragraphs talks about the jaw-droppingly horrifying, depressing original version of Julie (née Karin). Here’s a typical sweet, sincere Julie moment:

“You mean watch television?” Julie asks excitedly. “Sure, I’d watch anything on television, even if it was just a station pattern!”

  • The biggest challenge I faced this week

It was seriously ridiculous how long it took to figure out how to get to the option of “Remove space between paragraphs” in Calibre! I had to delete the book from my Calibre several times, and replace the manuscript at Nook even more times, on my way to figuring out how to get rid of all that unnecessary space which was added in the EPUB conversion. Baruch Hashem, I’ve been around computers for 30 years, almost as long as I can remember, so this kind of stuff is ultimately fun to learn and figure out, even if it sometimes takes a few hours to learn a new skill.

  • Something I love about my WIP

I love how all the characters developed in distinct, much-better ways when I went back from scratch and memory 16.5 years later. Probably the most stunning transformations were those of oldest sister Gemma and spoilt little brother Tommy, who both end up redeeming themselves. Gemma sacrifices herself in that forced marriage to an abusive man at age eighteen, knowing she’ll eventually escape and show her little sisters they don’t have to have that same fate, while Tommy grows up more slowly.

The Sacrifice of Gemma (Skia)


Font: Skia (Greek for “shadow”)

Year created: 1994

Chapter: “The Sacrifice of Gemma”

Book: Little Ragdoll

Written: 4-7 December 2010

Computer created on: 2008 15-inch MacBook Pro

File format: Word 2004

I really, really had been hoping to have finished Justine Grown Up by now so I could spotlight “Sing Blue Silver Snowstorm” on the S day, but I feel I made the right call to put that WIP on hiatus. But if you happened to be at the Duran Duran show in Hartford on 13 March 1984, “please, please tell me now!” I’d love to interview you so I can get firsthand details for the dramatic penultimate chapter.

So I went with Chapter 10 of Little Ragdoll. Oldest sister Gemma takes the lead here for the first time in the book. In the book’s earlier incarnation, Gemma was some one-dimensional snobby bitch who deserved to be forcibly married to some much-older abusive man. But in recasting these events so many years later, I really began to feel for her, and she emerged as a sympathetic character.

After she underhandedly divorced Francesco and aired all their dirty laundry at a family gathering in Part II, she was not permanently written out as I’d originally planned. I’d grown to kind of admire and like her, and wanted her to fulfill her deferred dream of going to college and to someday marry for love and have children she wanted. Given the circumstances she’s been raised in, the oldest of nine unplanned children in a poor Lower East Side family, how could I hate her for wanting to get above her raising and spending all her free time working or with her friends? And it was just juvenile how I’d hated her for being a cheerleader. Stereotyping much?

Some highlights, so to speak:

“Whose car is that parked outside our tenement?” Gemma asks as they’re walking up Essex Street. “It’s not bad. You think we have a new neighbor?”

When they get to their tenement on the eighth floor, a greasy-looking man with a cold, hard face is standing in the living room and talking to their parents and Mrs. Troy’s former co-worker Mrs. Rossi from the third floor.  He turns to Gemma and smiles at her in a way that makes her sick to her stomach and gives her a foreboding of something very bad about to happen.

“Get used to saying, writing, and spelling it, since you’re gonna be saying and writing it a lot in the near future,” Francesco smiles. “Don’t you modern women wear clothes anymore?  I don’t want my future wife walking around wearing a bikini.  Go put some decent clothes on.” He walks over to her and smacks her on the behind very loudly. “Hustle it up, woman.”

“You heard your future master, girl.  Go to your room, change outta that revealing thing, and put on decent clothes,” Mr. Troy says.

“No woman of mine is gonna go to college.” Francesco spits on the floor, narrowly missing one of the chickens, who’ve finally begun to lay a few eggs. “What kind of disreputable institution is this that they admit girls?  Next thing you know, they’ll be teachin’ cows to drive!”

