THE FICTION CLUB

Recently I came upon a copy of The Fiction Club, by Mark Spencer, and had to share this gem. The description on Amazon tells the story accurately:

“If you are an aspiring creative writer, this engaging, concise, and informal guide covers all the essentials you need to know. If you’re a veteran writer, it will remind you of basic truths and principles of storytelling you might have lost sight of. Topics include “The Rules of Fiction Club”; “The Importance of Small Details”; showing vs. telling; writing vibrant dialogue; balancing narration and description; structure; plot; pace; point of view, flashbacks; grammar, common usage errors; and more.”

Think you know (and use) all that is needed to create engaging fiction? You might be surprised at all the little things you’ve lost sight of – I know I had.

It’s a quick read and will become a “keep it handy” resource. The author, Mark Spencer, is Dean, School of Arts and Humanities, and Professor of Creative Writing, Master of Fine Arts program, University of Arkansas at Monticello. His website describes his own books – my personal favorite is A Haunted Love Story. Check out Mark and his other works at http://www.authormarkspencer.com/Welcome.html.

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GO TO THE LIBRARY!

For six months or more I have been struggling to make progress on my historical fiction. I tried shutting the door to my office, but my dog whined and scratched until I gave in and opened the door. I tried ignoring the phone when it rang—without success. I turned my cell phone off and found myself distracted by random thoughts of calls I had placed and were the return calls coming in while my phone was off—meaning I’d be off and running on a game of telephone tag.

I’ve read so many articles on ways to focus on my writing. I won’t bore you with all the reasons why they didn’t work for me. We’re all different.

Then my husband made an off-the-wall suggestion. GO TO THE LIBRARY!

I had never even been in our local library. I guess I should be embarrassed by that statement.

I counted off all the reasons why it wouldn’t work:

  1. I couldn’t start writing as early as I like because I’d have to wait until the library opened at 9am.
  2. I’d expend time driving to and from.
  3. I’d have to pay attention to the parking limitations or risk a parking ticket.
  4. I’d have to lug so much stuff with me.
  5. I wasn’t organized enough to remember everything I’d need to have with me.
  6. I’d be abandoning my husband and dog.
  7. I’d feel guilty.

I think it was number 7 that swayed me. Why should I feel guilty?

GO TO THE LIBRARY!

I remembered a recent article I read about the positives of writing in a library. That making a habit of going there also made a habit of prioritizing your writing. That a few hours in the tranquility of a library can send you into a zone of productivity. While you’re there, you can live in the world of your novel. No one will talk to you (unless you break a rule – including wearing a mask). People actually respect the silence and each person’s individual workspace.

So I tried it—halfheartedly but I did it. I settled into my chosen nook, plugged my computer in (but did NOT connect to the internet – too much temptation to check email and such), placed my pile of notes next to the computer, and started to write.

Two hours later, only a full bladder brought me back to the real world. I couldn’t believe how much I had accomplished.

Coming up on two weeks later, I’ve written more in that time than I did in the past six months. I went from two hours to three-hour blocks. I’ve only been able to go four times due to other commitments. But I’ve accomplished so much even in the limited time. I need to find parking that isn’t limited to two hours so I can do longer blocks of time without having to move my car every two hours.

Will I maintain my enthusiasm about this new writing plan? Time will tell, but I’m hopeful.

What a simple and obvious solution to my writing dilemma:

GO TO THE LIBRARY!

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THE CHAPEL

In the beginning…

Over the past couple of years, I’ve posted about my childhood church on multiple occasions. The last one was bittersweet, as it was the first of a few postscripts to the journey I’ve been on: that is, re-acquainting myself with the church and its members, and the miracles that allowed that process to move forward.

And today I’m sharing the near-end game to the physical re-structuring of the church. I visited and was allowed into a couple of the still-vacant apartments. The photos on the website (Gallery – The Chapel Hillside Apartments (thechapeltroy.com) are more attractive and professional than I could take with my phone. But I’m including below some of my own photos that show features that were not in their gallery. Most of the apartments are already rented, so I only had access to two. And there’s a lot of work still to be done externally.

