Wednesday, July 27, 2016


Epigraphs are those enigmatic sayings appearing on the first page of a book or chapter.  In my first two novels I copied quotations from within each chapter and created epigraphs to give a hint of the upcoming scenes.  I formatted each quote as a Heading in Word and used them for the book's index.  As I stated in an earlier post, the index quotes were to pique prospective buyers' interest and entice them to purchase my book.

The epigraphs in Slogans: Our Children, Our Future were different.  In keeping with the book's title I discovered slogans and mottoes to identify each chapter's theme.  Since history is rich with slogans touting all manner of empty promises, it was easy to find the right words to match my need.

Not satisfied with introducing each chapter with an epigraph, I decided to add a short moral story to set the chapter's mood.  These stories were a mixture of fables, folk lore, fairy tales, myths and excerpts.  My sources ranged from Aesop's Fables and Grimm's fairy tales to Orwell's Animal Farm and the Bible.  When I first started I did not realize I would need fifty-four of them.  By chapter sixteen I was running out of ideas and decided to scrap them.  However, my beta readers said they looked forward to the shorts and convinced me to retain them.  If some of the stories seem like a stretch, it's because they are.

Aesop was the source for many of fables
The toughest chapter to write was forty-nine, "To Serve and Protect."  Since I was old enough to understand, I heard the story of my paternal grandmother's death from cold and starvation.  It wasn't too much later that I associated her story with the Little Match Girl. 
Hans Christian Anderson's Little Match Girl
During the mid-fifties, Hans Christian Anderson's tale played on Chicago television as a Christmas special .  Our black and white set vividly showed the poor little girl desperately lighting her matches to ward off freezing.  It was heart wrenching enough to watch the girl, but in her story I also saw my Russian grandmother, moy russkiy babka.

This is a version of the show I watched.   I still can't watch it with dry eyes.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Where do wierd ideas come from?

I often try to imagine the genesis of a writers' ideas.  What incidents went into their background that produced such a tales.  In my particular case--how did the story of Stepha and the tank come about?

In the fifteenth chapter of Slogans, the older boys take Stepha to see an armored car destroyed by the Reds.  After they lead Stepha to the burnt out hulk and tell him to look inside.  When he does, Stepha recoils from the sight of human remains. 
Austin-Putilov Armored Car
This chapter is based on personal experience.  In the late 40's and early 50's, prepubescent boys in small towns like mine were free-range.  The world was ours to explore and explore we did.  My friend Andy's family owned the local junk yard (salvage yard in today's vernacular) and if we were lucky, we could sneak in and inspect fresh wrecks.  Andy was always eager to point out the latest gruesome artifacts: a bloody windshield shattered by a head or a steering wheel twisted by a torso's impact.  While I never saw a body as did Stepha, my buddies did get me to peer into a trunk that held the decomposing remains of a dog.  The image haunted my dreams for weeks.

Putting Stepha in a similar situation was a natural.  But instead of a small American town, he lived near a battlefield.  Enter Sasha the Russian translator.  During one stint in the Soviet Union, I struck up conversations with Sasha and discovered he grew up near the Russian city of Stalingrad.
Destroyed Nazi equipment in Stalingrad
His explorations of the weapon-littered battlefield far surpassed my junk yard and he had the scars to prove it.  After one hair-raising tale, he removed his tunic revealing an arm and shoulder disfigured by fused tissue.  "Little boys playing dangerous games," he explained.  He went on to say that he and his friends would find unexploded ordnance and set them off.  His wounds, he told me with the usual Russian shrug, were the result of a miscalculation.

It didn't take much imagination to pen a sub-plot based on Sasha's and my experiences. Unfortunately, Stepha's friend Maksim, like Sasha, was victim of little boys playing dangerous games.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Jewish Characters

Five characters in the Ikons saga are Jewish.  Only one is based on an historic figure, while the other four are characters I developed as the story went along.  Why I chose to make them Jewish is not clear to me.  It could be because those I've experienced had complex personalities which could be molded into story lines.

Abraham Minsker appears in all three novels, while Jacov Tarovski is in Ikons and Banners, and Lev Bogdanov, Adam Babel, and Isaac Saltsberg appear only in Slogans.

