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Eva Stachniak

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Making History Come to Life in Historical Fiction:

Posted by on Mar 28, 2016

This is a blog I wrote for the Brockton Writers Series. Thanks for the inspiration!

Making history come alive means writing novels that create a rich and convincing fictional world which gives the reader the experience of the past. Here is how I go about it:

 Before I write:

  1. I find a period of history and historical characters that resonate with me.

 Since I grew up in Poland, I’m drawn to the stories from behind the Iron Curtain, which—I believe—has long kept Eastern Europe cut off from the rest of the world. Because I’m an immigrant, I respond to characters who changed cultures and countries, who had to re-write themselves and find new meaning in their transformations.

  1. I do general research.

At the beginning I read anything I can find on the historical characters that intrigue me: memoirs, letters, biographies, scholarly books and articles. If possible, I visit archives and talk to historians who specialize in the period.

My goal for general research is to gain a solid understanding of the historical period I intend to write about: its concerns, dilemmas, preoccupations, and joys.

  1. I make comprehensive lists of details.

I take detailed notes on anything that strikes me in my research: descriptions of clothes and daily chores; gossip, beliefs, fears; popular expressions, topics of conversations, favourite pastimes, food, drinks, and popular books.

I divide these notes into categories for easy reference and access. Among many excellent software packages designed for such tasks Scrivener is my favourite.

  1. I travel.

Visiting the locations where important scenes of my novel take place allows me to put myself there, describe what I see, and develop a feel for the lay of the land. Later when I am at my desk, writing, I find it much easier to visualize my characters in these locations and, consequently, make the scenes I write full-bodied and alive.

  1. I step away from my research.

Researching is great fun, so it can easily become a never ending quest, especially attractive on a bad writing day. After about three months of research I take a research break and focus on constructing my fictional world. By that time, all I have read and noted has become like the bottom of an iceberg, submerged, invisible, but there to support me.

 

As I write:

 

  1. I strive not to give history lessons.

There is a fine line between providing the reader with essential information and sounding like a lecturer. I mention historical facts only if and when they impact my characters’ lives. I let my characters interpret these facts, without the benefit of hindsight and from their limited—and often not entirely reliable—point of view.

  1. I don’t alter solid facts.

Writers differ considerably on their approach to historical accuracy. I don’t alter undisputed historical facts, but I make use of gaps and historical controversies if I need them for my version of the story. And since I often present historical events from my character’s point of view, I explore historical gossip and speculation, as well as the limits of private and collective memory.

  1. I take as much content as I can from the writings of the past.

The writings of the past provide me with the material from which I build my fictional world, but I do not stay away from the modern interpretation of what I find.

In Empress of the Night, for instance, I used eighteenth century descriptions of Catherine the Great’s stroke but interpreted them according to the current medical knowledge. This modern interpretation of stroke victims’ perceptions became the backbone of my novel.

The writings of the past also provide me with ideas for my character’s conversations, concerns, and dreams, and often suggest specific incidents that befall them.

  1. I recognize my own limits.

With time, values, attitudes, sensibilities change. I realize that I can never escape my own times, and neither can my readers.

I embrace these limits. I look for voices silenced or marginalized. I claim them for my characters, explore them, infuse them with new, modern meaning.

In the end the only novel I can write is a contemporary novel about the past.

  1. I remind myself of what drew me to the historical character in the first place.

 All the historical research is but an aid in creating vivid and memorable characters whose dilemmas, fears, dreams, and joys matter to me, the author, for compelling reasons.

As I began writing my novels of Catherine the Great, I kept in mind the fact that the history of her Russia affected the history of Eastern Europe, and—by extension—the history of my own family. I reminded myself that even though Catherine the Great was one of the most powerful women in history, she had to face and overcome misogyny, and that she was an immigrant to Russia who had to rewrite herself and develop a new identity, a process I am intimately familiar with.

 

A list of my favourite internet research sites:

Toronto Public Library

Internet Archive

Open Culture

BBC archives

Database of British Newspapers

Etymology Dictionary on line

Current Value of Old Money

 

On Twitter:

#twitterstorians is a great # to follow for information and tips on historical research as well as blogs by researches and students of history.

 

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Blog reviews

Posted by on Mar 28, 2014

Here is what some of the bloggers have to say on Empress of the Night:

CANADA & the US

The Hook of a book: guest post  On Catherine the Great as grandmother.

The Gilmore Guide to Books review The events of Catherine’s reign have been widely covered by biographers and while Stachniak does include important political moments in the novel, it is something much more. Her writing inhabits the Russian mindset and that of a great woman determined to bring her country the same level of respect given to their counterparts in the West. It is not just an engrossing read from beginning to end but also imparts some of the sadness that comes from having such enormous power and responsibility yet having to wield it alone.          

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What do the memoirs of Catherine the Great reveal?

Posted by on Jan 2, 2014

For a writer of historical fiction, period memoirs promise to be the ultimate primary source, a treasure trove of inspiration for a novel’s scenes and the language in which those scenes are couched. But memoirs are not always entirely reliable and need to be read with caution. It may be that what they do not mention is far more important than what they do. The Memoirs of Catherine the Great provide an illuminating example.

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A visit to a 19th century dentist

Posted by on Dec 7, 2013

This is my December blog for Writing Historical Novels:

I’d like to invite you to a dentist’s office. Not a modern one, though, but one a character in your next novel set in the 19th century might have endured. I have based its description on a few drawings and some research into the history of dentistry.

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On Writing about Catherine the Great

Posted by on Oct 21, 2013

My latest guest blog post from Writing Historical Novels:

In Poland where I grew up, Catherine the Great has always been an object of hatred and scorn. After all, she is the Tsarina who, with the help of Prussia and Austria, wiped Poland off the map of Europe for over a hundred years. She is the empress who crushed the last Polish uprising and made Poland’s king – her one time lover – her prisoner. The Poles still cannot forgive her the bloody massacre in the suburbs of Warsaw during the Polish uprising of 1795. She is routinely referred to as “this horrible woman” and a “hypocrite”. Since mid-eighteenth century she has been a symbol of imperial Russia, a woman feared and despised, hated and cursed. A view shared by generations of Turks and descendants of Ukrainian Cossacks.

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On Russian women in the 18th century

Posted by on Sep 27, 2013

The latest guest blog I wrote for Writing Historical Novels.

 

The women of the Age of Reason have captured my imagination. Their voices sound much closer to our contemporary sensibilities than the voices of their daughters and grand-daughters. For starters, they are not coy about their sexuality. The eighteenth century women would’ve found the Victorian ideal of a woman as “angel of the house” separated from the desires of the flesh odd or even preposterous. Many among them, especially if they had the luck of being born or married into aristocratic families, claimed an active role in the misogynous male world and were quite successful in their endeavours.

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