IWSG—October odds and sods


It’s time for another meeting of the Insecure Writer’s Support Group. The first Wednesday of each month, we share struggles, triumphs, quandaries, and fears.

This month’s question is:

In your writing, where do you draw the line, with either topics or language?

I absolutely cannot see myself ever actively depicting incest, and on the RARE occasion a rape scene is necessitated by a storyline (for a real reason, not the lazy, offensive “rape as character development” trope), I refrain from being very graphic. Child abuse is also a huge no-go for me.

I predict a lot of my writing this month will be creative nonfiction in the form of my posts about classic horror films celebrating landmark anniversaries this year. Upcoming films will include The Wolf Man, The Invisible Ray, Dracula’s Daughter, Invisible Ghost, Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man, and Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

November will feature a few more film posts, and a post about the album Imagine for its 50th anniversary. I also have a few more Dantean posts left to write. For over half of this septcentennial anniversary year, my main focus has been on researching, writing, and editing my Dantean posts, and my fiction was largely neglected. Now I’m eager to get back to it.

Shameless plug: If you’ve not seen it yet, this is the video of me reciting Canto I of Inferno in the original Medieval Florentine Tuscan Italian. I spent six months working on memorizing and mastering those lines, and thinking up body language to go along with it. It means a great deal to me that some native Italian speakers liked it and thought I did a really good job.

I’m also growing in confidence as I do more vlogs for my newly-revived channel. At the moment, my main focus is BookTube and AuthorTube, so I’m doing mostly book reviews, background information on my own books, and general writing and reading topics. Once I’m able to install iMovie on my computer, or get a new computer with enough space and the newest OS, I’ll start doing fancier vlogs with inserted images and text.

During Preptober, I’d like to finish several more chapters of my alternative history and get some more research on the Middle Ages done. If time allows, I’d also like to resume my radical rewrite of the book formerly known as The Very Last. One of the prizes for winning NaNo is always a free title setup at IngramSpark, which is good through the end of March. Realistically speaking, TVL is the only possible candidate this time around if it’s finished and polished in time.

Unfortunately, for the second year in a row, NaNo cancelled all in-person events and is encouraging snitching if people discover get-togethers are being arranged. As I’ve detailed in previous posts, I’m so disappointed at the new direction they’ve gone in since their awful new webpage was unveiled. Although if all goes according to plan, next NaNo I’ll be in Israel, where lockdowns are long since over.

I’ve changed my mind several times about where I most want to live, and now I think Tzfat would be most suited to who I am. Many artists, writers, creative types, mystics, and quirky people live there, so I’d feel right at home. And the beautiful scenery would provide constant inspiration for my writing and artwork!

Yes, there really is snow on that mountain!

That’s a poster of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, a very interesting person. Ironically, the Chasidic sect he founded is known for being very happy and always dancing and singing, and yet Rabbi Nachman suffered from depression throughout his life.

Have you ever taken a break from fiction to focus on creative nonfiction? Did it revive your inspiration? What place would most inspire you to write?

Ravenna, Italy

Basilica di San Vitale, Copyright Waspa 69 at WikiCommons, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

Ravenna, the northern Italian city where Dante was invited to live in 1318 and ended his days in three years later, has a long, rich history stretching back to the Roman Empire. Historians and archaeologists disagree on just which tribe settled Ravenna—Etruscans, Thessalians (from Thessaly, Greece), or Umbrians. There’s also a theory that the city’s name comes from Rasenna, or Rasna, the word Etruscans called themselves.

The Senones, a Gallic tribe, later settled in Ravenna, and laid it out very similarly to Venice, on a series of small islands in a lagoon. Initially, the Roman conquerors ignored Ravenna during their campaign in the Po River Delta, but eventually made it a Roman town in 89 BCE.

Ruins of Port of Classis, Copyright Trapezaki, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

In 49 BCE, Julius Caesar gathered his troops in Ravenna before they crossed the Rubicon, and in 31 BCE, Octavian established a military harbour with defensive walls in nearby Classis. This harbour was an important part of the Roman Imperial Fleet.