Jacov Tarovski

Tarovski and his assistant Josef the Tatar run Hutava's inn. I didn't know it at the time I wrote him, but there were several Jewish shtetl in the vicinity of Hutava.  It is within the realm of possibilityTarovski existed.  During my research, I also discovered Muslims were prized as bartenders as they would not be tempted to drink up the profits, thus the addition of Josef.
Meeting of the village mir outside Tarovski's inn
I thought it was clever to have these two outsiders as members of the village.  Jocov's inn was used for meetings of the village council, the mir, but since neither Jacov and Josef were Christian, they could not join in discussions or decision making.  Even though they were outsiders, both men played important roles in Massey's escape from Russia and Hutava's destruction at the hands of the Cossack.

Abraham Minsker

I really enjoyed creating Abraham Minsker.  From the time Massey first met him in a Rockdale  grocery store to the day Abraham became president of the Western bank of Illinois, he was the one character I could always count on to provide insight into Massey's perilous situations.  
Minsker's first bank - A table, a chair and a Shredded Wheat box
 in the back of Brosman's grocery store
I had two Jewish men in my writers group, Rick Newman and Jules Sherman.  Both had personalities I borrowed in fleshing out Minsker.  Abraham's wisdom and strength was enough to influence Massey, but not so overpowering that Massey was a mere puppet.  I believe both men respected each other, but their religious gap was never bridged.  While in the last chapter Massey and Abraham reminisce over glasses of homemade wine, I don't think Massey would ever say, "One of my best friends is Jewish."

Lev Bogdanov

Komisar Lev Bogdanov was discussed in the villains' post.  His religion was never mentioned by the villagers, but always lurked just below the surface.  Being Communist was enough for the them to dislike him.  I pictured Lev as Jewish for two reasons.  First, during the early years of the Russian revolution many commissars were Jewish.  Second, I wanted to include my collage friend, Alfred Bogdanoff in the story.  Since his family traced back to Russian Jews, I used his name and personality.  Thanks, Al.

Adam Babel

I remember my father speaking of his concertina, but I never experienced his ability.  It wasn't until I translated an old letter from his cousin in Russia that I realized he was well known for his music.  Stefan's concertina originated in Banners.  The village patriarch, Telepnev, led Hutava's young men off to war with a concertina march.  Later, Telepnev bequeathed his instrument to Stefan upon the old man's death.
Music was important in the Russian soldier's life
Adam Babel was a member of the Red Army and head of the contingent that herded civilian  "volunteers" into Unkurda to aid in the spring planting.  Like Telepnev, Babel used his concertina to provide rousing music for the procession.  Both Stefan and Vanya were drawn to the military men and entertained the them by squat dancing.  When Babel noticed Stefan having trouble keeping up with his fleet footed brother, he convinced Stefan his future was not in dance but with the concertina.  Later in the story Babel comes to Stefan's rescue when a member of the Red Army tries to steal the boy's most prized possession.

Isaac Saltsberg

While Isaac Saltsberg is the last character to appear in my trilogy, he was the first I created.  Isaac is based on family lore.  According to the story, my father and uncle were among the thousands of children cast adrift in the wake of the Russian-Polish War.  Their link to their father was a family picture containing their father's address in America.  The boys tried to sell it to a Jewish peddler, who discovered the address and took the boys to a police station.  Thanks to him, they were eventually, reunited with their their father.
A peddler sets up shop outside a Displaced Person's camp

I banged out this description of Isaac about twenty-five years before Slogans.
* * *
"Isaac Saltsberg considered himself an honorable man―a mentsh.  Indeed, he was one was one of the “pious ones,” a Hasidim Jew, an ultra-orthodox sect that traced its roots back to Rabbi Baal Shem Tov, one of Uods holiest men.  Isaac lived the Law and respected Tradition.  He followed his religion's precepts as spelled out in the Torah and was just and loving to his people and dealt fairly with those who were not." 
* * *
The original Isaac had a son, but I wrote him out when it became too complicated.

Even though Isaac is fictional, I found disconcerting to know that within two decades, Isaac and millions like him would be exterminated by Nazi Germany.