Thursday, November 8, 2018

Armistice Day In Old Rockdale


    The insistent blast of the mill whistle woke Massey from a sound sleep. He could not remember what he was dreaming, but he was sure it was pleasant. Massey fumbled with his blanket and grabbed his alarm clock, nearly upsetting the washbasin. The luminous hands of his Big Ben pointed to 3:24―much too early for the shift change. He was about to return to sleep when the whistle was joined by bells from Saint Joseph's steeple and the blast of a steam locomotive. Next was the deep-throated sound of the village fire alarm followed by the ooga-ooga of klaxons from several cars and trucks and the shrill screech of yet another steam whistle. A mere down pillow over his ears was not going to be enough to defeat the clangs, bangs, toots and screams that were merging into one clamorous roar.
    “Not again” Massey muttered and felt his way to the window. Just four days ago, all of Rockdale had exploded in a joyous shivaree when someone passed on the rumor the war was over, and he had yet to recover his lost sleep. Massey threw open the window and let in the noise and a cold blast of November air. The scene greeting him was etched into his memory forever. Below, Moen Avenue had swelled into a sea of cheering men and women, and sleepy children banging pots and pans with wooden spoons in time with Louie Antonelli’s hurdy-gurdy.. Firecrackers left over from the Fourth finally had their chance to contribute their pops and from the nearby canal, skyrockets from a towboat showered the night with cascades of red and green.
    “It's over.” the crowd chorused over the din. “This time it's over for sure. The war is over.”
 * * *

* * *

   The end came at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of the year 1918. The German command on the Rhine sent out the wireless message, “Im Westen nichts neus”―”Nothing is new on the Western front.” The ally’s message was briefer-”All is quiet.”

Excerpted from Slogans: Our Children, Our Future 

Author's Note: I mislabelled Louie Antonelli's musical instrument. Actually it was a street barrel organ.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

#MeToo


Based on today's standards, I would posit a century ago one-hundred percent of women were sexually assaulted.  If not true worldwide, then by any definition it certainly happened in the Eastern European area my stories took place.  While we may debate war brings out the best in men, there is no doubt it more often brings out the worse. In my first three novels, Ikons and Banners, attacks and crass behavior against women were only hinted or obliquely presented.  In my third, Slogans, I actually broached the subject.

While all my female characters suffered some form of outrage, only my character Kataya was overtly sexually assaulted.  I presented her ordeal in a way I believed (wrongly) was not overly graphic but provided enough information for the reader's imagination to fill in the details.

Kataya's Assault


Kataya's assault scene opened on a moving train as she was returning home from the front and written from her perspective. The prose was rather innocuous until the last two lines.
* * *
Soldat Kataya Koscik watched the empty bottles roll across the freight car’s floor, slow to a stop and reverse direction.  With every sway of the uneven rails, the bottles repeated their awkward dance.  They banged into the side of the car's walls, each other or the bodies of the five homebound Russian soldiers sprawled along the wooden floor.  Kataya sat huddled in the rear of the car, her back against the wall and her knees pulled up to her chest.


With her left hand she clutched her torn uniform to her breast and with her right gripped the neck of a shattered bottle.  The next time she would be ready.
* * *
The novel's following paragraphs explained the events prior to the opening scene.  In her homeward journey, Kataya had clambered aboard what she thought was an empty boxcar only to find it occupied by five Russian soldiers.  I chose not to give the men any characteristics other than Old One, Young One, Short One, Tall One and Heavy One.  For several days she was welcomed and joined in their food and banter, but when Old One foraged several bottles of vodka, the mood changed.
* * *
    “Come and celebrate with us,” the short one yelled and held up a bottle. 

    “Da, a few swallows will warm you,” laughed the old one.  “Then we'll sing and dance and ….”  He paused and gave a long shrill whistle.  “Then?  Who knows?”
   Kataya knew, but it was too late.  
* * *
Several members of Writers' Group suggested I stop at this point and leave the rest for the reader to fill in.  However, I ignored their suggestion and went on.
* * *

    For the second time in her life, Kataya fought the tongue trying to force its way into her mouth and the rough fingers groping her chest.  But unlike Schoko’s attack, no one was here to save her.  Kataya raked her nails across the heavy one's face and saw fireflies dance when he punched her in the left eye.  The five soldiers grappled over her like a pack of hungry dogs for a scrap of meat and finally succeeded in pinning her to the floor.  “I'm first,” announced the old one and began to fumble with his buttons.
* * *

 The Next Morning    

 

The effect of too much vodka and the swaying railcar foiled the soldiers attempts at rape.  The next scene reverted to the opening passage from the perspective of Tall One.  I did not want to make all men monsters, thus I gave Tall One a smidgen of humanity.
 
