Posted in Historical fiction, Writing

How to use real estate ads for research

One of the many mistakes I made while researching and writing my abandoned storyline about the Konevs moving back to NYC in 1952 was reading current real estate ads for historic properties as though they’d always been that way. Regardless of which city, era, or type of housing you’re writing about, you should never assume a house or apartment is completely unchanged from the day of its creation.

So you go to a site like Zillow, choose the neighborhood or street you’re researching, plug in age range (e.g., 1880–1930), square footage, number of bedrooms, and style (condo, townhouse, apartment, detached house). You read the descriptions and look at the photos and floor plans, and start basing your fictional homes on your favorites.

Except you may be barking up the completely wrong tree.

Yes, that home physically existed in that year, but it may have looked a lot different. If it’s in a major city (e.g., NYC, San Francisco, Chicago, Boston, Newark, Philadelphia, Baltimore), and your story is set anytime from the Depression through these cities’ nadirs in the Seventies and Eighties, odds are it wasn’t used as a single-family home and was a lot smaller.

Unless one were lucky enough to already own one’s home and have fully paid it off, the Stock Market crash forced many people into new dwellings. They could no longer afford rent on luxury apartments or upkeep of rambling estates. Many townhouses and rowhouses were split up into duplexes, triplexes, and SROs.

Some townhouses had as many as 29 SRO apartments!

Others were split up in response to the severe housing crisis following WWII. Many large apartments were also chopped up into smaller units, and some tenants were pressured or outright forced into moving or accepting the decreased square footage of their homes.

Likewise, many estates in cities like St. Paul and San Francisco were used as boardinghouses and apartments. People were able to get them for free or cheap, but had a lot of work to do fixing them up.

The same went for townhouses which escaped the division into SROs, duplexes, and triplexes.

And speaking of townhouses and rowhouses, many had entry floor businesses (restaurants, shoe stores, bookstores, candy stores, business classes, photography studios, florist shops, etc.). Even if a single family owned the property, they may not have had residence on every floor.

Many amenities featured in modern apartments and condos didn’t exist until very recently. It’s one thing to create a fictional building with a pool, gorgeous courtyard, a few upscale businesses on the lower floors, and maid service, but things like dog parks, communal treehouses, Yoga studios, and bowling alleys wouldn’t have existed in all but the most contemporary hist-fic.

The above is from 1936, so it’s not entirely implausible for your characters to be well-off during the Depression and have a luxury home. However, that wasn’t very common. Not much new housing was built after the Stock Market crash, and an architect or realtor in touch with reality wouldn’t have built, developed, or marketed such upscale housing.

The former hotel being refurbished into condos in all but name, an urban kibbutz of sorts for an unrealistic amount of my characters to all conveniently live in, was beyond unrealistic. People would’ve been squatting in that hotel, or it would’ve been split up into SROs.

Forget about terraces, a three-story penthouse, sprawling apartments, a steamroom, indoor pool, libraries on every floor, and private-entry elevators! Those would’ve been added decades later, not during such a severe housing crisis.

Co-ops were uncommon until the Sixties, and condos didn’t exist in the U.S. till about the same time. However, some luxury apartments called it even after a certain amount of years paying rent, and became condos in all but name.

Obviously, things like air conditioning, central heating, and electricity were added at much later dates, but those generally aren’t the only changes. Wine cellars, wet bars, private gyms, spa rooms, I’m looking at you! Elevators are also almost certainly very recent additions.

And if that house was built before 1950, you know it wouldn’t have been a tacky open concept originally!

It’s fine to use modern real estate ads as a jumping-off point for creating your own fictional homes, but it’s also important to look up vintage ads.

You also want to look up the average home and rent prices in that area in that era. Plugging modern numbers into an inflation calculator won’t give an accurate price, since the cost of living has gone WAY up over the last few decades.

Posted in Writing

Housing and characters should complement one another

Just as it’s most vitally important to choose the right setting for your story, it’s also important to choose the right type of housing for your characters. One of the many reasons my storyline about the Konevs moving back to NYC failed was because it never advanced beyond liking the idea of them living in a beautiful old townhouse or luxury apartment. It never took into account where they truly most belong.

