Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Writing a Death Scene - Part 2

The Gulag

Any historic novel set in Russia during the twentieth century will invariably include at least one scenario situated in her forced labor camps.  Since no family was spared the snares of what Andre Solzhenitsyn called the Gulag Archipelago, I sentenced my character, Boris Koscik to five years hard labor, or what his daughter labeled death.  Rather than try to describe the horrors of prison life, I choose to write only snippets of Boris'confinement.  For a detailed picture of camp life, I left it up to narratives found in the works of talented writers such as Solzhenitsyn's One Day In the Life of Ivan Denisovich and  Varlan Shalamov's  Kolyma Tales.


In Slogans: Our Children, Our Future, I wrote of Boris's death from his point of view.  Left to die from cholera in a sealed barrack, Boris remained in character and continued his defiance against the Party to the end.  As he drifted in and out of delirium, he shouted challenges and insults to the guards posted safely outside. 
* * *

“Come inside you sniveling curs.  What?  Are you afraid to die?”  Boris' attempt at a challenge resulted in little more than a dry rattle.  “Come and see how real men face death.”  There would be no doctor, no cure.  He was a zhuk and zhuk were replaceable.  He strained his ears and heard nothing.  The old priest no longer chanted prayers forgiving his jailers and the young anarchist ceased to blaspheme.  In the gulag, death respected neither age nor belief.
* * *
Gulag Prisoners
As Boris slipped away, in his mind he heard a song.  It was the same tune his daughter, Akulina had requested on her wedding day.  The song, "Little Bells" evoked a longing to return to the comforts of home after a hard day or a hard life.
* * *

Death's fishy odor grew thicker than the sodden blanket Boris huddled beneath for warmth.  As he struggled for life, blackness slowly descended over him heralded by a song.  The singer’s voice was strong and steady and floated from everywhere and yet nowhere.  It sang a slow mournful tune whose lyrics spoke of yearning for times long gone. 

“The sound of the bell echoes in the field.
The coachman is silent and road
Stretches far into the horizon.”
* * *
In keeping with Akulina's extraordinary perception,  she felt her father slip away "as softly as a moonbeam through a window."  In the last paragraph of the camp scene I jumped to a future in which the remains of the camp victims were compared to that of a mammoth consumed by the prisoners in an earlier chapter.
* * *

Unlike the death of the mammoth ten millennia ago, Pravda did not mention the thirty-two prisoners at Solovki Sub-Camp Number Seven who perished from cholera.  Several generations would pass before the victims' bones and those of thousands of others scattered throughout the forest would be exhumed and given a proper burial.
* * *

Burial site outside a labor camp

Illness and Starvation

Along with the labor camps, death from starvation and sickness was rampant in the early years of the Soviet Union.  Unlike Boris' fictitious death in the Gulag, Akulina's death on a badly managed famine train was true.


Akulina's life and death contained all the material of legend.  It was a story of suffering and sacrifice; a mother who died so her sons may live.  Her final moments spanned all three of my novels.  In the first two it occurred as haunting premonitions, a black emptiness void of all light.  In Slogans, I finally described her death.  As the transport train chugged through the Russian wasteland on its way to Poland, Akulina weakened by starvation succumbed to pneumonia.  I choose using two opposing points of view. 

In the first narrative Akulina slipped into a dream state where she met her mother Maria, who showed her a room piled with food and drink.  Akulina viewed a wonderful world that was in stark contrast to her actual surroundings.
* * *

Akulina sat at the table and gazed about the room.  She viewed clear windows with lace curtains, a floor that glimmered like a moonlit pond, and furniture grander than Old Rosina's.  Never had she been in a place so elegant.
“Would you like a cup of chi, dear?” her mother asked.  “Come, drink.  It will warm you.”
* *  *
Reality - Transport Train to Poland
The second point of view was that of her youngest son, Vanya.  Vanya slept next his mother for warmth and sensed his mother's distress.  I played the two views against each other, one showing a peaceful death, the other the actual.
* * *

Vanya put his arms around his mother and felt her body shiver.  How small she is.  I can feel her bones.  Should I call Teta?  Vanya remained silent until the spasms lessened and the breathing softened.  “Please, Mati.  Be better,” he whispered before he again drifted to sleep.
* * *
Akulina allowed her mother to lead her into the beyond.  It wasn't until others had read this passage that I recognized the significance of Maria's last words.  I don't know where the inspiration for "there is no when" came from, but it seemed to fit.