“I don’t approve of higher education for women.” Francesco slaps her on the behind again. “Nor do I approve of bikinis.  After you change, I’ll go through all your clothes and pick out the stuff I won’t allow you to bring to our new home together.”

Francesco smiles a partly toothless grin at her when she emerges.  Gemma wants to vomit when he coarsely grabs her face and forces a French kiss on her.  While this is happening, her parents and Mrs. Rossi are standing by without saying a word or even moving to pull Francesco off her.  Suddenly her happy day at the Hamilton Fish Park Pool seems like a distant memory that happened to someone else entirely.

Gemma stifles another urge to vomit. “I know I’ve said I’d like to marry an older guy, but I meant five or six years older, not twenty years older!  He’s old enough to be my father!”

“I saw posters on your walls and records next to your bed,” Francesco says, spitting on the floor again. “Those won’t be coming with you when you move in with me.  Elvis can’t sing or act his way out of a paper bag, and the only man you need to be dreaming about will be me, not Elvis, William Holden, Cary Grant, or Rock Hudson.  You won’t even have time to go to the movies or listen to your trash records when you’re running a household and birthing babies.”

Gemma grabs the papers and rushes into her room.  Her stomach lurches when she opens the box.  Francesco bought her a bunch of ugly, utilitarian, grandma-style bras and underwear, presumably to replace the pretty ones she has now.  The list of demands is handwritten in very sloppy printing.  Gemma isn’t too surprised to find Francesco doesn’t know how to write cursive, though she thinks her youngest sisters can print better than that, despite being at least thirty years his junior.

Lucine can’t decide whether to laugh or cry as she starts reading. “He wants you to clip his fingernails and toenails, brush his hair, bathe him, dress him, and light his cigarettes?”

“It doesn’t matter what the mother superior thinks.  She’s only a woman,” Father Raimundo says coldly. “I override her.  Why I could order all the nuns to walk around naked down Houston Street, and they’d have to obey me.”

Gemma grins and bears it as she’s walked down the aisle by her father, knowing she really is literally being given away to become Francesco’s property.  There’s nothing she can do about it now but plot revenge while pretending to smile and keep sweet.

Letting Go Bloghop


My Alpha Male post is here.

To celebrate the release of her new adult contemporary romance novella If I Let You Go, Kyra Lennon is holding a bloghop with the theme of letting go. The winner will receive a $10 Amazon gift card. (And I love that font! It reminds me a bit of a slightly less-fancy version of my favorite fancy font, Edwardian Script.)

Here’s my entry, originally 892 words and edited down to 498.

I got the idea for my contemporary historical Bildungsroman Little Ragdoll in May of ’93, when I first heard the famous story behind The Four Seasons’ song “Rag Doll.”  In July, I began working on it.

In those days, I usually didn’t break up my books into smaller files.  I learnt a very valuable lesson when some kind of disk bug struck in the Spring of ’94.  I was so devastated I stopped working on it.

I carried Adicia’s story around in my head for years, always feeling I’d finish it someday.  In the intervening years, I even thought up Betsy van Niftrik and her parents.

Years passed, and computers no longer had disk drives.  And the newest Mac word processing program, AppleWorks, couldn’t open MacWriteII or ClarisWorks files.

I finally bit the bullet in November 2010, after having several dreams about it.  So many things came back to me, like Sarah.  It was meant to be, if I could carry that story around in my subconscious for 16.5 years.

Because I let go of my obsession with needing to have the original first draft to work from, I was able to craft a much stronger, more mature story, and take it in directions I never could’ve dreamt of at all of 13-14.

A few months after finishing the 397,000-word first draft, the discontinued original first draft was miraculously resurrected.  I’ve been thankful ever since that it was lost for so many years.  I needed to be forced to let go of it in order to take the story in the direction it needed to go.  I’d grown so much as a writer, and I wouldn’t have been served well to crawl back to the past.

