Posted in Editing, Fourth Russian novel, New York City, Rewriting, Writing

Pros and cons of the Konevs relocating back to NYC

I can’t say enough about the importance of putting a project on hiatus if you’re just not feeling it or you can’t decide which direction to take it in. Forcing words that don’t want to come is a recipe for disaster, and if you’ve lost control of your ship, continuing to steer it through the eye of a storm will only make things even worse.

The tentative chapter-by-chapter notes I made for Dream Deferred in 2015 have very little detail about the Minnesota storylines. Thus, it’s no wonder I almost immediately lost control when I took them in a completely unexpected direction. Nothing had been planned in advance.

I thought only of pros for the Konevs moving back to NYC and cons for remaining in Minnesota when I hatched that unplanned subplot. As I lost more and more control, I could only think of cons for going to NYC. However, I still had no strong feelings about where exactly they should go.

Pros of NYC:

1. All their relatives and many close family friends live there.

2. Ivan’s aunt and uncle, and Lyuba’s mother and stepfather, are now in their autumn years. It’s hardly unusual for people to move closer to elderly family.

3. NYC in 1952 was the centre of the art world. Where else could Ivan get a proper fine arts education and have a successful art career?

4. Likewise with Lyuba getting a master’s degree in history from a top-notch university and finding a career in that field.

5. In the conformist 1950s, big cities were safer for against the grain people.

6. Sonyechka and Tamara are really excited about living near their new friends in the Zyuganov family and attending the famous progressive Walden School with them.

7. With only two kids left at home, Lyuba and Ivan don’t really need a house anymore.

8. There are more opportunities for everything in NYC!

9. Who wouldn’t want to live in such an exciting city?

10. So many museums and libraries!

11. Lyuba and Ivan deserve a do-over of their NYC experience. This time, they’d do everything properly, in much happier circumstances.

12. It’s very convenient for future plots if everyone is in the same location instead of only together for family celebrations.

13. They regularly left their farm to visit NYC anyway. Someone truly committed to that lifestyle would always be on the farm.

14. Ivan has admitted he only latched onto the dream of farming in the Midwest as an escape from his abusive father, not out of genuine passion for that profession or area.

15. Their oldest children never felt deprived because they lived in an apartment and had to go to parks instead of playing in a backyard.

16. Those oldest children also admit they only came home to Minnesota after graduation because of familial duty. They were quite happy in the city, and didn’t want to leave.

17. It’s the perfect time to start over, and for their oldest children to establish new lives.

18. They never set down real Minnesota roots.

19. The Green Revolution forced many small farmers out of business.

20. There are fewer opportunities for art, education, and culture in Minnesota.

Copyright Simon Fraser at

 Cons of NYC:

1. It’s a really bad trope and gimmick when the entire cast moves somewhere, unless it’s a situation like immigration.

2. It feeds into the romanticised view of NYC as the best of all possible cities.

3. NYC, like many other cities in the postwar era, had a very serious housing crisis. Very unlikely there’d be an easily-available, relatively spacious apartment waiting for them.

4. The odds of finding a single-family townhouse were even slimmer. Almost all of them were split into apartments, duplexes, and SROs years ago.

5. Speaking of, I was thinking of NYC the way it was a generation earlier, not the reality of the 1950s. This wasn’t an era of luxury prewar apartments and townhouses. Most people lived in smaller quarters.

6. The city was beginning its decline by 1952, even if the situation didn’t begin getting noticeably dire until the next decade. In a family saga or series, we should always think ahead instead of entirely in the present.

7. Sonyechka and Tamara don’t need to be uprooted yet again! Children need stability.

8. It reads like a juvenile, deus ex machina wish fulfillment. Lyuba and Ivan get accepted to Columbia! Ivan’s father croaks and leaves them $20 million to buy a luxury penthouse and spend summers travelling to places like France and Italy! The entire extended family, all their friends, and the entire Zyuganov family move into a luxury for less apartment that functions like an urban kibbutz! The magic of living in Manhattan!

9. Lyuba and Ivan are in their early fifties and still have two kids left at home. They’re not unattached people in their twenties who won’t mind living in a 200-square foot apartment in a less desirable part of town.

10. They’re kind of used to having a yard and their own front and back doors.

11. Their family has been too joined at the hip for too long.

12. During all their years apart, they’ve developed separate lives from their extended family and old friends.

13. I failed to settle on one direction for this storyline.

14. Sonyechka, who emerges as the most brilliant of their children during the fourth book, comes across like a spoilt child living in a fantasy land when she latches onto this idea of moving to NYC and essentially dictating major life decisions to her own parents.

