My 2017 A to Z themes revealed

Continuing my tradition of themes related to my writing, this year I’m featuring places and things from my WIP, The Strongest Branches of Uprooted Trees, and its sequels (each following a different group of characters), Sweet Miracles and Rebuilding the RemnantsBranches in turn begins with three of the characters from The Natural Splash of a Living Being escaping a death march, while Splash continues without them.

Branches is set in locales including Abony, Budapest, Florence, Paris, Béziers, Montpellier, and NantesSweet Miracles follows the characters who immigrate to Newark in November 1948 (the name taken from the mousery and rabbitry one of the couples starts), and Remnants follows the characters who immigrate to Israel after the British are finally gone.

You’ll learn about topics like:

Dohány Utca Synagogue, the Great Synagogue of Budapest and one of the largest in the world, which Eichmann used as his headquarters during the Nazi occupation.

Jewish Newark, which is now sadly just a fading memory. In the mid-twentieth century, Newark had the sixth-largest Jewish community in the U.S., with countless synagogues, schools, bakeries, cemeteries, and other communal institutions.

Machal, the all-volunteer fighting force from abroad which helped Israel to win its War of Independence.

La Samaritaine, a historic department store in Paris.

Hashomer Hatzair, a Socialist–Zionist youth group which supported a binational state. (Contrary to what many people on the modern-day Left believe, it’s very possible to be both a Socialist and Zionist without any conflicts!)

Vailsburg, a Newark neighborhood which now has a much different character than it did at mid-century. It includes a former movie palace which today serves as a church.

Košice, Slovakia, the hometown of my character Artur Sklar and Slovakia’s next-largest city. It was also the first European settlement to get a coat of arms.

Ospedale di Santa Maria Nuova, Florence’s oldest hospital, founded by the father of Dante’s love Beatrice.

Basilica di Santa Croce, an impressive complex that’s so more than just a church. It contains Dante’s empty tomb, waiting for Ravenna to return his bones already.

Neology, a uniquely Hungarian denomination that’s akin to Liberal Modern Orthodox Judaism.

Tempio Maggiore Israelitico di Firenze, the breathtaking Great Synagogue of Florence, which was saved from Nazi destruction in 1944 by brave members of the Italian Resistance. They managed to diffuse almost all of the explosives left by the retreating occupiers.

University of Montpellier, one of the oldest universities in the world, and home to the world’s oldest med school still in operation.

Pasarét, a Bauhaus neighborhood on the Buda side of Budapest.

Gellért Hill, a beautiful, storied hill on the Buda side, with lovely outlooks of the entire city.

Lower Galilee, a beautiful, peaceful region I hope to someday live in, far from the maddening rush of the big cities, and with wonderful interfaith relations. You’ll learn the story behind the most bizarre grave I’ve ever seen!

Several letters have two or three topics, but I kept everything within my usual average of 400–800 words. All non-public domain photographs are properly credited. Since I’ve been to the Lower Galilee, many of those photographs are my own work.


My names blog will feature (mostly) names from Greek mythology. Since the Greek alphabet doesn’t have certain letters, I found mythological names from other cultures for those days. In the interest of fairness, I always do both a female and male name on each day.

Yekaterinburg, Russia


Ipatyev House, prior to its destruction

Yekaterinburg, Russia’s fourth-largest city, straddles the border between Europe and Asia. It was founded in 1723 by Vasiliy Nikitich Tatishchev and Georg Wilhelm de Gennin, and named after Peter the Great’s second wife, Yekaterina (Catherine) I. In 1796, it received town status. From 1924–91, it was renamed Sverdlovsk, after Bolshevik leader Yakov Mikhaylovich Sverdlov.

Old train station, Copyright magical-world / Vera & Jean-Christophe from Europe, source Flickr

Yekaterinburg grew to become a leading industrial centre of the Urals, with its rich deposits of natural resources. It also became a vital part of the development of the Urals as a whole, and an extremely important trade route. Its nickname is “The Window on Asia.”


