RESPECT FOR HISTORICAL FICTION WRITERS!

I don’t update nearly enough on how my book is progressing on the Armenians who immigrated to and settled in Troy, NY and founded the Protestant Armenian church there. I’ll do a bit of an update here, but first I want to broadcast my immense respect for writers of historical fiction. I’m aiming that at the many writers who produce new historical novels on a fairly frequent basis. Mine has taken almost 3 years so far for a first draft–and is maybe 1/3 completed. It borders on embarrassing. I say “borders on” because I’ve been learning just how challenging it is to write a story that solidly hooks a reader and both reflects and respects the history it is based on.

What triggers a story idea for a prolific and successful historical fiction writer? Do they work from real or imagined historical figures? Or create their own characters to populate a story about a point in time?

Perhaps each writer of historical fiction (I’ve read several in recent years) takes a different approach. I’d love to get inside the heads of those who have created some of my favorites. Do they spend long hours researching the time period and geographic location of their story and then build the story around that? I picture thick notebooks full of reference material. (Or loaded computer files). How do they smoothly and naturally weave that factual background into and around the lives of the characters who populate the story?

Maybe some write the story first, and then flesh it out with historical details? Do they know everything about their characters in advance, or do they let the characters help write the story and grow their own personalities as the story progresses?

I live with my story every day. The basics are all in my head and in volumes of notes. Maybe I should just get the whole story written, then go back and flesh out personalities and place with life experiences and personal challenges and life happening around them.

Comments and recommendations welcome!

Posted in Armenians, Church, historical fiction, Uncategorized, Writing | Leave a comment

So Many Resources, So Little Time

I’m making progress on my story about Troy’s Armenians in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but it is painfully slow. And not from lack of commitment, but rather from new solid gold resources popping up just when I’m settling into the next chapter of the story.

I’ve received all kinds of advice on how to manage this dilemma. The predominant one is just write the story and flesh it out with what is in all the resources later. That’s counterintuitive to me. Up to this point I have stopped when a new resource came to my attention. My reasoning? Many of the resources I’ve tapped up to this point have taken my story – or a chapter of my story – in a different direction that I’ve found valuable. Or a resource could change the tone of even a single chapter or story line. In other words, the new resources have nearly always enriched the story. How could I possibly not give each resource its due.

One recent new set of resources was loaned to me by the priest at the local Armenian Apostolic church, St. Peter’s in Watervliet. Although Searching for Setrik focuses on the Armenians in Troy who founded the protestant Armenian Church, all of the Armenians who settled in the Troy area have stories in common. So examining the experiences that my ancestors had in common beyond the church — as Armenian refugees from their ancestral homeland, as survivors of horrors at the hands of the Turks and Kurds — provides a richer and more comprehensive understanding of their lives, not just their lives within a specific church but also their adapting to life in upstate NYS.

I do have to remind myself periodically that I’m not writing a history book. I’m writing historical fiction. But how can you paint a rich picture of the characters and the settings in the story without having a comprehensive understanding of their lives both in and out of their chosen church?

So I keep pursuing the new angles, absorbing the details of their lives…

And reminding myself that my ultimate goal is to finish the story!

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

RANDOM CONNECTIONS…NOT SO RANDOM

“I think my great grandfather was the founder of your church.” I received this message after posting a story about my childhood church on this blog. It wasn’t possible, I was certain. I had studied the original members and the entries in the church records. I found no members with the name he provided: Kalaidjian.

As it turned out, when I went looking for the name, I looked only at the church members. In later interactions with this gentleman, I learned that his great-grandfather had been the minister in an Armenian church, and he was pretty sure it was in Troy. He sent me an obituary that said “…he went to Troy where he built the Armenian Calvary Congregational Church of that city.” There was only one Protestant Armenian church in Troy. I returned to the church records. There were three volumes. One covered 1906-1927, the second covered to 2005, and the last covered through the closure of the church. But the second one had a more detailed history of the pastors, going back to the founding of the original church. This one included Rev. Mihran Kalaidjian, 1912- … no leaving date listed. But a note in the record read, “Built the church.”

The church’s early history was somewhat sketchy. The people who founded the original church were primarily Congregationalists, and originally met in people’s houses and in other existing churches. In 1906 when the church members wanted to build their own church, they were discouraged by the Congregationalist American Board. The local Presbyterian synod offered financial assistance if they adopted the Presbyterian affiliation, which they did. They built the Armenian Presbyterian Church, starting with a groundbreaking in 2008.

By 2010, there was dissent within the church members, Presbyterians vs Congregationalists. The Congregationalists returned to borrowed space and pastors, and the plan for a separate church began to grow. They hired Rev. Mihran T. Kaladjian in 1912. Rev. Kaladjian and his wife worked tirelessly to expand the church activities beyond weekly services and midweek prayer meetings. And they confronted the issues of the Armenian community within the larger Troy community, such as language, and sanitation, and employment. A 1913 article in The Troy Times reflected the personal investment by both Reverend and Mrs. Kaladjian.

