Thursday, January 10, 2013

Researching the Historical Novel in the Former Soviet Union

By William Burton McCormick
Every author who wants to write a historical novel set in a foreign locale has a fundamental problem: How does one overcome language barriers, cultural differences and temporal and physical distances to get the perspectives of those living in a bygone era?  The problem is further complicated when the historical setting is the early Soviet Union, where information was lost or locked away and official versions of events were distorted to glorify the Communist Party. 

I encountered this problem when I first began Lenin’s Harem, my historical novel about the Latvian Riflemen, the doomed vanguards of the Russian Revolution.  The Riflemen were arguably the first great heroes of the Bolshevik Revolution, but they would fall out of favor both with Soviet government and to some degree their own people in later years. Finding unbiased information on the American side of the Atlantic was nearly impossible. History books, even ones on Latvia, made only fleeting references to them. Certainly no source provided enough detail to write narrative fiction.

But I was determined to get the story no other Western writer had yet touched. So, to pierce the veils of history and totalitarian regimes, I moved to Latvia, living in Riga sixteen months to unearth the facts.

It was a daunting experience at first. I arrived in Latvia, knowing little of the language, knowing nobody, not even where I was going to live.  But, for me, there was no other way to do it. I had to immerse myself completely in the land, the people and its history. I rented an apartment in the center of the city and began to explore the country and its past. I met with historians, museum curators and journeyed to every place depicted in the novel. The longer I stayed, the more the region’s tragedies became clearer to me.  Nearly every family had lost someone to the World Wars or Stalin’s purges. I saw the pictures of smiling children who would die on prison trains and went to the graves of soldiers murdered by their own generals.

The biggest challenge, by far, was that much of the information simply wasn’t available in English. To communicate with older historians and specialists on the Latvian Riflemen, I had
to use translators. But this was frustrating and expensive. Because of the Soviet occupation
of Latvia through 1991 much of what had been recorded was in Russian rather than Latvian.

So, as a next step, I set off for Moscow for a fifteen month course in Russian at Moscow State University. My spoken Russian is still terrible, but I used the knowledge I gained at the university to help me with written translation. The time in Moscow also gave me access to the Russian point of view on these events. It gave the book an additional perspective.

There’s no reason to transport yourself across the world to sit in a room studying. No matter how busy I was I always took time to journey to some location or meet with some key person.  Yet, as my research amassed, I began to spend those long winter nights writing twelve or fourteen hours at a sitting, often until five or six in the morning. I didn’t want any distractions. No internet, no television, only a few music CDs for entertainment.

During this time, I accumulated so much research that I spent the next years cutting through it and polishing Lenin’s Harem into the best, most accessible book I could muster. I knew no one would read a dry historical account. It had to be a gripping, human narrative. Solid entertainment with a warning underneath about the dubious rewards of defending totalitarian regimes.

I thought I had succeeded, but I decided to test it. I wrote a short story about a Latvian revolutionary in a similar style and submitted it to Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, a publication known firstly as popular entertainment and secondly as a tough market to crack. When the story, “Blue Amber”, was accepted, I knew I had the right balance between fiction and history. In fact, the work was eventually nominated for a Derringer award as one of the year’s best.

Then, it was on to submitting the novel and Knox Robinson Publishing picked it up. I was honored to see something to which I had dedicated so many years finally realized.

Was it worth it? Well, strictly in financial terms, unlikely. Living years in Eastern Europe is not a way to make money. But measured in life experiences, inspirations for further works of fiction and an accurate, gripping novel as end product – I think I have succeeded.

Author Bio:
William Burton McCormick was born in Maryland and raised in Nevada. He graduated from Brown University with degrees in Ancient Studies and Computer Science and earned an MA in Novel Writing from the University of Manchester. He is a published fiction author and a member of Mystery Writers of America and International Thriller Writers.  William is Hawthornden Fellow for 2013.

Lenin’s Harem Synopsis:
Lenin’s Harem is the story of  Wiktor Rooks, a ruined aristocrat swept up in the chaos of World War I, who by twist of fate finds himself a member of the elite guard of the Russian Revolution, a group of Latvian soldiers known colloquially as “Lenin’s Harem” for their loyalty to the Bolshevik cause. Concealing his aristocratic past from his enemies, Wiktor hides in plain sight while the Russian Empire crumbles around him. But where does he go when the revolutionaries win?

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