15. It’s perfectly normal to wish we’d done things differently and long for a return to how things used to be, but that doesn’t mean packing up one’s entire life to pursue a daydream. Friends’ lives often take different paths even if they live nearby, and you can never really go home again.

16. It felt like a preachy polemic.

17. It involves way too many cluttery storylines and silly plot twists justifying a huge chunk of the cast relocating.

18. How many New Yorkers spend all their free time going to museums, libraries, ballets, operas, art galleries, film festivals, and lectures, or having deep conversations and debates with other intellectuals and artists? They have ordinary lives to live, bills to pay, families to raise.

19. We take our personalities and interests with us wherever we go. A  serious, introverted homebody won’t suddenly become super outgoing and eager to hobnob with strangers just because of the magic of the big city.

20. Believe it or not, other cities have awesome schools and museums too!

21. Where would their dear horse Branimir live? He deserves more than a city stable and daily walks in a park.

22. Deep down, I still can’t truly see Lyuba and Ivan as true-blue New Yorkers. They’re just not big-city or apartment people.

Posted in Fourth Russian novel, New York City, Writing

Resurrecting a rejected storyline, Part II

As I’ve been re-examining the aborted storyline of the Konevs moving back to NYC in June 1952, I’m reminded of all the many reasons it came to me in the first place, and why it felt so right, so perfect, like I’d unknowingly planted seeds for it in the previous books. The fact that it spiralled out of control so badly was the fault of poor plotting, not because it was inherently a bad idea.

I broke a kind of really important rule of writing: Always have a clear idea of where you want to go with something instead of basing a storyline around a general notion.

I got so excited about the idea of the Konevs returning to New York and being back in the same place as all their friends and relatives, I lost sight of the reason behind that storyline and essentially lost control of my own manuscript. Like one crazed, I began throwing in all these complicated subplots which created even more sprawl when I should’ve begun focusing on leading the book to its dénouement.

Of course there should’ve been conflict in that storyline. However, there only needed to be ONE major conflict, Ivan’s typical bull-headed reluctance to undertake a major life change and admit to himself that he latched onto the daydream of becoming a farmer in the Midwest to escape from his father, not because he was truly drawn to that region or lifestyle.

I’m not exaggerating when I say I introduced over a dozen new subplots, some with new characters, after the halfway point. Many of them came in the last quarter or even later! I was completely out of control. A few of them do fit in naturally with the overall story, but the vast majority are nothing but sprawling clutter. Some need to be moved to the fifth book so they can be developed and resolved in a more relaxed timeframe that gives them room to breathe and shine to their deserved full potential.

I also let the important storyline about Boris’s latest foray into criminal mischief fall by the wayside, neglected for long stretches of time. Yet another thing that needs radical retooling during the editing process! It’s a lazy cop-out to have him spotted jumping bail so the trial can be moved to the fifth book.

Anyway, I was way too much in my own head while writing most of what I’ve completed to date. It doesn’t help matters that I went in with only a vague idea of how to execute the title storyline of Lyuba and Ivan at university!

Everyone spends more time talking about their exciting move to New York, or, rather, waffling back and forth with whiplash-level intensity, than, you know, actually taking concrete steps to make this move happen. None of this dialogue feels natural, like the kinds of real things people would say while planning a move and making important decisions related to it. It’s all such an obnoxious polemic against any place that isn’t NYC, an unfocused mess of a debate for apartments vs. townhouses vs. detached houses with big yards, a romanticized paean to NYC, and finally a polemic against city life. Make up your damn mind already!

I lost control of my own ship, and let it drive me instead of me driving it. It’s almost like I went into panic mode when I couldn’t figure out exactly which direction to take this storyline, and so began stuffing in everything but the kitchen sink and devolving in my writing capabilities.

Editing is not going to be a fun or easy experience.

Posted in Fourth Russian novel, New York City, Writing

Transforming a trope, resurrecting a rejected storyline

Though A Dream Deferred remains on hiatus, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the aborted storyline of the Konevs relocating en masse back to NYC. Yes, it’s usually a bad trope when the entire cast, or a good portion of it, up and moves together. However, looking back over the posts I wrote about this matter in 2020, I was reminded of all the compelling reasons I hit upon this storyline. It spiralled out of control and never came together properly because I didn’t plot it well, not because it was inherently a bad idea.

The redirections I came up with to replace it also sound really good on paper, but they just don’t seem authentic, and would create even more complications in a manuscript that’s already sprawled well beyond my conservative initial guesstimate. The end of a book, even in a continuing series, isn’t the time to start introducing 12+ important new characters or moving people to an entirely new location!