There’s no way I could’ve salvaged a halfway-decent story from that mess.  The only things that remained the same were the names, ages, and basic outline.  Losing it let me do things like:

  • Make oldest sister Gemma more nuanced and sympathetic, instead of some queen bitch.
  • Significantly tone down youngest brother Tommy’s spoilt brattiness.  Now he grows very slowly over the 15 years of the story, and his major redeeming feature is his colorblindness.
  • Give Allen and Lenore’s love story more buildup, instead of getting them together so soon.
  • Put in some new characters and subplots, like Marjani, the mystery of who Julie’s mother is, and oldest brother Carlos’s trial.

As emotionally difficult and frustrating as it is, every writer should have that experience of a total rewrite at least once.  Sometimes a draft is so awful that you have to scrap it and reconstruct it almost completely.  Now down to 387,000 words (would’ve been a bit shorter if I hadn’t needed to write in left-handedness for a bunch of characters), this is one of the books I’m proudest of having written.

It was truly a combination of letting go and being unable to move on.  They existed alongside one another and made the final product stronger.



My Childhood Monster Blogfest post is here.

Since Lucine is going to be featured in posts on the next two Saturdays, it’s an ideal time to have a post spotlighting the second-born of the six Troy sisters.

Lucine Camille Troy (later Troy-Martel) was born 20 January 1946, the fourth-born of the nine Troy children, and lived in the Lower East Side till late June 1962. Throughout her life, Lucine is very much a substitute mother figure to her four younger sisters. She was a year and a half old when her black-hearted mother took 20-year-old German Shoah survivor Sarah Katz into their household as an exploited live-in nanny and servant. After this point, Mrs. Troy had no more to do with the raising of her children, except eighth-born Tommy, her especial pet.

Lucine always highly values education and the written word, and longs to have a real education and to go to college someday. She also longs to have friends and to do things with other teenagers. That chance comes when her parents try to forcibly marry her off the same way they did to oldest sister Gemma in 1960.

In the discontinued original first draft, Lucine’s intended was a 21-year-old weirdo and scuzzbag Greek immigrant named Nikolas Pappadoras. Lucine was also 15, not 16, when this forced marriage was being arranged. In the new version, the scumbag would-be husband became a 35-year-old drug dealer and furniture salesman named Jacob DeLuise. His name is a combination of two of the jerks who bullied me in junior high. (This is part of the reason why my characters Jakob DeJonghe and Jakob Gerber have their names spelt with a K, and why I always use the K spelling when writing about my favorite of the Biblical Patriarchs. The C spelling reminds me too much of that little POS, whom I hope to God isn’t teaching his little girl to bully those who are different.)

After Gemma stages a public scene, in which she lets loose with all her grievances about her abusive husband, his creepy, controlling family, and the unwanted role of housewife, wife, and mother she’s been forced into, Lucine takes courage and runs away. She’s been packing to run away anyway, but when degenerate oldest brother Carlos accidentally causes a massive fire that destroys the entire tenement, she gets the idea to use the fire to make her parents believe she died. None of her siblings can breathe a word to their parents that Lucine is alive, well, and uptown. Mr. and Mrs. Troy don’t discover the truth till 1974, in the hiatused second book.

Lucine has grown up walking to Midtown with Sarah and her sisters to see the Rockefeller Christmas tree, to window-shop at Macy’s and on 5th Avenue, and to see all the beautiful, historic buildings of Midtown. She knows it’s a long walk, but she has no other choice. After she says goodbye to her younger sisters and one decent brother Allen at Tompkins Square Park, she begins walking from the Lower East Side to Midtown, armed with only her suitcase and memory. Her plan is to go into the first church she sees as it starts getting dark.

The church she ends up selecting is called The Episcopal Church of Christ Our Friend and Savior, run by the sympathetic, liberal Father Warren and Mrs. Iris Murphy, a childless couple in their early forties. The Murphys have compensated for their childlessness by running a boarding school for disadvantaged young women in Yorkville. Sometimes they sponsor their girls and give them full scholarships. Mrs. Murphy is about to go home for the evening when she sees Lucine, and is moved to take her home and enroll her in the school on a full sponsorship.

