IWSG—August odds and sods

InsecureWritersSupportGroup
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:

Has your writing ever taken you by surprise? For example, a positive and belated response to a submission you’d forgotten about or an ending you never saw coming?

As I’ve written about before, I was not prepared for the depth of emotion I felt when writing the final days and death of Leonid Savvin in Journey Through a Dark Forest. He’d been written as an annoying, conceited pain since I created him in ’93, but 20 years later, I got incredibly choked-up as his long-planned death approached.

In the end, Leonid redeemed himself by making the ultimate sacrifice to save his adopted daughter Karla, his elderly parents, his baby sister Nelya, and his niece Inga from being arrested and tortured as enemies of the people themselves. He also tells his sister Georgiya he loves her, hugs her, and kisses her for the first time during their final meeting, and gives her a note to keep her spirits alive in Siberia.

This unexpected emotional connection will enable me to better write Leonid in the second of the two future prequels. There’s also a stunning development related to him to be revealed in the seventh book, and hinted at in the fifth.

I won Camp NaNo on Day 9, with a very lowball goal. I think this is my best Camp month ever! Towards the end, I went back to Word as my primary word processor. I needed to transition back in after years away. However, the master files for the three volumes are in Pages.

Much to my annoyance, I’ve discovered Dream Deferred will need a much more extensive editing and revision than usual, because:

I stupidly assumed universities always started in early September. In 1948–52, the schools in this book, and many others, began in late September and early October. This requires moving events around.

Overnight, Irina and Sonyechka go from declaring Stefania Wolicka Academy, a radical private school that gave them full scholarships, is the best school ever, to lamenting the lack of traditional, structured education. There’s no triggering event to explain why they’re suddenly annoyed with being allowed to choose almost their entire course of study.

The subplots with Katya and Dmitriy’s fellow Naval couple Marusya and Sima seem so pointless, cluttery, dumped on the page. All the other subplots naturally weave into the overall story, are plotted well, and would leave noticeable gaps if expunged, but the story wouldn’t miss a thing if this one were moved into the fifth book. At most, I might keep Marusya and Sima as friends with a possible family connection.

I like the theme that emerged in Part III, many things not being what they seemed for so long. Those seeming quick-fix miracles and safe bubbles away from ugly problems were too good to be true. Nothing about the Konevs’ life in St. Paul represents who they really are, and neither did their move to rural Minnesota all those years ago. It feels right for new chapters of their lives to beckon elsewhere.

I’m rather in arrears re: my planned film posts. During the remainder of August, I hope to cover 1929 films The Cocoanuts, Blackmail, Coquette, Un Chien Andalou, and Hallelujah! Next month I’ll have a series celebrating the 70th birthday of a film so white-hot it merits a rare 6 out of 5 stars rating. I also hope to have a September series on the 80th anniversary of The Wizard of Oz.

I’ve also continued doing my genealogical research, and found even more illustrious ancestors in another branch of my Boring line—nobility, aristocracy, and royalty of Medieval France, England, and Kyivan Rus. King Henri I of France married Princess Anna Yaroslavovna, which makes me a direct descendant of Prince Ryurik, the Viking prince who founded the Ryurikovich Dynasty.

I also finally found verified Irish ancestry!

Have you ever discovered problems with a book as you were writing it? Did you ever make a mistake based on poor research or assumptions?

How to plausibly weave major events into hist-fic

As I’ve written about before, many historical writers are, or have been, guilty of the everything but the kitchen sink syndrome. They work from a checklist, packing in every single historical event, trend, movie, song, social movement, fashion, news story, cultural shift, etc., from that era, as though it’s so believable for everyone in one family or group of friends to take part in them or be impacted by them.

Related to this is forcing instead of naturally weaving in major events that wouldn’t have touched your characters’ lives directly, esp. if there’s no logical reason for them to be in the places where said events began or transpired.