* * *

     He pinched the bridge of his nose to clear his head and caught sight of Kataya.  It was then he remembered.  He remembered the eyes.   
    The tall one had seen those eyes once before.  The emotions in the deep dark orbs were the same those in his little sister's eyes had when she was seven and he was ten and took her into the woods.  He didn't mean any harm, he was merely curious.  Now those haunting eyes were back, accusing him and pleading with him.  The eyes wanted to believe in him and they wanted to sparkle and dance in the morning sun and laugh as they did before.  Once again they wanted to trust their big brother.
* * *
The Tall One made amends to Kataya and apologized.  As a peace offering he presented her his elk-horn knife in exchange for the broken bottle and swore to protect her for the rest of the journey.  The knife appeared several more times later in the novel.
* * *

    The tall one reached slowly down and retrieved the shard.  “Don't worry, Little Sister,” he said and patted his hip where the big brother of her blade rested, “you'll be safe.”

   Kataya believed him but did not lower her knife.
* * *




Kataya's Elk Horn Knife

Readers' Reactions


I really underestimated the emotional effect of this passage on female readers. My Writers' Group said preceding chapters had portrayed Kataya as a strong and independent character, and when I placed her at the mercy of five merciless men, I showed not only Katatya's vulnerability, but also exposed the primal fear of all women.  Based on their comments and those expressed in the previous post, I learned my novel would have a hard time being accepted by a female audience.

Their reactions to these scenes showed I had to ability to elicit strong emotional reactions through writing.  What they also showed was I should have heeded their advice and stop my descriptions after they made their impact.  Emotional scenes are like rich food -- best served in moderation.  In other words I learned the hard lesson of "less is more."

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Fear

I believe this scene from Slogans: Our Children, Our Future did a good job of presenting true fear.  The sequence showed not just fear on a mental level, but its effect on the physical.  My protagonist, Igor, is a young soldier in the Bolshevik cavalry, the Konarmia.  Throughout his military career, he prided himself with a bravery that never failed.  In battle after battle, he channeled fear to strengthen his resolve and heighten his senses.  But in this battle against Poland, Igor was forced to face defeat and the power of true fear.
* * *
     Pop.  For the first time in his life, Igor felt real fear.  It was not the exhilaration that once fueled his reckless bravado as a young conscript in the Tsar's army and caused his heart to race, his blood to surge and mind to focus.  Rather this new fury was a numbing, paralyzing force that tightened his stomach and made his mind stumble into black places never before entered.  Pop.  Fear ripped his confidence with sharp claws; curled him into a tight ball and jammed him even further beneath the upended machinegun cart.  With what thought remained, Igor concentrated on gaining control and dispelling the fear.  He clenched his teeth and clinched his arms across his chest in an effort to stop the spasms racking his body after each pistol shot.  But his body, like the Konarmia, could not be calmed.  Pop.

* * *
Igor's Shelter

 Transition


Following the description of Igor's fear, I wrote several paragraphs telling how he and the Konarmia arrived in this situation.  I gave a brief description of the Battle of Zamosc, the greatest cavalry since Napoleonic times, and the aftershock of the Bolshevik's defeat.  Following this paragraph, I returned to Igor's plight.
* * *
     Beams from a dozen electric torches swept the meadow near Igor's hiding space and continued to move ever closer.  From the cover of his overturned tachanka, Igor watched through splintered floorboards as the lights converged on a stack of bodies. He sucked in his breath and cringed as cries of wounded men and horses were silenced.  Pop.  

   Closing his eyes, Igor mouthed a prayer remembered from childhood and then wondered how often the same words were being uttered by men who had just desecrated churches, burned ikon and swore there was no God.

      Pop.  Igor opened his eyes as the flash of light spilled across his shelter.  He held his breath as the searchers progressed around the ruined battlefield, prodding bodies with sabers and bayonets to find those still alive. 
     Pop.  Small caliber.  Pop.  Point blank.  Pop.  Execution. 
     Biting his lips and tasting blood Igor whimpered a prayer when the Poles halted and made cursory jabs at the corpse lying beside his hiding place.  His eyes were still wide when they reflected the light.
* * *

Beta Readers' Reaction


When I presented this scene to my Writers' Group, I got mixed reactions.  The males expressed positive and helpful comments, while the females were not so supportive.  One went so far as to say I should have given her a trigger warning, since she hates war and any story connected with it.  My initial impulse was to shoot back, "Hey, I'm that into your genre either."  However, I simply nodded and accepted her critique, such as it was, and was content my writing had an effect.