Many of the other storylines in Dream Deferred weren’t part of my original notes either, but they all naturally fit right into the overall story, with beginnings, complications, and resolutions, and are well-incorporated with the stories of the other characters. I thought the storyline about the Konevs and their friends returning to NYC had to be a mistake because I could never decide on the details, as though I were helpless against taking some time out to think through all the possible residences, neighborhoods, and schools BEFORE going any further.

Instead, that sprawling hot mess of a storyline is enough to give anyone major whiplash. I changed so many things over and over, often abandoning them in media res. Apartments are so superior to houses! No one wants to live in an apartment! Townhouses are awesome! Townhouses have too many stairs to constantly go up and down! Everyone wants a yard! Kids don’t need a yard when they can go to the parks! New York is the best city ever! Minnesota is so inferior! New York is too crowded! Minnesota has good schools and museums too! We’re moving back to New York! We can’t decide! We’re staying in Minnesota!

I was also guilty of applying presentism to a story set in the early 1950s. While I still feel NYC is a lazy default setting, its overuse in books and films isn’t without merit. The city has an incredible energy, and it’s gut-loaded with world-class schools and museums. In 1952, given the choice between Minnesota’s Twin Cities and NYC, of course a family would choose NYC if they wanted top-notch academic and artistic opportunities.

It makes sense for Nikolas to want to stay in NY after Katrin’s retrial and open a progressive law firm in the tradition of Clarence Darrow, and for his son Andrey to complete his Ph.D. there and join a new psychotherapy practice helping Shoah survivors. While San Francisco did have many survivors, there were a whole lot more in NY.

Plus, the Konevs have so many relatives and friends there, characters I won’t need to introduce and start developing at the end of the book. Ivan wants to be close to his aunt and uncle in their autumn years, and Lyuba wants to be near her mother, stepfather, and stepsisters again. It’s inconvenient for them to constantly travel 1,000 miles and stay with relatives for family celebrations like weddings, graduations, and baptisms.

I ended up barely using the Novak-Kolarov family in any significant way after Part I, and with the radical exception of Léa, the Kahns likewise didn’t become the major secondary characters I envisioned them as. The Novak-Kolarovs also have lots of family in St. Paul, and the Kahns aren’t eager to resettle yet again. Thus, there’s no reason for them to come along for this move.

Fedya and Novomira built a life and a circle of friends in NYC while they were in school, and only returned to Minnesota out of expectation and duty. They didn’t want to leave. Fedya also misses being near his Army buddies, just like Darya misses the three friends she survived the Shoah with.

And while there were already subtle signs of the city’s decline by 1952, it weren’t as though massive urban decay and a high crime rate erupted overnight. NYC still had a great quality of life through the 1950s, and into the early 1960s as well. Many people stayed instead of hightailing it to suburbia.

When I finally resume Dream Deferred, I’ll have a lot of things to think about. Maybe Lyuba and Ivan really will choose to remain in St. Paul, but that has to be a well-thought-out decision, not a defeatist retreat to my original idea after everything else failed due to poor plotting.

Posted in Architecture, Books

Yeas and nays of city planning

Setting itself out as “an attack on current city planning and rebuilding,” this book said a lot of radical, shocking things for 1961. Today, however, most of them are regarded as just plain common sense and have long been common practice.

The four main arguments are that, to be successful and vibrant, cities need to be mixed-use, have short blocks, be densely-populated, and have buildings in a range of ages.

Other topics are border vacuums, where best to place landmarks like libraries, the most effective layouts and locations of parks, unslumming (now known as gentrification and usually done by outsiders instead of locals), gradual and cataclysmic money, housing projects, the disastrous effect cars have on cities, and city governance.

While this book has become a blueprint for many modern urbanists, full of wonderful ideas which sadly weren’t considered when they were most desperately needed to nip urban decay in the bud when it was still relatively manageable, there are some issues I had with it.

1. It’s inevitably dated. I wish there were a special edition which laid out everything that’s since been widely implemented and the differences between now and then. E.g., kids just don’t play on sidewalks anymore, certain parks are no longer run-down ghost towns, and many cityscapes are now radically different.

2. I love her “eyes on the street” argument about streets being kept safe by constant watching, but modern society doesn’t enable that well. How many housewives gaze out their windows for hours while kids play stoop ball, and how many busybody “public characters” still exist?

3. Women don’t need their husbands’ permission to go somewhere anymore!

4. Mrs. Jacobs writes of a world where most women are housewives and men are the only ones working. Not exactly applicable to 2020 life.

5. After a certain point, the book starts to feel rather repetitive, the same few points made over and over again in different language.