Ravenna continued to go from strength to strength under Roman rule, and had a population of 50,000 by the time it became capital of the Western Roman Empire in 402. The Western Roman Empire fell in 476, and Ravenna became capital of the Ostrogothic Kingdom in 493. In the sixth century, it was chosen as the seat of the Exarch, Italy’s Byzantine governor. The Archbishop of Ravenna was second only to the Pope in Italy.

Porta Serrata gate, Copyright Ludvig14, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

Apse mosaic of San Michele in Afrisco Church

Byzantine rule of Ravenna ended in 751, and gradually came under Papal authority. The city suffered a terrible loss when Pope Adrian I let Charlemagne rob Ravenna of anything he pleased, and an unknown amount of Roman mosaics, statues, columns, and other treasures were taken to Charlemagne’s court in Aachen.

In 1198, Ravenna led other cities in the Romagna region against the Holy Roman Emperor, but the Pope put down their rebellion. The noble Traversari family ruled the city from 1218–40. In 1248, Ravenna rejoined the Papal States, and later was returned to the Traversaris.

Finally, in 1275, the da Polenta family established their rule, which lasted till 1441. That year’s Treaty of Cremona annexed Ravenna to the Venetian territories.

Dante’s tomb, Copyright Congolandia.g at WikiCommons, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

Vault interior of Archbishop’s Chapel, Copyright Anelhj at WikiCommons, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

Venetian rule lasted till 1509, when the region was invaded during the Italian Wars. The French sacked Ravenna in 1512 during the Holy League Wars. Yet another period of Papal States rule followed, interrupted by another brief Venetian rule from 1527–29.

A huge flood severely damaged the city in May 1636. To prevent such a tragedy from recurring, authorities spend the next 300 years draining swamps and redirecting rivers.

Ravenna Art Museum, Copyright Mac9 at Italian Wikipedia

Banca di Romagna, Piazza del Popolo, Copyright Marie Thérèse Hébert & Jean Robert ThibaultCreative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

In 1796, the Cisalpine Republic, a French puppet state, annexed Ravenna. Predictably, it returned to the Papal States in 1814. Piedmontese troops occupied the city in 1859. Ravenna didn’t win her freedom till the unified Kingdom of Italy was created in 1861.

Miraculously, Ravenna suffered very little damage during WWII.

Arian Baptistry, Copyright Georges Jansoone, Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Generic license.

Biblioteca Classense, Copyright Domenico Bressan at WikiCommons, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

Ravenna is gut-loaded with beautiful historic buildings, including many churches and tombs from the Early Middle Ages. Eight of its churches are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The city also has many museums, art galleries, theatres, gates, and towers, as well as two amusement parks.

Dante’s tomb was built in 1780–81 at the Basilica di San Francesco. The Supreme Poet’s bones are in a Roman sarcophagus which was embellished with a bas-relief in 1483.

Florence (Firenze) has been begging for the return of their illustrious native son’s remains since 1396, but Ravenna has continually refused to send them home. Several times, the bones have been hidden to prevent this. Dante’s empty tomb in the Basilica di Santa Croce is still patiently waiting to be occupied.

Copyright Opi1010 at WikiCommons, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

Vegetation mound which protected Dante’s bones from 23 March 1944–19 December 1945, © José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro / CC BY-SA 4.0

Florence (Firenze), Italy

My IWSG post is here.

Copyright bongo vongo, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

Florence, called Firenze in Italian, is known as the Athens of the Middle Ages, and was the birthplace of the Renaissance. Because the Florentine dialect of Tuscan Italian was used by so many literary luminaries, it became the basis of Modern Standard Italian. The city was also the capital of the Kingdom of Italy from 1865–71.

The first Florentine settlement is believed to have been between the tenth and eighth centuries BCE. Then Etruscans moved in between the seventh and sixth centuries.

The city’s written history began in 59 BCE, upon the arrival of the Romans.