Monday, July 9, 2018

The Doctor Dolittle Effect - Talk To Animals

Every writer has favorite writing devices to effectively convey their story.  I have discussed several in my previous posts, but one that has helped flesh out my characters many times is the Doctor Dolittle Effect.  In other words, my characters reveal their inner-most thoughts with animals.  But, unlike Doctor Dolittle's patients, my animals do not answer.
Hugh Lofting's Doctor Dolittle converses with animals
A standard novel writing scheme to convey a character's thoughts is with italic font or muttered statements.  While both are acceptable, they can become redundant, if not to the reader then to the writer.  Plus, statements spoken aloud lend a dramatic effect cold description cannot match.

Akulina and Her Cow


Akulina is a single mother raising her two sons in the Russian village of Unkurda.  While she does have female friends, she usually keeps her deepest thoughts to herself.  Only when she is alone with her animals does she verbalize her thoughts and feelings.  In this excerpt from Slogans: Our Children, Our Future, Akuliina tells her milk cow, Belyanka, about the boys' erroneous belief that owning a cow makes them rich and an enemy of the people.
***
     “Did you know you lived in a palace? Ah, yes, Belyanka, I have it from a very good source.” Akulina's swept her arm around the cow's surroundings, a simple wooden cowshed, wide enough for two stalls and strong enough to keep out the wind and snow but little else. “Yes, we are rich. We are aristocracy, nou? Soon I will be invited to the grand balls in the estates of the pomieshtchnik.”     
    Akulina pulled a hot stone from her apron and rubbed it with her hands. “What do you think I should wear? The red gown with the ermine fur? Perhaps the blue one with golden trim and diamonds? Of course, how foolish of me. I have but one dress. Perhaps it hangs a bit loose, but it is still a good dress, is it not Belyanka?”
***
Akulina speaks to Belyanka while milking

Akulina and Her Cat


Through this sarcastic discourse with her cow the reader learns Akulina, though poor, has a wry sense of humor about her sons' attitudes.  Later in the story, Akulina pours out her emotions to her murdered cat, Petruska.  The scene ends with Akulina breaking down and seeking Belyanka's comfort.
* * *
     Akulina picked up the cat's limp form, cradled him in her arms and stroked his fur. Petrushka's head dangled at an unnatural angle as Akulina carried him to a corner of the cowshed. His once bright eyes, glazed over by death, again asked, “Why did I have to die?”

     “Superstition,” Akulina replied in answer to the cat’s silent question. Did people believe a simple cat could be the devil just because it once lived with a wise old woman and now lived with someone who could cure? “Superstition and ignorance, Petrushka. Superstition and ignorance killed you.”

Akulina knelt down and began to remove straw away from the wall. “You stay here until I find you a fit burial place. You were a good cat, Petrushka, but I don't want the boys to know.” Akulina covered the body with straw and patted it down. “'Where's Petrushka?' they will ask. 'Oh,' I will reply, 'he wandered off. You know cats.'“ Then she began to tremble.

     Tears splashed down her cheeks and her body began to shake. She heard herself wailing uncontrollably. Her sobs came in gasps and her shoulders ached from the spasms. “It's just a cat,” she choked. “Just a cat.” But she realized it was more than a cat for which she wept. All the pain and suffering she had shut away breached their walls and came flooding back. She cried for the boys who died in the woods and those who passed from the winter sickness. She shed tears for the men at the gallows, those buried in the meadow, and for Old Rosina. Her tears were for her mother, may God rest her soul, who died from her mistake. She cried for her father's burden, Kataya and her sons' loss of innocence and the world still to come.

     Akulina stumbled over to Belyanka's stall and held the cow with her arms. She needed someone or something to hold. She did not want to be alone. Akulina pressed her face against Belyanka's neck and continued to weep.
* * *

Boris Speaks To Dead People


If your antagonist or protagonist has a dog, horse or any animal, use it as a sounding board.  Express whatever is on your character's mind through them.  Sometimes the object of your character's soliloquy may not even be animate.  In Slogans. Boris often sits alone at the table and argues with his dead wife attempting to justify his decisions.

