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Location Research For My Historical Novels Set In Russia, by Jasper Kent

Some of the most satisfying compliments I’ve received regarding The Danilov Quintet are along the lines of ‘The city becomes a character in its own right’, – the city in question being either Moscow or Saint Petersburg, depending on which of the five novels is being reviewed.

I’ll let you in on a secret: for the first novel, Twelve, my geographical knowledge was almost entirely derived from the DK Eyewitness Travel Guide to Moscow. Looking at my copy now, a decade on, there are still folded-down corners marking locations that appear in the novel. It was only when I was putting together the final draft, ready for publication, that I actually visited the city and checked that what I had written stood up to reality. For the most part, it did.

Looking back, the approach has its advantages and its drawbacks. The main benefit is in saving time. It would be fruitless to wander randomly through a city the size of Moscow and expect to find the best locations for a novel. As with any tourism, it helps to have an itinerary and to know what has to be seen and what does not. Moreover, when writing historical fiction, the present-day location can be deceptive – the buildings of a modern city would make it unrecognizable to an inhabitant of centuries ago, even though the street plan may remain the same. Guidebooks can provide detail on the history of a building which only an archaeologist could determine by looking at the structure itself.

In Russia the effects of time have particular concerns for the literary researcher. After the revolution, religion was suppressed and imperial palaces became government buildings. Churches and cathedrals fell into disrepair, or were even demolished, and while some sites of favoured cultural interest (such as the Bolshoi Theatre or the Hermitage Museum) were maintained, others were not. After the fall of communism, as religion resurfaced, many dilapidated buildings were restored, usually with meticulous attention to what they had once been. Thus one can look at, say, the Resurrection Gate – the north-western entrance to Red Square – and feel confident that whilst the actual structure was only built in 1995, it is identical to the original constructed in 1680 and demolished in 1931. You wouldn’t know that just by looking at the gate – I knew it long before I ever visited Moscow, thanks to the guidebook.

While tourist guides can provide detail, they are less good at conveying atmosphere. In Twelve Saint Basil’s Cathedral in Red Square serves merely as backdrop to the action. It was only when I visited that I experienced the claustrophobic labyrinth of its interior. It was too late then to feature more of the place in the novel, but it became the setting for one of the key scenes of the sequel, Thirteen Years Later.

Over the course of writing the quintet I’ve visited Russia several times, on each occasion verifying what I thought I knew from book-based research for the current novel and discovering new things that I could use in the next one. For a country so far away from home, it seems like an efficient approach.

On the other hand, I’m currently working on a series of historical detective novels set in my home town of Brighton in the 1930s. Here distance is no excuse for me not to actually go and look at something. But familiarity with a town can bring its own pitfalls, especially one which has changed so much, even over the space of eight decades.

Thankfully, famous cities like Moscow and Saint Petersburg, and even Brighton, have been visually documented over the years as well as verbally. For Brighton in the 1930s there’s a wealth of photography, and for nineteenth century Russia there are paintings at the beginning and photographs towards the end. Fyodor Alekseyev’s masterful cityscapes are particularly impressive, and indeed were used as sources for some of the reconstruction work done after the breakup of the Soviet Union. Whether with a painting or a photograph, it can be a fascinating puzzle to try to match its location precisely in the modern landscape.

It’s easy to overlook just how important geography is to the historical novel. A contemporary novel can be set in a specific, real location, or may work equally well in an unnamed or invented any-town. For historical novels I don’t think that’s really possible – you can’t be historically accurate about a place that never existed.

As an author, you need to know your location just as well as you know all your other characters. You may not know what’s around the next corner in terms of plot, but as for geography, you always should.

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Jasper Kent’s author website: www.jasperkent.com

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Bringing Together The Ingredients Of A Good Historical Novel, by Ken McCoy

Cobblestone Heroes was the first book I had published. It’s set at the end of World War Two, which makes it a historical novel. It’s a bit disconcerting that I can write a historical book largely from memory but I can remember the thoughts, fears, sights, sounds and smells of that era. I can remember what made me laugh, what made me cry and the many scrapes I got up to with my pals during those days, when we kids were given much more freedom to roam the streets than children today.

