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 Historical fiction, Writing

WeWriWa—Greeted by the temple caretaker

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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 excerpts from a middle grade historical fantasy short story called “The Search for Shoki,” which I wrote for a contest last year. It’s set in 737 Japan, during the last year of a smallpox epidemic which started in 735 and killed one-third of the population.

Umiko Hamasaki and Mizuki, daughter of her household’s senior lady-in-waiting, are on a mission to find friendly yokai who’ll lead them to Shoki, a great slayer of disease demons. They’re now taking shelter from the rain in a temple which appeared abandoned.

Main hall of Tokyo’s Senso-ji temple, Copyright Tak1701d

“We should look for the monks’ living quarters,” Mizuki said as she unhitched the cart. “I can’t wait to sleep inside again.”

“May I interest you girls in a warm room and hearty meal?”

Umiko looked to her left and saw an elderly woman with regal bearing, a yellow robe sweeping the floor, and a very large stomach. “I hope we aren’t intruding in your beautiful temple, honored lady, and that we haven’t insulted you by bringing a horse inside. We only entered to take temporary shelter from the rain.”

The strange elder smiled. “There’s no need to apologize. Only I live here most of the time, and it’s my duty to serve all guests. What would you like to eat?”

The ten lines end here. A few more follow.

“Anything you see fit to serve us, of course, esteemed elder,” Mizuki said. “We’re the guests in your temple.”

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 Writing

IWSG—July odds and sods

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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:

There have been many industry changes in the last decade, so what are some changes you would like to see happen in the next decade?

First and foremost, I’d love to see ISBNs becoming free or very low-cost in all countries, possibly being discontinued altogether. They may have made sense at one point, but they seem really obsolete now, and it should be illegal for Bowker to have a monopoly and charge through the roof.

Only someone who was paid by Bowker would say it’s “not bad” to charge $1,500 for a thousand ISBNs, particularly when many writers may never need nearly that many!

I’d also love to see more agents and small publishers open to self-published books. It’s the best of both worlds to have complete creative control for e-books and the first edition, yet the advantage of getting noticed by more people through traditional publishing.

Given how most of my adult books are deliberately written at saga length, I’d also like to see more agents open to taking on long books instead of dismissing and mocking them out of hand. Some genres and stories can’t be done justice in all of 350 pages!

I’d also love for writers to be able to directly submit to editors as they used to, as recently as the Nineties. Having to secure an agent to get your foot in the door makes it so much harder and longer a process.

I knew going into JuNoWriMo I wouldn’t come anywhere close to 50K, thanks to this unending lockdown and the resulting inability to go to the library to write. Seeing as I’m still not in my own home, with unlimited privacy, I’m simply unable to write at nearly the prolific level I’m used to. There’s a psychological block. Almost my entire June wordcount came from blog posts!

My main summer goal is to finish checking the proofs of Dark Forest for the paperback editions, so I’ve been succeeding at that. I only find minor typos or errors here and there, but it’s important to go over the proofs and then check all over again after submitting corrections. On that front, I’ve proofed several hundred thousand words.

Still, I started spring thinking I was finally heading into the homestretch of my WIP, and now my progress has slowed to a snail’s pace. It’ll be a miracle if I’m done by NaNo!

The theme of July, apart from my Sunday Weekend Writing Warriors posts, will be architecture and housing. It kicks off next week with rants about open concepts and tiny houses, and will also include topics like common architectural styles, how to use real estate ads for research, the post-WWII housing crisis and the resulting exodus to suburbia, and my thoughts on The Death and Life of Great American Cities.

August will be pet month, and September will be education-themed (writing about higher education in hist-fic, my own educational history, the ridiculousness that is Sudbury, my thoughts on radical acceleration and grade-skipping, and more).

If lockdown ever ends and I’m still not out of this place, I don’t know if I’ll feel comfortable going back to my local writing group. One of the members said “I never pegged you for a [misogynistic slur]” after I very vocally came out in strong support of J.K. Rowling in the face of so much disgusting abuse.

She left a laugh-react when I told her that word has been recognized as a misogynistic slur, often accompanied by threats of violence, by several courts and U.K. Parliament, along with a website documenting such abuse.

May she choke on her poisonous Woke cookies!

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.