WeWriWa—Sonyechka meets Adrian

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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’m currently sharing from Chapter 52, “Lyuba’s Golden Jubilee,” of my WIP, A Dream Deferred: Lyuba and Ivan at University. It’s December 1949, and Lyuba and Ivan’s next-youngest child, Sofya (Sonyechka), was knocked over at Rockefeller Rink. The offending skater then skated over her hand.

An unfamiliar voice shouted at the guilty party to watch where he was going, and skate into someone his own size. The offender said “Accidents happen” as he skated off.

The boy who comes to Sonyechka’s aid will become her husband in the future sixth book (set from 1957–64). Their complicated, passionate romance will be one of the two main storylines.

Sonyechka looks in the direction of the unfamiliar voice and sees a brunet boy who looks a bit younger than Irina, with a redhaired girl about the same age. Though the boy wears black skates like all the other boys and men, his companion has malachite green skates with turquoise blue laces. She also stands out with her ultramarine ski jacket and what look like boy’s pants under her knee-length red skirt.

“May I help you up?” the boy asks. “No insult to your friends, but I think I’m stronger than they are.”

Sonyechka nods, her hand still throbbing. The boy lowers himself to his knees, hooks his arms under hers from behind, and pulls her up. His companion quickly helps him to support Sonyechka.

“Do you feel light-headed, dizzy, or nauseous?” he asks.

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Boredom and oversharing on the frontier

Like many people, I loved the Little House series growing up, and read the books many times. I even read a number of the ephemeral books, like The Little House Cookbook, A Little House Sampler, and On the Way Home. Thus, I expected to enjoy this book too.

Was I wrong.

What didn’t I like about this book? Let me count the ways.

1. It moved SO slowly! This is one of those books where 200 pages feel more like 800. This wasn’t an engaging, gripping page-turner.

2. Ms. Miller needs a lot more practice writing third-person. Her previous novels were first-person present tense, so the classic third-person past tense is quite a departure for her. I never felt fully in Caroline’s head, because the prose was so emotionally detached and distant.

3. Overdescribing the dullest things, with the same detached prose. How does it either move the story or character development along to know every little detail about rope burn, fording rivers, drying the wagon canvas after a storm?

4. Over half the book depicts the journey from Wisconsin to Indian Territory. Apart from a few people the Ingallses encounter along the way, the only four characters are Ma, Pa, Mary, and Laura. Books about, e.g., the Oregon Trail work best when there are many other people besides the main family.

Those books also feature gripping emotional, dramatic events, like disease, drought, exhaustion, childbirth, quarrels with other pioneers. This is just a boring, long-drawn-out travelogue.

5. I REALLY did not need to read sex scenes with Ma and Pa! I feel so uncomfortable reading sex scenes with real-life people. Unless we’re talking about someone like Casanova, how do you think they’d feel knowing a total stranger, 100+ years later, would depict the imagined details of their most private, intimate moments for the entire world to read?

6. Ditto reading about Pa tasting Ma’s breastmilk!

7. I’m not sure what the point of this retelling was. This is little more than a direct retelling of Little House on the Prairie from Ma’s POV.

8. Enough already with the excretory scenes! Reading about real-life people relieving themselves squicks me out even more than reading about them having sex! I did not need to read so many scenes of Ma and the girls using the necessary, digging holes and squatting over them, and emptying chamber pots!

9. Lots of purple prose and weird metaphors. Enough said.

10. Was the real Caroline really that dour, serious, depressing, and joyless? I get that Laura wrote the books from her POV, and didn’t have personal insight into her mother’s feelings, but Ms. Miller’s Caroline seems really off the mark. Pioneer women had difficult lives, and were the product of a much different society and culture, but there were still moments of joy!

It also feels like stereotyping of Victorian women in general, who were anything but prudish and repressed.

11. Spending way too much time describing things that don’t move the story along. Not every single day, week, month of a story needs detailed!

12. Ms. Miller doesn’t use enough commas. Where was her editor?

Overall, I’m tired of the trend of hist-fic about real-life people. So many of these books would work so much better were they about fictional people with similar circumstances. Then there’d be more leeway to stray from established history and personalities. At least in alternative history, there’s a reason for characters to do things they never did in real life!

At least Ms. Miller accurately depicts the Ingallses as voluntarily returning to Wisconsin because the man who bought their cabin reneged on his payments, instead of, as Laura depicts, being forced out by the government.

WeWriWa—Run over at the rink

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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. 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.

Dealing with life expectancy in historical fiction

Just like the oft-perpetuated misinformation/misunderstanding about girls routinely marrying underage for most of human history, the belief that our ancestors were doomed to die at all of 35 is also a myth. It’s not that there’s no truth to it, but that it’s grounded in a lack of understanding of context.

