Monday, February 29, 2016

There Will Be Crosses

In the spring of 1997,the Dayton Daily News premiered their annual short story contest.  My novel had been plodding along well into the era of the Great War.  Three of my chapters told the story of Massey's friend, Ribba, fighting against the Austrians during the siege of Przemysk, in what was then Austrian-Poland.
Short Story Winner - 1997
The characters and plot were ideal for a short story -- infantrymen wait in their trenches for what they believe will be their final battle.  The banter and comradeship between the men transcends nationality making for an emotional tale.  My short story differs from the novel in location and characters.  Instead of the Eastern Front, the battle takes place in France and the characters are not Russian, but Americans in an Afro-American company.  While fictional, this episode is based on historic facts and could have occurred.

Men of Bronze during the Great War
In rewriting this story, I stayed away from using what could be called Black dialect. Instead, I gave my characters Southern  nicknames suggested by a Texan coworker.  Thus I had Crawdad, Polly, Cajun, Preacher, and Cricket.  I used slang from World War One throughout the story.  Paul Dickson published a very detailed dictionary of the history of American military slang, called War Slang: American Fighting Words and Phases from the Civil War to the Gulf War.  Many readers congratulated me on capturing my characters' voices when they mistook war slang for black dialect.

I titled my story There Will Be Crosses.  As with Ikons and Banners, crosses were the theme running throughout the story.  It begins with the cross Crawdad wears for luck, to the crosses hanging from the medals they know they will never receive, to the the crosses placed upon their graves far away from home, and finally the cross as a sign of life.

Not only did I win a nice dollar amount for my story, which went toward publishing my books, but it also gave me confidence to continue writing. Winning against professionals reinforced my desire to finish my dream.

Interested readers can find There Will Be Crosses at

Friday, February 26, 2016

Banners: For God, Tsar and Russia

Banners: For God, Tsar and Russia

Banners: For God, Tsar and Russia was published shortly after Ikons and covers the beginning of the First World War to the Communist Revolution.  Like Ikons, Banners is told from several points of view: Akulina, the single mother war refugee; Sergei, Ribba and Kataya,  members of the Tsar's Army; young Igor, the Bolshevik; and Massey, the immigrant torn between two countries.

Russian soldiers honoring their fallen comrades

Just as I wove Orthodox icons throughout my first book, I used banners to tie together the story of my second.  Whether it is men carrying banners into battle or women displaying pleas for bread, the Russian banner is an important part of the story.  Each chapter is heralded by a quote and, as in Ikons, is printed in the index to entice the buyer.


Banners opens where Ikons left off.  An assassination in Serbia sets off a World War and the village of Hutava sends it young men off to battle.  As the war against Austria-Hungary deteriorates, Akulina and her sons are evacuated along with all the villagers from the front lines of Belarus to supposed safety of Siberia.

Cossacks burn Hutava

Hutava villagers leaving for Siberia

Meanwhile, Massey can only follow the horror through newsreels and newspapers.  Emotions run high as immigrants' loyalties are stretched between their homeland and their new life in America.  Many of the prevailing attitudes of the period were gleaned from newspaper accounts.  Both archives of the Dayton Daily News and the Joliet Herald News provided a wealth of information.

Immigrant children showing loyalty to America
Finally the Russian people and army, driven to despair by war and hunger, succumb to Bolshevik promises and form a new government.  When Akulina's oldest son Stefan asks if the terror is over, she tells him it has just begun.

Russian soldiers demanding peace

Dayton newspaper articles from that time ran dispatches from a Cox Newspaper correspondent named Sloan Gordan.  I used much of his work as a Greek Chorus in relating activities along the Russian-Austrian front.  His writings allowed me to place Sergei in the midst of the rout of the Russian Third Army and introduce Kataya to the Women's Shock Battalion.  I read so much of his work, I was able to emulate historical reports he did not originate.  I hope his spirit forgives me.

