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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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