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I’ve Got a Great New Word You’re Going to Love!

July 29, 2022

For my birthday, my husband did something unconventional this year. Instead of a material gift – a pretty top, a little bling, a nice dinner – he gave me some inspiration. It came in the form of a five-year-old NYT Magazine article, printed out on plain paper and placed into a clear binder. No frills, no professions of eternal love, not even a card.

On the cover was a picture of a grizzled and intellectual-looking Slav. The kind of man who writes novels, then gets put in prison for it. His eyes seemed to burn with subversive thoughts.

A. Doba

His name was Aleksander Doba, and he was not a writer, or any kind of artist for that matter. He wasn’t even really much of a thinker, at least not in the classical sense.

What he was, was a man of action with a mission. A nearly deaf, retired mechanical engineer who had kayaked alone across the Atlantic Ocean three times – the last being in 2017 at the age of seventy.

In his quest for conquering the ocean, thumbing his nose at all the nay-sayers out there, and vanquishing his own fears, he was forced to confront disasters that rank on a Biblical scale.

Like hailstorms of flying fish – “Do you know how fast they go? This does not feel good.”

Getting thrown from his kayak during a fierce storm (one of many he’s survived, sometimes barely, on the high seas) – “I woke up on the shore to the sound of screaming – my own.”

Hunger, sunstroke, sleep deprivation, salt-induced blisters and rashes, hallucinations, loneliness, and a level of fatigue that defies description – “I did it with no stuntman.”

You may be wondering, as I did, why my husband thought I would find kindship in Doba’s adventuring. I’m not a kayaker or extreme sports enthusiast of any kind. I’ve had a lifelong fear of deep water, and the thought of spending weeks alone, in the middle of nowhere and surrounded by sharks, gives me the heebie-jeebies. “Scaredy-cat” probably best describes my approach to anything from finding a spider crawling up my leg to partaking in quasi-life-threatening activities like riding rollercoasters.

And I would never, ever be so ridiculous as to claim that I could conquer my chicken-heartedness enough to do even half the things Aleksander Doba has done. He has a level of grit that’s present in only the true heroes among us, and I’m not one of those.

Hell, I’m not even Polish.

V. Dougherty
V. Dougherty

But there was something about the word Doba used to describe his outlandish journeying that holds the answer to why he and I may share more in common than it would appear.

That word was katorga. It’s a simple-sounding word, as far as Slavic words go. Three syllables, lots of hard consonants. The kind of word that forces your jaw open and pulls your face down when you say it. In Polish, it’s also the word for forced labor in Siberia. And over the years, as gulags in arctic climates have largely faded from memory, katorga has also taken on another meaning. Roughly, according to the NYT piece, it is an experience of suffering repurposed as contrarian self-determination, and one that gives an existential thrill.

When put this way, my husband’s unorthodox birthday gift begins to make more sense.

You see, I do have my own katorga. Mine begins every time I start a new novel – especially one that’s part of a series. It ends…well, it really never ends if I’m to be honest. Because like Aleksander Doba, I’m already thinking about my next odyssey before I’ve finished my last. I’m rewriting the bleak memories of my trials and tribulations as deeds of brain busting daring-do, existential thrills of the imagination.

Like when I invented a mind-blowing plot twist that I almost couldn’t write my way through, threatening to lay waste to hundreds of finished pages. That one took months to figure out.

Or when I decided a beloved character needed to die a horrible, agonizing death, thus risking the ire of readers. The wrong editorial decision can destroy years of work, putting into peril future books in the series.

I’ve run out of creative juice on some days and experienced a paralyzing crisis of confidence on others. At times, the monotony of editing and the line-by-line fixes of persnickety continuity problems has gotten to me. Errors that seem small, like when I discovered my heroine’s shoes were cream-colored at the beginning of a chapter, but lilac-hued by the time I described them again in the next chapter, can take a reader out of the story. Then it’s on to the next novel on their nightstand.

A finished product

I recognize that while harrowing to me, these are hardly the sorts of audacious feats that would inspire The National Geographic Society to bestow upon me its annual People’s Choice Adventurer of the Year Award, as it did in 2015 on Mr. Doba.

