IWSG—November odds and sods

The Insecure Writer’s Support Group virtually meets the first Wednesday of each month, and lets us share struggles, triumphs, quandaries, and fears. This month’s question is:

What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever googled in researching a story?

I’ve definitely researched a lot of creepy, depressing, and macabre things over the years—footbinding, what happens to someone in the electric chair, how to survive being shot in the head without becoming disabled, the projected timeline of the very far future, anything to do with the Shoah.

Probably the strangest research subject is if someone could live a semblance of a normal life with the loss of all five senses. As a child, I created a story about a girl named Carmel Allison Jaywalker who loses them all in her sleep before her third birthday. In my juvenile imagination, I made up “the killer pimples,” giant pimple-like things growing over her nose, eyes, ears, skin, and tongue. My brilliant idea was for Carmel to learn to communicate through ESP.

Someday I’d like to go back to this story, which never made it beyond an unfinished picture book, though it seems best to “only” make Carmel blind-deaf. Someone missing all five senses would live entirely in their own reality, hallucinate constantly, be as if in a waking coma, with sleep and dreaming being the only enjoyable things in life.

Minus every major sense, one would need a constant caretaker, and the brain would receive no sensory input. This would not be a meaningful life. At most, I might write a short story about such a person, but I can’t think of any compelling storyline to fill an entire novel.

FYI: The thumb in the B letter is draped WAY too far over the palm. Most artistic depictions of the ASL manual alphabet are guilty of this.

Speaking of, I recently began teaching myself ASL, and mastered the finger alphabet in about a week. I’m a longtime Deaf ally, and have several Deaf characters.

I’m planning a future post on how to write a Deaf character, both historically and today.  Since I obviously don’t have the POV of a Deaf person, I welcome corrections and additions.

This is my sixth year officially doing NaNo, and I’m far from the only person who’s deeply unhappy with the new website. So many people are complaining and considering not doing it again next year, while others opted out this year due to the difficulty of navigating this revamped design.

I can believe there were serious tech issues behind the scenes, but was this really the best new design possible? And if they began testing it in January and still had so many bugs on the eve of NaNo, that should’ve been a sign it wasn’t ready for primetime yet. Supposedly these problems didn’t become apparent till a lot of traffic was thrown at the site all at once.  Why not keep it in beta and wait till after the big event to make the full-time transition?

Just look at these differences in the daily graphs:

The new graphs are just hideous! Too little info and not clustered together in one concise place. The new design isn’t very intuitive or attractive, and there are no bells and whistles making the changes worthwhile. Mobile users say it’s even worse there.

The site isn’t as buggy as it was, but our Camp projects from this year still haven’t migrated over, we lost all our buddies, the popular Faces charts can’t run till next year, Home Regions are a mess, and there’s annoying infinite scroll instead of manageable separate pages on the message boards.

They even went all virtue-signalling Woke™ by including a field for freaking pronouns in profiles!

I decided to take the stress off myself by continuing with Part IV of A Dream Deferred as my primary NaNo project, instead of forcing myself to fly through it with just weeks remaining. It feels right to publish this book in four volumes.

Part IV will be the shortest by far, under 200K. If I finish, I’ll make general chapter-by-chapter notes for the fifth book and go right into that.

Queens Village and the qalam

Copyright Metropolitan Transportation Authority of the State of New York; Source

Queens Village is a very spacious, green, suburban neighborhood in eastern Queens. It started life as Little Plains in the 1640s, and then became known as Brushville in the 1820s, after prosperous resident Thomas Brush.

Mr. Brush put down roots in the neighborhood with a blacksmith shop in 1824, and after achieving great financial success, he built a factory and a few other shops.

The first railway came on 1 March 1837.

St. Joseph’s Episcopal Church

In 1856, residents voted to change the neighborhood’s name to Queens, but both the neighborhood and depot were called Inglewood and Queens during the 1860s and 1870s. The former name Brushville also continued to be used.

When the borough of Queens was incorporated into NYC in 1898, and Nassau County was created in 1899, the border between them was designated directly east of the neighborhood. By at least 1901, the name Queens Village had arisen.

The Long Island village of Lloyd Harbor, formerly in Queens County but now in Suffolk County, was called Queens Village from 1685–1883. In 1923, Long Island Railroad added “Village” to the Queens neighborhood’s station’s name to avoid confusion with Queens County as a whole.

193rd St. war memorial

Queens Village contains the sub-neighborhoods of Hollis Hills (a very wealthy area) and Bellaire (the largest section of the neighborhood).