Rastorguyev-Kharitonov Palace, Copyright Vera & Jean-Christophe, Source Rastorguev-Kharitonov mansion, Yekaterinburg

Because of its dizzying development and importance on the trade route, it attracted a fair amount of people with money. The city was fast becoming even more important to the Russian Empire during the Great War, but alas, everything changed when the Bolsheviks took over. After they conquered the city, they imprisoned, murdered, or chased away anyone from the upper- and middle-classes, and took all the money and natural resources for themselves.

With all these riches in the hands of a very few, the people of Yekaterinburg suffered greatly. In 1918, a famine broke out, and many people risked their lives to go to nearby towns and villages for decent food. This wasn’t easy, since this was also a period of insane hyperinflation and rationing. The working-class and poor, whom the Bolsheviks supposedly loved so much, were even worse-off than ever before.

Main building of Ural State Technical University, Copyright LordTroy

Yekaterinburg is the setting of the first six chapters of my alternative history, and later on, during Part IV, the four Imperial children of the new generation are sent to their surviving grandparents in Yekaterinburg ahead of the Nazis reaching St. Petersburg. The new Tsaritsa, Arkadiya, was born in Yekaterinburg in 1897.

In the West, Yekaterinburg is best-known as the place where Russia’s last Imperial Family were imprisoned and murdered in 1918. They were held at a former mansion, whose final owner was Nikolay Nikolayevich Ipatyev. In late April 1918, he was ordered to leave his house, and it was renamed “The House of Special Purpose.”

Border between European and Asian Russia, Copyright Jirka.h23

In the 1930s, Yekaterinburg became a centre of industry once more, and during the Great Patriotic War, many factories and technical schools were relocated there. In order to escape the Nazis, many people fled to the safety of Siberia, where the enemy could never reach them. Many of the collections of the Hermitage Museum were also relocated there.

Statue of Yekaterinburg’s founders

Today, the city is home to 16 universities, among them Ural State Technical University, Ural State University, Ural State University of Foresty, Ural State Pedagogical University, Ural State Agricultural Academy, Urals Academy of Architecture, Russian State Vocational Pedagogics University, Military Institute of Artillery, Ural State Mining University, and Ural State Academy of Medicine. The city is also an important stop on the Trans–Siberian Railroad, and has several airports.

Administrative building, Copyright Владислав Фальшивомонетчик (Vladislav Falshivomonetchik)

The city has become a mecca of culture in the Urals, with dozens of libraries, many famous theatres, a philharmonic orchestra, over 30 museums, a circus, unusual monuments (such as the Keyboard Monument), and a recording studio.

Sevastyanov House, Copyright Владислав Фальшивомонетчик

The city is surrounded by lakes and wooded hills. Very similar to Upstate New York, their winter lasts from October till mid-April. It’s not unheard of for winter temperatures to dip below zero. Summer only lasts about 65–70 days, with an average temperature of 64º F (18º C). Since it’s behind a mountain range, the temperature is nothing if not consistent in its inconsistency (just like Albany, NY).


Armenian Apostolic Church of St. Karapet

In 1977, Ipatyev House was ordered razed by Boris Nikolayevich Yeltsin (whom I have very mixed feelings about, but ultimately feel was a decent person). He didn’t want it to become a rallying-point for monarchists, but people continued to come anyway. (The Russian Orthodox Church has never made a secret of its desire for a restoration of the monarchy, something I also would support.) In 2003, construction of a church in that spot was completed. The altar is right over the spot where the Imperial Family were murdered.


Church on the Blood, built over the razed Ipatyev House, Copyright A viento

Batumi, Georgia


Drama Theatre Square, Copyright Depols, Source

Batumi is the majority setting of the last chapter of Part III of my alternative history. In June of 1931, the still fairly newlywed Imperial couple finally gets to take a honeymoon, and they choose Batumi for its beautiful warm climate. Also along on the trip is the new Tsesarevich, Yaroslav, called Yarik. The honeymoon couldn’t immediately follow the December 1929 Imperial wedding because of the upcoming Christmas season, the new Tsaritsa’s pregnancy, and the coronation.

Arkadiya, the Tsaritsa, loves Batumi so much, she begs to have a summer home there, and Aleksey agrees to ask some of the palace architects to design a palace there. Even if this new Russia has become a constitutional monarchy, the enlightened new ruling couple have earned the right to enjoy some luxuries.