Average lifespans have historically skewed so low because of high childhood mortality and childbirth death rates, and men dying in wars. If someone could get past all that, s/he stood as good of a chance as a modern person of making it into old age. People didn’t just drop dead as soon as they turned 35!

Let’s say there are two siblings. One, God forbid, dies of SIDS at three months, while the other lives to 95. Their average age is 47.

People with physically demanding jobs (e.g., coal miners, outdoor slaves, chimney sweeps) and from the lower socioeconomic classes, then as now, had much harder lives, and less access to the best doctors and medicine. They also didn’t have the option of taking off work to recover. However, even royalty and nobility fell victim to diseases and injuries in an era before modern medicine.

So what were the real averages and expectations?

Prehistoric era:

If one survived to 15 in the Paleolithic Age, life expectancy was 34–54. In the Neolithic Age, it was 28–33. Our prehistoric ancestors lived short, hard, brutal lives, long before modern medicine. They were at the mercy of the elements, enemy tribes, wild beasts, diseases, and injuries.

However, we’ve found bones of Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons who survived into old age. Some survived multiple traumatic injuries, missing teeth, and arthritis. Their clanspeople continued to take care of them, chewing or grinding their food for them and carrying them from place to place.

Bronze and Iron Ages:

If one survived to 15, one could expect to live to 28–33. While our ancestors no longer lived in caves by this point, and had the advantage of cities and farms, life was still harsh. However, as with all other historic lifespan averages, it’s consistently 70–80 once childhood mortality is removed. The longer one survived, the more likely old age was.

Ancient Greece:

At 15, one could expect to survive to 37–41, though there were many elders. Socrates, for example, died at 70, from poisoning. Had he not angered the authorities, he may have lived at least another decade.

Ancient Rome:

If one lived to 20, life expectancy was 50–60. Many Romans lived into old age, and enjoyed a great quality of life. Cato the Elder lived to 85.

Golden Age of Islam:

Scholars lived from 59–84.

Medieval Europe:

The Bubonic Plague skewed life expectancy to 45, but if a man survived till 21, he could expect to live into at least his sixties. Given the dangers of childbirth, it was somewhat lower for women, but there were more than a few female elders. It’s a total myth that no one bathed in the Middle Ages, everyone lived in filth, and peasants lived lives full of nonstop exploitation.

It’s much the same through the Renaissance and 17th, 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries. There were many people in their eighties and nineties; e.g., Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Thomas Hobbes, Thomas Jefferson, King Eric of Scandinavia, Michelangelo.

Handling longevity in your writing:

Having historical characters dying in their thirties, absent any diseases or injuries, does a great disservice to true statistics. On the flip side, it’s equally unrealistic to have all your characters living past 100.

I like to save extreme longevity for a family matriarch or patriarch, someone really special, or a storyline about how old age can be very lonely and depressing, more curse than blessing. My character Cinnimin lives to 120, to show her going through twelve decades of history and spawning all these succeeding generations.

The oldest person whose age has been verified was Jeanne Calment, age 122.

WeWriWa—Tamara’s Christmas surprise

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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. This year’s Orthodox Christmas-themed snippet comes from the last chapter of Part I of my WIP, A Dream Deferred: Lyuba and Ivan at University. Much of this chapter is set over Russian Orthodox Christmas 1950.

Lyuba, Ivan, and their three youngest daughters recently left the fictional town of Melville, Minnesota, after a brutal attack on their youngest child Tamara by her second grade teacher and classmates. The school nurse refused to help, and Tamara had a stroke. Now she’s finally home with her family, in their new house in St. Paul.

Snegurochka, the Snow Maiden, is the granddaughter of Dyed Moroz, the Russian Santa. She helps him distribute presents, and is the only female assistant of any Santa character. While the U.S. version of Santa has Mrs. Claus, she’s not depicted as helping him in that way.

“Toma, come take a look at who came to see you,” Ivan calls.

Tamara throws her hand over her face when she sees Dyed Moroz in a long blue coat with white fur trim and embroidered silver swirls, a round fur cap, and leather boots.  He carries a staff in his right hand, a velvet blue bag in his left.  When Tamara uncovers her face and looks again, she sees Snegurochka, dressed in a matching dress, with long blonde braids and white boots.  Snegurochka is wheeling in a turquoise Huffy Convertible bicycle, with new-fangled training wheels and foot steps.

S Rozhdestvom, Tamara,” Dyed Moroz says as he walks up to her. “The American Santa Claus at the children’s hospital told me how much you wanted me to visit you and give you a present.  He also told me the presents you wanted.  After the horrible thing that happened to you, you more than deserve a home visit.”

“Am I still asleep?” Tamara asks.