The final piece in my series on historical research (most particularly for fiction writers) is about researching Russia–or, more generally, challenging research, where there are language and documentation barriers that make it difficult to get a good fix on the time and place you’ve chosen for your setting. I’ll be talking about my own method of dealing with this challenge, before listing tips for how to tackle the subject yourself.

My Own Method

I should first say that the core part of my method in researching Russia for my novel isn’t something that most people could realistically undertake in this instance: I was lucky enough to be at a point in my life where I could enroll in a university with a reputable history department, and then I took classes in Russian History and grilled several of my profs, during their office hours, on additional sources I could look up to further my particular research needs. This is something I couldn’t do at this stage of my life–it was just the right place and time when I did it a couple of years ago.

I took the history classes for several reasons:

1. I was considering doing graduate studies in history;

2. I felt my research skills were lacking and figured the kind of research historians did was the closest to what I needed to do, so this would be an opportunity to develop and hone my skills under professional supervision;

3. I could then get that all-important foundational knowledge I sought, and also had access to experts in the field whom I could ask about specifics and details.

But of course, Russia is difficult–a complete contrast to my Regency research experience.

With the Regency, I had been reading Austen, and a variety of contemporary Regencies for years. I knew the idiom, many of the conventions and restrictions and much of the context just from the kind of incidental knowledge you pick up from while enjoying the stories. I had also studied English history, and knew the context very well–I knew what had brought England to that stage and could therefore fit the period into the larger sweep of events (which just means that a number of things make more sense). And, of course, English is my first language, and there’s a wealth of resources available for deepening one’s knowledge and acquiring the additional scope that’s needed to actually write a book in the period.

Not so with Russia. I’d read a few of the Russian classics (I loved Crime and Punishment for instance) and had been intrigued with what I glimpsed of the larger society. But it was all as through a glass, darkly. And I soon learned that between the language barriers (I don’t speak nor read Russian) and the fact that literacy came relatively late to Russia, even among the aristocratic classes (and particularly to women), I felt out of my depth. As I say, I was lucky enough to be able to take relevant courses at an excellent university as a starting point for filling in those gaps (I then did extensive reading of my own, but the courses were immensely helpful, as were the profs). If I hadn’t been able to… I’m not sure what I would have done. I didn’t know where to begin.

That’s why I thought I’d pass on a few tips and ideas–basically, how I’d do things now, if I were to start a new project that required this kind of research (and in which I had little to no expertise) but with which I had no opportunity to take classes and get the information the easy way.

I might not have written the book, if I hadn’t taken those classes–or it might have taken far, far longer, because I would have floundered around the issue of a point of entry. But now, here I am–two years after taking the classes. I have a completed, 600 page draft of The Novel (it probably would have been sooner, but I entered law school the next year, and first year law school is brutal–needless to say, I didn’t get any writing done for much of that year). The book is now in the throes of revision.

So, for those of you undertaking a really difficult research assignment, with things like language barriers, sparse documentation and other such challenges, what do you do? Where do you begin? And how do you proceed?

Tips for Researching “the hard stuff”

Skimming stage:

1. Look for well-researched fiction titles (either on the internet or by asking at your local library) that have the setting (or something close to it) that you’re hoping to write in. This is a fun preliminary step–and often one you may have already done, as this is sometimes the way in which my interest in a particular setting gets piqued.

  • Any books you can find that are set in a similar context will be invaluable–both for the kind of incidental details that they’ll include as part of the narrative and for the fact that many books set in specific historical settings will lead you to more sources. They often have lists of non-fiction books they consulted for their own research. Make a note of these, but before you dig any deeper, go to step 2.:

2. Do Internet searches. Again–this is the starting point of research these days. Look up your period. Google it. Try search term after search term (and strings of search terms) around the setting you’re wanting for your book.

  • You’ll probably get a lot of Google Books results, if the subject is esoteric enough. Skim through the snippets that are available and note down any that seem relevant.
  • Try Google Scholar. Many of these results will give you a specific aspect of a subset of a subject you’re looking for, because academic papers generally need to be tightly focussed–so they might not be all that useful for the wide-ranging knowledge you’ll need. Skim them for useful points, and make note of the more general sources they’ve used (at least, the ones in languages that you can understand and read).
  • Repeat as many times as you can, with all the different search terms. Make note of all the sources that could possibly be relevant (try to cull it as possible if you can skim through abstracts or brief outlines of the sources).

3. See if there are any profs or academics who might be willing to guide you in some ways. Some might be too busy to respond–don’t take this personally. But some might, and some can be extraordinarily generous in pointing you in the right direction.