One of the more interesting articles I found while reading the old newspapers was this one from the Dayton Evening News citing the London Times:

Figures Say War Will End Nov. 11
Paris, July 18  To the Paris Pigate one of its readers had contributed a rather original prognostication in regard to the duration of the present war. The prophecy, which is based on a play with figures, reads like this:
Take the figures of the two years covering the last war with Germany and add them up this way:
Of the sum obtained, the first two figures, 3 and 7, make together 10, while the last two, 4 and 1 make 5.  The treaty of peace was signed in Frankfort on the Main on the tenth day of the fifth month, that is May 10. 1871.
Apply the same method to the war now going on.  We then get:
Adding 3 and 8 gives 11, and 2 and 9 also make 11.  Consequently, reasons this mathematical soothsayer, the great war will come to an end on the eleventh day of the eleventh month, or November 11, of the present year.

Not a bad prediction.   The only problem was the present year in this case was 1915, not 1918.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Selling Ikons: Saint Nicholas the Wonder Worker

Along with my shipment of novels, iUniverse supplied digital press and sales kits.  The press kit consisted of sample news releases, sell sheets, and suggestions for getting my book noticed by the media.  The sales kit included pdf files for printing posters, book marks, and post cards announcing the publishing of Ikons.  Armed with this arsenal of material I set out in earnest to publicize my work.

My first targets were friends and relatives, which actually netted sales.  After depleting that resource, in short order I was forced to take a more traditional rout.  Book stores at this time had not yet been inundated by indie writers looking for shelf space and I was fortunate enough to have a few Mom and Pop stores agree to carry Ikons.  It was at this point I found out I made a grave mistake with my title.

 Ikon of Saint Nicholas the Wonder Worker
While the name "Ikons" was well thought out (Humor me) the subtitle wasn't. Saint Nicholas the Wonder Worker turned out to be a bad idea.  While I understood the significance of the sub-title, few others did.  Of the indie book stores I talked into displaying Ikons, one ended up placing Ikons in the religious section.  A buyer tracked me down and informed me of such.  He didn't want his money back, just wanted me to know.

My space at the Joliet Author Fair
My nest step was an author fair and I secured at spot at the Public Library's in Joliet, Illinois.  Since my story took place in Joliet's suburb of Rockdale, it was a prime spot.  I sent a sell sheet to the local paper and a letter detailing my story and how it related to the area.  A reporter from the paper called and interviewed me and did an article for the local section called, "From Russia to Rockdale."

In addition to book sales, I met the renown indie writer J. A. Konrath who gave me tips on selling self-published books.  Check out his site after reading mine.

Book Club "Meet the Author"

Even better was a woman who bought my novel and later suggested it to her book club.  She invited me to speaking engagement and do a signing.  I agreed and was surprised to find her club met at the village recreation center.  They had decorated the room in a Russian motif and offered a wine and cheese spread.  I gave my talk, sold my books, and was quite impressed.  My ego had definitely been stroked.

Book Club "Meet the Author" display i
The Book Mouse in Ottawa, Illinois

                                                                        My next stop was a small book store in Ottawa, Illinois, the Book Mouse.  There I did another meet and greet, told my stories, topping it off with my ghostly tale of the Voltuno.  My sales were not overly impressive, but the crowd was receptive and I think a good time was had by all, or at least enough.

Display at the Book Mouse

The next venues were the local author event with Dayton Metro Library and later the Dayton Book Expo.  Both events were open to authors residing in the Southwest Ohio area, but there was a limit to the number of authors who could participate.  My previous video productions for the library got me a prime spot.  I attracted a crowd by giving away old VHS tapes of programs I had created.  The lure of free stuff, no matter how useless, still attracts a crowd.
Book Expo - Dayton, Ohio
Book Expo display

Each stop was another opportunity to sell books and spread my fame.  I believed I was actually getting the hang of this author stuff.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Publishing Ikons

When I started the Ikons series in 1990, my options for publishing were: the traditional agent route, unsolicited queries to publishers, or vanity press.  The latter was too expensive, so I choose the former two.  My pitch to both was that one hundred years of Eastern European immigration to the US had produced tens of millions of Slavic descendants all of whom I was convinced, would want to purchase my book.  I obtained a copy of the Writer's Digest Guide to Agents and Publishers, highlighted likely candidates, followed the query format guide and sent off a series of well-polished letters and waited.  And waited and waited.  The few replies I received were of the "Thanks, but no thanks."

