Tuesday, September 11, 2012

A Historical Tangent

I recently finished a superb historical novel about Catherine the Great called The Winter Palace by Eva Stachniak. It is set in Russia during the time Princess Sophie (who later was renamed Catherine) traveled from a small German principality to the Russian court to become the wife of Empress Elizabeth's heir, Peter. It's told from the point of view of a palace "tongue" - i.e. a spy who reports all that she hears - gossip, scandal, etc. - to Empress Elizabeth as well as Catherine. The historical details are quite wonderful, and more than once I would rouse myself from reading only to be reminded that I was living in 2012 and not 1760.

Young Catherine the Great soon after her arrival in Russia
My fascination with Catherine the Great began in high school (1991) when I watched a TNT movie called Young Catherine that starred newcomer Julia Ormond as Catherine and a very handsome (and sadly now deceased) Mark Frankel as Catherine's lover, Gregory Orlov. No, it wasn't historically accurate in many ways, but the story intrigued me, as did the romance between Catherine and Gregory. Ever since, I've had an interest in this monarch, though not one that has caused me to do a great deal of research.

However, reading The Winter Palace once again sparked my desire to learn more about Catherine. This fascination is further fueled by the fact that my grandmother's parents were Germans from Russia. Their ancestors originally lived in Germany, but when Catherine the Great sent out an invitation for Europeans to come and settle Russian lands, my ancestors decided to make the trek to this foreign land.

My cousin has done extensive genealogy of our Germans from Russia ancestors, and my grandmother even has the exact date that my relatives arrived in Russia: June 15, 1765. They went to the Volga River region of Russia and stayed there for generations until they came to America in the early 1900s.

I went to the library today and snagged the most recent biography of Catherine available. Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert K. Massie is a heavy, thick book, but I'm looking forward to diving into its pages. Catherine also wrote her memoirs and thankfully, they've been translated from the original French so that I can read them, as well.

I tend to place my love of history into two distinct periods: the Eighteenth Century and World War II. I've studied the American Revolution, the French Revolution, and the Napoleonic Wars (which, granted, went into the early nineteenth century and include the Regency period, which I also love.) I used to be quite a historian of the American Civil War in junior high and high school, but now I find I can't muster much enthusiasm for it anymore. I have dabbled in other historical time periods - the Russian Revolution, World War I, and the late nineteenth century. In fact, I didn't really start having an interest in World War II until my mid-20s. It gained further traction when I went to graduate school, and after studying it for quite a few years now, I can safely say it's the number one time period I enjoy researching and reading about.

However, every few months I long to dive into the Eighteenth Century. I have ideas for novels that take place during the American Revolution and Eighteenth Century England that I'd like to explore one day. I have a few half-written novels about the French Revolution, too, that sadly will never see the light of day.

But now, thanks to the transportive nature of historical fiction and my own family history, I have an idea budding for a novel set in Catherine the Great's Russia. The main character will, of course, be a German who makes the trek from his native country to try his luck in Russia, and ends up in the court of Catherine the Great.

Ahh, how my mind whirls and skips and dances with delight when I think of writing his tale!

But here I face a conundrum. There are only so many hours in the day (and most of them are eaten up by the day job) and taking on a story of that time period would require a lot of research. I tend to devote most of my research time to World War II since the novels I'm writing now take place during this war.

I am of the mind, however, that certain novels call to us at certain times of our lives. I have abandoned fully-formed ideas in the past because I knew that it simply wasn't time for me to write them yet. Whether that means I didn't have the experience or the wisdom, I don't know. I only know that I must bow to the inner voice and let these projects wait until I am ready.

So it will be for this new story idea. I will let it simmer, jot down notes when needed, and do research when I  feel the urge. At some point, if the idea is meant to become a fully-fledged novel, I will be seized with the undeniable longing to write it.

I eagerly await that day.