Take Herman Wouk’s The Winds of War (which I plan to do a full review for this year) and War and Remembrance. It’s obvious he really wanted to feature a Shoah storyline, but his leading family, the Henrys, are a very WASPy Naval family. So he puts middle child Byron in Italy in 1939, assisting an older Jewish professor with his non-fiction historical books, and has him fall in love with the professor’s niece Natalie.

Natalie’s boyfriend works for the U.S. Embassy in Warsaw, and Byron accompanies her when she goes to Poland to visit said boyfriend and attend a family wedding in August 1939. Pretty obvious where this is going! Throughout both books, there are so many times Natalie could’ve easily gotten out of harm’s way (and she does safely get back to America at one point), but since Mr. Wouk wanted so badly to feature a Shoah storyline, she keeps making really stupid decisions keeping her in occupied Europe.

More than a negligible amount of American and British citizens were trapped in occupied Europe and ended up in the camps. To this day, they haven’t gotten much of any compensation or even acknowledgment. I included such a storyline in Journey Through a Dark Forest, and would love to see more fictional treatments of this shameful, little-known aspect of WWII.

But the way Mr. Wouk handles it seems so forced and contrived. It would’ve felt more natural had he featured two families whose stories eventually link up, not shoehorned a Jewish love interest and her uncle into the lives of such a WASPy family who otherwise would’ve had no reason to cross paths with them.

If your story or series doesn’t already have characters in a city, country, or area you want to feature (e.g., 1960s San Francisco, 1940s Paris), take them there for a plausible reason. E.g., X moves there for school a few years earlier, instead of conveniently moving there just as things start happening.

I’ve known since 2001 I wanted a future book in my Ballad of Lyuba and Ivan saga to feature 1960s Swinging London, but couldn’t figure out how to do that naturally. Now I know the seventh book, opening in 1966, will feature Lyuba and Ivan’s granddaughter Shura studying abroad there and falling in love with someone who turns out to have a double connection to their family.

Also in that book, I want Lyuba and Ivan to be in Israel when the Six-Day War breaks out. This was influenced by my great-grandparents’ planned tour of Israel in 1967 being rerouted to Turkey due to the outbreak of war.

No matter what the event or setting, it has to feel natural instead of gimmicky. Thoughtful readers can spot an obvious, implausible setup a mile away. There are plenty of solid reasons why your characters might, e.g., be in Paris in 1940 or have their lives intersect with a European Jewish family. Don’t insult readers’ intelligence by shoehorning it in just so you can include everything but the kitchen sink.

Famous surnames (intentional) in my Russian historicals, conclusion

These days, I mostly find surnames from lists, and have moved past randomly choosing them from outdated encyclopedia and picking names in the news. It’s so much easier to do research now. However, I don’t regret giving some of my characters famous names, either intentionally or unintentionally.

It’s like an Easter egg; e.g., names like Chernomyrdina, Yeltsina, Zyuganov(a), and Yavlinskiy make it pretty obvious how immersed in Russian politics I was in the late Nineties.

I particularly don’t regret giving Lyuba’s stepfather’s family the name Lebedev(a), after Gen. Aleksandr Lebed (1950–2002), the candidate I supported in the 1996 presidential election. He had a very strong third-place finish, and was exactly the kind of leader Russia needs. The name means “swan,” which fits the title and symbolism of the first book.

Anna Akhmatova with her husband and son

Gumilyov, the false name Boris claims for himself, Lyuba, Ivan, and Ginny when deserting Bolshevik soldiers visit them in autumn 1917. Nikolay Stepanovich Gumilyov (1886–1921) was a prominent poet of Russia’s Silver Age, and the husband of poet Anna Akhmatova. He was arrested and murdered by the Cheka. His son, Lev (1912–92), was a historian, anthropologist, ethnologist, and Persian translator.

Rhodes, Katrin’s awesome butler. He’s so fun to write. I created him in 2001, and named him around 2012, after Nick Rhodes of Duran Duran.

Scholl, a radical Greenwich Village doctor with an underground clinic, and a lot of courage and compassion. He was named for Sophie and Hans Scholl of the anti-Nazi White Rose group.