Into the Light

* * *

“Where are you taking me?” Akulina asked.  “I can't leave my boys.  And what about Massey?”
“You did well with them, Akulina Boriskova.  Their father will see they grow to become fine young men.  You need not worry.”
“And Papa?”
“He awaits.”
“When will I see him?”
Oh, Lena.  Where we're going there is no when.  Only now.”
* * *
Poor little Vanya realized his mother was gone and did all in his power to help her.
* * *
Vanya awoke with a jolt and adjusted his blanket to block the night air.  Again he rolled closer to his mother for comfort, but as soon as their bodies touched he knew.  In a desperate attempt, Vanya pulled his mother closer, wrapped her in his arms and tried to bring her back.
* * *
Koscik family memorial - Hutava, Belarus

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Writing a Death Scene

A major character's death is an important part of any historic saga, as it represents the end of one story line and the beginning of another.  In all three of my novels death led to a veer in plot development.  Each demise was handled differently according to personality and situation.  For some, the end was quick and unexpected, while others languished slowly.  How I presented each of these is the subject of this post.


The death of Akulina and Massey's first born, Luka, was a pivotal point in Ikons: Saint Nicholas the Wonder Worker.  Luka was Massey and Akulina's first born and the first grandchild of Sergei and Boris.  The boy represented hope in the future.  I choose not elaborate on the cause of the child's death, but only on the final moment.  I wrote the scene from grandfather Sergei's point of view.  A devoutly religious man, after exhausting all known remedies Sergei's last resort was applying the sacraments and praying for a miracle.
* * *
"The servant of God, Luka Mataovich Pribish, is baptized into the Name of the Father, Amen.  And of the Son, Amen.  And of the Holy Spirit, Amen."  Sergei Pribish spoke the words of baptism softly, as three times he poured the blessed water over his grandson's forehead.  The child remained perfectly still as the trickle of water slid silently off his head and splashed into the basin.  The child’s eyes were half closed and showed no interest in the ceremony or those around him.  Earlier Luka's tongue had made a feeble attempt at reaching the water that had touched on his lips, but failed.  Now he lay still, him head turned, his tongue partially out of his mouth.

The villagers huddled closer to little Luka watching for the sign they now knew would not come.  They had employed all their knowledge of herbs and salves to ward off the sickness, but it had been in vain.  They prayed, lay on hands, and hoped for a miracle--a merciful act of God that would spare this child.  But miracles were rare in Hutawa these days.
Sergei gently placed his fingertips on the small eyelids and closed them.  He had been able to do little for his grandson in this life.  Perhaps these final acts would help him in the next.
* * *
The Final Farewell
Luka's death shattered Massey's American dream and forced his return to Hutava.  This led to his dramatic escape from the secret police and his final voyage to America.


Banners: For God, Tsar and Russia  takes place during World War One and the Russian Revolution.  As a result the death toll in this novel is extremely high.  I fashioned the death of Ribba Kunatz to represent all the soldiers lost in conflicts while doing their "duty."
* * *
"From the corner of his eye, Ribba caught sight of Moohah pitching forward, his papacha flying from his head, and his arms reaching out for his rifle.  Ribba turned toward the fallen Moohah and looked down the line of his regiment.  Men were falling, twisting and turning, being thrown back by the invisible force of machine gun bullets that steadily worked their way down his line.  Ribba could see it coming, cold and irresistible.  Did the wheat feel the cut of the farmers sickle?"
* * *