I started by giving the book several key ingredients: Three children, two of whom run away from home because one them, Jimmy, wrongly thinks he’s killed a bully in a fight. They are looked after by Auntie Dorothy who struggles a bit with the task. Then there’s Freddie, a young soldier on his way to army camp for training; handsome and funny and just young enough for the older of the two runaway children, Susan, to fall in love with. The saga genre is Romance, so I need a bit of that. Dorothy has her moments as well.

When I write a historical novel, I also tap into the memories of my equally ancient friends and of course I use reference books and Google where memory is insufficient. The story itself comes from my imagination (where else?)

I set it at the tale-end of the war because that was a time of unusual interest. It also means I can add a dramatic dimension by writing about the war itself and how the war affected families living on the home front. My memory allows me to talk about the life of a small boy in Leeds in the 1940s and to use the terminology of that time in the dialogue which gives the reader a feel of the spirit of the age. This is not just using words and terms that people used back in that age but also avoiding terms they definitely didn’t use. For example: back in the day you never heard people say “back in the day!”

An important, but fleeting, ingredient is a dead German who has parachuted to his death over east Yorkshire carrying a bag containing three precious jewels which the children find. The children have all been orphaned at the beginning of the book by a bomb dropping on their house in Leeds, and are now being looked after by Auntie Dorothy, who is a good woman but who finds it difficult to look after three children (Jimmy and Susan have a young brother called Billy). Dorothy, in desperation, has Billy put into care and eventually, at a time of hopeless depression, tells Jimmy and Susan that he’s dead; something that weighs heavily on her conscience throughout the book. Several unsavoury characters insinuate themselves into the story, such as Neville Simpson, the wicked landlord; Len Bateson, the murdering neighbour; and Delma Albright, the vicious prison inmate.

Cobblestone Heroes begins in December 1940 when Leeds was bombed. I then move on four years to when the war is coming to an end. I give my characters specific strengths, weaknesses, talents, fears and of course humour. I give them strong personalities, which makes the story character-driven, as is life itself. Although I start with a basic plot, the characters begin to create their own version of it to the extent that where they are at the end of my writing day is sometimes as much of a surprise to me as it is to the reader. My job then is to keep these wayward characters on track, like a sheepdog guiding sheep to the collecting pen which I call THE END.

So, what have I got to work with? I have three orphaned children, two of whom have run away from home; I have a hero (Freddie) to help them; and I have jewels which come in handy when the children are fighting to stop the wicked landlord kicking them out of their home. Among other things I need to get Dorothy out of prison and bring to justice the landlord, who lied to get her sent there. I need to find Billy and bring him out of the dreadful care home he ends up in; and I need to save Jimmy from being killed by a huge falling chimney which has been sabotaged by Len Bateson in an attempt to kill his wife and anyone else who gets in the way. Dorothy has to find her man, (builder Frank Sackfield) and Susan must decide if she can wait for Freddie.

The rest is down to my writing. If I can’t produce a half decent story with this lot to work with I might as well pack the writing job in.

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Ken McCoy’s author website: www.kenmccoy.co.uk

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How I Write My Historical Aviation Novels, by Derek Robinson

Early in World War Two, RAF Bomber Command was using up its elderly stock of bombs. A few had ‘sweated’ their contents. This created a layer of explosive crystals on the outside. Perhaps some detonated in flight. If so, no evidence remained. In World War One, Chinese labour squads dug huge holes behind the Western Front. Some Royal Flying Corps officers thought these were to be swimming pools. In fact they were meant for mass burials from the Somme offensive. These facts, and a thousand like them, I came across in my research before I wrote my historical novels about the RFC and the RAF.

Research, research, research were (and are) the keys to my writing. There are three reasons: first, I uncovered stuff that I could never have imagined; second, I didn’t want survivors from the two wars telling me I’d got it wrong; and third, a historical novel shouldn’t play fast and loose with the facts. A reader once said that my novels are really documentaries disguised as fiction. This is a slight exaggeration. But my novels are reliable as history. So I researched everything and everywhere, including the politics of the day, the geography, the weather, the food and what Wellington called ‘The other side of the hill’: the enemy’s plans. I built many extra bookshelves to carry this library. When veterans and serving RAF pilots told me my stuff was authentic, all that research was justified, even if half of it wasn’t used.