Porta San Frediano wall, Copyright Sailko

Porta Romana wall, Copyright Sailko

Firenze went from strength to strength under Roman rule. The cityscape quickly grew to include a military camp, a theatre, spas, an aqueduct, an amphitheatre, a forum, city walls, and a river port. Sadly, few of these structures have survived into the modern era. The city walls are a notable exception.

Starting in the fourth century CE, Firenze went back and forth between Ostrogothic and Byzantine hands. These two rivals were constantly fighting one another, laying siege to the city, losing power, and doing it all over again.

The Lombards took over in the sixth century, and then Charlemagne conquered Firenze in 774. Under Charlemagne’s rule, as part of the March of Tuscany, the city’s population and wealth grew exponentially.

Montalbano Castle, Copyright Joe Sapienza at WikiCommons, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Copyright Sailko

Around 1000, Ugo (Hugh) the Great, Margrave of Tuscany, chose Firenze as his residence. This led to the Golden Age of the Florentine School of art, a naturalistic style which reached its heights in the 14th and 15th centuries. A lot of new construction also started.

In 1115, the people revolted against the Margrave of Tuscany. In its place arose the Republic of Firenze, officially the Florentine Republic. The city-state soon grew wealthy from trade with other countries, and the population swelled yet again. Even more new churches and palaces were built.

Ospedale di Santa Maria Nuova, Firenze’s oldest hospital still in existence, Copyright Mongolo1984

Garden of Palazzo di Gino Capponi, Copyright Sailko

The city was beset by internal strife during the 12th through 14th centuries, when rival political factions the Guelphs and Ghibellines constantly, violently fought for power. Guelphs supported the Pope, and Ghibellines supported the Holy Roman Emperor. Firenze was one of the pro-Guelph cities.

After the decisive Guelph victory at the 1289 Battle of Campaldino, the Guelphs began infighting and split into White and Black factions. The Black Guelphs seized control of the city in 1301, destroying much of it in the process. Dante, a White Guelph, was tried on false charges in absentia, ordered to pay a huge fine (which he never did), and condemned to exile.

Basilica di Santa Croce, Copyright Sailko

Dante’s empty tomb in the Basilica di Santa Croce, Copyright Sailko

In the 14th century, a groundswell of artistic, literary, architectural, musical, and scientific talent in Firenze heralded the birth of the Renaissance. All the political, moral, and social upheavals which had plagued the city on and off for the last few centuries halted under this new humanistic atmosphere. People also began rediscovering and falling in love with writers, philosophers, and scientists from Classical Antiquity.

Uffizi Gallery, Copyright Chris Wee, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

Firenze became the capital of the unified Kingdom of Italy in 1865. In attempts to modernise the city, many Medieval houses and the historic Piazza del Mercato Vecchio market were razed. New houses took their place, along with a more formal street plan.

The population grew to over 230,000 during the 19th century, and was over 450,000 by the 20th century.

Grand Synagogue of Firenze, Copyright CEphoto, Uwe Aranas

Synagogue interior, Copyright Sailko

The city was occupied by Germans from 1943–44, after the Italians defected to the Allied side and refused to deport their Jewish community. Eighty percent of Italian Jews survived the Shoah, due in large part to righteous Italian Gentiles hiding them and smuggling them to safe territories.

The Nazis packed the beautiful Grand Synagogue with explosives before retreating, but brave resistance fighters diffused almost all of them. Very little damage was sustained, and the building was restored after the war. There are, however, still bayonet blows on the Ark.

Casa di Dante museum (not the original house), Copyright Photo20201 at WikiCommons

Fireworks over Ponte Vecchio, Copyright Martin Falbisoner

Firenze has more tourists than locals every year from April–October, thanks to its wealth of museums, historic architecture, churches, art galleries, theatres, bridges, monuments, gates, walls, and many other treasures.

