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How I Write My Historical Novels, by Eva Stachniak

As soon as I knew that I wanted to write a novel about Catherine the Great, I gave myself three months to do extensive research on the historical Catherine and the period in which she lived. I started with Catherine’s biographies, both recent and older ones, downloading 18th and 19th century books into my e-reader, taking advantage of the fact that old rare books are being extensively digitized and made available through major library portals. I read scholarly articles on various aspects of Catherine’s reign, her political conquests, her art collection, her gardening. I also read her own writing: memoirs and numerous letters which have preserved her voice from different stages of her life.

What general research produces is a great wealth of material which can yield many possible themes and approaches. I could try to tell the story of Catherine the Great’s whole life, or focus on one particular aspect of it. I could go sideways, focusing on Catherine’s many fascinating relationships. There is a whole novel in her complex relationship with Prince Potemkin. There is a novel in her troubled and ultimately tragic relationship with Count Poniatowski, the man whom she made the king of Poland only to take his kingdom away and make him her prisoner.  There are friendships that have gone wrong: with Princess Dashkova who believed herself to be the most important participant in Catherine’s palace coup; with Countess Bruce who betrayed Catherine with one of the imperial favourites. And there are friendships that have been sorely tested: with Denis Diderot, or with Voltaire, whose philosophy Catherine found attractive in theory and impossible to use in practice .

My initial reaction to such a wealth of material used to verge on panic, but now, it has become one of detachment. In this initial stage, I acknowledge the shapes of the many novels this rich historical material could yield. I take notes on their possible trajectories. Sometimes – if a particular theme attracts me more than others – I write a few pages and watch where the narrative gets me. I try different points of view, different voices, making sure I don’t go too far into any of these projects, for I don’t wish to lock myself too early to any particular path. At this stage, I want to create options, not to plunge into them.

In the early going, I’m a great fan of Scrivener, a word-processing program which allows for the creation of many folders and subfolders for each character, idea, scene. With it, I find it easier to keep track of all my possible routes, see them at a glance, move them around, complete them, or break them apart. I also place all my research notes into a Scrivener project, and spend quite a bit of time creating short summaries of what I’ve learnt, coming up with key words and tags that will – in time – offer a possibility of patterns I might have overlooked otherwise.

By this time, the novel is slowly beginning to take shape. In my case it’s not a conscious process, but rather a patient reflection on all I have gathered in my head, in search of a clue, a hint that would provide a focus I need. I’m waiting for something, an image, a sentence, a piece of dialogue which will stand out from these amassed treasures, becoming so irresistible that I know the novel must grow from it.

In the case of The Winter Palace, that trigger was a sentence from Catherine’s letter to Sir Charles Hanbury Williams, British ambassador to Russia and her great supporter when she was still a mere Grand Duchess: “Three people who never leave her room, and who do not know about one another, inform me of what is going on, and will not fail to acquaint me when the crucial moment arrives.”

Catherine is referring here to Elizabeth Petrovna, the empress who brought her to Russia from Zerbst at fourteen. “The crucial moment” is to be Elizabeth’s much-anticipated death, which Catherine sees as her big chance to gain power. But who are the three spies who will not fail to inform her? And if one of them were to tell Catherine’s story what would she say?

This was when I began to hear the voice of a palace spy, and this is where The Winter Palace truly began.


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The Winter Palace (a Novel of the Young Catherine the Great)Necessary LiesDancing with KingsGarden of Venus    The Katyn OrderSpartacus: RebellionAuslander

Writing Historical Novels

16 Comments Post a comment
  1. Hello Eva. Like you, I find research itself can inspire new ideas and directions. Come to think of it, it’s probably particularly true for historical fiction. I think it’s quite possible (muse willing!) to have a good idea of a novel’s “shape” from the outset, but I certainly wouldn’t start fleshing it out at that stage. There’s potentially so much that we don’t even realise we don’t know, that immersion in what you call “general research” early on is an absolute must.

    January 12, 2013
    • I find it works best to keep an open mind for quite a while. And of course I am ready to continue research at any stage of writing and alter my direction if I find something wonderful or just troubling. Good lick with your own writing.

      January 13, 2013
  2. Eva, I read The Winter Palace a few months ago and loved it so much. I can’t wait for the sequel. Your incredible research inspired me to read a biography of Catherine (I picked Robert K. Massie’s) and thoroughly enjoyed it. My grandmother’s family are Germans from Russia, so I’ve been interested in Catherine for a very long time, but never took the time to really read the story of her life.

    As a historical fiction writer myself (I write in the WW2 era), I find I can get completely overwhelmed with research, too. I need to find a way to organize it all better – along with my novels – so perhaps I will check out Scrivener, as well.

    January 12, 2013
  3. Hi Melissa, Thanks for this. I am finishing Empress of the Night right now–polishing the last draft before I submit it to my editor. I am looking forward to the next stage, which is line-editing . Now, with my editor’s help I will examine every scene and polish it. It is like adding highlights to a finished painting…little changes add lustre and polish!!! Good luck with your won novels!! It’s hard work, but what a pleasure!!!

    January 13, 2013
  4. Ellen Grogan #

    Invaluable. Thank you so much for sharing.

    January 13, 2013
  5. Your process is fascinating, thank you for sharing it. I am sure at some point I will refer back to this post for my historical fiction writing. And I love how you compare line editing scenes to be like adding highlights to a finished painting – there are so many times I am writing and thinking to myself: “This is just like or this is so similar to the process of painting or ceramics.”


    Stephanie Renée dos Santos

    January 13, 2013
  6. I find writing and painting to be very close, sketching on the big canvas, connecting spots that do not seem connected at first. Changing what I have already done…There is this fascinating French documentary which shows Picasso painting a few of his pictures: The Mystery of Picasso…I am mesmerized by the images there…how he starts painting one thing and ends with something different. How one detail changes the whole composition!

    January 14, 2013
  7. Great post! Thanks – I’m going to share this with the members of the class I just taught on writing great historical fiction.

    January 30, 2013
  8. Christine #

    I just finished reading your wonderful novel in preparation for my trip to St. Petersburg. Thank you for shedding light on your concept and preparation for this intriguing story. You have made history so alive, especially for me, a Polish American. The tragic history of Poland and Russian is of great interest to me. I so look forward to reading Garden of Venus which I just purchased and Empress of the Night. Many thanks. Dziękuję

    February 2, 2013
    • Thank you, Christine. Enjoy St. Petersburg! Catherine the Great is still there, though muted by what happened later. I hope you enjoy my other novels, too. If you read Polish, take a look at my Polish language site:
      Best wishes and happy reading.

      February 2, 2013
  9. Reblogged this on Witchcraft in Poland and commented:
    Wise words from the wonderful Eva Stachniak. See the Historical Novel review for my interview with her.

    May 29, 2013

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Major Discovery: Scrivener – ever heard of it? | Novel Writing
  2. Month In Review with Steve Rossiter (January 2013) | Writing Historical Novels

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