There is no one in the world more optimistic than a novice writer, but even they can lose hope. Which I did. Then enter the digital age and Print-On-Demand (POD).  The idea of POD was presented at one of my writer's meeting and I saw its potential.  While not offering the big money of a well established publisher, POD did give you a way to turn your dreams into reality.  I studied the many companies springing up in the late 90's and vacillated between a few.  I choose iUniverse when Barns and Noble prodded me with a $300 signing stipend.  Spurred by their three week dead line, I sped through the final editing process leaving a few errors in my wake.  Somehow the singular word "woman" kept replacing the plural word "women."

I saved my completed digital manuscript to a floppy disc (remember them?) and took it to the library to transfer it to iUniverse.  Why the library?  Because 15 years ago I was using a dial-up home modem running at 50kps (Slow) and the library had a dedicated T-line running in the megabytes (Much faster).  Through numerous emails telephone calls and iUniverse associates, I was actually got my book ready for printing.

One features I neglected  was cover design.  It never occurred to me my book needed a cover. After some suggestions from iUniverse, I sent digital copies of Massey and Akulina's picture and requested a Russian motif.  After two iterations, this was the final design.

Ikons cover - Front Cover

Back Cover - I cheated a little with my picture. I'm not that good looking.
There is probably nothing as exciting to a writer as seeing their published work for the first time.  The thrill of slicing opening the FedEx box and being greeted by the aroma of fresh print and the sight of several dozen, carefully stacked volumes.  After twelve years of labor I cradled one of my newborns and beamed with pride.  There it  rested - my book, my title and my name.  Then reality set in.  How do I sell them?   

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Writing Style

Surprisingly, Ikons: Saint Nicholas the Wonder Worker was well received by an audience I did not anticipate -- women.  Somehow they found it to be a romance novel.  I do not understand how this happened since I do not consider myself romantic at all.  All I wanted to do was tell the story of the people who risked everything, albeit they had little, to come to a totally different world to make a better life for their wives and children.  The story should be familiar to any decedent of immigrants who identifies with the foreign words, foods and places.  Everyone has ancestors who endured hardship, insult, and heartbreak to bring us the lives we now lead.  We owe them enough to tell their story.

Sue Grafton of the The Antioch Writers Conference and members of my writing groups influenced my writing style.  Thanks to Ms Grafton, I always try to use strong verbs and nouns and shy away from adverbs unless absolutely necessary.  She and a gifted writer named Rik Newman, convinced me every action has an associated verb and there are dozens of way to describe walking, looking, standing, etc. without attaching an adverb.  I also learned to end each sentence with its main thought.  But these are just mechanics, how do you write a story someone will read.

My favorite historical-fiction writer is Leon Uris and I would like to do nothing better than emulate his prose.  I chose using the third person, omniscient and told my characters' story from multiple points of view, mostly Massey and Akulina's.  It's a relay race where each character carries the plot for a time before handing it off to the next.  Since Ikons is historical fiction, I added narration describing events outside the sphere of the principle characters.  In Banners and Slogans, I made use of newspaper articles and wire reports to fill in the reader about the era.  Because Ikons was never meant for a wide audience, I included anything I thought was interesting.  The result was more than I expected.

Ikons consists of 21 chapters.  When buying a book, I'll thumb through and check out the index or the chapter headings.  Usually, the they consist of Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3, ... Boring.  I thought I would give my book an edge by having alluring chapter titles.  I used quotes from within each chapter and hoped they captured the novel's content as well as the buyer's curiosity.

Examples of my chapter headings are:
. 4
Chapter 4: "Why Does the Hen Run From the Rooster?". 4
Chapter 6: “Everyone Has a Cousin in America". 4 
Chapter 8: "An Act of Moral Turpitude"
Chapter 9: "We Go Rock-a-dale" 
C. 4
. 4
Chapter 20: "Mama, Mama, Help Me". 4
Chapter 21: "I Saw Skulls"

Whether this helped or not, I really can't say, but I thought it was cool.  Now armed with a two hundred plus page Word document, I began my search for a publisher.
. 4