After research comes imagination, and there is little to say about that except either you have it or you don’t. Aircraft obviously play a big part in my flying stories but what really interests people is not hardware, it’s people. I had to get inside the heads of a squadron of fighter or bomber pilot who took nothing seriously except flying. RFC/RAF humour could be very black indeed. If it reads easily, that’s because writing it was hard work. My method was, in P.G. Wodehouse’s words, to stare at a blank piece of paper until beads of blood broke out on my forehead. I have a note permanently pinned to my bulletin board reminding me that Action Is Character. Never say a person is brave. Show him doing brave things. Let the reader do half the work.

I aim to do four hours work a day, seven days a week; although life sometimes gets in the way. If I miss a week, re-starting is tough. Before I begin, I re-read a few pages. This operates on the flywheel principle – it’s easier to keep the momentum going than to get it moving from scratch. I write everything in longhand, double-spaced to leave room for changes. It’s easier to cut stuff in longhand, and if you think your deathless prose never needs cutting, you’re kidding yourself. There is something satisfying about re-reading a page you sweated over, realising it’s all crap and deleting it with one slash of the pen. I don’t get that freedom from typewriters or computers. While I’m working on a book I never read other authors’ fiction if it’s on the same theme. (He might do a better job, in which case I resent him. If he does a worse job, I despise him.)

When the book’s written, I try to find a veteran ex-pilot who’ll read the manuscript. Usually he finds a few technical errors. After that it’s a matter of keeping a close eye on publishers and their editors. I remember an American publisher who sent me a proposed jacket design for my novel about the Battle of Britain. All the RAF pilots were in khaki. Khaki is what the US Air Force wears, and the artist assumed that everyone did the same. Moral: trust nobody, check everything.

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Derek Robinson’s author website: www.derekrobinson.info

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The Inspiration For My Novel ‘Madame Tussaud’s Apprentice’, by Kathleen Benner Duble

My husband does a lot of interviewing. One of his favorite questions to ask is: “If you could have had two roommates, living or dead, who would they be and why?” My answer has always been Marie Antoinette and F. Scott Fitzgerald because they both were bigger than life. I always imagine we would have had quite the wild apartment.

My fascination with Marie Antoinette began years ago when I was sixteen. On a trip to Europe, my family and I visited Versailles, and the grandeur of the place overwhelmed me. The Hall of Mirrors, the Petite Hameau, the Grand Trianon – walking those corridors I could actually envision the young queen who danced nightly in bejeweled gowns only to lose her head to revolution. As a fan, I wanted to tell her story. As a writer, I knew I had to find a way to tell it that no one else had.

Enter Madame Tussaud. Most people don’t know her backstory, but it’s a fascinating one. Madame Tussuad’s mother was housekeeper to a man named Phillip Curtius, a wax worker. When Marie or Manon (as Madame Tussaud was then called) turned sixteen, Dr. Curtius began to teach her the process of this art. Eventually, Manon’s work came to the attention of the king and Manon was sent to Versailles to work with the king’s sister as an art tutor. She worked at Versailles on and off for over nine years until 1789 and the coming of the revolution. As with many others who worked for the king, Manon was arrested and found guilty of being a Royalist. In order to save her own neck, Manon was ordered to sculpt the heads of others beheaded at the guillotine. Those wax heads are still one of the main attractions at her museums worldwide.

When I read that story, I knew I had a great way of exploring the French Revolution. Here was a woman who had crossed paths with both sides of the issue. She’d worked at Versailles, but she’d also provided wax heads for the National Assembly. Using Madame Tussaud was going to be a perfect vehicle to explore the lifestyle of Marie Antoinette and the ensuing upheaval that consumed her.

Next I created a young apprentice as a way of making the story a book for young adults. I had seen a news piece once on a boy who had a photographic memory. I gave my young main character that same ability – a skill that would be invaluable to a wax maker with a museum known for its realistic displays. But I also made my main character a thief – a girl of the streets whose family perished due to the taxes imposed by the royal family. Her sympathies were strong for the poor of France.