Many people seeking a suburban lifestyle and fleeing the congestion of Manhattan came to Queens Village starting in the 1920s. A great many of the Tudor and Dutch Colonial homes built during this era still stand, and attract a new generation of people wanting a slower, less crowded lifestyle.

Queens Village LIRR Station, Copyright Metropolitan Transportation Authority of the State of New York; Source

Like many other NYC neighborhoods, Queens Village too once had a large, thriving Jewish community, but today the population mainly consists of African–Americans, Caribbeans, Guyanese, Filipinos, Asian Indians, Jamaicans, and Hispanics.

Recent demographic developments include an increased amount of Asian–Americans and Middle Eastern Jews.

Southbound view of LIRR bridge over Springfield Blvd. and the Hempstead-bound platform at Queens Village station, Copyright DanTD

Landmarks include American Martyrs Catholic Church, Chapel of the Redeemer Lutheran, Hollis Hills Jewish Center, and the Windsor Park Branch of the Queens Borough Public Library. Nearby are Alley Pond Park, Cunningham Park, and Long Island Motor Parkway.

Remnant of Long Island Motor Parkway, Copyright Nowa at English Wikipedia

My characters Rodya Duranichev, Valentina Kuchma, Patya Siyanchuk, and Vladlena Zyuganova move from Manhattan to Queens Village with their children in the late summer of 1945. Both Valentina and Vladlena are expecting again, and they want a fresh new life in a more spacious corner of the city, with detached houses and yards.

Their children are delighted to discover each house has a pool in the backyard, though Patya is less than delighted to discover a little girl next door, Ruth Blumstein, thinks he’s a monster on account of his missing arm.

Copyright Aieman Khimji

qalam is a dried reed pen used for Islamic calligraphy, particularly creating those beautiful Persian and Arabic letters. It’s also a symbol of wisdom and education in the Koran. Sura 68 is called “Al-Qalam,” and describes Allah’s justice and the judgment day.

The etymology comes from the Greek kalamos (reed). In modern Arabic, Persian, Kurdish, and Turkish, it means “pencil” or “pen.” In Hindi, Urdu, and Bengali, it just means “pen.”

Copyright Baba66

My character Inna Zhirinovskaya receives, among many other things, a qalam set in a leather case for her 31st birthday in October 1937, a present from her admirer Arkasha Orlov (a prince by birth). They met in Aden in June, and Arkasha has been hopelessly smitten since then.

Arkasha gave her a lesson in Persian writing with a normal fountain pen a few weeks earlier, and Inna was mortified when she involuntarily gasped at the sensation of his hand over hers. She knows both Arkasha and her little brother Vitya heard that.

That night on the Siosepel Bridge, Inna agrees to be his sweetheart.

Fifty of my favorite words

(This post was originally published on my old Angelfire page, possibly between 2004 and 2007.)

I love words one doesn’t get a chance to use very often, many of them beginning with X and Q. God love the Greeks for having given us so many interesting words.

1. Juxtaposition

2. Transmogrify

3. Ameliorate and amelioration

4. Dichotomy

5. Paradigm. I learnt both “pagadigm” and “dichotomy” from my awesome tenth grade European History AP teacher, and I’ve never neglected a chance to use them since. I also still remember so many of the fun stories he told us, and the line “Baroque [art], think butts in seats.”

6. Portmanteau. Portmanteau words themselves are frickin’ awesome, never mind the name for them!

7. Xyloid (relating to wood)

8. Xanthrochroid. This is my favorite synonym for blonde.

9. Xylograph (engraving in wood)

10. Uncouth

11. Manifestation

12. Hydrophosphates! (This comes from the 1932 Laurel and Hardy short Helpmates.)

13. Horsefeathers (1920s slang for “nonsense”)

14. Xanthene (a yellow crystalline compound used as a fungicide) and xanthine (a crystalline compound found in blood and urine)

15. Pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcaniosis. I learnt this 45-letter word in my third grade advanced reading class.

16. Xanthocomic (yellow-haired)

17. Xenagogue (kind of like a tour guide to foreigners)

18. Zoroastrianism

19. Xenodocheionology (love of hotels)

20. Xenodochium (a building for the reception of strangers)

21. Xenoglossy (Knowledge of a language one otherwise doesn’t know fluently, often experienced in past life regressions and past life dreams. I myself have experienced this many times during my past life dreams.)