And, while he didn’t actually build the church, Rev. Kaladjian led the planning for the construction of the Armenian Congregational Church.

The actual reasons for Rev. Kaladjian’s departure—we think in 1914—are unknown. The construction of the new church didn’t begin until 1916. But the plans were drawn, the land was purchased. It likely was a matter of pulling together the finances to make it happen.

In all the research I had done up to the point of contact with Rev. Kaladjian’s great grandson, I hadn’t put all these pieces together. And the way this project has been evolving over the past three years, I’m guessing there could be more pieces to the puzzle of Troy’s Protestant Armenian community that will become part of my historical fiction.

Posted in Armenians, Church, historical fiction, History, Immigrants | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

AN ANGEL ON MY SHOULDER

Just when I think that no resource is available to help me fill in the details of the lives of Armenians who settled in Troy in the 1890’s and early 20th century, another miracle (or two) comes along.

I’m driven to paint an accurate picture of this period in my historical fiction. I can use stories people have told me about their own family members’ early experiences, including what I’ve learned about my grandfather. But I need more to flesh it out. What was the Armenian community in Troy like during this period? How did they live? Were there multiple separate groups? How did they make a living? How did they fulfill their spiritual needs? How did they interact and integrate with the community as a whole?

I had found one Troy Record article from 1913 that talked about the challenges the Armenians had fitting in – language barriers, education views, working with others in the community. The religious leaders met with the city officials to discuss ways to improve integration. But it only went so far.

Then, by total coincidence, my friend Roger (who has been immensely helpful to me on this journey) told me about Torn Between Two Lands. It was an old book, out of print, hard to find, and when I did find it, it was pretty expensive. I debated spending the money. What if it wasn’t helpful? What if it focused on some of the larger Armenian communities in the time frame of my novel? Did I really want to take more time away from writing to read yet another book? I decided to think about it for a while. But then I found myself unable to fall asleep at night, debating with myself about whether the book would help me. Roger has never steered me wrong, and certainly knew more about Armenian history than I do.

I went for it! It took almost three weeks to arrive. But once I had it in my hands, I couldn’t put it down. Not only did it provide golden nuggets about all of the major Armenian communities in America in that era, it also took me back to “the old country” to help me better understand what drove the wave of Armenians to America – what was going on in their homeland throughout the thirty or so years of the 1890’s through World War I, and even going back to the earliest known Armenian to settle in America in the first half of the 19th century. The insights it provided into what drove the people who came to America, and specifically to Troy, NY, were pure gold. The book even addressed the development of the Armenians’ religious communities: how and when they began, when the churches (Apostolic and Protestant) were incorporated, the forces behind choices the religious communities made, how and when they built their first church structures.

Although my novel focuses on the Protestant Armenian community in Troy, you can’t tell the story of Troy’s Armenians without including those who were part of the Apostolic church. After reading something in the book that conflicted with the website of St. Peters, the one of two local Armenian Apostolic churches, I contacted the office of the church for additional information. Their very helpful priest explained that the date on the website was when the church was incorporated, but the physical structure came later. That made sense, since that was what happened with the Protestant Church – the members met for services in homes and borrowed spaces until the first church was built. The priest also generously offered me additional resources, which I will be picking up this week.

Finding this latest resource, Torn Between Two Lands, was just a continuation of the series of little miracles that have driven me on this journey. The writing has begun at last, but I have a feeling the research and learning will continue.

Posted in Armenians, Books, Church, Community, historical fiction, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

ARMENIAN-AMERICANS OF WWII

A friend whom I like, respect, and admire has been telling the stories of Armenians–and Armenian Americans–for decades. His knowledge and intimate understanding of the Armenian Americans who came before us, their histories and their lives, far exceeds anything I’ll be able to acquire in my remaining lifetime. His name is Roger Hagopian. Now he has released a video created 15 years ago, and it’s worth a look. In his own words:

“Our Boys is the film that Tom Spera and I put together in 2005-6 interviewing the World War II veterans. We felt that it was long past the time to share this with the public at large. Sincerely, Roger Hagopian.”


OUR BOYS, ARMENIAN-AMERICAN VETERANS OF WORLD WAR II AND THE WOMEN OF THE HOME FRONT – YouTube

Like all of Roger’s videos, this one tells a story focused on the experiences of Armenians and how they recalled them. It also reflects how that generation coped with whatever came their way. Many thanks to all the Armenians and others who stepped up to defend our nation. Those who survived and the family members who kept the home fires burning were role models for generations to come.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

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!

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

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.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

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?

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment