About the book:
As the European Powers indulge in an arms race that will eventually lead to war the rival empires court the favour of Russia, seeking to secure an alliance that will bring Russia into any war on their side. On the domestic front The Tsar is trying to consolidate power after the failed revolution of 1905 and the creation of the Duma, Russia’s first step towards parliamentary democracy. Into this scene enters James Fitzhugh, a British Military Attach‚, sent to Russia to work with the Russian military and help smooth the way to a firm treaty. Soon, however, thanks to a few words overheard by a friend, James is plunged into the middle of a world of plot and intrigue while the future of Russia and her treaty with the British hangs in the balance. Set against the grand architecture of early twentieth century St Petersburg The Volga Ruby is an adventure in the old tradition of adventure stories…
Ever wondered how authors do their research? I certainly do. Today I have the privilege to invite Peter Jobes, the author of The Volga Ruby, a book set in the Romanov era in St. Petersburg. Do read the post if you are interested to know how he did the research without ever visiting the place. Also to find out how Mark Twains ‘Write what you know’ does not hold true in this case.
There is an old adage, often attributed to Mark Twain, that says you should write about what you know. I must say, it seemed to work for Mark. It also seemed to work with Fitzgerald writing about the Jazz Age, Hemingway writing about the Spanish Civil War, Ian Fleming writing about spies, etc; the list of authors to have written about what they know is long and distinguished. It’s all well and good to write about what you know when you’re a spy, or living life large in the Jazz age, or on the front lines in a conflict, but what about when you’re just living an average daily life in a singularly bland town? What about the rest of us who never get to do those amazing things that people want to read about? Well, for the rest of us there is but one option: Research.
Before I explain how I did my research for The Volga Ruby I should perhaps at first tell you how I think I should have done the research. As the book is set in Russia I should naturally have flown out there to familiarise myself with St. Petersburg and do in-situ research into the locality. Lots of the buildings from the era my book is set in are still standing and I could have soaked in plenty of period architecture. I should have visited the British Embassy and discussed how it was managed and what procedures were followed in 1907. I would have spoken to old people who may remember hearing first hand from parents or grandparents what life was like in the Romanov era. I should have buried myself in books in the great libraries and absorbed as much information on the subject matter as possible before I even started to type. Needless to say, that is not exactly how things went.
Given the fact that I was limited both in time and in finances to dedicate to research I had to take the other option and use the internet. It’s quite amazing the volume of information that is available to you if you’re willing to search for it. The most valuable tools for location research were Google maps and Google earth. While there is no way to get the atmosphere of a place merely through looking at it on a screen these tools do have valuable uses. You can familiarise yourself with the layout of a city and use it to look into routes but more importantly it is hyperlinked so you can view plenty of photos and read about areas all across the city until they weave together to form a good overview of the places you want to write about.
Historical facts and details were also often researched online but there is one vital thing to remember when researching anything on the internet – check your sources. It’s all well and good that wikipedia tells you something but it can’t be classed as a reliable source unless you can cross reference that with another more trusted source. Luckily even if a point is not referenced on the site you read it, you can often find by a detailed search other sites that can be used for verification. I found that, even if something was not covered in adequate detail online, it’s far easier to research from books when you have a focussed idea on exactly the facts you need to study.
When not using the computer I used a number of books, from travel guides to history books. It was not until after I had written my first draft that I read Robert K. Massie’s exceptional joint biography, titled Nicholas and Alexandra, but reading it made me feel I had a better grasp on behavioural traits of the Romanov characters and I did go back to edit certain areas in the hope of making them truer to the real thing.
In the end I think that the most important thing when writing is not knowledge but passion; while it is an advantage to know your subject first hand, knowledge can be learned, facts can be checked and research can be done. The more effort you put into that the better the results will be but passion for a subject is something that can not be faked, if you do not feel passionately about your plot, your stories, and your characters, then it will be very hard for a reader to feel passionate about them. I think, therefore, a better adage than Twain’s would be to “write about what you love“.
Thank you so much Peter for the guest post.
Let me know your thoughts on this. Do you agree with him? Also, I’ll hopefully be able to review this book next month. So be on a lookout for that.