The buyer of the church building was a developer from NYC with a plan to convert the church structure into multiple high-end apartments. The purchase agreement required the buyer to retain the flavor of the church origins of the building, including salvaging as many stained-glass windows as possible, incorporating the ceiling beams, and retaining the historic 1916 cornerstone.

Frankly, I couldn’t picture how that would be possible, while making the apartments comfortable and appealing to renters, regardless of their spiritual leanings. Yet, for the most part, they struck a balance between the old and the new. For example, the arches of the old stained-glass windows and a few of the small ones are visible from the outside, while the actual windows of the apartments are modern and energy efficient. Parts of the arched beams from the sanctuary are incorporated into second floor apartments in the former sanctuary area.

Here are some photos (taken with my phone, not professionally) that show the features not obvious in the gallery photos:

Retained stained glass windows – visible from outside but not inside the apartments:

Stairway to balcony apartment (to be refinished):

Beams from sanctuary ceiling incorporated into apartment (to be refinished):

Cornerstone:

Green space behind former church hall (in progress) – will include barbecue equipment, trees, grass, benches:

The apartments target RPI students, and incorporate basic furniture along with high end countertops and appliances. The website does not list pricing. Shuttle service to and from the RPI campus will be available.

Initially, upon reviewing The Chapel website, I reacted negatively to the description of the building’s history:

The Chapel was originally constructed in 1916 as a refuge for immigrants seeking shelter from persecution overseas.

The Chapel has been a haven for thousands of people in its 100+ years on 9th street. Today, The Chapel continues to serve the Troy community as contemporary housing for RPI students”.

The description didn’t reflect the drive of the Armenians, as proud Christians since around 300AD, to build a home for their worship and fellowship in their new homeland. And then, to my surprise, there was a link for readers to learn more about the history—taking them to the May 13, 2020 post from this blog!

While it’s still sad that our church is no longer a church, we can be pleased that what our ancestors created over a century ago wasn’t simply discarded and torn down. Instead, it has a new life and a new purpose—and our cornerstone, wooden arches and stained-glass windows will forever be a reminder of its proud beginning. And I can’t help believing that the spirits of our ancestors will watch over the building and its inhabitants.

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MIRACLES ABOUND!

INSPIRATION FOR MIRACLES

Two and a half years ago, when I unknowingly began my journey back to my childhood Armenian church before it closed forever, I began experiencing a series of little miracles.

The first miracle was the call that started it all. My elderly cousin interacted periodically with my older sister but had never, that I can recall, contacted me. He called me with a purpose. He was helping another cousin with an ancestry search of our Armenian family, and he had run across a name from our shared grandfather’s generation that he had never heard. Would I see if I could find anything in county records, perhaps in church records, he asked. And so the journey began.

The next miracle was locating the church records. The Armenian church which we attended through my childhood and early adulthood was closed – had not held a service since 2011. And finding them required a couple of mini-miracles. I hadn’t had contact with anyone from the church in decades, so I had no idea who to contact. There was one minister, back in the ‘90s, whom I knew from my years in the Armenian Protestant Youth Fellowship. I had no idea where she was, but I thought if she still was an active minister, I probably could find her online. So mini-miracle number one was finding an email address for her and successfully making contact. She had indeed maintained contact with some of the church members, and let me know who, if anyone, could help me. The church building was for sale, and two brothers had taken on the responsibility for keeping it intact while it was awaiting a buyer. I called one of the brothers, who had no idea where the records were – another member had tried to find them for an ancestry search and had not been successful. But he graciously let me into the church. My first visit (of many, it turned out) to my childhood church was shocking and depressing. It was dirty and smelly and was in total disarray. Something told me to look in the office first—although it seemed likely that the other member had done that. Mini-miracle number two was finding the three volumes of church records almost immediately! I obtained permission to borrow the volumes for a week or two, since I didn’t want to hold up the man who so generously came to the church to let me in. And mini-miracle number three was the effect studying the records had on me—a revival of my positive memories of the church and the people I knew. I felt compelled to write the story of the church, and to give the church and congregation a well-deserved closure.