"I'm sorry, Maria." (Alfred Eisenstaedt,)

* * *
    “I was wrong about those in charge. I wanted to believe it did not matter. I told moy droug, 'governments, bah. They are all the same. They're all crooked.'“ Boris' words were now flowing, however unsteady. “Fedora Popovich was correct. Hutava is no more and Siberia is our home. We have no choice but to live here.” Boris stared down at his bottle and shook his head. “I am between the hammer and the anvil, or so they say. The Whites kill the poor and the Reds kill the rich. You know I am not rich, Maria, and I must apologize for what I must do”
* * *
The Doctor Dolittle Effect can be a handy tool in writing your novel.  For your writing and reading enjoyment, add it to your arsenal and give it a try.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Victim Wars

Based on recent events, the citizens of the United States are engaged in a culture war to determine whose victimhood is the greatest.  Past and present outrages against racial, ethnic, sexual or religious identities are weapons used in this campaign for the title "The Ultimate Victim."  The latest engagement in this conflict occurred following a broadcast of the updated television sitcom, "Roseanne."

Roseanne Steps In It


The April 4th episode opened with Roseanne asleep on the couch with her husband, Dan. They awaken and the following dialogue takes place.
Roseanne and Dan: The offensive couple
“It’s eleven o’clock,” Roseanne says. “We slept from ‘Wheel’ to ‘Kimmel.’” Dan replies, “We missed all the shows about black and Asian families.” Roseanne replies, “They’re just like us! There, now you’re all caught up.”
Her perceived assault of seemingly harmless words was immediately countered by a barrage of righteous indignation from offended Asian and African-Americans.  "How dare you compare your life to ours," they posted.  "You have no right to compare your lives to ours.  What do you know of our lives."

The battle raged across cable news networks, Twitter and Facebook as each offended side reached into their munition's bag of personal slights, slurs and outrages.  Irate salvos of indignant shells continued to fall until the next noble cause erupted on a different cultural front.

Russian Victimhood


In my novel, Slogans: Our Children, Our Future, my character Boris looked back on the revolution and civil war and lamented the Russian glorification of misery.

* * *
“We Russians wear our miseries like sackcloth and strut around as if we’re wearing robes of finest ermine. The deeper the misery, the softer the fur.” Boris set his bottle down on the table and continued his slurred rant, directing it at no one.
“First, we say, ‘Under the Tsar, there is no justice.’ So we murder the Tsar and follow Kerensky. 
“Then we say, ‘Under Kerensky there is no bread.’ So we murder Kerensky and follow Lenin.
“Now we say, ‘Under Lenin we have neither justice nor bread.’ How many more will we murder before we’re miserable enough to be happy?”
* * *

Ivan the Terrible, probably not a victim

Tolstoy Sums It Up


Perhaps the great Russian writer Leo Tolstoy said it best in his 1878 novel, Anna Karenina. "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family family is unhappy in its own way."  Perhaps the United States is made up of too many unhappy families.

This Just In


The latest example of embracing the mantel of victimhood was the Texas school shooter.  In an interesting twist the boy's father claimed his son, along with the students he shot, was also a victim.  And I thought I wrote fiction.

Monday, March 12, 2018

International Woman's Day

When people think of the Russian Revolution, they usually attribute it to the events of October 1917.  However, the true beginning of the Revolution was not that of Lenin, but of Women.  On 8 March, 1917, women took the streets of Petrograd celebrating International Woman's day and their right to vote in the new Russia.  What happened during that march turned the tide of history.

The March in Petrograd


My novel, Banners: For God, Tsar and Russia relived the Petrograd march though the eyes of one of the marchers, a mill worker named Valentina Kondakova.
* * *
           When twenty-year-old Valentina Kondakova left her tenement in the Vyborg district of Petrograd, she did not intend to bring down a government. All she wanted was to participate in the International Woman’s Day and demonstrate for bread and justice.
International Woman's Day March - Petrograd 1917
At Liteiny Prospect, Valentina’s group unfolded their banner and took up their position in the front of the march. Valentina grabbed the staff on the right side of the Neva Thread Mills Workers’ soviet banner and held it high for all to see. The unfurled banner did not contain saintly ikon or the likeness of the Tsar. Instead, it delivered a simple and direct message: “Increase Rations for Soldiers’ Families, the Defenders of Freedom and a People’s Peace.” When the marchers turned onto Nevsky Prospect and came within sight of the Winter Palace, there was no turning back. Valentina squared her shoulders and steeled herself for what lie ahead. The fuse had been lit.