Writing about Victorian postmortem photos

Until fairly recently, I believed, as many people do, that the Victorians constantly posed corpses as though they were alive, and used lots of fancy tricks to achieve this. In fact, thousands upon thousands of historical photos feature dead people whom you’d never guess on first glance are really dead! If someone in a Victorian photo has a creepy look, odds are, it’s a postmortem photo!

Except that’s a total myth, perpetuated by people who uncritically believe everything they hear or read.

Though it’s another total myth that the average person dropped dead at all of 35 until the modern era, there’s no denying that life on average was much harder and shorter. Even the upper classes weren’t immune to deadly diseases and the dangers of childbirth. Thus, our historical counterparts were much more used to death than we are, and didn’t fear it.

It was most common for people to die at home, surrounded by loved ones, instead of hidden away in hospitals. Death was seen as a natural, normal, inevitable event. Wakes were likewise held in houses instead of funeral parlors.

Victorians had very elaborate, detailed, structured rules about mourning, and many people wore mourning jewelry containing locks of the deceased’s hair, made from black materials like onyx and jet, and carved into symbols like skulls, coffins, oak sprays with an empty acorn cup, and lilies-of-the-valley. Ivory was also used, particularly for young people, as a symbol of innocence.

This is one of countless photos constantly trotted out as postmortem, but in reality, it was most likely a pre-mortem photo. That is, this young woman was very ill, and her parents wanted one final living photo with her. She may have passed away not long after the photo was taken. Pre-mortem photography was quite common.

Unless you know someone had a really dark, twisted sense of humor, it’s safe to say all photos of people in coffins are legit postmortem. People lying on beds, their eyes closed, also tend to be postmortem.

This is NOT a postmortem photo for one pretty obvious reason: Dead people can’t stand! Corpses aren’t Gumbies. You can’t mold and shape them any which way you want. Once rigor mortis sets in, that’s it. They’re locked in that position.

Dead weight means something. Even if you were able to prop up a corpse with metal rods and stands, they wouldn’t stay like that more than a few seconds unless you also tightly tied them in place. That may have been done for some forensic photos, but not for the vast majority of deceased Victorians.

Metal stands were absolutely used in many Victorian photos (some visible, some not), but not to prop up literal dead weight. The Victorians treated their dead with dignity, and had zero issue showing them as deceased. With death so common in that era, particularly among the non-elderly, there was no reason to go through elaborate staging to pretend they were really alive.

Those stands were used to help subjects with holding still during exposures which could last up to a minute in the early Victorian era. How many people are capable of holding completely still, in the same exact pose, for so long?

Though exposure time had shrunk to as little as three seconds by the late 1850s, even one second of inadvertent motion can create a blurry image. It happens in modern photos as well.

A blurry picture means the same thing it does today—someone moved at the wrong time. Thus, not dead! This woman is also only holding twins, not triplets. (Can three babies even fit on a normal-sized person’s lap?)

It’s the same story with serious expressions. You try holding a natural-looking, non-creepy smile for up to a minute and see how it goes. The Victorians loved having fun, but before instant exposure, smiling in a photo was impossible.

Many postmortem photos featuring babies and very young children show them on a mother’s lap, but this ain’t one of them. Living people, particularly very young ones, are known to close their eyes in photos, you know. The caption on the back also says nothing about death.

Additionally, a truly deceased child would be dressed more formally, and be lying flat, not sitting nearly upright.

Nothing to see here but Lewis Carroll alive and well. Just as in the modern era, Victorians also took many photos of themselves lounging across couches and reclining in chairs.

Maybe a photo looks creepy because of the limitations of older photographic technology; e.g., blue eyes appear white because of chemical processes, and exposure makes the rest of the body seem darker so as to highlight the face. Other culprits are poor lighting, overly stiff posture, shadows, or eyes that just creep some people out.

None of these alleged postmortem photos show things like drooping skin, rigor mortis, or darkened skin resembling bruising. They all look alive and well, only much more formally-posed than we’re used to.

The little girl on the far left is NOT dead! Hardly unheard-of for small children to zone out during photos and act bored with the entire proceedings.