The next miracle was the surprising ease with which I convinced the “guardians” of the church building to support my desire to hold a closure service before the building was sold. They doubted I could do what was needed. But they gave me support for work I couldn’t do (like getting the lights working and the organ functioning). As word spread, others offered assistance with cleaning and logistics. And the closure service (described in a previous post last fall) was welcomed and well attended even as the COVID pandemic required special care.

I posted previously about the miraculous finding of the church photo of my grandfather.

The latest miracle was a while in coming….

As I pored over the church record books, I was grateful that all of the actual records (births, deaths, etc) were in English. But the priceless narratives that could give me so much insight into the early workings of the church were in what I assumed was Armenian. I searched and searched for someone who could translate—but the writing wasn’t really in Armenian. Armenian letters were used, for the most part, but the words were not Armenian. Nor could Turkish sources translate it. We sent samples to a woman and her father in Armenia, and they couldn’t read it. And finally samples were sent to a linguistics expert who concurred that it was a combination of languages and alphabets, and might even have some Arabic in there. I gave up. The contents of the writing of the narrative entries of the church records would remain a mystery. Until this past week, that is! A woman contacted me about a photo I had, and coincidentally mentioned another woman who translated Armenian, Turkish, and a few other languages. I wasn’t hopeful, but I sent this woman some sample pages.

So, the latest miracle, and possibly one of the most exciting: she was able and willing to do the translating! At last, I may learn the inner workings of the church in its early years.

Writing this story was meant to happen. I’m convinced of that by the sheer number of miracles that have stripped away one obstacle after another.

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WHO ARE WE?

Stories about my Armenian ancestors in Turkey—and even their early years in America—were rare. Many family members who never made it to America (or France, or Argentina) simply vanished.

There were tragedies and mysteries. In many cases, families never learned what happened to their missing members; they disappeared and were never heard of again. I tried to use modern search methods for some history of my grandfather’s parents, siblings, and other family members. Very little was revealed.

My family wasn’t unusual. The focus was on thriving in the here and now. And on appreciating the opportunity to be in America–not just to survive, but to thrive and contribute to a community.

I learned more from my elderly cousin than from searchable records. His stories touched on family lore—possibly accurate as far as they went, but with no hard evidence. And yet I hung on those stories, and built some of them into my historical fiction, Armenian  Dances.

Knowing about our family’s past generations—who they were and where they came from—anchors us. Knowing people who knew them opens doors to greater understanding of who we are. It humbles us—could we have survived and accomplished what they did, against such odds?

What’s your family’s story?

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ARMENIAN GENOCIDE: LONG AGO BUT NOT FORGOTTEN

The following article was published by TheCommonerNews.com – an interview with me about President Biden’s recognition of the Armenian Genocide, and a little about my historical fiction in progress–about the community of Armenians refugees who settled in Troy NY, and the church they built.

Armenian Genocide: Long Ago, But Not Forgotten | The Commoner (thecommonernews.com)

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THE MIRACLE PHOTO

For the last three years I’ve been involved with the process of closing and selling the church where I grew up. It was a sad time, but also a wonderful opportunity to reconnect with old friends, form new friendships, and learn more than I ever knew about the history of the church—and my family’s involvement in it.

The other Armenian churches in the city called ours “the Ninth St Church.” They were Apostolic churches. We were Protestant – Congregational, to be exact. I think they called us that because the reality was our real name was so-o-o-o long: The United Armenian Calvary Congregational Church.

My first read of the earliest history of the church, covering 1906-1946, alerted me to my ancestors’ intimate connection with the formation of “the Ninth Street Church” and its growth over the early decades. In that history there were many photos, along with lists of the earliest members. The original member list for what was then the Armenian Presbyterian Church in 1906 included 3 Essegians out of the total 46 members. They were Hadji Essegian, Boghos Essegian and Margrit Essegian. What surprised me about the list was that it did not contain my grandfather, Mardiros. I knew my grandmother didn’t arrive until 1907 or 1908, depending on which document I looked at. But my grandfather arrived in 1895 and settle in Troy with other Essegians. So why was he not on that list? And he appeared in a photo of the church elders when they built “the Ninth St Church” beginning in 1914.