You can want to write about, e.g., 16th century London, 1750s Prague, 1840s Boston, 1880s Manhattan, 1920s Paris, or 1960s San Francisco all you want, but that won’t mean anything if it never develops beyond an abstract idea and doesn’t naturally fit with the characters.

Think about who your characters truly are, not how you’re forcing them to be. While they’ll of course go whichever way you dictate, you may eventually discover you chose the wrong path. If this happens several books into a series instead of while writing a standalone or first book in a series, you need to work with what you already have instead of lighting everything on fire and potentially creating even more mistakes.

It’s the same as with any other storyline you discover naturally taking another path, like a character meeting the perfect future spouse well before you planned for her/him to meet an entirely different partner. “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”

Think about who your characters are, really are, not just how you’d like them to be. Growing up in a certain type of home creates a certain state of mind. There are distinct differences between the following kinds of people:

A proletarian with deep roots in a major metropolis, who grew up playing on sidewalks, going to public parks for green spaces, stoop-sitting and people-watching, living in a modest walk-up apartment and not knowing anyone with a private house.

An old money family with lots of kids, living in a 6,000-square foot estate where all the space is made perfect use of instead of being for grandiose show. Their property includes many acres of gardens, trees, brindle paths, and fishponds.

A wealthy family with a 3,000-square foot duplex apartment in the big city, complete with a doorman, elevator operator, several servants, and amenities like a sauna, pool, and exclusive restaurants. They also have a summer home by the seashore.

A lower-middle-class family with a charming bungalow in a sleepy small town.

A humble farming family living nowhere near even a smaller town, with a self-sufficient existence.

A newlywed couple in a 100-year-old Tudor Revival house in a thriving artists’ colony in a very old suburb of a major city, so established it’s become its own city.

A bourgeois family in a brand-new housing development in a suburb 30 miles from the nearest large city.

An aristocratic family with several estates, a townhouse, a yacht, and a few pied à terres.

Members of a reigning family, rather far down the line of succession, with a palace and summer villa considered modest by royal standards.

The ruling branch of said family, who spends the year moving between five different palaces, a yacht, royal relatives’ palaces in other countries, a summer villa, and a hunting lodge.

If you put any of them in a place they’re not accustomed to, it won’t go well. A rich socialite who thrives on apartment life and her second home in the Hamptons will be like a fish out of water in a humble 900-square foot bungalow in a small town in Iowa, just as a third-generation farmer will be very discombobulated if relocated to a grand palace with servants catering to his every need.

Are your characters artists? Intellectuals? Small business owners? What socioeconomic class are they? How about hobbies and personalities? Do they crave privacy, or do they thrive on social life and constant action? Are they passionate about gardening? Do they have any pets? Are any of those pets livestock?

Someone who’s been taken away from their accustomed setting may eventually get used to the new setting. Others may accept it as part of a radical move (e.g., going on the Oregon Trail or immigrating to a new country), but eventually feel more and more of a calling back to the familiar. Still others may never be happy about it.

For some people, a bungalow or 600-square foot condo is the perfect home, while others feel more at home in an old stone cottage or sprawling estate. It’s all down to the individual.

Posted in Editing, Fourth Russian novel, Rewriting, Writing

Redirecting an aborted storyline

Though I had to abandon the storyline about the Konevs moving back to NYC in June 1952, creating it wasn’t a complete waste. It helped me to discover the real reasons they settled in rural Minnesota and were so adamant about their kids always living on their isolated, compound-like property. After their traumatic childhoods and the additional trauma of the Civil War, could they really be blamed?

It also brought my attention to a lot of compelling themes, like making peace with letting go of a daydream, establishing independent adult lives in a place of one’s own choosing instead of feeling duty-bound to stay close to family, life being customized instead of standard-issue, letting life take us where it’s meant to instead of adhering to set in stone items on an arbitrary checklist, never being too late to take another fork in the road.

From the ruins of this storyline arose much stronger replacements which truly work with who these characters are:

1. Stefania Wolicka Academy’s radical pedagogy will be significantly toned down. It’ll still use a lot of hands-on, non-traditional learning methods, and students will still be able to choose many of their own classes and assignments, but it won’t be 99% self-teaching and doing whatever they want.

2. Towards that end, Lyuba will be offered a position teaching Russian history and literature to the high school girls.

3. Lyuba will also use her history degree to start an interview archive (both written and recorded) with everyday people.

4. Ivan will take more art classes at the Minneapolis School of Art (now the Minneapolis College of Art and Design). He unfortunately began the University of Minnesota right when its art program switched focus to the business side of art instead of the fine arts aspect, so his formal art education is a bit lacking.

5. The Konevs will move into an abandoned Victorian estate on St. Paul’s Summit Ave., near the intersection with Mississippi River Blvd. They get the big house of their dreams, with a yard large enough for their horse Branimir, and a gorgeous view of the river.

6. On the same block will be several families of fellow black sheep artists and intellectuals from Greece, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary. They also have daughters Sonyechka and Tamara’s ages. It’s high time the Konevs became friends with people outside their immediate family and longtime best friends.

7. The Konevs will meet the Hungarian family on the train back to Minnesota after Igor and Ilya’s New York weddings, and they’ll help Sonyechka to understand not all artists and intellectuals want to live in NYC.

8. Andrey’s psychology Ph.D. residency will be in San Francisco, which absorbed a large population of Shoah survivors. That solves the problem of Katya and her son Rodik being all alone while Dmitriy’s deployed. Who better for her to live with than her favorite sister Darya?

9. Since Fedya is likewise very close to Darya, he and Novomira will also start their new lives in San Francisco. Fedya will study at the San Francisco Art Institute.

10. Tatyana and Nikolay will scale back their farm and join forces with other farmers to start a grocery store like Amherst’s Atkins or Albany’s Honest Weight Food Co-op.

11. On the initiative of their firstborn Kira, they’ll also become a farm sanctuary by any other name.

12. A suburb will be created near the then-largely rural, undeveloped neighborhood of Duluth Heights, providing a much-needed source of new friends for Tatyana and Nikolay’s family and a financial lifeline for Firebird Fields. The new neighbors will be mostly fellow Russian–Americans, with some Serbians, Ukrainians, and Finns.

13. Aleksey will go full-time with his woodworking business and sell his creations in the arts and crafts section of the new grocery store.

14. Eliisabet will attend Duluth’s College of St. Scholastica for her much-belated bachelor’s degree.

15. Igor and Violetta will fall in love with Denver and eventually move there. It’s such a beautiful city, with so many wonderful things to paint, and a thriving arts scene. Equally-lovely Boulder and Colorado Springs are also nearby.

16. Firebird Fields will transition away from an agricultural focus.

17. I’ll also develop the town in much greater detail. Apart from a scene at the skating rink in Dark Forest, a few graduation scenes at the school, and mentions of local businesses, it never really came alive as a living, breathing, thriving small town.

18. Nikolas will stay in NYC to open a law practice with Andrey Zyuganov and Anahita Sadeghi.

19. His wife Kat will attend Brooklyn College for her much-belated bachelor’s degree.

20. Prof. Novak will join the University of Minnesota’s anthropology department, which was fairly small in this era.

Posted in Fourth Russian novel, New York City, Writing

How a poorly-planned storyline fell apart

When a storyline never advances past a vague idea, or you can’t decide which way exactly to take it, that’s a very strong sign it’s not meant to be. That was precisely what happened with my aborted storyline of the Konevs moving back to NYC in June 1952.

How did it fall apart, and why did I realize it? Let me count the ways.

1. They spend way more time talking about their exciting upcoming move, or in Ivan’s case resisting it, than actively planning it! Who the bloody hell commits to moving 1,000 miles away and enrolling in grad school without guaranteed housing lined up?

2. I kept going back and forth re: which neighborhood they should live in, and getting lost in rabbit holes of research. The West Village? The Upper West Side? Hamilton Heights? Morningside Heights? One of the districts within Victorian Flatbush? Staten Island?

3. Likewise with housing type. A penthouse? A luxury apartment? The mother-in-law suite in Katrin’s penthouse? A townhouse? A rowhouse? Sharing a townhouse with relatives? An estate in Victorian Flatbush?

4. I also kept going back and forth re: which schools everyone should attend. For the adults, should it be Columbia, City College, Brooklyn College, Columbia Teachers College, the Pratt Institute, NYU, Hunter, or Sarah Lawrence? For Sonyechka and Tamara, is Walden or New Lincoln a better fit?

5. Even if Lyuba sometimes said, well before this storyline, she wished the family still lived in New York, that wasn’t a true, active wish. Doesn’t everyone sometimes wonder about the path not taken? Deep down, she knows her life is in Minnesota now.

6. Speaking of, why would Tatyana and Nikolay uproot their six kids to move 1,000 miles away because they miss their friends? It’s like Plinio in Hermann Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game (his only novel I found a slog instead of a joy to read), whining to his former best friend Joseph Knecht about how they grew apart. This bothered him for 20 years?! Move on, dude!

You can never really go home again. People and places change, even if everyone’s still there and the cityscape is the same on the surface. We acquire different lifestyles as we age. Raising a family and working take priority over carefree fun.

7. It played right into the overly romanticized view of New York as the best of all possible cities, the only city worth anything.

8. Though it was rather subtle, the city was entering the first stages of its tragic decline in this era. Where would the Konevs go after the city began noticeably deteriorating?

9. The severe housing crisis created during the Depression only got worse after WWII. They would not have had first priority on one of the precious units available, and a detached house in the outer boroughs would’ve resulted in a long commute.

10. It felt like a preachy polemic about the superiority of urban apartment life over farm country and traditional houses.

11. It necessitated too many convenient plot twists and cluttery storylines justifying almost the entire Minnesota cast relocating en masse!

12. Everyone began talking like they were never really happy in Firebird Fields and couldn’t wait to wash their hands of farming. Despite the difficulties, they were so happy to finally be out of the congested city and have large houses, fresh air, clear skies, open spaces, and sunlight again!

13. Katya points out Lyuba substituted one daydream for another. Yes, it sucks that her life was turned upside-down by the Revolution, but in her early fifties, she can only do so much towards returning to the path her life otherwise would’ve taken. Who’s to say her New York life would automatically be so much more awesome the second time around?

14. Their New York friends and family have missed living close by, but never expressed such severe longing to be together again before! All of a sudden it’s a huge hardship and heartache.

15. Deep down, I couldn’t picture the Konevs as apartment people, even in a sprawling penthouse with two stories, a big terrace, great amenities, and a gorgeous courtyard. They only lived in communal housing when they had no choice.

16. Ditto living in a multi-story, fairly narrow townhouse sharing walls with other homes. Just not who they’ve ever been, despite staying in relatives’ townhouses when they visit.

17. Where would they put their dear horse Branimir, another Long Island stable?

18. On the flip side of the NYC lovefest was a Minnesota hatefest. Everyone talks like it’s a cultural and intellectual desert!

19. Can’t these people think outside the familiar? There’s no reason everyone needs to either stay in Minnesota or return to NYC if there’s truly a pressing need to move.

20. Though Nikolay resents how farming gave him an automatic draft exemption in WWII, he and Tatyana truly do love that simpler lifestyle.

21. The main plotlines of the future sixth book are based around Sonyechka and Tamara NOT living in the same city as their parents!

To be continued.

Posted in Fourth Russian novel, New York City, Writing

How an aborted storyline came together

My original plan for the ending of A Dream Deferred was for Lyuba and Ivan to return to Firebird Fields and farming after graduating from the University of Minnesota. Their youngest children, Sonyechka and Tamara, would resume the small local school.

And then the Konevs went to NYC for their friends Kat and Nikolas’s 30th anniversary, and everything changed.

During that week, Sonyechka and Tamara attend Father Spiridon’s church camp and become friends with Pravdina and Zikatra Mytnik, Oksana Zyuganova’s daughters.

Pravdina and Zikatra attend the radical Walden School, and attended the even more radical Summerhill in London. Sonyechka loves how intellectual, politically aware, cultured, and sophisticated they are.

Sonyechka and Tamara beg their parents for permission to stay an extra week instead of returning to Minnesota. During that week, Sonyechka gets a bug in her ear about the family relocating to NYC so her parents can attend grad school and she can attend Walden.

From that point forward, a chain reaction is set in motion, as one by one everyone in Minnesota begins declaring how they never truly felt at home in farm country and need to return to NYC to accomplish anything with their lives.

Except….

This plot-changing extra week in New York is never depicted! We only hear about it afterwards, when Sonyechka talks about how Pravdina suggested she impersonate her parents in graduate school applications. We also hear several times about how Sonyechka found Ilya’s senior portfolio project while giving Pravdina and Zikatra a tour.

Once Sonyechka comes home, suddenly Stefania Wolicka Academy, a very progressive school which gave her a full scholarship, is the worst school ever, far too freewheeling and not academically rigourous enough. Not that long ago, she lauded it as the best school ever!

Instead of significantly toning down how radical Stefania Wolicka is, I created a storyline about Irina, Sonyechka, and their friends (including the boys at next-door Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi Academy) losing their scholarships due to financial difficulties. They’d finish the year at a new Quaker school, and then go on to Walden after the entire Minnesota cast relocated.

This whole storyline was for naught, since Ivan’s prodigal father, in the thick of his latest attempt at repentance, comes to the rescue with full tuition for everyone for the rest of the school year. He follows this up with expensive birthday and Christmas presents, and letters far more good-natured and personal than usual, leading Lyuba and Ivan to wonder just where he’s getting all this money from and why he’s suddenly acting so charitable.

Lyuba and Ivan’s respective advisors strongly recommend grad school, and of course they heavily push for New York schools instead of staying where they already are. Because apparently the University of Minnesota is a no-name school with inferior programs and professors. </extreme sarcasm> Conveniently, they also have connections at Walden who’ll greenlight Sonyechka and Tamara’s acceptance.

It doesn’t take long for Lyuba to jump on this precious opportunity to get a master’s degree from Columbia and finally do something with her intellect. Her advisor thinks she’s brilliant enough for a Ph.D.

Prof. Eduard Novak, the father of Sonyechka’s best friend Kleopatra, also gets a letter from Columbia, inviting him to join their archaeology department thanks to the influence of an old friend. Prof. Novak had a nervous breakdown after surviving the brutal Croatian camp Jasenovac, but now he’s finally ready to return to public life.

In November, there’s a meeting in Firebird Fields, which has suddenly become an unincorporated community instead of a real town. Due to an increasing hemorrhage of population, they need to vote on gaining official town status, becoming a suburb of Duluth (a stone’s throw away), being annexed to Duluth, or remaining on their own.

This is all the push needed for Fedya to decide to apply to Columbia Teachers College to become an art teacher. He only returned to Minnesota out of blind duty and to avoid disappointing his parents, and Novomira never wanted to return.

Tatyana and Nikolay also start making plans to move.

While in New York during winter break, Lyuba’s real estate agent cousin Ginny shows them a former hotel in the West Village, being refurbished into luxury apartments for less by a philanthropist who wants to entice a more moneyed population back to the neighborhood.

This would never have happened during such a severe housing crisis! People would’ve been squatting in that hotel, or it would’ve been split into many SROs since the Depression.

Sonyechka sends a telegram to Dr. Scholl, suggesting Dr. Persida Kolarov (Kleopatra’s mother) for his new progressive clinic.

On Russian Christmas, Andrey accepts an offer to do his psychology Ph.D. residency at a new Manhattan practice specializing in Shoah survivors, since there are so many in the city.

Dmitriy gets furlough from Korea for Katya’s 26th birthday in March, and of course she gets pregnant. You guessed it, she must leave beautiful, sunny Berkeley to join her family in New York!

For good measure, let’s have the Kahns join the Konevs and Novaks too.

To be continued.