So I signed up to a Russian evening class, Comrade

Like you do.

Or rather, like I did. I’ve stopped going now because I was exceptionally poor at forming even the simplest sentences.

Aliya Whiteley is – apart from being a great comedo-tagico-Ilfracombo novelista – studying for an MSc in Library and Information Management. As part of this, she interviewed me about the resources I used to help me research the third Saskia Brandt novel. (For those who aren’t keeping up, which often includes me, that’s the third one; Flashback is the second; Déjà Vu is the first.)

Can I ask – in the case of your last novel, where did you look to find the information you needed? So where did you go to learn a bit of Russian, read oral histories, etc? How did you decide that was what you’d need to know?

For the Russian, I signed up for a local evening class. I studied Russian for two years. I didn’t expect to learn it very well, but I felt ridiculous writing a novel set in Russia without knowing anything about the language. The oral histories showed up on Amazon. The book was out of print – ‘Women Against the Tsar’, I believe it’s called – and described the lives of several women anarcho-bolsheviks in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Another source of information was the writer Roger Morris, who was in the process of writing novels set in the same period of history (though a little earlier). I spoke to him about oral histories and sent him links to some websites…which reminds me, the web was a very useful sources of information. I popped into one or two forums related to Tsarist Russian military uniforms to ask the experts questions about materials, colours, etc. I also looked on memorabilia sites for clothes that had been owned by people in the time period of interest – these were very good quality pictures with lavish descriptions including the correct terminology (sometimes in Russian as well as English), which is quite important when writing prose.

Is it ridiculous writing about Russia without speaking the language? Try writing about Russia without having set foot on Russian soil.

Feel free to check out the full interview. This is part one.

Published by Ian Hocking

Writer and psychologist.

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  1. Wasn’t there someone who wrote a critically lauded (Booker/Orange longlisted?) novel a couple of years back, set in Canada, although she’d never been there?

    And I don’t think Shakespeare ever went to Verona, Venice, Rome, Bohemia…

  2. Good point about the Shakespeare – but, then, he *was* Shakespeare. I do remember the Canadian book – The Kindness of Wolves, or something? – and thought the idea was a bit cheeky. Only a bit, though…

  3. Congrats on yet another novel, Ian.

    When I needed some Russian phrases for my novel, I turned both to a colleague who was fluent (of sorts) and a native Russian speaker (who hurriedly scribbled what I asked for). I recently got an email from a reader who is a native Russian speaker and they liked the book but were rather apalled by the Russian phrasing. At least one snappy bit of dialogue was aparently totally unpronouncable. Glad I put the English translation next to them – and also that my garbled attempts didn’t say anything too offensive. I guess that counts for something……

  4. Thanks, James, much appreciated.

    That reminds me – there’s tonnes of Spanish/German in my novel and I don’t think I got it check by a native speaker. I probably should do that!


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