Some of the most satisfying compliments I’ve received regarding The Danilov Quintet are along the lines of ‘The city becomes a character in its own right’, – the city in question being either Moscow or Saint Petersburg, depending on which of the five novels is being reviewed.
I’ll let you in on a secret: for the first novel, Twelve, my geographical knowledge was almost entirely derived from the DK Eyewitness Travel Guide to Moscow. Looking at my copy now, a decade on, there are still folded-down corners marking locations that appear in the novel. It was only when I was putting together the final draft, ready for publication, that I actually visited the city and checked that what I had written stood up to reality. For the most part, it did.
Looking back, the approach has its advantages and its drawbacks. The main benefit is in saving time. It would be fruitless to wander randomly through a city the size of Moscow and expect to find the best locations for a novel. As with any tourism, it helps to have an itinerary and to know what has to be seen and what does not. Moreover, when writing historical fiction, the present-day location can be deceptive – the buildings of a modern city would make it unrecognizable to an inhabitant of centuries ago, even though the street plan may remain the same. Guidebooks can provide detail on the history of a building which only an archaeologist could determine by looking at the structure itself.
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It was a month or two ago, as a co-worker was talking about going to Europe with her husband later this year, that it suddenly dawned on me: If I saved up a bit, I could go back to Europe and see some of these places that I'm writing about. The one time I was in Europe was back in 1999 as a college student, but it's conceivable that some time next year the kids would be old enough we could leave them with family for most of a week and go see Verdun, the Marne, and the village that I've modeled Chateau Ducloux on. However, in the meantime, my research has been heavily reliant on books. Lots of books. Here's the "active" shelf of books I've consulted within the last chapter or so. There's another larger one in the other room devoted to books that I've already read (or am planning to read) to research past or future chapters.
Since The Great War is a big story with five sets of characters in different parts of Europe, I've relied heavily on the primary and secondary sources that I've read for ideas on incidents, as well as for all the actual history and geography that underlies that story. However, when it comes to sense of place, one of my biggest helps has been Google. Indeed, so much so that it's almost hard for me to imagine writing this project in the pre-Google age.
Sometimes it's the sort of historical details that you almost wouldn't know to look for if you were having to get all your information by picking out specific books. For instance, while researching the first Natalie chapter I was looking for the train stations which had existed in Warsaw in 1900-1914, and trying to find out which one you would likely arrive in if you were coming from Paris. What I discovered is that you basically had to go through Vienna, and with that I found some fascinating detail about how the rail lines were different in Russia, making Warsaw (that part of Poland being in the Russian Empire at that time) the gateway to Russia.
It was just after noon that the train pulled slowly into the Warsaw/Vienna Railway terminus. Passengers surged across the platform. Porters wheeled carts. Paper boys and food sellers called their wares in a babble of Russian, Polish, and German. The Warsaw/Vienna line was still the only standard gauge rail line in Russia, and the massive railway station on the Aleje Jerozolimskie was thus the gateway between Europe and the Russian east.
For reasons that were of interest only to railroad engineers, the railroad tracks that criss-crossed Europe were spaced four feet, eight and a half inches apart, while those of the Russian Empire were an even five feet, like those in far away America. This difference of three and a half inches meant that trains which traveled the rest of Europe could penetrate no further into Russia than Warsaw. Those intent on going beyond must abandon their European train here and take a tram or taxi to the Wileńska Station, whence they could board a broad gauge railway line for St. Petersburg, Kiev, or Moscow.
Thus it was that the railway platform confronting Natalie was one of the busiest in Russia, with the whole commerce between West and East surging across it. Men in tailored suits and women in silk dresses that could have looked equally at home in Paris brushed past peasants traveling in their best clothes, tunics and dresses made colorful with painstaking embroidery. A uniformed Cossack officer strode down the platform, a more plainly uniformed servant followed him with a cart of luggage. Their progress scattered a group of Jewish men with beards and side curls who had paused in the middle of the platform to talk.
And although the Dworzec Wiedeński Station was destroyed during World War II, I was quickly able to find pictures of it online.
In the next chapter, when I needed a Viennese coffee house for Josef to meet his friend Friedrich in, I consulted a period map of Vienna, considered which theater Friedrich's mistress would have been singing in, and then I used Google Maps to search the area for coffee houses until I found the Cafe Sperl which was the right age and style.
When it came to Walter participating in the opening action of the Battle of the Marne, around the French town of Penchard, I used Google Maps and satellite imagery and cross referenced them with the detailed maps I had in my books about the battle. Then I used Google Street View to see what it looked like to approach the town across the fields, and what the church where the artillery set up looked like now.
A few countries in Europe restrict Google Street View for privacy reasons, but where it is available it's an amazing tool for getting a sense of what a particular area looks like. I've used it to "walk" areas of cities and towns and see the architectural style, see the terrain of a battle field, and get a sense for the types of trees that grow in an area.
Then there's Google Translate, which has allowed me to pull up electronic copies of French and German newspapers and do on-the-fly translations of stories so that I can get a sense of what headlines characters would have seen and what sorts of stories were appearing on specific days. (Most of the headlines and stories in Henri and Philomene's newspapers are drawn from real editions of those papers within a day or two of when they appear in the story.) Primary sources that would have required a research library (and a better knowledge of the languages) I can now pull up and read at my computer at one in the morning as I'm writing a chapter.
The electronic world brings an amazing set of tools to the historical novelist's hand. The age of Google has made levels of research easy and quick that would have been fiendishly hard before. All of which, I hope, adds to the sense of place and authenticity for readers.