22 comments:

  1. Mmm... sounds good! Will have to have a look at The Winter Palace. The 18th century is one of my favourite historical periods too! :)

    ReplyDelete
  2. I think it is exciting that you even think of the possibility of writing in that time period! It might take you longer but maybe in the end it will be the book you love most:)) Can't wait to see what you do!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you, Terri! It will be a slow process but, Lord willing, one I hope to undertake!

      Delete
  3. Robert Massie has written a number of bios of Russian rulers. His books are very detailed, accurate and good reads to boot.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you for the recommendations, Jasmina! Since you once lived in Russia, I may be turning to you for research purposes. :)

      Delete
  4. It's funny how interests come back around. For a while I was obsessed with everything to do with Iceland and even based my book on some of its history. Other things took over, but I've found myself drawn to it again.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'm the same! I used to be obsessed with the conflict in Northern Ireland, too, and even wrote part of a novel set during The Troubles. Every once in awhile I'll get interested in it again.

      Delete
  5. Oh where do I begin? I saw that TNT flick; Julia Ormond is a wonderful actress!! Robert K. Massie also wrote a terrific book about Czar Nicholas and Alexandra, and it's quite a tome.

    I had to set aside this year's NaNo idea for lack of research. Like you, I accept there will be a proper time for that book, but it's not now (or November really). But that's a sign of not worrying about the future. Whatever I'm to write will be written, of that I have no fear, and the same goes for you too! :)))

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I love the no fear attitude, Anna! I just started the Massie book on Catherine the Great this evening and it's terrific. :)

      Delete
  6. Melissa-it sounds like a wonderful writing journey to me! Those that take us back in time are the best! Good luck and I can't wait to read more about your story:)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you, dear friend! I look forward to the journey!

      Delete
  7. Now I understand your new Russian Board on Pinterest! I'm very intrigued by your new book idea and so wonderful that there is all that family history there too. Isn't it fascinating how different eras catch our imagination? Mine roam between 19th century America and the British colonies, Medieval England and the Tudors.
    Have fun with all the new story ideas popping up in your head.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. J.T., I remember loving to read books set in Medieval times, too - and it's strange how our tastes change, isn't it? But change is the spice of life!

      Delete
  8. Catherine the Great WAS fascinating. My current WIP is set in 18th century France and England--such an interesting time. Oddly enough, I love WWII novels, but I've never got the right idea for one to write myself!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Oooh, Faith, your WIP sounds like it's right up my alley. I look forward to reading it some day. =)

      Delete
  9. I also need more hours in the day. I love researching for my books, but need to fit it in with the day job and the family. Good luck with your research.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Oh, the day job...if only I could work part-time! That is my goal...someday. :)

      Delete
  10. My focus is actually young adult epic fantasy, but I still do this kind of research for cultural and setting details from which my imagined worlds borrow. I too greatly enjoy the research aspect of writing and find myself distracted and inspired by new findings. Currently I am mostly invested in Turkish studies from the Ottoman Empire :)

    Thanks for the great post!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Emilyann! Thanks for stopping by. ;) I am not a fantasy reader, so I find it really interesting that you take details from the past to use in your imagined worlds. How fascinating! Best of luck with your writing!

      Delete
  11. I loved reading this!!! Now I'm curious, I'll have to look up that Julia Ormond version of Catherine the Great because I also vividly remember a TV show about C the G from about that same time period.

    And I know what you mean about a story idea just completely grabbing hold of you, and having to abandon other full-formed ideas because it wasn't the right time. Two falls ago I had historical setting grab me to forcibly I abandoned everything to do frenetic research on the end of the Roman Empire, Greece in Late Antiquity, and Atilla the Hun - for exactly 3 weeks before the start of NaNoWriMo in November. It was enough research to get me started writing and I just left blanks when I hit spots I knew needed more research. I love research but oh it is time consuming!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It is indeed time consuming! That's why I need to win the lottery so I can quit my day job and spend my day researching and writing. =)

      Delete

I love to hear from you!