22. Xenolalia (same as xenoglossy)

23. Echolalia (repeating back the words someone just said)

24. Corprolalia (involuntary cursing)

25. Xylomancy (divination through wood)

26. Xenomenia (menstruation from abnormal orifices)

27. Zouave (a light infantry regiment of the French Army from 1830–1962)

28. Hemidemisemi-quaver (a 64th note in music)

29. Unbirthday

30. Foul

31. Hideous

32. Mind-revolting

33. Mind-sickening

34. Quadragintesimal (forty-fold, or having forty parts)

35. Quadragesimal (lasting 40 days, or something similar to or pertaining to Lent)

36. Quadragesimarian (one who observes Lent)

37. Quantophrenia (one obsessively relying upon statistics and mathematical results)

38. Quaquadrate (a sixteenth power)

39. Quaquaversal (bending or facing all ways)

40. Quadquicentennial (125th anniversary)

41. Quaternitarian (one who believes the Divine consists of four parts)

42. Transubstantiation

43. Consubstantiation

44. Quintessence and quintessential

45. Ingest

46. Masticate (In spite of how it sounds very similar to “masturbate,” it really means “to chew.”

47. Proboscis

48. Obliterate

49. Ucalegon (neighbour whose house is on fire, after a character from The Iliad)

50. Heterochromia (two different coloured eyes)

My transliteration style

When I was sixteen and majorly getting back into my Russophilia, I developed a rather purist, some might say nit-picky, approach to transliteration. I do letter-for-letter transliteration and never “translate” personal names. I also go one step further and use accent marks when I know where the stress falls. Accents aren’t normally written outside of dictionaries and language textbooks, but I feel it’s a courtesy to provide a pronunciation guide. For example, knowing if O is stressed or unstressed impacts the pronunciation. When the accent falls on O, it’s pronounced like an English O, but when there’s no stress, it’s pronounced like a long A. For example, Boris is properly pronounced Bah-REECE, not BOR-iss.

[Update: As of July 2015, I no longer use accent marks. It came to feel too pretentious and nitpicky even by my standards.]

When an accent falls on the vowels Ye, Ya, or Yu, I don’t use accents. Maybe it’s hypocritical, but that might give the impression of those being separate letters in Russian, instead of one complete vowel.

My style of letter-for-letter transliteration seems to be a more modern style, whereas some of the alternate styles you might’ve seen are based in a more old-fashioned approach, of perhaps enforcing Anglo norms and expectations on Russian spellings. But for me, those older styles don’t always give the impression of the true pronunciation. For example, I originally thought Tatyana was pronounced Tat-ee-ann-a, because I’d only seen the spelling Tatiana. The more accurate Tatyana spelling suggests the true pronunciation, Taht-YAHN-ah.

The letter E is and isn’t the same as the English E. It can take the sound we expect of an E, but more often than not, it’s a YE sound. For example, Nadezhda is really pronounced Nahd-YEZH-dah, not Nad-ezh-da. When it makes sense, I render the E as Ye, so as to avoid pronunciational confusion. Why use the spelling Ekaterina when the name is really pronounced Ye-kaht-e-REEN-a?

Why have a double E or an E after another vowel? That gave me false pronunciational impressions for awhile, like with the Imperial town of Tsarskoye Selo. I thought, based on the Tsarskoe spelling, that it was pronounced Tsar-sko. I thought the Anglicized version of the Russified form of Ukraine’s capital was pronounced KEEV, based on the Kiev spelling. When my non-Ukrainian and non-Ukrainophile characters say the city’s name, it’s rendered as Kiyev. The proper Ukrainian spelling actually transliterates as Kyyiv, but that just looks confusing, so I go with their preferred transliteration of Kyiv. It’s particularly weird to see a double E, like in Gordeeva. That makes it look like the famous skater’s surname is pronounced Gor-DEEV-a, not Gor-de-YEV-a.

Look at these names, in their Russian spellings, and see the final letter they all have in common:


They all end in й, a letter which is transliterated as Y. Many times, these names are transliterated with an I on the end, though the I sound in Russian is represented by и nowadays, and used to be represented by I. If they truly ended in I, they’d be pronounced differently; e.g., Ahn-dre-ee instead of Ahn-DREY.

It seems rather old-fashioned to render Ya, the final letter of the alphabet, as IA. When I see a spelling like Daria, Katia, or Tatiana, I’m going to want to pronounce the I and A separately, whereas the YA tells me that’s just one vowel.

And look at these names, and see what final two letters they have in common:


All end in ий, IY. Most people use one or the other letter since they probably assume a spelling like Yuriy or Vasiliy looks too weird to an Anglophone, though both of those vowels are used together for a reason. They’d be pronounced a bit differently if they only ended in one or the other. And frankly, a spelling like Vitaliy or Lavrentiy looks a lot simpler and more normal than Kyyiv.