I’ve learned a lot about Armenians’ Christianity in the past few years that I didn’t know at that first read of the history. A common practice among Armenian men in the old country was to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. And those who did so, were called Hadji. My grandfather was the Hadji in that original list.

I never met my grandfather. He and my grandmother both died long before I was born. But just as many others do ancestry searches to learn about their past and celebrate the ancestors they come to know, so I felt an increasing connection with my grandfather as I learned more about him from the church history and from a cousin who recalled him surprisingly clearly. I loved the picture in the church history booklet and tried to make a copy suitable for framing. But it was too old—faded and frayed. I finally gave up.

Then a few weeks ago one of the men I’ve been working with through the church sale process and for organizing the closure service called me about a photo that was found in the church. It was tucked away somewhere, and the new owner contacted him to see if we wanted it saved. He in turn contacted me, because the only name he recognized on the list of those in the photo was my grandfather. Turned out it was a preserved, framed version of the photo in the church history! The question became should it go to the Armenian Missionary Association (because it’s apparently quite valuable) or to me. I had a chat with the Executive Director of the AMAA and said if I could have it for my lifetime, I’d ensure that it went to the AMAA after that. He agreed!

So now I have a “bookends” set of photos about the church: the photo taken at the closure service, and this precious miracle that appeared after I’d given up on having a set of photos of the beginning and ending of the United Armenian Calvary Congregational Church.

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THE ROAD BACK

It was brought to my attention recently that three of my four books are no longer available on Amazon. My first book, Autumn Colors, was published by Author House, and is still available for purchase. However, In Her Mother’s Shoes, Star Catching and The Eyes Have It were published by Dog Ear Publishing, and the company apparently went out of business without reaching out to the hundreds of authors to provide alternatives to their print-on-demand and e-book services. If you go on my author page on Amazon, all four books still show. But the Kindle option was removed from all the Dog Ear Publishing books, and the paperbacks are listed as out of stock.

This wasn’t a detour I wanted to take while trying to make progress on my new book, Armenian Dances. But I couldn’t afford to have no books on Amazon when I begin my search for a traditional publisher for the new one. I had only one choice to get them back up for sale quickly – KDP, or Kindle Direct Publishing. I put it off long enough out of fear of it being way to complicated. But a friend who had completed the process recently offered guidance and encouragement.

Authors can do either e-book publishing or paperback publishing directly on Amazon. I opted to start with Kindle, since that format isn’t shown for any of my last three books. While I did hit a couple of hurdles (my cover art wasn’t in a format that Amazon would accept, and my manuscripts needed layout work and formatting), I sought and found solutions for two covers and am in the process of reformatting the manuscripts. I’m happy to say that the process was WAY easier than I anticipated. I’ve submitted two of my three Dog Ear Publishing books. The Eyes Have It went live today. The application for In Her Mother’s Shoes was accepted and will go live sometime in the next 72 hours. I’m almost done with Star Catching, grateful to the very artistic woman who did the cover for The Eyes Have It (and reformatted it for me to get it up and running) for being able and willing to reformat the cover for Star Catching even though she wasn’t the original artist. Next I’ll contemplate what will be necessary to self-publish each book in paperback format – and hopefully it will be as easy, relatively speaking, as the e-book versions—and won’t cost a ton of money.

THEN I can get back to Armenian Dances!

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ARMENIAN DANCES: THE MAKING OF A HISTORICAL NOVEL

Two years ago, I posted about a plan to write a history of the Armenian church where I spent much of my childhood through young adulthood. I wrote about my earliest research and its impact on me in my 2/4/19 blog post. It didn’t take long for me to realize that the sources I would need for an accurate history were not available to me. There was no consistent paper trail, and the early founders (the church was founded in 1906) were long gone. But all the research I had done up to that point convinced me that I could write it as a historical novel instead. I actually was a little relieved. I had written five previous novels and published four of them. How hard could it be to add a bit of historical perspective to a story?

Then I started reading published historical novels. It became clear to me after the first one (I’ve now read several) that writing a historical novel wasn’t like writing any of my contemporary novels or even the futuristic one, where I could just go into “the zone” and make up a story as I went along. Historical novels have to connect factually to real history. A good one flows and holds you like any other novel, but those details of person, place, things, current events, clothes, geography, living standards, and on and on—those bring the story to life for you, taking you back to the setting time and place like you’re really there.