Not only that, but when they find out that Gemma left her son Giovanni behind and that he’s at the Bowery Mission, they decide to adopt him. I’d originally planned to write out both Gemma and her unwanted baby at this point, but something in me couldn’t abandon either of them. This time around, Gemma was a much better-developed character whom I started feeling a lot of sympathy for. So Giovanni is able to grow up knowing his birth family, though he never thinks of the Murphys as anything other than his real parents. He knows Gemma was his first mommy, but that she wasn’t in a position to be a mother at the time and did the noble, selfless thing by giving him to a couple longing for a child. (Gemma’s odious ex-husband Francesco signs away his rights without a battle, since he wants nothing more to do with Gemma after she humiliated him so thoroughly.)

After high school, Lucine goes to Hunter College and eventually gets a master’s degree in social work. During her final year at Hunter, she meets a fellow French-American, Zachary Martel, whom she marries in the fall of 1970, shortly after graduation. They move to Hudson Falls, and eventually have three children, Simone Juliette (b. Halloween 1972), Alice Sandrine (b. February 1975), and Frédéric Daniel (Freddie) (b. 1977). Her two daughters are southpaws, though she and Zachary are right-handed. The Troys run to left-handedness, and Lucine is one of four siblings who didn’t get the southpaw gene.

Lucine also becomes a devout Episcopal, thanks in part to the example of her benefactors. She’s been interested in church for awhile, but never had the opportunity in a family that hopped from church to church every Christmas and Easter. I suppose I chose Episcopalianism because that’s one of the more liberal denominations. If I were a Christian, I’d probably choose the Metropolitan Community Church (which didn’t exist in 1962), Unitarianism, or Episcopalianism, even though I’m most familiar with Catholicism.

Last but not least, Lucine does not ever go by Lucy, and bristles when Jacob tries to call her that. The Troys aren’t a big nickname family. The only nicknames I can think of are for Tommy, Adicia’s firstborn Robbie, Ernestine’s firstborn Johnny, and Justine’s firstborn Teddy.

Twilight sleep



(Originally written for the Blogging from A to Z April, then I decided to be consistent and have every letter be about a character.)

For a long time I vaguely knew that women in America used to be put to sleep during birth, and that that practice slowly started fading out during the Seventies. Even after I started reading about natural childbirth and the history of hospital birth in my early twenties, I still didn’t know the entire truth about the horrific twilight sleep era.

Women for at least 50 years had no memory of giving birth, were tied down with lamb’s wool restraints, put in straitjackets, not allowed to have any friends or family in the birthing room, all sorts of horrific abuses. It makes me so sad to think my own grandmothers must’ve been victims of twilight sleep, and didn’t even question it, since this was the era of “doctor knows best.” I think I threw up in my mouth a little when I was reading Ernestine Gilbreth Carey’s Rings Around Us and she seriously called her OB “that precious, God-like man.” Given that she gave birth in 1938 and 1942, the odds are that she was a victim of twilight sleep and that that “precious, God-like man” let all this happen to her.

Needless to say, I’m glad my primary genre of choice is 20th century historical fiction, so I’ve been able to encorporate awareness of this thankfully discontinued practice into certain of my books, in a way that fits with the storyline and characters. It’s definitely not just stuck in there to push my own views. It always has something to do with the story.

In Little Ragdoll, oldest sister Gemma is completely traumatized by her ordeal with twilight sleep (in addition to being forced to see a male doctor). Ever since she had her birth son Giovanni in June 1961, she’s been unable to stop telling anyone and everyone about how she was mistreated in the hospital. Her mother, the black-hearted Mrs. Troy, and all the women in her abusive, unwanted first husband Francesco’s family think she needs to shut up and know her place, but Gemma’s five little sisters, her one decent brother Allen, and her former nanny Sarah (who’s little more than an exploited live-in slave) are very moved and inspired by the horror stories she’s told. This makes all of them want to seek out natural childbirths, and since midwifery, homebirth, and natural childbirth started coming back into fashion during the Sixties and Seventies, it fits perfectly with the historical timeline.