Revolution is an interesting subject. While we celebrate the outcome of it, we often forget that freedom isn’t free, and that many people suffer and die in order to bring about that independence. Writing the story of Madame Tussaud with this apprentice gave me the chance to explore the two sides of revolution – the struggle for equality and the violence that often accompanies that fight.

In my book, my young protagonist is a freedom fighter, but she soon learns the hard facts about upheaval and new regimes. What starts out as her quest for freedom eventually dissolves into chaos. The ensuing conflict she feels over her beliefs and the process to achieve them was fascinating to explore.

So, though I was initially inspired by Marie Antoinette and had a grand time writing about the beauties of Versailles, by the end of the book I was equally moved by the men and women who took up that fight for equality.

I love writing a story that I think will affect me in one way only to be surprised to find I am changed and inspired in another. Madame Tussaud’s Apprentice was just such a book.

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Kathleen Benner Duble’s author website: www.kathleenduble.com

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Kathleen Benner Duble was a monthly contributor for Writing Historical Novels during 2013. Click on the link to see her previous articles.

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Writing Novels Set In Different Historical Times And Places, by Julian Stockwin

My two current historical novels are set in very different time periods, over a millennia apart. Pasha is the lastest in my ongoing Kydd Series, one man’s journey from pressed man to admiral in the Great Age of Fighting Sail. The Silk Tree is a standalone, an epic adventure to unravel China’s most guarded secret and set in the time of Emperor Justinian. So why did I tackle two such very diverse writing projects?

The genesis of The Silk Tree lies in the magical city of Istanbul (formerly Constantinople). On location research there for the Kydd Series my wife Kathy discovered a rather lovely silk scarf in the Grand Bazaar. While she was chatting with the merchant I idly wondered just how silk was brought from China to the West. Intrigued, I did some ferreting around and the creative juices started flowing – and I knew I had another story I just had to tell…

My Kydd books are based in the Georgian era, 200-odd years ago. I now know that period pretty well and can mentally go back in time there with reasonable ease. However, when I decided to write The Silk Tree I faced a huge challenge: I would need to get my head around a time not 200 but 1500 years in the past, and across two very different great civilisations – China and Byzantium! I have to admit I was somewhat nervous as to whether I could pull it off. But I do have a secret weapon: my wife Kathy. She’s an ex-magazine editor and we work together as a collaborative team.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned since becoming a wordsmith it’s that all life’s experiences are grist to the mill for a writer. For The Silk Tree I was able to call upon my knowledge of Chinese calligraphy which goes back to the time I lived and worked for some years in Hong Kong. All those hours of dry study of ancient Greek and Latin at grammar school also came in handy!

I guess the hardest part of getting a historical mind set for The Silk Tree (which I believe is vital in writing historical fiction) was to internalise the perceived boundaries of the known world in those far far away times. I had to strip away the trappings of modernity and develop an empathy with my main characters – a canny Greek merchant, Nicander and a fearless Roman legionary, Marius – and understand their personal horizons. This demanded deep research but I always especially enjoy this part of the writing process.

In all fiction, however, there are constants that a writer must bear in mind. The first, I believe, is the centrality of the characters. The reader has to connect with the characters – either love ’em or hate ’em – but feel an emotional nexus of some sort. At least one of the characters must change and develop over the course of the book in a satisfying way. In all my books to date I have had ‘double acts’ in terms of characters. For the Kydd series, it’s Tom Kydd and Nicholas Renzi and in The Silk Tree it’s Nicander and Marius. This is an old literary device, but it’s a useful one.

Another imperative is that the reader needs to be able to pick up on the stakes in the story, otherwise it might as well be non-fiction. A compelling tale sets out the stakes, throws in challenges and then resolves matters to one degree or another at the end of the book.

So what advice would I give to aspiring historical novelists regarding which time to write about? Historical period fashions come and go – some seem to stay quite a while – others are more transient. An established author once told me to write from the heart, not try to follow current trends. He cautioned that if you try to jump on a current bandwagon by the time your book comes out (maybe in two or more years time by the time you actually write it and it gets into print) that particular bandwagon may long since have disappeared.

In the end, of course, it all boils down to passion and commitment. Go with your heart – but be mindful that being a successful author, especially in these challenging times, demands professionalism at all levels.