An old high school English teacher used the phrase “glittering generalities” to describe writing that sounds pretty but says nothing, I realized, painfully, that I needed a lot more research for a substantive story about Armenian refugees escaping the horrors of persecution and annihilation in late 19th century through the early 20th century Ottoman Turkey, and starting new lives– including establishing a church, in Troy, NY. No glittering generalities allowed if you want to hold your readers. You have to lock in their hearts AND their minds.

Since that reality check, I’ve spent another two years on interviews, watching newsreels and videos of interviews with survivors of the genocide, and reading, reading reading: history books, autobibliographies, a book of postcards depicting life in the Armenian villages, doctoral dissertations, religious sources, and on and on. I photographed every page of the official church records and studied them to learn about church life in the early years. I spent six months preparing the church (which had been closed for 9 years) for a final closure service, and arranged all the details of the service. After two and a half years, I’ve finally started writing. And as I’ve shared chapters with people who know Armenian history and personal stories from family members, and the origins of the Armenian Evangelical movement, I’ve done a lot of rewriting – correcting language and facts as I proceed.

I’ve been invested in every novel I’ve written. But that investment is elevated to a new level with this one. It’s much more challenging and invigorating. I’ve formed many new friendships. And I continue to learn with each page and each interaction. I hope to complete a first draft before summer and spend the rest of the year readying for submission to agents and publishers.

(This post was prepared for a new website: https://www.wewhocreate.com. The site owner, Darrell Laurant, has a long and storied writing history. He’s responsible for the site, “Snowflakes In A Blizzard,” featuring amazing books that have not had the circulation they deserve. You should check him out!).

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THE PRODIGAL WRITER

Mea Culpa for my absence – but with an excuse.

My last post was in October 2020 – almost 4 months ago. Wow, has a lot happened since then or what?

While the world was watching the American election mess, I was quietly following in the footsteps of my paternal ancestors – having a heart attack and benefitting from modern medical science with the insertion of two stents. It sort of slowed me down for a while, and then along came the holidays and cardiac rehab, and next think I knew it was 2021.

Although I went through an unproductive period, I started the new year with getting back to business. I completed the first chapter of my Armenian story, working title Armenian Dances. I’ll share a couple of pages of that with you here.

CHAPTER ONE

Marderos

1889

Kharpert, Ottoman Empire

Marderos spotted the Kurd on horseback cresting the hill in the distance when he and his sister, Araxie, returned from school. His village was one of the few with a school for girls, at least to sixth grade. Then girls joined the other women in the family for homemaking chores. Araxie was the first girl in their family who could read and write. Their grandmother, mother and aunt were born before there was a girls’ school. Marderos thought that was sad. But it was the way it was.

The Kurds hated the Armenians. Turkish government alternately encouraged the Kurds in their hatred and cracked down on their violence. Their village and others nearby were going through one of the encouragement phases. There had been several reports of girls violated in nearby villages just in the past few weeks. Fourteen year old Marderos immediately devised a plan to keep his family safe from this Kurd. With his father, brothers and uncle away at the market in the next village, it was his responsibility.

As he secured his knife, he told the women to go to the tunnel and stay until he or the other men in the family returned. His ma’eer, Auntie and Araxie didn’t question him. This wasn’t the first time. Medz ma’eer—his grandmother—huffed her refusal and waved him away.

“They won’t bother with an old woman,” she said, with a characteristic shrug. “And if they come in, I’ll draw attention away from the others.” There was no arguing with his grandmother.

He left his family’s home, making a show of tying the money sack around his waist and headed toward the village square. He knew he would entice the Kurd to pass by the home where his grandmother, mother, aunt and sister were, and come after him and his money sack. That was the plan. He just needed to survive it.

He set off at a trot, not wanting to appear to be running from the Kurd. He heard the horse hooves by then, but still at a safe distance. He increased to a sprint.