But in the place of such a distinction, I’ll happily accept simple encouragement from readers who seem to genuinely love my work. I’ll take pride in the reviews that spring up on Amazon and other platforms.

“I know I’m not the only one in your Cold Club, but I always feel like you’re writing something personal just for me.”

–Roger B.

Even when one of my books is by all objective financial measures a bomb, there is a psychic income I get from trying to figure out why more readers weren’t enticed to buy, from attempting to take corrective measures. Or from defiantly making the decision to continue with my original vision, hoping to slowly bring people on board.

“The writing is of great quality, beautifully descriptive when required, sparse when not, but the plotting displays a crepuscular style which risks leaving 50% of readers none the wiser as to what’s just transpired. It is possible to have hidden meanings and unforeseen plot twists without this much obfuscation – just ask John le Carre.”

–Tepid, 2-star Amazon review for Welcome to the Hotel Yalta
Artwork for “Yalta”

As for Aleksander Doba, his own sense of motivation comes not from awards, or even pats on the back from admirers, but from a common expression in Poland: “I do not want to be a little gray man.” It is a reminder to himself that he has no interest in dying in his bed.

With this ethos in mind, he begins the process of redesigning his kayak to withstand bigger waves and more violent storms, he makes lists of extra efficient foods to take with him and tries to invent new ways of exercising his legs, so that he doesn’t lose muscle tone (in the past, he’d tried swimming, but that attracted sharks). As he tackles the problems that vexed him, nearly killed him on previous expeditions, his fears and frustrations actually begin to subside. They’re replaced by a deep longing for the turtles he liked to commune with, whose shells he would tap as they swam by, and the birds who would land on his kayak, refusing to leave. Friends on the open sea.

He starts to look forward to seeing them again.

It is exactly this kind of re-imagining of our drudgery as triumph that makes those of us who are perhaps a little obsessive continue the fight. Katorga is a tyrannical mistress for sure, but we can’t help but love her, and wait like fools for the kind word, the wink, the nod she throws our way.

Doba with Olo, his custom-made kayak

As for Aleksander Doba, one of his katorgas did end up having her way with him. In February of 2021, he died while climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro. It was not in an avalanche, or from exposure during a freak storm, or from a fall. After summiting, he asked for a brief rest before posing for a promised photo op. Then, according to eyewitness reports, he sat down on a rock and “just fell asleep.”

He did not die in his bed

I expect my katorga will have the last word on me, too, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Me in a very dangerous book store

Please indulge my katorga for a moment.

It is so exciting for me when the artwork for a new novel – or in this case, the redesign of an entire Historical Fantasy series – starts dribbling in. Especially after an epic fail.

The genre I thought I’d nailed in my original book covers – Epic Romantic Fantasy – turned out not to be so on the nose after all. The Breath series, with its themes of war, ancient cultures, enchanted archaeological digs, and yes, a pair of eternal lovers is so obviously Historical Fantasy when I look at it now.

This may seem like a trivial mistake – after all, Historical Fantasy is pretty much just a mix of Historical Fiction and Fantasy – but it’s critical that genres and sub-genres are communicated properly in the cover art. Otherwise you risk alienating readers who might have been looking for something more specific, as well as not identifying the readers who are hungry for your particular style of fiction.

New BREATH illustration

Endeavoring to get this right is exhilarating. It’s also a strangely vulnerable act – this empowering of a stranger to interpret a massive flight of fancy, turning ideas into a series of images that will hopefully capture the essence of a fantasy drama and beguile a potential reader.

Here’s a new on for SAVAGE ISLAND

That will capture the subtle, the romantic, and the mysterious. Enough, but not too much. If the art overdetermines the aura, it robs the reader of their own interpretation of the way a character looks and feels. Of how they walk through the universe of a story – its topography, its cities, its kitchens and bedrooms.

And finally, for OF SAND AND BONE


Book 2 of the BREATH series (Book 3 if you count SAVAGE ISLAND)

Coming soon.

  1. You do amazing work, Victoria.

  2. Thank you, Tim. That means a lot coming from you.

  3. R.I.P. Mr. Doba. What an incredible life. The book covers are beautiful.

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