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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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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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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 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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Historical Research And Accuracy In Historical Novels, by Tim Willocks

All that research. Years of it.

What’s the point? How much does it matter? Who cares? Who even notices?

Much more often than not, those who appear to notice or care (they looked it up on Wikipedia, but not in the Bibliotheque Nationale) are wrong.

Personally, as a reader or viewer, I really don’t mind pure fantasies of the past. If anything, the purer the better. I love The Iliad and Richard III. I was actually quite upset to discover that Blood Meridian was precisely based on real events: up until then I had I been in awe of McCarthy’s imagination. I think it’s great that Shakespeare made most of it up. The fact that in La Reine Margot both Isabelle Adjani (39) and Daniel Auteuil (44) played historical characters who were less than half their own ages did not undermine my enjoyment in the least; and since Dumas’s magnificent story is absolute tripe in terms of historical accuracy, there was no point in letting it do so.

The truth is that it is simply not possible to create an accurate portrait of the past. No one can faithfully reproduce the reality of the 1970s, let alone the 1570s. Speaking for myself, I couldn’t recreate last week. If one is rash enough convey the fact that there were no sewers in 1570s Paris, which meant that the streets were asphalted in excrement, readers and reviewers complain about the smell. Just about every great historical fiction ever created, from The Iliad to War and Peace, would fail as an essay from a History undergraduate. Charlton Heston’s Moses – or Michelangelo – is essentially just as good as anyone else’s, in historical terms. All that matters is that the fictional work in question achieve what we hope for from any good art. Since when was art in any form supposed to be ‘accurate’ in such a depressingly pedestrian sense?

So why, I ask myself, have I spent years of grinding toil on research that is, in essence, irrelevant? More to the point, as I contemplate doing it again, can I avoid it? Can I throw wide my window and scream: “I’m not going to take it anymore!”

Re-enter, once again, the truly great Charlton Heston.

Would many historical novelists of a certain age be writing historical novels if not for him? For what it’s worth, I don’t care that he waved a Kentucky rifle at NRA meetings; it’s a small price to pay for Chrysagon and Major Dundee.

I once met Gore Vidal, whose ‘Lincoln’ provoked a fantastically funny (and lengthy) exchange of letters in the NYRB, in which he blithely humiliated a squadron of bleating historians (well worth Googling). Imagine Gore’s horror when, some years after the novel was published, convincing evidence emerged to the effect that Lincoln was bisexual, and wasn’t too careful about concealing the fact. Anyway, Gore told us a story – I suspect one of his party pieces – about working on the script of Ben Hur. One day at Cinecitta he saw an art director who was dressing the set for a feasting scene by putting a bowl of tomatoes on the table. “So I asked if Mrs. Hur was planning to make Ben a bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich.” His point being, of course, that tomatoes came from the New World and didn’t exist in Palestine in 30AD. (Apologies, but ‘CE’ holds no grandeur for me).

This story has haunted me ever since. Did they eat potatoes in Malta in 1565? It’s cutting it fine, I know, but not impossible – and would Gore Vidal review my book and humiliate me as he did the professors from Yale?

Thus at a certain moment I found myself wondering if there was a chiming clock in Paris in 1572, because it would be very useful, plot-wise, for my hero to hear it. After some hours of research I discovered that not only did the clock of the Conciergerie chime, it was in the perfect location to be heard at the moment I needed it. I wrote the scenes. The chimes worked marvellously. A month later I discovered that the chimes were not installed in said clock until 1573, under Henri III. Do I take the chimes out of the novel and re-write three chapters? Is there a single living soul among the few who will ever read the book that will know this exceedingly obscure fact? If they do, will they forgive me?

Gore’s tomato story returned to haunt me, along with the ghost of Charlton Heston and his BLT. I took the chimes out. I struggled to find a way for the hero to see the clock instead of hear it. A convenient gap – a wharf? – between the buildings crowding the right bank of the Seine? Knock the buildings down? (Who would know that they were ever there, except the odd art historian who might remember the paintings thereof?) Have him climb on the roof?

I rewrote it. But should I have? You multiply that kind of problem by at least a hundred time per novel and it becomes a recipe for insanity. Or at least for the urge to write a novel about last week.

Any advice would be welcome.

The illusion of historical ‘realism’, and the whole question of ‘history’ itself as a vast and shifting work of fiction/propaganda, are topics that will have to await future posts.


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Month In Review (December 2013)

Writing Historical Novels has reached the end of its final month of articles from the multi-national line-up of novelists for 2013.

You can connect with Writing Historical Novels on Facebook, Twitter, Google+ or Tumblr, or via Novel Writing Quotes on Facebook or Google+.

Articles for December 2013

On Form And Medium For Creative Works by Emma Darwin

Traveling To Research For My Historical Novels by William Dietrich

Random Thoughts About Writing Historical Novels by Stephanie Cowell

Using Language Specific To The Setting Of Your Novel by Anne Perry

Developing A Writing Routine by Adrian Goldsworthy

Writing My Historical Novel ‘The Kirilov Star’ by Mary Nichols

How I Became A Bestselling Historical Novelist by Ben Kane

Being A Disciplined Author by Julian Stockwin

Tips For Writing Historical Novels by Paul Dowswell

Writing Profiles For Your Historical Novel Characters by Michael White

Using Catherine The Great’s Memoirs When Researching My Novel ‘The Winter Palace’ by Eva Stachniak

Historical Novels You Shouldn’t Miss by Gary Worthington

On Book Trailers by Kathleen Benner Duble


‘Month In Review’ Updates

For more articles on writing novels you can check out Writing Teen Novels and Writing Novels in Australia.


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