The clack of the hooves grew louder. He chanced a glance behind him. At this pace, he was perhaps a minute or two from a near certain bloody and painful death. He had no riches to lose—the sack contained only marbles, not the gold the Kurd likely presumed. He was closing in. Of course. Marderos was fast, but no person could outrun a horse.

Unless…. Unless he could make it to the community well in the square.

The filthy Kurd, one hand on the reins and the other holding his sword high, wouldn’t follow him in the plunge. Of that, Marderos was confident. He wouldn’t risk leaving his horse that likely would run off. And he wouldn’t risk the fall to the water that may or may not be deep enough to avoid death or serious injury. And he probably couldn’t swim.

And he didn’t know the well’s secrets.

Marderos spun right abruptly and turned into a narrow alley between two houses. Maybe too narrow for the horse. At least he hoped it would slow him down or make him go around to the path to the square.

He emerged at the end of the alley and chanced another look back. The Kurd was nearly on him, not at all slowed by the alley. The well was feet away. With a burst of speed, Marderos bolted toward the well and catapulted over the rim, dropping to the water with a loud splash. The water, thankfully, was high. He had anticipated that, after the rains of the last few weeks. It was high enough for him to swim beneath the surface to the drainage pipe, but not so high that the pipe was fully immersed. When he reached the pipe he looked up. Where was the Kurd? He hauled himself up and into the pipe, grateful for once that, at fourteen, he was not fully grown yet. He could slide feet first into the pipe and see to the top of the well.

The Kurd would be furious that a boy, one carrying a sack that he believed contained coins or gold, could outrun and outsmart him. He wasn’t likely to leave without trying to get to Marderos and his sack of precious cargo.

Plunk. Pop. Splash.

The Kurd was dropping rocks into the well. Was he trying to determine how deep the water was? Maybe he thought Marderos was holding his breath under the water and would be hit by the rocks or forced to surface.

Marderos was amazed at how long the Kurd continued this. The sun, nearly overhead when he entered the well, was too low to see now. Now and again the Kurd disappeared from the top of the well and returned minutes later with a new supply of rocks—including a huge one that could have killed Marderos if he had been hit. Finally, the Kurd cursed and shouted something Marderos didn’t understand, tossed a final rock and moved away from the well opening.  Marderos began to breathe normally at last.

He listened for horse hooves taking the Kurd away, but heard nothing. Was he up there hoping to draw the Armenian boy out? He waited what felt like a very long while, what felt like hours, wary that if the Kurd had left, he might return with another plan. The sun was setting, and Marderos was beginning to feel cold. It was time to take a chance.

So then, how to get out of the well?

The light was fading. He had to move fast. He scanned the wall of the well stone by stone. Gradually, the pattern he knew was there emerged. He shimmied out of the drain and reached overhead for a stone that protruded from the others in the pattern that wouldn’t be obvious unless you knew the secret. Anchoring one foot on the top of the drain, he pushed with his feet, pulled with his hands. Feet, hands, push, search for the next stone. Pull, search again, climbing the wall that to most eyes looked fairly smooth, unless you knew about the stepping stones. Push, pull, search again, until at last, breathless, Marderos reached over the top of the well.

He stayed low, scanning the village square around him, making sure the Kurd and his horse were gone. Then he hauled himself up and out, dropping to the ground to recover from the effort before returning to his family. It was late, so possibly his father and brothers would be home by then.

He hated this. Living in fear of the Kurds and the Turks was no way to spend a life. When he was older and carried more weight in the family, he planned to convince his father and uncle that they should start a new life somewhere. His schooling taught him about other countries, places where there were more opportunities, where they could worship in their churches without fear—and most of all, no Turks and barbaric tribes threatening his family and their future. Lebanon, maybe. Or Syria. Or France. He smiled at his final thought, America. Where people were free. Where the penniless could become rich and land was plentiful, as long as you were willing to work hard. Marderos knew about working hard. He grew up watching his family working hard. But between taxes and special leins and theft and —. He stopped walking. The late day air was cool, and his wet clothes didn’t help, but that didn’t matter in the moment.

**********************************************************

The chapter continues, laying the groundwork for the trajectory of the historical novel.

Let me know what you think!

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