6. She doesn’t give many citations, just her own observations and theories. I’m told many social science books in the Sixties were like this.

7. Not all cities or neighborhoods develop in the same way, and this isn’t a bad thing. E.g., because Manhattan (her most frequent example) was centered deep downtown and then gradually moved upward, the Upper East and West Sides are predominantly residential and academic.

People choose those neighborhoods to raise families or just have a quieter life for themselves, and thus are consciously rejecting the things she praises so highly about her own West Village. They have no interest in listening to saxophones in the middle of the night, fighting through throngs of kids while walking home from work, or living next to an old warehouse occupied by twenty wildly different businesses!

Part of the draw of the outer boroughs, prior to their mass discovery and gentrification, was this slower pace of life, with more green spaces, less density, and a suburbanesque feel. They cared less The Bronx supposedly had no decent restaurants or Brooklyn businesses closed at 8:00! Believe it or not, some people like that.

8. Likewise, there’s not a very diverse pool of cities represented. While I wouldn’t expect every single major city to be discussed, nor constant hopping back and forth between different cities, it would’ve been more balanced had there been a wider range of examples.

Manhattan is far and away the most discussed, with Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and L.A. also frequently mentioned. Every so often, a city like Baltimore or St. Louis makes an appearance.

Cities develop differently depending on the region. A city which started as a frontier town and has much more space to expand is radically different from one which grew up around an agrarian economy or a densely-populated city with little choice but to expand upward.

9. The Upper West Side, which frequently comes in for condemnation as not diverse enough or laid out properly, beautifully revitalized without chopping up its very long blocks!

10. So what if a landmark like a library doesn’t stand out in purpose and appearance? People know where their own libraries are, even if they look similar to nearby buildings!

11. I agree density is a positive force for diversity and vitality, but too much density is a bad thing. Just look at cities like Delhi or Beijing. No one normal enjoys living like that.

12. Even a city with relatively manageable density needs more than a few high-rises to comfortably accommodate everyone. They’re not inherently negative and impersonal.

13. Unslumming is a lovely ideal, but contrary to human nature. People tend to want to move on up as their socioeconomic situation improves instead of happily staying in the old neighborhood and investing beaucoup bucks into fixing up an old rowhouse or upgrading to a larger apartment.

It’s natural to upgrade to new digs reflecting a new status. Why in the world would someone who’s worked very hard to become middle-class voluntarily stay in a tenement, and why would a self-made millionaire want to stay in a strongly proletarian neighborhood?

14. It’s unnecessarily verbose, and could’ve easily been condensed to half its size, at least.

15. What’s the point of moving Central Park’s carousel and Chess and Checkers House to the borders so more people can use them after dark? Who goes to a park at night, no matter where attractions are located?

16. I fail to see why Garden Cities are so awful. They’re the best of both worlds, a suburbanesque neighborhood in a big city.

17. I don’t get her beef with the City Beautiful movement either. Who could object to beautifying cities and increasing quality of life?

18. Likewise, I didn’t get her issue with “too many” parks. The larger the city, the more parks are necessary. People crave green spaces. If you don’t live in a neighborhood, you’re not in a position to authoritatively declare a park is a failure!

19. Not everyone wants to live in Greenwich Village as it was in 1961. The magic formula for one neighborhood would never work for others, and not everyone wants the same thing out of a city.

20. Her vision of an urban Utopia is as much predicated on how people “should” react as urban planners’ “reforms” were. Both unable to understand the wider demographic picture.

21. While I share her dislike of suburbia, at least I understand why so many families were drawn to it in that era. Mrs. Jacobs constantly trots out Greenwich Village as the be-all and end-all of perfection which everyone should aspire to live in.

22. Even in 1961, the famous ballet of Hudson St. was unusual. She’s idealizing a way of life that was well on its way out. Unless something radically changes, bourgeois urbanity just isn’t coming back.

Posted in Writing

Writing about types of homes

There are so many different types of homes, representing an infinite world of possibilities for your characters. In addition to choosing the right one(s) for your story, it’s also very important to know what exactly they look like. I regret I didn’t describe my characters’ homes in much detail until very recently, but now I know better.

One need not go into elaborate, blow-by-blow detail about floor plans, façades, apartment lobbies, and interior decoration, but it’s helpful to give enough grounding details for readers to mentally picture these places. If a writer has an inaccurate mental picture of, e.g., a NYC townhouse or a Gilded Age estate, it’ll be described all wrong.

