Thursday, February 11, 2021

FIVE KEYS TO SUCCESSFULLY RESEARCHING AN HISTORICAL NOVEL

by Paul Vidich

The Memorial Wall in the lobby of CIA Headquarters in Langley Virginia has 133 black stars carved into Vermont marble.  Each star represents a fallen agency officer.  Many are named, but a few are identified only by the date and place they died.  My new novel, The Mercenary, is inspired by one anonymous man represented by a star.  Initially, I was intimidated by the challenge of telling the story of a high-ranking KGB officer exfiltrated by the CIA, not because it was about Cold War spies, (I had addressed this world in my previous novels), but because my novel was to be set in Moscow, a city I had never visited – and couldn’t in the pandemic.   

I wanted to make sure The Mercenary evoked a vivid sense of Moscow in the last years of the Soviet Union. To create an authentic sense of that place and time, I knew I would have to do a great deal of research.  Before sitting down to write the novel, I did six months of extensive research to get five things right: setting, characters, dialogue, location, and the historical context. This breakdown was helpful for my spy novel, but it can offer readers and writers useful tips for any type of novel research.

SETTING: Setting may be the novelist’s first critical choice. Setting means a certain place at a certain time where the story unfolds.   Setting is not just scenery, or nice descriptive passages, although an illustrator’s eye for a place is part of it. It’s about mood, it’s about the things that draw a character to a place, establishes the novel’s atmosphere, and evoke the story’s imaginary world.  Setting provides the yearnings, fears, attractions, and possibilities that are available to characters who find themselves at a unique moment in a particular place.  It is the stage for the characters whose stories will be told. 

BELIEVABLE CHARACTERS: In The Mercenary, I needed to imagine men and woman whose choices, values, and actions were convincing and of the era.   I read several autobiographies of high-ranking KGB officers who successfully defected to the West.  Their stories are gripping real-life accounts of spies and they paint a graphic picture of the paranoia, incompetence, intrigues and sheer nastiness of the KGB.  I was able to understand the hopes and fears of men who were caught in the Soviet system, and once I inhabited their world, I created Viktor Petrov, a KGB Lieutenant Colonel who wanted out. He became a whole person who lived in a specific apartment block, drank too much, spoke with a provincial accent, and cared deeply for his son.  I created him, as all writers create characters, by accessing my own emotions and psyche, combining them with the real-life accounts of the KGB officers, and then I scraped all this material into a mental space, breathed on the ember, and gave life to Petrov.

DIALOGUE: It is critical. It reveals character and it drives plot.  But to make dialogue authentic, you need to know your character well. I listened to the voices of the Russians who I researched and developed an ear for imitation. Often writers make the mistake of describing a character to help the reader imagine, but writers sometimes wrongly use Somerset Maugham’s technique of sumptuously describing a person’s aquiline nose, grey eyes, knitted brow, and so on, and by the time the reader has finished the paragraph the reader still doesn’t have the faintest idea what the person is like. But if the character opens their mouth and says something, you reveal them in two or three lines. 

LOCATION:   In my previous novels, set in Havana and Washington DC., I visited the cities doing something akin to location scouting.  I wanted to see where the action happened, the routes my characters took from their hotel, where my characters lived, and what they saw when they walked down the street.  I couldn’t visit Moscow in person so I did my location scouting with Google maps.  The street view feature allowed me to visit the city virtually.  Street names, traffic patterns, pedestrian’s clothing can all be seen.  All these little details are important to establish authenticity, but they have to be transparent.  If a detail stands out, the writer has failed.  There is tendency in historical fiction to show off period details, but a detail that draw attention to itself takes the reader out of the moment.

HISTORICAL CONTEXT:  I read as much as I could to understand the Soviet Union in 1985.  The Afghan War had been raging for several years and the Soviet occupation had become deeply unpopular and depleted the Soviet economy.  Details of the historical moment helped shaped the tone of the novel, and became background for several of the characters, allowing me to insert myself into the mind of those characters. Serge Schmemann’s Echoes of a Native Land, a New York Times correspondent’s memoir of living in Moscow, provided a stark and moving account of the city in the 1980s that was infinitely suggestive.

Finally, when I had finished a draft of the novel, I looked to see if I could find a sensitive reader whose personal experiences could validate the experience of a foreigner living in the Soviet Union’s pervasive surveillance. I was fortunate to be find John Beryle, American Ambassador to the Russian Federation 2008-2012, who also happened to be a counselor officer in the American embassy in 1985. He provided invaluable insights into specific details, Moscow life, Russian vocabulary, and he corrected mistakes that would only be noted by someone who lived and breathed Moscow in the ‘80s.

The writer’s sleight of hand is to create a world that is authentic to the reader.  It is not easy to do, but it’s what makes the books we admire succeed.

What are some of your favorite tips, tricks, and strategies for writing an historical novel?

6 comments:

  1. What a great "roadmap" of the research that went into your new thriller. Aspiring writers should take note! Having a former Ambassador review your story is a great way to assure "verisimilitude" as they say. (I did that once when I wrote one of my thrillers set in a former Soviet territory I could not visit). Now I can't wait to read THE MERCENTARY!....Karna Small Bodman

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  2. Thanks Karna. Ambassador Beyrle was very gracious with his time. He was the first American ambassador to the Russian Federation when Putin came to power, but more importantly, he was a counselor officer in the embassy in 1985, when the events in the novel take place.

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  3. Interesting article! “If a detail stands out, the writer has failed.” Not always easy to see at first but I find I’m most tempted when it’s something I just want to get in there. Lots of great tidbits and insights here. Looking forward to the book! Thanks, Paul.

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  4. Thanks Carla. It's not one of Elmore Leonard's 10 Rules of Writing, but it could be. Be transparent with historical details and none should drawn attention to themselves.

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  5. The closest I've gotten to writing a historical story was Trail of Blood, which had scenes set in Cleveland during the Depression. i doubt I did a good job with dialogue but really enjoyed working with such different details--from the price of a tuna fish sandwich (ten cents) to having it served in a former bar because between Prohibition and the growth of people working in offices, a lot of bars turned into lunch counters. It's the details that delight.

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  6. Research can be very satisfying when you discover a detail that seamlessly fits into the story and is also authentic.

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