Batumi street

Batumi is a popular resort town on the Black Sea, and the capital of the autonomous Adjara Province. The earliest evidence of settlement dates from the 8th or 7th century BCE, and it’s believed the Greeks had a colony there. Batumi was also the site of a Roman military fort during Hadrian’s reign (117–138 CE). After antiquity, the city wasn’t mentioned in the records again until the 15th century.

Port of Batumi, as painted in 1881 by Lev Feliksovich Lagorio

Batumi was fought over by the Ottomans and its own Georgians for awhile, until it finally fell under Ottoman rule for the long haul on 13 December 1614. The city was renamed Batoum and made the centre of a sanjak (administrative division). During the Russo–Turkish War of 1828–29, the Ottomans held onto their conquest, and repelled the Russian forces. The Ottomans also initially repelled their enemies during the Russo–Turkish War of 1877–78, but they were finally defeated, and the Treaty of San Stefano and the final act of the Congress of Berlin in 1878 gave Batumi and several other places in Georgia to the Russian Empire. However, Batumi was ordered to have a free port, and a naval station, arsenal, and fortifications were forbidden. This lasted only till 1886.

Building resembling a lighthouse, Copyright Keizers

Batumi received city status on 28 April 1888. During this period of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the city finally began expanding and modernising, with a railroad, oil pipeline, and new industries. The population massively increased in response. The Russian Social Democratic Workers’ Party was also highly active during this era, with many strikes and protests led by Ioseb Dzhugashvili (who wasn’t yet styling himself as Stalin).

White Restaurant, Copyright Keizers

During World War I, the Russian Civil War, and the early Soviet period, Batumi passed in and out of Ottoman, British, and Russian hands, as well as enjoying being ruled by its own people for the first time in a very long time. Sadly, Georgia’s hard-won independence came to a premature end in 1921. Under the Soviet heel, nationalism, religion, and everything else relating to Georgian peoplehood were outlawed. The Great Terror of 1936–38 was particularly brutal.


Batumi skyline from the port, Copyright Peter in s

Today, the city is once again free and under Georgian rule. The modern cityscape boasts a number of novelty buildings, such as the White Restaurant, which looks like an upside-down White House; a Sheraton Hotel made to look like the Great Lighthouse of Alexandria; and buildings made to look like the Acropolis and a lighthouse. Other attractions include historic houses of worship, a dolphinarium, an aquarium, the Adjara State Museum, an archaeological museum, and a botanical garden.


Batumi by night, Copyright Irma Laghadze ირმა ლაღაძე, Source Batumi_2014_at night

Since Batumi has a subtropical climate, some of its primary agricultural products include tea and citrus fruits. However, most of the city’s economy comes from tourism.

Russian Orthodox church in Batumi, Copyright Geagea, Source Notre Dame Architecture Library

Advice for writing a book set in New York City

My RSW post is here.

Note: Though this post specifically is about NYC, the gist of most of these guidelines could easily be applied to any city which is a popular story setting (e.g., London, Paris, Boston, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Toronto, Shanghai, Berlin).

I love writing books set partially or primarily in New York City. It’s so fun to write about the New York of yore, when more normal people could actually afford to live there, before the city was as we know it today. But there are some things to keep in mind if you’re using this popular city as the setting for your own writing, either historical or contemporary.

1. New York City is composed of five boroughs, in spite of how Manhattan seems to be the most-represented in fiction, and Brooklyn occasionally depicted. Why not be original and set your story in Queens, the Bronx, or Staten Island? Or you could always have your Manhattan characters eventually move to one of the other boroughs for the chance to live in a real house and have a yard.

2. Get a map of neighbourhoods and see how they intertwine and border one another, which are downtown, uptown, and midtown, how they’ve changed over time. For example, the so-called East Village was just the northern portion of the Lower East Side till the mid-Sixties, when the gentrified residents got uppity ideas and decided to secede in order to distance themselves from the neighbourhood’s historic association with poverty.

