I'm starting a new feature on the blog this year, something I call "Author R&R" -- Author Reference and Research. The goal is to to learn how authors go about researching and preparing for their novels, be it through job shadowing, being buried in library stacks, going online, interviews, news reports, whatever techniques and methods they use in getting the details just right. Or whether they feel too much research and over-planning can be deadly to a manuscript.
My first guest is Irish writer William Ryan, whose first novel, The Holy Thief, was shortlisted for the Theakstons Crime Novel of the Year, the Kerry Group Irish Fiction Award, CWA John Creasy New Blood Dagger and a Barry Award. That novel and its sequel, the recently-released The Darkening Field (its US title), feature Captain Alexei Korolev of the Criminal Investigation Division of the Moscow Militia around the time of Stalin's Great Terror in the 1930s.
Here's what Bill had to say about the research that went into those books:
"The Korolev novels are set in 1930s Moscow - at a time when Stalin's purges are in full swing and the Soviet Union is doing its level best to completely control its image, both at home and abroad. Secrecy was an obsession, propaganda was all-pervasive and anyone who was writing, filming or photographing anything whatsoever was careful to make sure they did nothing to disturb the myth that the Soviet Union was a happy and prosperous country, looked over by a paternal Stalin and the envy of the rest of the world. So if nothing was quite as it seemed, how does a writer who didn't experience those years find out what it was really like on a day to day basis?
Well, I started off by reading pretty much anything that was remotely relevant. I've ploughed my way through Stalinist propaganda, taken my hat off to novels written in secret by persecuted authors, been tempted by strange advertisements for Soviet sausage, waded up to my neck in adulatory biographies of Soviet heroes and felt sick at the lies told by foreign travellers to their readers at home. I'm also lucky that there are some brilliant historians writing about the Stalinist period at the moment - Sheila Fitzpatrick, Orlando Figes, Simon Sebag Montefiore, Catherine Merridale and Anne Applebaum, to name but a few - and many of them have accessed material from archives and places I could never hope to come across otherwise. I'm not sure everything I read was directly useful (or enjoyable - I doubt I'll be reading Red Pilot again) but the cumulative result was invaluable when it came to creating the background and atmosphere for the story - and also understanding how propaganda worked in the Soviet Union and what smells right and what smells wrong.
The other tricky job that had to be done was to try and reconstruct what Moscow actually looked like at the time, what the streets were called and what was where. I visit Russia before each book so I can go to the particular places I'm planning to use but, because Moscow has changed so much in the intervening seventy five years, I need to do a lot more than that. It can be even be difficult just to find out what a street was called in 1936 because street maps extending past the centre of Moscow just weren't published up until the eighties because the Soviet Union still feared invasion. It was such an issue for foreigners that in the seventies the CIA made their own map of Moscow for US embassy staff who were tired of getting lost in the Moscow outskirts. In most cities this secrecy about its own geography wouldn't be such a problem for a writer - Fifth Avenue has been Fifth Avenue for well over a hundred years, after all - but in Moscow many streets are now no longer called after the revolutionary heroes they once were. Fortunately one item in my ever-growing research library is a 1937 Moscow guidebook which helps a great deal (it also includes the very odd sausage advertisements) in addition to which www.oldmos.ru has a huge stash of photographs of Moscow from the 1860s onwards catalogued on a modern map. Even so, some locations just weren't photographed - the Lubianka, the headquarters of the Soviet secret police, has changed considerably in appearance over the years but, perhaps unsurprisingly, it took me some time to find a photograph of it that someone was brave enough to take during the 1930s.
Even when I do find a photograph of a location I have to be a bit careful as the same place can look quite different depending on the purpose of the photograph. For example, here are two photographs of Tverskaya, a street that has been altered out of all recognition since 1936 (including its name - back then it was called Gorky). The photographs are taken from locations about a hundred yards apart but of the same section of street. In one everything looks prosperous and bustling - in the other not at all. The first picture was almost certainly taken by a professional photographer and intended to show an idealised view of what a modern city Moscow had become - whereas the second was more likely to have been for personal use and shows a very different version of the same street.
An even better example of how Soviet photographs can twist reality is shown in a photograph of Stalin and his politburo colleagues surveying a recently built canal. The original photograph was taken a few months before the arrest and subsequent execution of the former head of the NKVD, Nikolai Ezhov. In the first photograph Ezhov is the small man on Stalin's right looking understandably nervous and in the second he's completely disappeared. Or has he? If you look carefully you can see his ghostly shape on the water - a fitting end for a man who caused millions to disappear in the purges he orchestrated for Stalin.
The dilemma for every novelist is how much research to put onto the page and I think the less the better. After all, Arthur Conan Doyle wrote the Sherlock Holmes stories over a hundred years ago and they're as readable today as they ever were. Conan Doyle didn't explain every little detail of Victorian life because he didn't have to and, as modern readers, we're still able to work out what's going on and why. Sometimes details do have to be fleshed out a bit but I try to do it as briefly as possible. It might sound like research is a waste of time if I don't use it that much in the books but it doesn't work that way, or at least I don't think it does. All the background information a writer has helps them to tell the story with confidence and to avoid those little mistakes that readers pick up on and which spoil the flow of the novel for them. It's that easy flow and confidence that I want from a writer when I'm reading their book - someone who knows where we're going and why we're going there."
You can download the first two chapters of The Darkening field via this link.
My thanks to Bill for giving us some background on his research process and novels! Next week: Betty Webb, author of a series with western P.I. Lena Jones and Pima Indian partner Jimmy Sisiwan.