Regular readers of this blog — hey Dad; hey Google robot — will wonder where my fingers have been for the past few weeks. Not updating this blog much, that’s for sure. No; I’ve been completing the first draft of the third Saskia Brandt novel.
About a year and a half ago, I finished the second Saskia Brandt novel, Flashback. My thoughts for the third one centred around Imperial Russia. I was particularly interested in placing Saskia — who derives her advantages from an almost direct connection between her nervous system and the Internet — in a situation where she could have no real advantage beyond her knowledge of the future.
Of course, it isn’t clear to me (and still isn’t, even at the close of this third novel), whether a knowledge of the future is an advantage or disadvantage. The theme of the first two Saskia books is determinism and how one can escape it. Let’s say you’re in a Georgian milk bar in 1906 and a handsome young man walks in. He wears a Caucasian hood and a chokha (a long, skirted coat whose chest is lined with bullet pouches). The friendly folk in the milk bar call him The Milkman, The Priest, Soso, or Koba. But you recognise him as Joseph Stalin. Do you want to find out more about him, or do you run?
So that was my starting point. I took the winter of 2007-08 to research Russia to a degree where writing about the period wouldn’t be too embarrassing. I began the manuscript proper in May and finished in September. Saskia Brandt, the heroine, was Twittering as I wrote (I explain more in this post).
Here’s her first tweet, which was sent from June, 1907, and arrived one-hundred-and-one years later, May 7th 2008:
Entering St Petersburg via train. There are men from the Third Section
This is a shortened form of the Third Section of His Imperial Majesty’s Own Chancellery. It is anachronistic, as the Third Section was disbanded in the 1880s — as I found out some weeks after writing this part of the story.in the next carriage and I think I might need to jump off.
Her last tweet, sent from the Hotel Europe on St Petersburg’s Nevsky Prospect in Spring 1909, and received on the last day of writing the novel, 4th September 2008:
Having breakfast with Robespierre.
The novel was a pleasure to write. I wanted to produce something that reminded me of Alistair MacLean, where the story’s structure reflects a heist and the reader not entirely informed about how much the protagonist knows. To help get this right, I plotted much of the novel in advance.
I usually hate to do this. If the story is plotted, it is told, and there’s nothing to discover during the writing process. However, with a novel that involved so many historical characters, I needed to set limits on character movements and plot timings. The final plan was a happy medium: a bulleted list of interesting pivotal scenes that would not undermine historical accuracy too much, but with plenty of interstitial space that represented problems to solve along the way.
So that’s the end of the third Saskia Brandt novel. It will require re-writes, but I think the essential elements of the story are in place.
What does it feel like to finish this book? A little sad in two respects. That far-away look in my eyes, so often noted by my friends, would represent a sudden solution to a plot or character problem inspired by a remark, or just an image that I was busting to put into the book. Now, I’m back to normal. I’ve got my brain back (just in time for the academic year). So it is good-bye to Russia for a while.
The point of writing a book, I suppose, is to get it published. I’m not confident that it will be picked up by a publisher — not because I lack confidence in the book, but because the second book hasn’t found a publisher yet. The third book isn’t likely to shift if the second one hasn’t.
I have a Lulu personal edition of the second book on my shelf, and occasionally I pick it up with the aim of identifying the elements that commissioning editors might have difficulty with. Apart from the odd clunky phrase, I can’t find much that I’d wish to change. I think the second book is far better than the first (see the top of this page for reviews of that one), and I think the book I’ve just completed is better than the second.
That said, it’s difficult to voice these opinions without seeming egotistical. Do I think I deserve to be published? No. That’s too strong. I mean this: I don’t write books so I can put them in a drawer.
Here’s a snippet from my blog dated 1st November, 2007:
Odd feeling; starting a novel, that is. You don’t know if it will actually turn out to be a novel. There is an equal likelihood the story will splutter and die like a suddenly beached fish. At the moment, I have some ideas that refuse to tessellate. I hope my gentle readers won’t be offended if I don’t go into them in too much detail. Suffice it to say that I’m reading some excellent oral histories of women anarchists in 1870s Russia. An intriguing architectural folly known as the Amber Room will feature. Much of my research, at present, involves listening to the Enemy at the Gates soundtrack (crikey, doesn’t it sound like the music from Schindler’s List?) and sketching young Georgian revolutionary poets.
And one more from 17th March, 2008:
So what is it? What’s the story, Saskia? Why are you standing on the threshold of the Amber Room, and what does it have to do with going home?
So. ‘The Amber Rooms’ — the third Saskia Brandt novel. First draft 91,180 words; May, 2008 to September, 2008.