* **
The marchers followed the same route as those who marched twelve years prior in what would become Bloody Sunday.  Would Valentina's fate be the same as those who also wanted justice?
No longer a second class citizen

* * *
Valentina could not stop now if she wanted. The crush of the women behind her forced her forward and even the fierce sound emanating from the soldiers could not stem their advance. Valentina had resigned herself to die, but then understood the soldiers weren’t taunting―they were cheering. “Keep coming, sisters,” one shouted. “Press harder,” yelled another. Soon all the shouts blended into one single, irresistible chant, “Freedom! Freedom! Freedom!” The powder keg had exploded.
* * *

The Future Is in Her Hands
 

I named the commander of the soldiers' battalion after one of my relatives. When I told him his namesake ordered his troops to defy orders and stand down, he replied, "I would have ordered them to shoot." Perhaps because of this attitude, International Woman's Day marches continue today. However, none have yet had the repercussions of that one held in 1917.
Women Marching in Pakistan

Friday, March 2, 2018

The Joys of Childhood?

Ah, childhood, that carefree period remembered through the golden filter of old-age.  But in reality what we so blissfully recall probably was not all that carefree.  To various degrees, all of us went through some form of juvenile trauma, be it the fanciful boogeyman in our closet to the all too real school shooting.
Students evacuating their school

Real Life Trauma


I interjected this phase of childhood into my third novel, Banners: Our Children, Our Future with several examples.  I don't know if children a century ago were hardened against what we would consider life altering occurrences, or they just appear that way in faded back-and-white photos.  Judging from the scene shown below, youngsters were often not shielded from the horrors of the day.  In Banners, my young protagonists witnessed a such a hanging.
Bolsheviks executed by White forces
Inspired by this photo, my young characters reacted to the execution with youthful bravado. Anyone familiar with boys knows they would rather eat glass than loose face with their buddies. Maxsim, the oldest village boy and the leader of the Brati, would never allow himself to appear weak in front of his gang.  In this excerpt from Chapter Nine, Maxsim embellishes his tentative experience with death to impress his charges.
* * *
“You didn't really see a guy get killed―did you?” Stepha asked, his eyes widening.


“Yes, I did. I saw it at the cinema,” Maksim told him. “In Chelyabinsk. He got shot by a firing squad.” Maksim had assembled his subjects behind a collapsed izbah and conducted their emotions like an orchestra. Looking from right to left, he lowered his voice to almost a whisper. “The soldiers came and put this guy against a wall,” he said and mimicked bringing up a rifle up to eye. When the boys leaned closer, he shouted. “Then, POW. The smoke came from the guns and he flew backwards and his cap fell off and everything.” Maksim snapped his fingers, “Just like that, he was dead.”
* * *
During the hanging, the boys jostled for favorable positions, both to witness the event and to pose afterward for the war correspondents.
* * *
“Come on. They're taking fotografia.” Maksim grabbed Stepha's arm and together they ran toward the gallows."
* * *
I didn't have the boys suffer any effects from trauma.  The closest they came to reliving the hanging was a superstition concerning walking past the gallows' site. 
 * * *
When their path led past the gallows, Vanya hesitated. “I don't want to go there.”


“It'll be alright,” Stepha assured him. "All you have to do is hold your hand over your mouth and nose and hold your breath. Then the spirits can't enter your body.”
 * * *

Nightmares Real and Imagined


Perhaps those children from a century ago appear callous because they were subjected to a daily string of terrors, both real and imagined. Many endured lives full of sadistic school masters, drunken parents, mean-spirited relatives, brimstone hurling preachers and a string of bullies like Stepha's Kolya.
Just one of Stepha's childhood memories
As if these fears were not enough, children were subjected to imaginary terrors that caused them to  hide.in terror  In addition to the river-dwelling rusalka, child-devouring baba-yaga, ghouls beneath the privy, and legions of night demons; youngsters were bombarded with endless dire warnings from each other.  Older children cautioned their smaller siblings to hold their breath while walking past a graveyard, not to step on a crack and to beware of even the most benign creatures.
Beware the graveyard ghosts
In Chapter Thirteen of Slogans, Stepha comes face to face with one of these creatures, the flying darning needle.  While a dragonfly may not elicit terror in an adult, it can in a child. I placed Stepha in this situation to illustrate his courage to overcome fear, yet remain cautious.
Dragonfly
* * *
The story of flying darning needles stitching children's lips together might be just another of Teta Kataya's scary myths but Stepha wasn't taking the chance. Even after he passed through Old Rosina's tusked archway and was sure the stryadrakon was gone, he waited before taking his hand away from his mouth.
* * *
Including childhood terrors in an historical novel broadens the culture of the period and also provides an avenue to expand your characters.  Plus, it's fun to recall old childhood fears and discover new ones from the safety of old age.