In my Russian novels, radical Katrin is an enthusiastic proponent of twilight sleep. Like many feminists of the era, she views it as a basic women’s right and 20th century progress. She hates some of the things that are considered hospital routine, like unwanted episiotomies and her babies being fed sugar water when they’re in the nursery, but she accepts it as the price to pay for being a modern woman.

Kat also embraces twilight sleep, since her mother had 15 daughters and almost lost her mind on account of so many pregnancies, labors, and children. Kat is quite displeased when her third birth (a third set of twins) has to be at home because she hasn’t been working and her intellectual, head in the clouds husband Nikolas doesn’t earn enough money to afford another two-week hospital stay.

Anastasiya, the nicer of the two antagonists of the first two books, is quite upset when she gets pregnant from a drunken one-night stand in Paris and is forced by Katrin to birth at home to avoid a scandal. Even when she’s in labor, she’s still in denial about the situation and is trying to come up with all sorts of ways to go to a hospital anyway or have twilight sleep snuck in.

Here, largely taken from the explanations midwife/former nurse Veronica Zoravkov gives Lenore, her sisters-in-law, and her friends in Little Ragdoll:

On what planet is it not considered abusive to tie a laboring woman down to the delivery bed, wrap her head in gauze, not let her see her own baby for four days, give her a shot drying up her milk, let her lie in her own filth for hours and give her drugs to slow labor because the doctor wants to go out to eat and see a movie, and give her a combination of morphine and scopolamine so she has amnesia in addition to pain relief?

Scopolamine isn’t an unsafe drug, in certain circumstances, and with the proper doses.  But when mixed with morphine, and given to a pregnant woman, it can be very dangerous.  Some women bled to death after giving birth because they got too much, and many babies born to women under twilight sleep came out groggy or not breathing, or even stillborn.  The combination of these two drugs induced a tranquilized, amnesiac state in which a woman couldn’t remember feeling any pain but remained conscious. A lot of twilight sleep babies had to be delivered with mid to high forceps since their mothers didn’t have the ability to push properly when under the effects of those drugs.

Twilight sleep was created in Germany shortly before the First World War and called Dämmerschlaf.  Some wealthy American women went abroad to deliver their babies in the German clinics that offered it, and raved about it when they came home.  There was a whole league formed to promote it, and at the time it was seen as a very important issue in the struggle for equal rights for women.  Even prominent feminists supported it, like Mary Ware Dennett, a pioneer in the birth control movement.

MWD wrote a very popular pamphlet called ‘The Sex Side of Life: An Explanation for Young People,’ educating young people about human reproduction and how physical intimacy between a man and a woman who are married and in love is a beautiful, natural thing.  They felt being free of pain during childbirth, which had a higher death rate in those days, was a very important right.  MWD herself had three very painful deliveries and lost her husband because she’d been cautioned not to have another child.  There really wasn’t anything except chastity to prevent that in those days.

What these women didn’t know was that while they were in that amnesiac state, they also lost their inhibitions due to the drugs.  Doctors and nurses tied them down to the beds and put gauze over their heads because they often thrashed around.  They were still feeling pain, even if they couldn’t remember it.  Sometimes they were given earplugs so they didn’t wake themselves up with their screaming.  A lot of women were given a shot to dry up their breastmilk while still in that amnesiac state.

The only husbands admitted to delivery rooms were the husbands of women with a lot of money, or doctors whose wives were patients.  The vast majority had to wait in the so-called Stork Club, the waiting room for husbands.  The average man waiting in the Stork Club had no idea what was happening to his wife, and she of course wouldn’t be able to tell him what happened to her, since she had no memory of it.