The Universal Soldier
The final scene in this chapter highlighted the futility of war and equality of death.  I did not identify the dead man or even indicate his side.  In this chapter crosses were the unifying theme.  As one soldier remarked prior to the attack, "After this battle there will be crosses.  Either on our chests or on our grave."
* * *

The dead soldier lay on his back, his mouth open, his empty eyes searching a sky that lay forever beyond the reach of outstretched frozen arms.  Both his hands were clinched and from the right dangled the little gold chain that had been calling to the old woman all morning.  Quickly she knelt next to the body, grasped the chain and tugged.  The death grip would not yield.  Next she tried to pry the fist open, but the frozen fingers would not surrender.  The old woman persisted.  She knew what lay clutched at the end of such a lovely chain.  During the last three days she had seen many crosses, both Austrian and Russian.  God did not take sides.
* * *
Major Sergei Pribish was at heart a soldier and envisioned an historic death on a battlefield.  He saw himself leading a desperate charge against hopeless odds in defense of a lost cause.  I wrote his death in Banners as anything but heroic. Like the majority of casualties in the Great War, Sergei was killed by an artillery shell fired by nameless, faceless mechanics.  The gun that killed him on the eve of his last offensive was a German howitzer nickname "Big Bertha."

Big Bertha
* * *
On the morning of October 11, 1917, man-made lightening lit the sky outside Riga as Bertha hurled her first of many massive shells eight miles into the sky.  With a roar likened to a runaway streetcar on very bad tracks, a deluge of death fell onto the Russian lines.  Bertha’s shells didn’t explode on impact, but rather burrowed deep into the earth like a surgeon’s fingers probing for nerve centers.  Only these fingers were probing for the nerve centers of an army.  One shell, fired from a distance of seven miles, landed directly atop the headquarters of the Russian general staff.  It tore through the protective upper layer, buried itself twenty feet deep beneath the floor and exploded in a brilliant flash.  Tons of earth, rock, and timber shot skyward, hesitated, and then cascaded back into the crater burying the human carnage.  Among those entombed in the rubble, still dressed in the whites of the Imperial Frontier Army was Colonel Sergei M. Pribish, soldier of the Tsar.
* * *
In order to instill realism in my historic fiction, I use the jargon of the era.  During most of the twentieth century, the name Big Bertha invoked images of  a World War One German cannon or the overly large girl in your junior high class.  The cannon is the image I was trying to convey when I wrote Banners. 

Big Bertha Driver
In 1991, Callaway introduced a technical breakthrough in powerful golf drivers and named their new line of clubs, "Big Bertha."  By time Banners was published in 2001, Big Bertha had become synonymous with the game of golf.  Several Beta readers wondered why the Germans named their cannon after a golf club.  So be advised: when writing historical fiction, realize the image a word conjures up may may not be the one you intended.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Fourth of July

Celebrating our independence from Great Briton with fireworks has been an annual American tradition since 1777.  I used a July Fourth event from a century ago to illustrate the growing fear of foreigners.  Just as today, dire predictions of terrorist activity were projected by the government and like most warnings, nothing occurred.
Celebrating the Fourth of July
* * *
The Independence Day explosions came as predicted but not as the American Protective League anticipated.  Massey did not understand America's fascination with firecrackers, aerial bombs or any other device that shattered his midsummer's peace.  It seemed every schoolboy and yahoo with a few pennies wreaked havoc upon Rockdale.  Whether launching wizz-bangs at neighbors, sending pinwheels dancing down the streets or tying strings of ladyfingers to a mangy cat's tail, there was no end to the mischief the holiday evoked.  Thankfully for Massey and the rest of the Russians, none of the perpetrators of the July detonations were Bolsheviks.  Attorney General Palmer's dire warnings of violence on the Fourth passed without incident.  However, the same could not be said several weeks later.
* * *
The anticipated explosions did occur in early August. They were not from terrorist bombs, but rather from a volatile mixing of races.