Some years ago now, in the Sultan’s Palace in Istanbul, I stood mesmerised in front of the Topkapi Dagger. The subdued light of the museum case could not dim its brilliance – the golden scabbard glittering with diamonds, the hilt studded with enormous emeralds. I wondered about its origins: who had made it and for what purpose? If only it could speak, what tales it might tell!
And right there, insinuating its way into the subconscious is a gossamer-fine thread of possibility…
My writing is diverse. With over forty books, some short stories, and various adaptations and other pieces, I write for people aged from nine hours old to nine hundred years, and for all abilities. My books have been translated into a number of languages and adapted for TV radio and stage: probably the most well-known of my books which has been staged (by Glasgow Citizens Theatre) is Divided City – a story of two Glasgow boys, one Celtic supporter and one Rangers supporter. This book, set in present times, has been shortlisted for ten book awards and produced and published very successfully as musical theatre for schools.
However, many of my longer novels are historical, and, with the centenary of the Russian Revolution approaching, I broached the idea to my publisher of a new historical novel set at that time. Bearing in mind that it’s often thought that historical fiction is hard to sell. I made sure that my pitch was as ‘Pitch Perfect’ as I could make it.
I prepared a full Treatment. This contained backgrounds, plot outline, time-span, story arc, character roll, list of key events, and anything else lying around inside my head. I wrote sample chapters and included proposed scenes of high drama plus dialogue from main characters. I assembled photographs, media links, relevant print cuttings and some preliminary research notes. Then I composed a fairly brief covering letter to convince the editor of my (genuine) enthusiasm for the idea and how stupendously splendid this book would be.
This is a LOT of work. And the presentation is tricky to balance between overwhelming the publisher yet giving enough to bring them on board. But doing this shows commitment on the part of the writer and pays dividends later when energy is flagging. It also gave me the framework to decide that my story would start in 1916 – the year before the Revolutions – and follow two main characters, Nina and Stefan, until 1918 – the year of the murder of the Imperial family.
My publisher responded positively to my pitch for The Rasputin Dagger. This does not always happen. In which case, one is left, as I have been in the past, to decide whether to write the book, partially or completely, and then try to sell it.
Since childhood I’ve adored books and reading. I’m completely mesmerised by words: how they appear on a page and their sound when spoken aloud. I’m in awe of their undying power and their ability to guide our thoughts and alter opinions. For me the effect of good fiction is magical. And one particular type of story fascinates me – the Traditional Tales of entertainment and wisdom which we find worldwide. I’ve had two volumes of my own retellings published: Illustrated Treasury of Scottish Folk and Fairy Tales and Illustrated Treasury of Scottish Mythical Creatures. Among my books at home are Russian Folk and Fairy Tales, which entice me with their adventures of princesses and peasants, talking fish and exotic animals.
Again that silken thread entwines itself through the caverns of the mind and somehow, somewhere it drifts into the Topkapi Dagger.
But… in a book about Russia, the dagger cannot be called ‘Topkapi’. It must bear a different name altogether…
Now I am trawling the Internet, following links, visiting libraries, checking sources, compiling a bibliography. What character leaps out of the history books to lay claim to the title of my novel? A supposed faith-healer, the mysterious monk called Grigory Rasputin – revered by the Tsarina and the Imperial Family, reviled by everyone else – and brutally murdered in bizarre circumstances.
The Rasputin Dagger.
And so, I have a title before I have begun to write the actual book!
Russia, to me, is a magical and moving country, full of diverse peoples and I wanted to reflect this in the book. In a story within the story Nina tells Alexei, the young son of Tsar Nicholas II, a version of the traditional Russian tale about Masha and the Bear. Although continually unwell due to having haemophilia, Alexei is aware of layers within the story. Towards the end of the book when Nina visits,(and is trapped with) the doomed family awaiting their terrible fate, Alexei asks her about the hidden truths of folk tales.
Early on my research I discovered that there were TWO Revolutions in Russia in 1917. The more famous October Revolution was when the Bolsheviks under Lenin seized power, but, on International Women’s Day in February of that year, the protests of the Bread Queue women brought St Petersburg to a standstill. The soldiers would not fire on the crowds, and this directly resulted in the Tsar abdicating. I wanted Nina to be there, to have met Stefan, a medical student, in the midst of a city in revolt. Their lives collide and a stormy relationship develop, full of passion and dangerous politics.
I think it’s helpful but not always necessary to visit the locations of your story. In the Kezzie books I wrote about the Niagara Falls before I had seen them. At an author talk in Canada several members of the audience refused to believe this! When researching I try to find primary sources e.g. Remembrance, set in World War One – in addition to newspapers of the time, I also read letters and diaries of people on the Western Font and those at home.
For The Rasputin Dagger I looked at relevant correspondence, witness accounts, and studied statistics and weather reports.
So, yes, do the research. Make notes of the facts, but also take time to imagine : taste the food in your mouth, feel the clothing against your skin, see the land and the towns, absorb the sounds and the smells.
Finally:- put all your notes to one side and write a story about real people who ate and drank, spoke and sang, cried and died, and laughed and loved and lived their lives.
©Theresa Breslin 2017
This article must not be reproduced without the prior permission of Theresa Breslin. Quotes of no more than 50 words may be used but must be credited as follows: (The Rasputin Dagger – The Path to Publication© by Theresa Breslin. First published: 10th August, 2017 on Writing.ie
About The Rasputin Dagger:
The Rasputin Dagger by Theresa Breslin, tells an extraordinary story of love, loss and friendship set during the chaos and turmoil of the Russian Revolution.
Nina Ivanovna’s world is in turmoil. Her only hope is to travel to St Petersburg, to escape the past and find a future.
Stefan Kolodin is a medical student – young and idealistic, he wants change for Russia and its people.
Amidst the chaos of a city in revolt, their lives collide. And a stormy relationship develops . . . full of passion and politics.
But soon Nina is drawn in to the glamorous, lavish lives of the Russian royal family – where she begins to fall under the spell of their mysterious monk, Grigory Rasputin. The ruby-studded dagger he carries – beautiful and deadly – could save her and Stefan from a cursed life . . . or condemn them to it.
Order your copy online here.