Some people did paint pupils over closed eyelids, but for LIVING people, not the deceased. Hidden mother photography was also a real (and very creepy) thing, but more often than not done with living babies who needed to be kept still. Again, Victorians treated their dead with great respect and didn’t use them as creepy props.

The people who keep perpetuating this myth aren’t deliberately ignorant, but it becomes so much harder to debunk when people keep passing it along as truth.


Copyright Fuzheado

Zabar’s is a specialty food store which opened in 1934 and moved to Broadway between 80th and 81st Streets in 1941. The building started life as the Calvin Apartments, four three-story structures erected in 1882, and stood out like a sore thumb among the elegant, freestanding mansions which characterized upper Broadway at the time.

In 1890, developer Christian Blinn sold it to real estate investor Julia Schwarz, and in 1892, he entered a loonybin. He filed suit against her in 1901, claiming he’d been insane and had no knowledge about the sale.

The jury couldn’t decide, so the judge ruled in favor of Ms. Schwarz.

Copyright Fuzheado

In 1919, Ms. Schwarz leased the building for $30,000 a year to the C&L Lunch Company, and commissioned architects Whinston & Whinston to remodel and combine the four buildings into one complex. A small apartment on the next lot north, built 1890, was also included.

The Tudor-style Calvin Apartments opened in 1920. In addition to being beautifully decorated both inside and out, they promised on-premise dining. They were very expensive, with two-room apartments going for $165 a month ($2,134.09 today).

In the 1920s, the average NYC rent was only $40 a month, and houses sold for $15 a square foot. Not exactly apartments intended for normal people!

Enter Louis and Lillian Zabar.

Louis Zabar was born in Ukraine in 1901 and came to the U.S. via Canada in the early 1920s, after his dad was murdered in a pogrom. Lillian Teit was probably born in 1902 or 1903, though she pretended to be younger when she immigrated from Ukraine in the mid-Twenties, fearful she’d be deported for being too old.

Lillian lived with relatives in Philadelphia, and Louis lived in Brooklyn, where he rented a stall in a farmers’ market. Later, Louis became head of a grocery’s smoked fish section. When Lillian moved to NYC, she and Louis renewed their old acquaintance from their hometown and married 2 May 1927.

They started a deli in Brooklyn, selling Lillian’s wonderful homemade foods, among them stuffed cabbage, blintzes, coleslaw, and potato salad. When the couple moved to Manhattan, they set up shop in the third building north from 80th St. in the old Calvin Apartments. By that time, the complex had become a hotel.

By the time of his death in 1950, Louis owned ten Manhattan markets.

Oldest son Saul (born 1929), a med student at the University of Kansas, came home to help the family business. He thought he’d only be there for a few years, but it turned into the rest of his life. Saul became the store’s president, and middle brother Stanley became vice-president after graduating the University of Pennsylvania.

Youngest brother Eli operates his own food businesses.

In 1953, entrepreneur Murray Klein (1923–2007) joined Zabar’s and began transforming it from a small deli to one of the city’s most renowned specialty markets. He started as a floor sweeper and stock clerk, and quit several times, but eventually became a full partner in 1960.

In the 1970s, there were plans to buy a building on the west side of Broadway between 82nd and 83rd Streets, but hashgacha pratit (Divine Providence) enabled them to buy the entire former Calvin Apartments instead and expand that way. They also gained the rooms upstairs, which were once the Cedar Hotel.

Copyright Nate Steiner

Mr. Klein knew the store’s core clientele and most loyal customers were Ashkenazic Jews who went there for things like lox, pastrami, bagels, and babka, but he also knew good businesses need to draw more than one demographic.

To gain the patronage of a wider patronage seeking sophisticated food, he offered things like brie, caviar, white truffles, and gourmet chocolate. He also began selling household wares. Even more unusually, he sold at below-market prices and at a loss, even for luxury foods.

Copyright Rob Young

Zabar’s hasn’t yet featured in my books, but I look forward to including it.

More information: