An important turning-point in my writing of antagonists

Probably sometime in the spring of ’98, towards the end of the Civil War unit in my American History class, our teacher announced we were going to have a mock funeral for Pres. Lincoln. She was going to pass around a bowl or hat with slips of paper, and we’d have to deliver a speech from the POV of whomever we drew.

I sat on the front left-hand side of the room, near the door, so I drew first. Of all the names in that container to draw from, I ended up with the one name probably no one wants to draw.

Who wants to play the assassin? Particularly when that person assassinated one of the most venerated people in American history?

I was loath to give my name up when the teacher was asking us who drew whom. When it finally came out that I’d drawn Booth, the teacher’s body language and involuntary little noise made her own reaction obvious.

In short, she knew what kinds of interests I had, my writing style, how advanced I was in my study of history, and how I wasn’t exactly a typical teen.

Don’t ask how obsessed I used to be with Pres. Lincoln and his sons Willie and Tad. He’s still one of my favoritest presidents and people in American history, though I don’t think he was a demigod who did no wrong ever.

Then I began researching my eulogy, written in Booth’s POV. While I didn’t start seeing him as an unfairly vilified hero, I did gain a deeper understanding of his motivations, background, and beliefs. I even used some language I’d never use myself, like an anti-Polish epithet, in the interest of authentically capturing his voice and the types of things he honestly would’ve said.

The day of the mock funeral, I dressed in my father’s old wedding suit, and may have worn a man’s hat as well. It’s so fun wearing men’s suits. Someday I hope to have a men’s-style suit tailored for a woman’s body. There are a few companies specializing in such clothes.

One of the reasons I love Halloween and Purim so much is because, when you really think about it, all clothing, makeup, and accessories are essentially drag, a costume, an identity you choose to put on to the world. It’s fun to play with an alternate identity a few times a year.

I really, really got into my portrayal of Booth. I had to resist the urge to start interacting with other people in character, or to say something like, “If anyone moves, Mary Todd gets it!”

The teacher said I made a really strong case for Booth. I imagine she may have been surprised I got so into character, both in the written and oral speech. So many other people would’ve taken the easy way out by casting him as a one-dimensionally evil villain who acted out of a vacuum.

This carried through into the way I write my antagonists, like Boris Aleksandrovich Malenkov, Mr. Seward, Misha Godunov, Anastasiya Voroshilova, and Mrs. Troy. All these characters truly believe they’re in the right, and started down that path for a reason. The sympathetic characters are the ones who seem misguided to them.

Even minor or secondary antagonists or villains I’ve created aren’t one-dimensionally evil and cartoonish. They have distinguishing features, and are written like real people.

Antagonists like Urma Smart or Mrs. Green, whose entire purpose is to be antagonistic and unsympathetic, exist to make people’s lives very, very miserable. But there’s still a general concept of the background and motivations which led them to those paths. They also bring a lot of great dark comedy.

Antagonists are fun to write! When the first book you ever read, at three years old, is the adult, uncensored edition of Grimms’ Fairytales, you know early on real life isn’t flowers, puppies, rainbows, and glitter.

As much as I enjoy well-deserved happy endings, I’m naturally drawn to the dark, macabre side of writing.

Advertisements

WeWriWa—Inga arrives in New York

weekend_writing_warriorsveteransbadge_4

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 starts the second section of Chapter 73, “Inga in America,” of my third Russian historical, Journey Through a Dark Forest.

In August 1942, 18-year-old Inga Savvina comes to New York City to meet the father who has no idea she exists. Her mother was arrested in 1937 and sentenced to twenty years in Siberia, for refusing to teach Stalin’s phony version of Russian history.

Inga and her family were evacuated to Irkutsk to escape the invading Germans in 1941, which, combined with the more relaxed mood in the USSR, made it easier for her grandparents to send her to safety. A graduation trip to Vladivostok turned into a defection to Shanghai, where she was put in touch with authorities who arranged her passage to San Francisco.

The train finally stops on Sunday, not quite the end of the line, but the end of the line for Inga.  She gathers her luggage and steps from the train into the bright Manhattan sunlight.  This city already looks so crowded and fast-paced, not like the French Concession, Irkutsk, or Vladivostok.

