Posted in Atlantic City books, Editing, Rewriting, Word Count, Writing

IWSG—Slowly returning to view the cheerful skies


It’s time again for The Insecure Writer’s Support Group, which meets the first Wednesday of every month to commiserate over worries, fears, doubts, and struggles. This month’s question is:

It’s the best of times; it’s the worst of times. What are your writer highs (the good times)? And what are your writer lows (the crappy times)?

Unfortunately, due to several bouts of my cyclical depression, being forced to move to an area I hate and in a house not my own, lockdown, and other factors, it’s been quite awhile since I last felt a true writing high. In the old days, it was the feeling I had when finishing a mammoth book that had been writing me more than I wrote it.

This picture I took soon after finishing the 406K first draft of The Twelfth Time, holding some of my writing soundtrack, perfectly illustrates it:

My writing mojo was pulled out of the toilet by my 12-part series on The Jazz Singer at 90 in 2017, and 2018 was my best NaNo ever, at 130,730 words. In 2019, I wrote 101,262 for NaNo, and massively overachieved in both April and July Camp NaNo.

But ever since lockdown began, my usual daily writing productivity hasn’t been the same. I know what I’m easily capable of, and barely making 50K in November, or even 10K in other months, is not it.

Near the end of April Camp, I put my alternative history about Dante and Beatrice on what hopefully won’t be a very long hiatus, and went back to the radical rewrite and restructuring of the book formerly known as The Very Last. I was inspired to return to my Atlantic City books after spending a few days doing the last proof-check of Movements in the Symphony of 1939 (formerly The Very Next).

After approving that book for a print edition, I read through The Very Last until the point I left off on the rewrite last year (though I also began rewriting chapters beyond that). I wrote almost 1,000 words on the first day back, though I ended up moving that chapter, and two other chapters, into a file of discarded chapters.

It truly was hashgacha pratit (Divine Providence) that I put the radical rewrite on hiatus in 2015. At the time, I was frustrated I couldn’t find more detailed information about the 1940 Portuguese World Exposition, and couldn’t be arsed to research and write about the 1939–40 World’s Fair in Queens only two years after I did that for Journey Through a Dark Forest. Now I realise I couldn’t have rewritten that book the way it needs to be had I continued in 2015.

As I discussed in this post, I deleted a lot of pointless, cluttery chapters and subplots. However, I wasn’t yet ready to admit to myself that the ninth item in that list not only was clutter too, but also inherently creepy. Even if Kit is aged up two years, 15-year-old Jerry still has no business dating her! She might look, talk, and act more like a 13-year-old, and I might’ve seriously toned down their relationship, but that doesn’t change her real age.

I’ll be discussing this in more detail in a future post.

I’ve been in a low place with my writing for so long, often taking weeks to write a single chapter, it’s difficult to vault back up and immediately resume my former daily average of at least 3K. As Virgil wrote over 2,000 years ago:

The gates of Hell are open night and day;
Smooth the descent, and easy is the way;
But to return, and view the cheerful skies,
In this the task and mighty labor lies.

Posted in 1270s, alternative history, Dante, Middle Ages, Writing

WeWriWa—A Virgilian fortune


Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors and Snippet Sunday, weekly Sunday hops where writers share 8–10 sentences from a book or WIP. The rules have now been relaxed to allow a few more sentences if merited, so long as they’re clearly indicated, to avoid the creative punctuation many of us have used to stay within the limit.

I’m now sharing from my alternative history, with the working title A Dream of Peacocks. It starts on May Day 1274, when Dante met his great love and muse Beatrice Portinari, and will give them an eventual happy ending, with lots of Sturm und Drang.

This week’s excerpt comes right after last week’s, when Dante asked an apothecary employee about a good book. He was shown The Aeneid and told about Sortes Vergilianae, a fortunetelling method where people open one of Virgil’s books to a random page and put their fingers down on a line without looking.

The admission of the sin of pride recurs throughout the story, and is inspired by Dante’s statement in Purgatorio that that’s the sin he struggles with most.

“Should I say a prayer beforehand?”

“Only if you want to. God will lead you to the perfect line no matter what.”

I closed the book, shut my eyes, opened the book again, and put my right pointer finger down. When I opened my eyes, I beheld the line “fired his soul with a love of glory still to come.” I read it several times to ascertain that was what it truly said and that my finger hadn’t landed on the line above or below.

Now Reader, I know very well pride is a sin, but it’s very difficult not to have excessive pride in myself when God chose to create me with so much genius. Even as a boy, I was keenly aware of my superior intellect and abilities. Thus, seeing that line fired my own soul with a love of glory still to come.