Tolstaya, a gymnasium teacher. Obviously after the famous Tolstoy family, titled counts who’ve produced scores of notables over the centuries.

Baryshnikova, wily orphanage girl Klarisa, whom Lena Yeltsina names her first daughter after in gratitude. As an adult, she continues using her skill at forging and double-crossing to help people with defecting. Mikhail Nikolayevich Baryshnikov (born 1948) is one of the greatest danseurs in history.

Nureyev, an interrogator in Lubyanka, named after venerable danseur Rudolf Khametovich Nureyev (1938–93).

Grinkova, the midwife who serves the fictional Russian–American farming town of Firebird Fields, Minnesota, very near Duluth. Mrs. Grinkova delivers Lyuba’s sixth, seventh, and eighth children, as well as all of Tatyana’s children. She and Ivan frequently trade sharp barbs because of their very different views on Lyuba continuing to have children with her history of high-risk pregnancies and deliveries.

In the fourth book, Mrs. Grinkova removes the husband stitches given to Nikolas and Kat’s daughter Raisa against her will. She and Raisa’s future second husband Filaret will come to her rescue near the end of the book, after husband Gustav’s most monstrous act.

Sergey Mikhaylovich Grinkov (1967–95) was the 1988 and 1994 OGM in pairs skating with his wife, Yekaterina Gordeyeva, with whom he also had four World golds, three European golds, one European silver, one World silver, one World Junior gold, and several other assorted golds and silvers. I’ll write a review of the book My Sergei sometime this year.

Aleksandr V. Popov during the 2008 Olympics, Copyright KenChong 一洲

Popov, one of creepy Basil Beriya’s fellow inmates at The Marx Center for the Crazies. He’s convinced he’s Karl Marx. Aleksandr Vladimirovich Popov (born 1971) is widely considered the greatest sprinter in swimming history. He has four OGMs, and two World Championship golds.

Nemova, another fellow inmate, who screams out the Nicene Creed nonstop. Basil is chained to the wall between these people. Aleksey Yuriyevich Nemov (born 1976) is one of the greatest gymnasts of history, with twelve Olympic medals (four of them gold), thirteen World Championship medals (five of them gold), four European Championship medals (three of them gold), and two European Team Championship golds.

House of Zubov coat of arms

Zubov, a former count, WWII Red Army hero, and young widower who moves into the Minneapolis apartment of the unhappily married Raisa and her twin Lyudmila in 1950. Raisa is instantly smitten with the handsome, polite, kind-natured Filaret, and begins dreaming of having an affair.

Filaret treats her twins Diana and Pamela much better than their father Gustav, and his respectful treatment of Raisa is night and day next to the increasingly cruel way Gustav treats her. He and Mrs. Grinkova will come to their rescue towards the end of the fourth book.

Though Zubov is a real noble surname, I also chose this name because of Dr. Nikolay Ivanovich Zubov, the subject of Chapter One of Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn’s Invisible Allies. Dr. Zubov and his wife repeatedly risked their lives to hide his writings, and suffered a lot for their association, but remained loyal allies who refused to betray their friend.

Famous surnames (intentional) in my Russian historicals, continued

Tvardovskiy, Lyuba and Ivan’s friend Aleksey. In America, he changes the spelling to Tvardovsky. His surname was originally Trotskiy, which really only has one association. I don’t see it as a bad association, but it’s not one of those famous names (e.g., Lennon, Jackson) that feels believable on a non-famous person.

The replacement not only has a similar sound, but was also the surname of literary magazine Noviy Mir‘s chief editor, Aleksandr Trofimovich (1910–71). Under his tutelage, the magazine published a lot of things butting up against the Party line.

Teglyov, Lyuba and Ivan’s friend Pavel, who saves their daughter Tatyana’s life when villain Misha Godunov throws her in the Skhodnya River as a baby. This is a character in Turgenev’s story “Knock, Knock, Knock.”