She’s afraid to approach anyone to ask, in her elementary French, directions to the contact she was given, or where a large Russian neighborhood might be.  She just keeps moving with the crowd, making sure to push her luggage ahead of her so it won’t get stolen.  If she loses her luggage, she’ll be left with nothing.

After about thirty minutes of walking with no purpose or direction, the top of Inga’s right shoe catches in a crack in the pavement.  The next thing she knows, she’s on the ground, her right knee ripped open and bleeding, her luggage tumbled out of the rack.  Her knee smarts too much to try standing up, and she has no first aide in any of her bags.  Even the mere motion of gently bending her knee sends waves of pain up and down her leg.

Inga’s father is Lyuba Koneva’s cousin Mikhail Kharzin, nicknamed Ginny, after his childish mispronunciation of the nickname Genie. Her mother, Georgiya, visited New York for Lyuba and Ivan’s wedding in 1923. During the reception, she and Ginny, then sixteen years old, snuck off to the former priests’ quarters and slept together for the first time. Ginny also visited her hotel during the ensuing days.

Though Georgiya never mentioned Inga’s existence in any of the letters she wrote to Ginny, Inga is her father’s spitting image, and she has all Ginny’s letters as additional proof.

WeWriWa—Fedya’s Christmas presents

weekend_writing_warriorsveteransbadge_4

Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors and Snippet Sunday, weekly Sunday hops where writers share 8–10 sentences from a book or WIP. To mark Russian Orthodox Christmas (7 January), this week’s snippet comes from Chapter 66, “Somber Christmas,” of my third Russian historical, Journey Through a Dark Forest.

Nineteen-year-old Fedya Konev recently married his sweetheart Novomira. Getting married before enlisting in the army was so urgent, he got special permission to marry during the Nativity Fast. Orthodox weddings are normally forbidden during fasts.

The newlyweds are home with their families in Minnesota for the holidays. Fedya’s youngest brother Ilya has insisted he open his presents first, since he’s leaving that night.

Fedya tries to keep a straight face as he accepts package after package—cards, razors, shaving brushes, cologne, candy, and crossword books from Igor and Ilya; homemade socks and a blanket with little ikons sewn on from his mother; stationary and a picturefold of chronological family photos from his father; a picture from Sonyechka; embroidered handkerchiefs from Katya; a purple homemade scarf from Irina; a pocket-sized prayerbook with an embroidered cover from Tatyana; a pocket watch from Nikolay; and a sketchpad, colored pencils, a fancy comb and mirror, and a bracelet with an elephant charm from Novomira.

He already knows there are more presents waiting for him at his in-laws,’ the Vishinskies,’ and back in New York.  It’ll be a wonder if he’s able to take all this with him when he goes to basic training, in addition to his necessary, regular possessions.

“We got you a couples’ present too,” Ivan announces, handing over a pink parcel. “I read about this idea in a magazine recently, and thought it’d be really nice to have before your separation.”

Fedya unwraps a blue glass bauble with an English-language inscription in gold ink, “7 January 1942, Fyodor I. Konev and Novomira A. Kutuzova-Koneva, First Christmas Together.” The inscription is ringed by a wreath, with doves and hearts on the other side.

“I’ll put this on Vera and Seva’s tree every year until the war’s over,” Novomira proclaims. “I hope it’ll be over by next Christmas, but you never can tell.”

Fedya squeezes her hand, too embarrassed to do anything more personal in front of his entire family.

As it turns out, Fedya is given 21 days at home with Novomira after enlisting, instead of taken straight to boot camp as he imagined. Had he known there’d be a mandated break between induction and reporting, he wouldn’t have gone to the trouble of getting special permission to marry during a fast season. The wedding could’ve taken place after Orthodox Christmas.

Novomira’s birth surname was Kutuzova-Tvardovskaya, but she took a page from the Spanish naming customs by keeping her mother’s surname and adding Fedya’s. When Tatyana, Fedya’s older sister, married Novomira’s older brother Nikolay, she went from Koneva to Tvardovskaya-Koneva.

IWSG—Plans for 2018

InsecureWritersSupportGroup

Welcome to the first installment of The Insecure Writer’s Support Group for 2018!

A total stranger recently misinterpreted one of my Tweets and jumped on me like an attack dog, assuming both my religion and politics. She never apologized after I explained several times I was writing from the POV of a character and that this is a writers’ hop.

I also recently did a guest post about Dr. John Money and David Reimer for 4thWaveNow.