On the same note, many people choose to represent the -iya ending on certain names as just -ia, though I of course choose to use the full, letter-by-letter transliteration. Maybe some people think it looks weird, but I don’t see anything odd about spellings like Mariya, Anastasiya, Kseniya, Klavdiya, or Lidiya. It’s just how they’re written. Using the YA after the I tells me how to accurately pronounce the name. A subtle difference is still a difference.

Russian does not have a letter X. It uses the letters K and S to represent that sound. For example, Aleksandra or Kseniya, not Alexandra or Xenia. The Cyrillic letter that looks like X transliterates as KH, as in loch or Chanukah.

Finally, the letter Ë is transliterated as YO, not E or EO. What spelling of the Russian form of Theodore most accurately shows its pronunciation of FYO-dahr, Fyodor, Fedor, or Feodor? Although I do leave it as ë when it appears in a surname, like Gorbachëva or Likachëva. The alternatives look awkward, like Kyyiv. Sometimes it’s necessary to go with a simpler transliteration, even if it’s not 100% accurate.

The importance of a glossary (and other supplemental material) for historical and multicultural books

If you’re writing historical, multicultural, or both, it’s important to include a glossary, and possibly an author’s note or other appendices. Your readers who are unfamiliar with the culture, language, and/or era will thank you.

For Jakob’s story, whose release is planned for Friday, I decided to include three sections after the main text ended. I have a list of the sources I consulted, a glossary, and some notes explaining a few things, like how Dutch women are traditionally Lucy Stoners (i.e., they keep their birth surnames after marriage).

While doing my last edit/polishing of the book, I took note of each Dutch or Hebrew term which appeared, and jumped to the glossary in progress to add the words in alphabetical order. My last major thing left to do is finish writing definitions for all the words or concepts. I also included the names of some of the Amsterdam streets and neighbourhoods.

Some of these things are explained in the text, or otherwise made clear through context, but I thought it was a nice touch to have them all defined in one place anyway. Even though I know a number of the people in my community will be reading the book, and therefore know what these Hebrew words mean, I can’t arrogantly assume everyone who reads my book will be Jewish. I care about my readers of all faiths.

I’ve studied lots of world religions, and probably know quite a bit more about Hinduism, Buddhism, certain Christian denominations (particularly Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Mormonism), Jainism, Islam, Sikhism, Wicca, and Zoroastrianism than the average non-member. (That was the whole reason I recognised the blatantly Mormon language in Beatrice Sparks’s books as yet another clue of her authorship of these “real teen diaries.” I honestly would have more respect for her if she’d just been honest and made her characters Mormon like she was, instead of pretending they were other denominations!) But I know I’m unusual for being so well-versed in so many other religions.

I’m currently revisiting Sydney Taylor’s More of All-of-a-Kind Family, and there are a number of really awkward, infodumpy passages or dialogues that slow the story down by stopping to explain what certain holidays or concepts are. The dialogues are really “As you know, Bob.” That problem is easily solved by a glossary or appendix.

I have much larger glossaries for my Russian historicals. I have sections for foreign words broken down into categories like vulgarities and insults, food, historical references, family relations, terms of endearment, and miscellaneous. Since I’m dealing with prominent characters and words of a number of different backgrounds in the current third book, I indicate in parentheses if a word is Russian, Estonian, Georgian, Armenian, Persian, Belarusian, Ukrainian, etc.

For Little Ragdoll, I went all out with appendices, covering things like real places and streets in Manhattan which were featured; the vintage toys and games mentioned; a chronological listing of all the books, songs, and albums which were featured or mentioned; and the characters’ names’ popularity in their years of birth. Finishing those appendices is the last major thing I have left to do with that book.

If you’ve played with a historical timeline or event to allow for more drama or work better with your story’s timeline, or if a big part of your story revolves around something that would’ve been an unusual occurrence in real life, it’s important to mention that in a note. Historical purists will probably still get their knickers in a knot, but at least you’ve acknowledged something was slightly altered for the purposes of storytelling.

In the notes for my first Russian historical, for example, I explain that the titles Mr. and Mrs. are very rarely used in Russian, but that I retained them as a way of distinguishing the older characters from the younger characters. It was my one major concession to Western naming sensibilities.

Finally, I like to maintain a list of characters, generally in the order they appear, with the names of main and important secondary characters bolded. I include birthdates when known, nicknames or titles in parentheses, and a brief identification of who they are. If a character later changes his or her name, I list him or her by the name with which s/he first appears. As an animal-lover, I also include the pet characters.