“I’ll take it,” I told Ser Torello.

The ten lines end here. A few more follow to finish the scene.

“This book will always have a place of pride in my library. I can’t wait to start reading it.”

He glanced down at the line my finger was still resting upon. “That’s a very good line to get. May you indeed have many future glories.”

I closed the book and put it in my basket. Another employee, Ser Alberto, totaled up my purchases and quoted me the sum. Most of the price, which cost me all my florins, came from The Aeneid, but it was more than worth it.  Quality is never cheap.

All during my walk home, I couldn’t stop thinking about what good fortune I’d had in such a short span of time. I now attended Mass with the Portinaris six days a week; I was having nice new clothes made; Babbo had found a lucrative new business opportunity which would improve our financial status; and my hand had been guided to a very fortuitous prophecy.

My prayers of May Day had truly been answered, much faster than I expected.

Posted in 1270s, alternative history, Dante, Middle Ages, Writing

WeWriWa—Meeting a very special book


Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors and Snippet Sunday, weekly Sunday hops where writers share 8–10 sentences from a book or WIP. The rules have now been relaxed to allow a few more sentences if merited, so long as they’re clearly indicated, to avoid the creative punctuation many of us have used to stay within the limit.

I’m returning to my alternative history, with the working title A Dream of Peacocks. It starts on May Day 1274, when Dante met his great love and muse Beatrice Portinari, and will give them an eventual happy ending, with lots of Sturm und Drang.

This week’s excerpt comes a few pages after last week’s, when Dante was on his way to the apothecary to buy some sweets and a new book (both things which were sold by apothecaries in that era). After some trouble caused by real-life villain Corso Donati, he proceeded on his way.

“Can you recommend any good books, Ser Torello?” I asked the employee who managed the literary side of the apothecary. “I like adventure stories with great heroes. I’m an advanced reader, even if my Latin isn’t fluent. Most of the other boys in my class are still reading simple books like Aesop’s Fables, but I can already read adult literature.”

Ser Torello went to a shelf and pulled down a thick red volume. “Have you read The Aeneid?”

“It’s not in my library yet, but I have other books by Virgil. I know that’s a very important book all educated people should read and be familiar with.”

Ser Torello flipped through the book, revealing page after page of beautiful illustrations. Some took up an entire page, while others were only on the top, bottom, or corners.

The ten lines end here. A few more to complete the scene follow.

The first letter of each section was also enlarged, colored, and decorated with small illustrations like leaves, roses, and geometric shapes. Now I wanted to read this great book even more.

“Do you believe in bibliomancy?” he asked in a low voice.

I thought for a few seconds, trying to recall if I’d heard that word before. “I’m afraid I don’t know what that means.”

“It’s a form of divination using sacred books. God directs our hands and eyes to the passages which most speak to our current situation or future lives, providing advice or telling our fortune. Many people do it with the Bible, and used to do it with Homer’s works. What a pity almost no one understands Greek anymore. This particular form of bibliomancy is called Sortes Vergilianae, Virgilian lots. Virgil was a great magician and inspired prophet, not merely a great poet. Why don’t you try it yourself?”

Posted in Dante


Publius Vergilius Maro was born in the village of Andes, near Mantua in Cisalpine Gaul (now northern Italy), on 15 October 70 BCE. His parents’ names have been lost to the ages, though his father’s family name may have been Vergilia, and his mother’s name Magia. Most modern scholars believe they were an equestrian, landowning family.

Virgil’s parents had enough money to give him a good education. He attended schools in Cremona, Naples, Rome, and Mediolanum (now Milan), starting at age five, and studied astronomy, medicine, and rhetoric. Because of his shyness and aloofness, his classmates nicknamed him Parthenias (maiden).

Virgil thought about pursuing a career in law and rhetoric, but ultimately decided to become a poet. According to legend, he began writing while at school in Naples. However, modern scholars believe the juvenile works attributed to him in Appendix Vergiliana were penned by many different authors, most of them not Virgil.

Virgil’s first major work was The Eclogues (also known as The Bucolics), a collection of ten eclogues (as the title suggests). An eclogue is a classical poem with a pastoral subject. This book established Virgil as a great Roman poet and a celebrity in his own time.

First page of The Eclogues, 1632 edition

Next he wrote The Georgics, which also takes an agricultural theme. Unlike The Eclogues, though, The Georgics is far from an example of peaceful pastoral poetry. Its four books drip with tension.