Brownstone houses in Park Slope, Brooklyn, Copyright Beyond My Ken

Many people use the words brownstone, townhouse, and rowhouse to refer to differ things, though they’re one and the same. A rowhouse (called a terraced house outside the U.S.) is just a house that shares walls with other houses. It can be a humble proletarian abode or built as a mansion for the city’s élite. Depending on the city’s density, it can be wide or narrow.

Brownstone is a type of material, most popular in the Eastern U.S. in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Some townhouses and rowhouses are brick, limestone, or wood. In Chicago, greystone was the material of choice. Many homes in southern and northwestern Brooklyn also are greystone. Sometimes these houses are painted.

Despite its popularity, brownstone isn’t the greatest building material. It was ubiquitous because of its ease of quarrying and carving.

Houses in Chicago’s Washington Square, Copyright Michael

These houses range from three to six floors, often including a cellar and garden level. The parlor level is technically the second floor. Because many of these homes were built in the era of horse-drawn vehicles, manure was a huge problem. The refined people living in these homes couldn’t have their entry-level floor at street level!

Some were built as mansions for the wealthy, who usually had second, much more sprawling and grandiose homes in the country or by the shore. Others were intended for proletarian and bourgeois families, sometimes split into duplexes or triplexes, or one apartment per each floor.

These are the kinds of homes the élite of New York, Boston, Baltimore, and other cities lived in before apartments became popular. By the 1920s, townhouses had fallen from fashion.

Houses in Baltimore’s Federal Hill

On average, they’re about 18-20 feet wide. In very densely-populated cities, it’s uncommon to find ones 25 feet or wider. Most were destroyed to make room for apartments or roads. Some houses are also much narrower.

Every so often, one encounters a townhouse attached to a former stable or carriage house, or with such an edifice standing next door or behind the house. This can be used as a garage, a precious commodity in a city, or converted into a small business.

Depth is about 100 feet, sometimes less, sometimes a bit more. The homes built for the wealthy have backyards (albeit usually fairly small). Some houses have their yards joined into one great big communal yard, with things like a garden, playground, and skating rink in winter.

Washington Mews in Greenwich Village, Copyright Beyond My Ken

Many older cities have mews lanes, former carriage houses and stables with living quarters above. Some may have cellars added in the modern era. These are very desirable because they’re on private, often gated alleys, with parking and courtyards. They’re also much wider than the average rowhouse.

As beautiful and historied as these homes can be, it’s easy to see why they became unfashionable and undesirable once luxury apartments appeared.

The Beresford on Central Park West, Copyright David Shankbone

Prewar apartments are highly sought-after, and most associated with NYC. Many are now co-ops. Not only are they more beautiful and unique, inside and out, than postwar architecture, they’re also much better constructed.

These apartments are known for spacious rooms, many big closets, multiple fireplaces, gorgeous details, lovely courtyards (essential for providing light and ventilation), hardwood floors, generous floor plans, kitchens located away from the other rooms, sunken living rooms, thick walls, wide halls, and high ceilings.

Some smaller buildings only have two (very spacious) units per floor. On average, most have about 12-25 stories, though there are some with as few as six.

The more exclusive buildings offer penthouses and duplexes.

Speaking of duplexes, that type of dwelling varies depending on the city or country. In very large, dense U.S. cities, and throughout the U.K., a duplex is a two-floor home, not a house with side-by-side units. A triplex is a three-floor unit.

Some people who live in townhouses rent out the lower two floors as a duplex, or rent a single floor, either for extra income or because they don’t need all that space for themselves.

Lower East Side tenements

Many tenements are in rowhouses, and, particularly in San Francisco and NYC, are railroad-style (e.g., each room connected to the other in a line, like a shotgun house). In the old days, there were often businesses on the first floor. Many only had 2-3 small rooms and no bathroom or running water. On average, they were about 350 square feet.

New Law tenements, built in the U.S. from 1901 on, introduced greater ventilation, light, plumbing, windows, fire safety, and running water. Some also had more square footage and rooms, though they were a far cry from the glamourous prewar apartments.

Olana State Historic Site, Greenpoint, NY

We all know what a mansion or estate is, at least 3,000 square feet, often with many acres for gardens, ponds, trees, outdoor theatres, miniature zoos, and brindle paths. In the Gilded Age, they were particularly decadent, designed to show off wealth, with far more space than even a very large family with many servants needed.

They had as many as ten bedrooms, sitting rooms, drawing rooms, ballrooms, pantries, sculleries, smoking rooms, billiard rooms, music rooms, sewing rooms, anterooms, dressing rooms, solaria, servants’ wings, kitchens, dining rooms, libraries, parlors, and bathrooms. There were also guesthouses and carriage houses.