Premier Brezhnev (1906–82) in 1943

Brezhneva, curmudgeonly orphanage mother in Kyiv. Mrs. Brezhneva is so fun to write, because she’s so predictable, while also demonstrating slow but steady emotional growth. As loath as she is to admit it, she grows to deeply care for co-director and former orphanage girl Inna, as well as Inna’s children and the children of the other now-adult orphanage girls who also defected to Iran. Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev was Soviet Premier from 1964–82.

Andropov, a boardinghouse manager who appears in the first book. Yuriy Vladimirovich Andropov was Soviet Premier from November 1982–February 1984.

Yavlinskiy, a doctor who treats Ivan’s broken arm in the first book, and lets Lyuba, Ivan, Ginny, and Tatyana hide in his clinic for two weeks. Grigoriy Alekseyevich Yavlinskiy founded social-liberal party Yabloko (Apple), and came in fourth in the 1996 presidential election.

Grigoriy A. Yavlinskiy (born 1952), Copyright Бахтиёр Абдуллаев (Bakhtiyor Abdullayev)

Kerenskaya, orphanage girl Olga, who’s later adopted by Inessa’s Dyadya (Uncle) Dima and marries Inessa’s cousin Rustam. She’s eight months pregnant when she wades across the creek-like River Bug to Poland in 1937. Shortly after her arrival in America, she gives birth to her first child. In 1945, her family and Inessa’s family move to Staten Island.

Aleksandr Fyodorovich Kerenskiy (1881–1970) was a prominent politician during the short-lived Provisional Government of 1917, and the leader of Russia from July–November 1917. He narrowly escaped after the Bolshevik takeover, and settled in France. After the Nazi invasion, he immigrated to the U.S.

Aleksandr F. Kerenskiy

Kuchma, Ukrainian orphanage girl Valentina, another of the girls adopted by Dyadya Dima. She becomes very close to Inessa after they’re mistakenly sent to another orphanage, which influences Inessa to beg Dyadya Dima to adopt a little girl too. It means so much to Valentina to have a family again, and that Dyadya Dima respects her origins so much he tells her to never change her name, forget her native language, or call him Tata.

Leonid Danylovych Kuchma (born 1938) was Ukraine’s second president, 1994–2005.

Kwasniewska, Polish-born orphanage girl Zofia, also adopted by Dyadya Dima. She moves home to Poland as an adult, and ends up at the same rocket-making forced labour factory as Darya and Oliivia in the third book. Zofia survives Mauthausen with them too. She’s reunited with her three children after the war, and they’re given permission to join their family in America. Aleksander Kwaśniewski (born 1954) was President of Poland from 1995–2005.

Iosif Brodskiy (Joseph Brodsky)

Brodskaya, orphanage girl Irina, who appears in the first two books. Iosif Aleksandrovich Brodskiy (1940–1996) was persecuted, twice put in a mental hospital, put on trial, and sentenced to five years of hard labour (of which he served 18 months) for his “anti-Soviet” poetry. In 1972, he was forced into exile, and in 1987, he won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Rutskoy, a false name Boris gives Aleksey and Eliisabet when deserting Bolshevik soldiers pay a housecall in autumn 1917. Aleksandr Vladimirovich Rutskoy (born 1947) was Russia’s only Vice President, 1991–93. During the violent constitutional crisis of ’93, he was proclaimed Acting President. He remains active in politics.

Andrey A. Voznesenskiy, 1933–2010, Kremlin.ru

Voznesenskaya, a deranged, sadistic orphanage warden in Petrograd, who gets her just desserts near the end of Part I of the first book. Andrey Andreyevich Voznesenskiy (whose surname means “ascension”) was an amazing poet I highly recommend.

To be continued.

Famous surnames (intentional) in my Russian historicals

From late ’96 on, any well-known Russian surnames I’ve chosen for characters have been intentional. Not all of these famous names belong to laudatory people, but it’s unrealistic for every single character in any book to have a name untainted by any negative namesakes or associations.