3. Learn how demographics have changed over time. For example, The Bowery wasn’t skid-row at all in the antebellum era, and Harlem wasn’t always a majority Black neighbourhood. Hamilton Heights has a lot of Hispanics nowadays, but for much of the 20th century, it was heavily Russian.

4. Please don’t phonetically render accents! Just introduce your character by saying s/he has a strong Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, Bronx, or Staten Island accent.

5. Don’t overdo it with the regionalisms. My native-born New Yorkers certainly say “yous” and “yous guys,” but not on every single page. You never want to overuse dialect and regionalisms to the point where they become intrusive, comical, distracting, cliché.

6. If your characters are recent transplants, or from a family which hasn’t been in the city long, odds are they won’t have an accent. From what I hear, it’s becoming increasingly uncommon for today’s New Yorkers to have any sort of accent (with the notable exception of the isolated Staten Island). Also, different groups of people have different variations in the accent. For example, Brooklyn accents are different in the Jewish, Italian, and Hispanic communities.

7. If you live in the city, or have lived there, don’t gut-load your book with all your intricate, first-hand knowledge of subway schedules, streets, businesses, local history, etc. That’s mental masturbation, not good world-building. Sprinkle in the local flavour; don’t have people constantly going to Central Park and various museums, riding the subway, going shopping at the famous stores of Midtown, or hanging out at the main library.

8. Know about important historic events that occurred during your timeline, such as the Great Northeast Blackout of November 1965, the terrifying polio epidemic of 1916, and the rubella epidemic which reached the city in late 1963 and continued through 1965.

9. Avoid clichés! You know the sort—Jewish immigrants in the Lower East Side; artists and Bohemians in Greenwich Village; wealthy élites uptown; starry-eyed youth hoping to become famous singers, Broadway actors, writers, musicians, or artists; tough-talking Irish or Italians. It’s not that there’s no truth in these clichés, just that it’s not very original.

10. It’s hard to believe, but some normal people still do live in the city, not just haves and have-nots. Maybe their family’s been in the city for generations, and so they just inherited a brownstone or had bought an apartment when prices were relatively affordable. Maybe someone married into a New York family and was able to live in the city that way. And some places are relatively affordable by city standards (esp. outside of Manhattan).

11. One of the worst aspects of TV shows set in the city is having characters with less than stellar jobs able to afford nice apartments and neighbourhoods. Give your characters jobs that make living in a place like the Upper West Side or Greenwich Village realistic, and don’t show them hanging out at the coffee shop and one another’s apartments far more than they’re shown working (coughfriendscough).

12. Learn about public transportation and the parking situation. There’s a reason most residents don’t own cars. Also, you don’t have to specify the exact subway or bus schedule and locations. It’s also not hard to look up what taxi and subway rates were in decades past, if you want to specify fare.

13. There are a lot of neighbourhoods beyond the best-known. If you’re using the popular Manhattan, why not try a lesser-represented place like the Meatpacking District, Two Bridges, Yorkville, Hudson Heights, or Carnegie Hill?

Happy birthday, Jaap (and A to Z Reflections Post)

With gratitude to Hashem, who gave me a gift and talent for writing from a very precocious age, and who wired my brain by Divine will, I announce the release of my Jakob’s story to coincide with his birthday. If he were real, he’d be 88 on May ninth.

Jakob Cover

I chose to lead with Jaap’s story because it got very strong feedback by the contests and other venues I entered it in, it got several behind the scenes agent requests, it’s relatively short (128,000 words is a drop in the bucket next to some of my other stuff!), it’s in the traditional past tense, and it’s much closer to third-person limited than I usually do.

I’m so glad for the chance to preview it by the different Kindle devices. Not only did it make me proud of what a whiz-bang job I did with the formatting all by myself, but it enabled me to catch a number of typos or mistakes that somehow were never caught during any of the previous rounds of editing. (For example, metric system characters referring to miles instead of kilometers.) It’s so true that reading something in a different typeface and/or format can bring to light things you never saw as errors. I powered through it by the Kindle previewer in two days. Knowing how to combine quick reading with a fine-toothed comb attention to detail is a gift.

I’m glad I got a recommendation for a cover artist who does actual art, instead of graphic design. Nothing wrong with photographic book covers, but I’m old-fashioned. Just be prepared for the fact that your mental image of your characters will probably never match how they appear on the cover, no matter who designs it. You have to trust your designer’s talent, vision, and judgment.

I quote from Chapter 31 of The Tao Te Ching at the beginning, which speaks of how a good soldier only uses weapons and kills when he has no choice, that delighting in victory is the same as delighting in killing, and that war must be conducted like a funeral. To avoid getting in trouble for copyright violation, I mixed and matched with a few old public domain translations, my belovèd Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English translation, and my own interpretations.

I just hope enough people like it, and that the final editing and release of Little Ragdoll next month go just as well. I already have a good feeling about that, since I got permission to quote the two George Harrison songs, for a very reasonable fee. It’s like George’s beautiful spirit is smiling down on a fellow dark horse.

A-to-Z Reflection [2014]

This was my third year taking part in the A to Z Challenge. I think I got more hits and comments this year since my theme wasn’t specific to my writing as in the past two years. It was probably a good idea to make it of more general interest to a wider group of people. Next year I’m going to do another theme only peripherally related to my writing, and scrap the theme I’d planned last year.

My posts, from most-popular to least-viewed (and not including my own comments in the total):

Jerusalem, Israel (59 views, 15 comments)
Abony, Hungary (49 views, 16 comments)
Béziers, France (47 views, 17 comments)
Dushanbe, Tajikistan (44 views, 14 comments)
Fereydunshahr, Iran (43 views, 17 comments)
Minsk, Belarus (41 views, 14 comments)
Eindhoven, The Netherlands (40 views, 14 comments)
Lille, France (39 views, 14 comments)
Cherkasy, Ukraine (39 views, 14 comments)
Queens. U.S.A. (37 views, 14 comments)
Hudiksvall, Sweden (35 views, 11 comments)
Tartu, Estonia, and Tata, Hungary (34 views, 9 comments)
Xanten, Germany, and Xánthi, Greece (34 views, 11 comments)
Zagreb, Croatia (33 views, 12 comments)
Isfahan, Iran (32 views, 10 comments)
Rosh HaNikra, Israel (31 views, 10 comments)
Yerevan, Armenia (31 views, 12 comments)
Nantes, France (30 views, 9 comments)
Vratsa, Bulgaria (28 views, 10 comments)
Winschoten, The Netherlands (28 views, 9 comments)
Uelen, Russia (26 views, 9 comments)
Kutaisi, Georgia (26 views, 9 comments)
Odžaci, Serbia (26 views, 11 comments)
Pirna, Germany (23 views, 10 comments)
Győr, Hungary (23 views, 10 comments)
Surabaya, Indonesia (22 views, 8 comments)

Of the 28 places profiled, 18 are European, 9 are Asian, and one is North American. France and Hungary were featured thrice, and Germany, Iran, Israel, and The Netherlands were featured twice. Seven were at one time part of the Russian Empire and later Soviet Union. Though Sagittarius is the Traveller of the Zodiac, at present I’ve only visited three (Jerusalem, Rosh HaNikra, and Queens). Baruch Hashem, I’ll be able to visit Iran within the next few years and add Isfahan and Fereydunshahr to my list!

As always, it was frustrating to find some blogs on the list which never started participating, only signed up to try to hawk some business, or which gave up before the end. I’m also always surprised at people who didn’t schedule their posts in advance. Having a theme and writing/scheduling posts in advance helps to avoid scrambling around desperately looking for ideas last-minute. It also gives me time to edit the posts while they’re still in the queue.

Many thanks to my uncle, of blessèd memory, who gave me the atlas I used for help in finding some of my cities, and which led me to a number of these other cities in the course of my writing. Yes, my atlas is so out of date it has a USSR, Yugoslavia, East and West Germany, North and South Yemen, and lots of old names of other places, but it was a gift from someone who’s no longer in this world. The inscription entreats me to use it for all my school studies, and I’ve kept using it well into adulthood. (The globe it came with fell apart long ago.) How many other people still make regular use of a gift they got at seven years old?