First page of Book Four of The Georgics, 1632 edition

Then came Virgil’s great masterwork, The Aeneid, which he wrote during the final eleven years of his life. Like his other books, The Aeneid too is written in dactylic hexameter, a style most commonly found in classic epic poetry. It doesn’t work very well in English. The modern language it’s most successful in is German.

The Aeneid, divided into twelve books (really parts), tells the story of Aeneas, son of Prince Anchises of Troy and the goddess Aphrodite. He escapes his burning city at the end of the Trojan War, with his little boy Iulus and a band of friends. They sail around for a long time trying to find a new home, having many adventures along the way, until finally they reach Rome. There’s a huge war between Aeneas’s followers and the Rutuli during the second half.

It doesn’t take a genius to see many obvious parallels between The Aeneid and Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey!

Aeneas Meets Andromache, drawn by Václav (Wenceslaus) Hollar in the 17th century

According to tradition, Virgil sailed to Greece around 19 BCE to revise The Aeneid, met Augustus Caesar in Athens, and decided to head home. While in a town near Megara, Greece, he caught a fever. A weakened Virgil passed away upon his arrival in Brindisium’s harbour on 21 September.

Augustus wisely ignored Virgil’s orders to burn The Aeneid, and instead told his literary executors to publish it with as little editing as possible.

Virgil reading the Aeneid to Augustus and Octavia, Angelica Kaufmann, 1788

During the Late Roman Empire and Middle Ages, Virgil’s birth name Vergilius morphed into Virgilius, either because of a false etymology with the Latin word virgo (virgin) and Virgil’s excessive modesty, or an analogy between the Latin word virga (wand) and the prophetic, magical powers attributed to Virgil during the Middle Ages.

Virgil, Dante’s idol, is his guide through Hell and most of Purgatory. Dante is very frightened to see this shadowy figure, but ecstatic once he realizes who it is. Virgil comforts him and promises to guide him on the amazing otherworldly journey he’s about to undertake.

Gustave Doré etching

Virgil is a constant source of moral support, encouragement, and protection when Dante is afraid. During the poem’s dramatic midway point, Canto XVI of Purgatorio, Virgil guides Dante through a thick, blinding cloud of smoke as Dante clings to him and covers his eyes.

Virgil’s final words to Dante, at the end of Canto XXVII of Purgatorio, are “I crown and miter you lord of yourself!” He’s taken Dante as far as he can, and now it’s time for Beatrice to take him the rest of the way towards his final goal.

Such a loving mentor and guide has Virgil been, like a father, Dante bursts into tears when he realises Virgil has left in Canto XXX of Purgatorio.

Posted in 1940s, Historical fiction, Shoah, Writing

WeWriWa— “Still standing tall”


Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors and Snippet Sunday, weekly Sunday hops where writers share 8–10 sentences from a book or WIP. This week’s snippet immediately follows last week’s, and closes this section of this chapter. Soldiers from the U.S. Third Army have arrived at Buchenwald in response to several radio messages sent by the camp’s robust resistance, and two of them have given their chronograph watches to 15-year-old Kálmán and 14-year-old Móric.

Móric has just announced he doesn’t feel well enough to keep standing, and lowered himself onto the ground. As the youngest and most slightly-built member of their original group of twenty-four, he’s survived so long because the older boys took care of him. Kálmán surreptitiously carried Móric on his back during the homestretch of the march to Buchenwald, and when Móric became too sick and weak even for the boys’ brick-laying detail, their Communist Kapo hid him in the typhus ward.

Virdzsi (VEER-jee) is Kálmán’s brother Virgil, named after the great Roman poet. As it turns out, Virgil may have survived after all.


“That’s okay.” Kálmán knelt beside him and put his arm around Móric. “You’re still standing tall and strong.  The Americans came in time to save us, and as soon as we’re well enough to travel, we can go home and start planning our immigration to Palestine.”

“It won’t be easy to go back into the world.  I don’t think we’ll ever be normal again.”

Kálmán put his other arm around Móric and rocked him back and forth. “It never is easy to go from one extreme to another.  Like Virdzsi’s namesake said, ‘The gates of Hell are open night and day; smooth the descent, and easy is the way; but to return, and view the cheerful skies, in this the task and mighty labor lies.’”

Virgil Reading the Aeneid to Augustus, Octavia, and Livia, Jean-Baptiste Wicar, 1790–93

When Kálmán’s family was taken to the Abony ghetto last May, one of the items strewn across their front yard was his mother’s gold-leaf, illuminated Aeneid, fluttering open to a passage about how everyone’s final day is fixed. When Kálmán returns home, that book is one of the items given back to him by some Catholic friends who went around recovering and hiding as many things as possible from their Jewish neighbors before they were plundered by enemies.