One could read the choice of some of these names on some of these characters as a political allegory of sorts, but that wasn’t really my intention. Certain were chosen in the context of the late Nineties.

Apart from Ivan’s uncle by marriage, Grigoriy Golitsyn, all my former princes’ and nobles’ names  (e.g., Orlov, Obolensky) were deliberately chosen.

Boris N. Yeltsin (1931–2007), http://state.kremlin.ru/president/allbio

Yeltsina, one of my main families, introduced with 13-year-old third sister Lena in 1920. Matriarch Mrs. Yeltsina, who’s run boardinghouses almost her entire adult life, is my oldest character in these books, born in 1866. Lena and her little sister Natalya are an entire generation apart from older sisters Valya and Zina. I have very mixed feelings about their namesake, but ultimately feel he was a decent person who started out trying to do the right thing.

Gorbachëva, Lena’s surrogate mother Sonya, and Sonya’s younger daughter Karla, whom she’s separated from in 1919 and doesn’t see again till 1953. After Karla is separated from her cousin Naina and their friend Katya, she’s adopted by Leonid Savvin and convinced her birth family are enemies of the people. She falls deeply under Stalin’s spell. Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachëv is one of my heroes.

Gennadiy A. Zyuganov (born 1944) 
http://kremlin.ru/events/president/news/19646/photos

Zyuganov(a), one of my main families, introduced through 10-year-old orphanage girl Inessa in December 1919. Her Dyadya (Uncle) Dima adopts her and five of her friends, after already having 27 of his own children. Some of the family later escapes Minsk to begin new lives in the West, but they remain committed Communists and atheists.

Gennadiy Andreyevich Zyuganov came in second in both the 1996 presidential election, and the run-off. If he’d won, Putin (who was left in charge by Yeltsin) might never have come to power, but no, the West just had to meddle and pull Yeltsin’s ratings out of the toilet. God forbid a Communist become president! The current Communist Party of Russia is NOT one and the same as the old one!

Vladimir V. Zhirinovskiy (born 1946), duma.gov.ru

Zhirinovskiy/skaya, Inessa’s dear friend Inna, who becomes co-director of their Kyiv orphanage as an adult, and later defects to Iran along with forty children, ten employees, and the elderly director. Inna’s little brother Vitya becomes Inessa’s second husband. Their namesake runs the arch-conservative Liberal Democratic Party, which is neither liberal nor democratic. 

Chernomyrdina, Naina’s best friend Katya, four years her senior, also the daughter of Sonya’s own best friend. She’s sometimes called Older Katya, to distinguish her from Lyuba and Ivan’s daughter Katya. Viktor Stepanovich Chernomyrdin (1938–2010) was Yeltsin’s Prime Minister, and famous for his malapropisms.

Yezhova, fiesty orphanage girl Naina, who totes a handgun her father gave her before she was taken away. She uses that gun to protect the citrine necklace her mother gave her. She and Katya defect in 1927, and join Sonya in Toronto several months later. Nikolay Ivanovich Yezhov was a total scumbag who played a major role in the Great Terror. Karma came calling when the same fate was delivered to him!

Khrushchëva, orphanage girl Svetlana, who appears in the first two books. Obviously named after Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchëv.

Lebedev(a), one of the main families, introduced through 17-year-old orphaned Nadezhda in 1919. Her uncle Ilya later becomes Lyuba’s stepfather, after several years of having a surrogate father-daughter relationship. Mr. Lebedev has ten daughters by his first marriage. General Aleksandr Ivanovich Lebed (whose surname means “swan”) was the candidate I supported in the 1996 presidential election. He came in third. I was so sad when he was killed in a helicopter crash in 2002!

General Lebed (1950–2002), photo by Mikhail A. Yevstafyev

Kosygina, a teacher at Aleksandrovskiy Gymnasium in the first book and future second prequel. Aleksey Nikolayevich Kosygin was a prominent politician under Khrushchëv and Brezhnev.

To be continued.