I was recently in the odd, difficult position of having to pass on an offer of interest. Though I haven’t taken part in any trad-pub contests in a few years, I took a chance and pitched the book formerly known as The Very First during the latest Pitch Madness.

I was excited to get one like from the managing editor of a publishing house, but further research revealed this would be a very bad fit. Though I’ve significantly watered down or removed the age-inappropriate content I only included to be controversial, there are still a few spots they wouldn’t consider “clean.”

Removing or radically reworking them just to curry favor and potentially get published would alter the story in unacceptable ways. It would distort and misrepresent my voice.

That publishing house is also an imprint of a very conservative religion’s book company, and has a censorship board. G-rated content isn’t who I am at all. My character Cinni says several times that real life isn’t like a Norman Rockwell painting, and that that kind of life never existed for many Americans.

I thought I only had to finish up my unplanned chapter on The War of the Worlds radio broadcast and do some final polishing, but I instead saw an awesome opening to add two additional chapters after what I always thought was the ending.

Though I’ve carefully edited this book to feel more suited to upper MG, the ending felt too simplistic, easy, sudden, more suited to a younger readership.

The new chapters are about Sparky’s first Thanksgiving, and the experience of being Jewish when everyone around her celebrates Christmas. There’s also an Epilogue in January 1939, at her favorite brother Barry’s bar mitzvah. The new and improved reason for the nickname Sparky will be revealed then.

My guesstimate for the final length is 80K, which is super-short by my standards. The hot mess of a first draft was only 38K.

I also need to finish my alternative history about the rule of Tsar Aleksey II. My initial plan was to release it on what would’ve been his 112th birthday, 12 August 2016, but that obviously didn’t work out. A release date of 17 July 2018 would be so appropriately bittersweet, since that’s his real-life 100th Jahrzeit (death anniversary).

Getting back to work on my fourth Russian novel would also be awesome.

My planned blog posts for the year will again feature films and albums celebrating landmark anniversaries, including:

The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)
October (1928)
The Crowd (1928)
The Great Train Robbery (1903)
Duck Soup (1933)
Thriller (1983)
Colour by Numbers (1983)
The Birds, the Bees, and The Monkees (1968)
The Wedding Album (1993), this year’s feature for Duran Duran Appreciation Day

My October series on classic horror films will include The Invisible Man (1933), West of Zanzibar (1928), The Fall of the House of Usher (1928), The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), and several Georges Méliès films.

I’m also going to feature the radio play of The War of the Worlds (1938). As I recently discovered, the so-called mass panic was far, far, far less widespread than we’ve been led to believe. It’s also an awesome story perfect for Halloween.

Finally, as you might’ve seen in my second banner, I’ve added an index page cataloguing my posts by nine major topics—book reviews, film reviews, album reviews, misc. book-related, misc. film-related, misc. music-related, historical topics, writing advice, and names.

What are your writing and editing plans for this year?

WeWriWa—1939 becomes 1940

weekend_writing_warriorsveteransbadge_4

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 lines are the ending of the book formerly known as The Very Next, my chronological second Atlantic City book.

It’s the end of 1939, and Cinnimin Filliard’s family goes upstairs and outside to take part in a local New Year’s tradition of setting off an egg full of fireworks. Two years later, this tradition goes horribly wrong when Cinni’s frenemy Violet stuffs the egg with stink bombs instead of fireworks!

This has been slightly edited to fit ten lines.

A minute before midnight, everyone crowded onto the fire escape.  It was neighborhood tradition to stuff a large plaster egg full of fireworks, light a fuse, and send it plummeting to earth so it would explode at exactly the moment the old and new year changed places.  This year, the Filliards had stuffed their egg with purple fireworks.

Cinni proudly held the egg as Babs struck a long match and held it to the fuse, and at a signal from Mr. Filliard, Cinni let go, throwing it with as much force as she could, to ensure it exploded better than anyone else’s egg.  Her family always won the unofficial block competition, and best of all, this year the Vallis had joined them, so there was one less egg to compete against.

“Ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one.  Happy 1940!”

The purple fireworks showering in all directions gave Cinni hope the new decade would be much happier than the depressing decade which was now the stuff of history books, no matter how ominous future signs were.  It was like the butterfly emerging from Pandora’s Box and giving the chained, tortured Prometheus hope in spite of everything.  Life is nothing without hope.