  • Make no mistake, however: this is a shortcut for getting the information, but you’ll still need to do the legwork and read the materials. Still, academics will know of sources that might take a good deal more effort for you to root out. They might also have knowledge of some more obscure primary source translations, excerpts and compilations (one of my most valuable sources was a book one of my profs loaned me of first person accounts of daily life in 19th century Russia. There was one account, by a serf woman, talking about the family that owned her and her childhood with them, that served as direct inspiration for my own main character’s situation as a child. The owner’s cruel son became juxtaposed with my main antagonist.).
  • Be sure to follow up and thank those who have been helpful and to make a note of their names, should your book be published. Following up to ask if they would like to be acknowledged–or offering to name them in the acknowledgements, while acknowledging that any oversights or errors in historical accuracy are not theirs is a good courtesy.

4. Also seek out some general sources–e.g. a readable survey of the country’s history (or the region, if the borders of that area have been somewhat malleable through the years), for instance. It’s good to have that large context, and to know where your particular period fits into the larger history of the place, as it will help you have a sense of why the culture and place is as it is in the time that you’re writing.

Learning stage:

4. Once you’ve got all your sources (university libraries sometimes will allow you to get a temporary card or membership, sometimes at nominal cost–something worth taking advantage of, if you can and if it’s not ridiculously expensive), start reading, making notes etc.

  • Give yourself a time limit;
  • BUT, make sure it’s a little more flexible than with more familiar and accessible settings. Because this area is more obscure and difficult to research, it can sometimes be necessary to dig further and seek more knowledge of the time and place;
  • Keep making notes of worthwhile sources you find as you read in order to follow up as necessary.

5. If you still need more information, then you might need to follow up with any kindly academics you’ve managed to reach to get more specifics or further sources.

  • These are busy folk (as are we all busy folk), so this more detailed contact should only be undertaken once you’ve consulted the sources they’ve given you–this is a courtesy, to show that you’ve followed up on their recommendations, but also means that they won’t have to reiterate information that you already have access to.

6. Start planning/writing!

  • Make note of further details to research (or to interpolate, based on your contextual knowledge, if necessary) but try to save the chasing around of facts and details for a separate process–keep a list and do it all at once, rather than searching out one piece, then another. If your time is limited, this will help you use what little time you have a little more efficiently.

In my case, even after doing extensive research, I still didn’t feel altogether confident of writing in the unfamiliar setting that is Russia. If you have the chuzpah to do it anyway, do it! Diana Gabaldon wrote her first Outlander novel having never been to Scotland. That didn’t stop her–and a good thing, too!

As for me, I’m more tentative. I’ve been lucky enough to visit England several times and have spent time in London as well as Bath, Oxford and small country villages in various parts of the country and so I felt somewhat comfortable writing in those settings, even though I was just a visitor, and the trips were made before I had any notion of writing Regency-set novels. But Russia is terra incognita. Concrete details, like climate (hot and dry, or humid? Arid or rainy summers?) and generally the “feel” of the countryside (Forested or tundra? Deciduous or coniferous trees? Hilly, flat or mountainous?) were beyond me. I’d read of references to some of these things (e.g. a very moving first person account of a woman being transported to a Siberian gulag during one of Stalin’s notorious purges–in a mostly-closed freight train car that took days)–but really didn’t know enough. I also didn’t want to be tied to a fixed geography, and didn’t want to wade into the question of whether a village that exists on the map today would have been around in mid-19th century Russia.

BUT, my book is unambiguously Fantasy. I’ve also taken intentional liberties with timelines and technology (e.g. one of my main characters is a photographer using technology from about 50 years ahead of my approximate setting) because the story I wanted to tell didn’t quite fit into the historical setting. So, I decided to take a page from Guy Gavriel Kay’s book and set it in a place called Rynska–a place very like Russia, but with some differences, including the presence of artificially-created, supernatural creatures and so on. If you’re writing SF/F or steampunk etc. this can be a good alternative: a setting that is recognizably like the original, but one in which you needn’t be tied to historical and documentary fact.

Given that, I suppose I could fabricate the whole thing from the ground up instead and just give it a “russian flavour.” If you’re an avid worldbuilder, then this is a good option–minimize the research and spend the time worldbuilding instead. I still do the research because I feel it adds texture and richness to the worldbuilding (going with the “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio” take) to add in actual cultural and historical quirks and complexities and to then change them around a little. The SF/F novels I like best are the ones who have done this (Dune, A Bait of Dreams, Delusion’s Master, to just take a totally random sampling).

This concludes my three part series on researching historical settings for fiction. I hope you’ve found it useful. Best of luck and happy researching!