I feel very privileged to be able to write both an ongoing series set in the Age of Fighting Sail and now, as well, pen an occasional standalone when I come across a story about a pivotal point in history that I just have to tell.

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Julian Stockwin’s author website: www.julianstockwin.com

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Julian Stockwin was a monthly contributor for Writing Historical Novels during 2013. Click on the link to see his previous articles.

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Why I Write About British Redcoat Soldiers, by Paul Fraser Collard

I have been fascinated with the British soldier for as long as I can remember. I can still vividly recall the first time I saw the film Zulu on a grey and wet Sunday afternoon when I must have been around ten years old. The images that I saw filled me with a desire to know more of these fabulous red-coated soldiers, one that is still with me to this day.

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Greek Mythology As Historical Fiction, by Glyn Iliffe

While watching Arthur Christmas the other month I remarked to my wife on the modern trend for demystifying all things supernatural. In the film, Santa Claus is no longer a lone agent who uses Christmas magic to circumnavigate the globe in a sleigh pulled by flying reindeer, heaving his ample waist down chimneys to leave presents for every (good) child on earth. Instead, he is the figurehead of a high-tech organisation populated by thousands of elves who, like an army of miniature Tom Cruises, are able to rappel into homes, plant presents with military precision and exfil before you can say “Happy Christmas”. Gone is the mystery, gone the innocent belief in something numinous. In their place is the cold logic of science.

The same might be said for mythology in modern historical fiction. People don’t stop reading books about Robin Hood just because historical evidence for the main character – and the stories that surround him – is shaky. It’s still a great story. But today’s audience also expect their Robin to be “historically accurate”. They don’t want Lincoln green and merry men anymore; they want thirteenth century mud and a host of cut-throat rogues.

Similarly, how tolerant would today’s readers be of the Arthur of Sir Thomas Mallory’s day, a king in plate armour who fights giants and goes on quests to find the Holy Grail? Aren’t they more attuned to the Arthur portrayed in Bernard Cornwell’s Warlord Chronicles: a pagan warrior, rather than a Christian king, fighting Anglo-Saxon invaders on the one side and – ironically – the spread of Christianity on the other? In Cornwell’s retelling, the armaments, rudimentary technology, culture and attitudes are all intended to meet the modern reader’s expectations of historical accuracy. Obviously, as a writer in the Information Age he has decades of historical and archaeological research at his fingertips, something Mallory never had the benefit of. But Cornwell also chooses to play down the fantasy element of the Arthurian tales, portraying such things as Merlin’s magic in a way that can be read as illusory or the result of superstition.

The trend doesn’t seem to have spread to Greek mythology. The main character in my books is Odysseus, a mythical hero with less historicity than either Robin Hood or King Arthur; and the backdrop is the Trojan War, a Bronze Age conflict for which there is only sparse evidence. Though I’ve always tried to incorporate what little is known about the period – evidence of armaments, political systems, religious practices and so on – I’m more than happy to follow Homer’s example and include elements from later periods if I think they fit the story better. Neither am I averse to the odd mythical beast or interfering Olympian. Yet my books are still classed as historical fiction rather than fantasy.

So why is it more acceptable for gods and monsters to appear in novels about Bronze Age Greece than ancient or medieval Britain? An editor once asked me to consider rationalising the immortals et al as the effects of superstitious beliefs on primitive psychologies, very much in the vein of Cornwell’s Warlord Chronicles. I admit I gave the suggestion thought, but not much. To dismiss the gods in a retelling of The Iliad is one thing, but what about The Odyssey? Odysseus and his crewmates would need to be on a constant diet of LSD to explain away the Cyclops, the Sirens, Scylla and Charybdis!

There’s another thing about removing the mythical from Greek mythology – what’s left is just Greek. For those of us weaned on the milk of Jason and the Argonauts before going onto the solid food of Homer, the supernatural is what makes sense of this almost pre-historic world. As archaeology begins to reveal more about the Greece and Troy of three thousand years ago, novels about the era can add more historical fact to the fiction. But to strip out the supernatural would be sacrilegious to readers, as doomed to failure as renaming Christmas Winterval or as bad as telling kids that Father Christmas isn’t real.

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Glyn Iliffe’s author website: www.glyniliffe.com

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