When writing historical fiction there’s always a fine line as to how much detail is needed. Too much history and the story gets bogged down, too little, the book loses its authenticity. Over the next few blogs, I’ll write about how I went about researching my characters’ backgrounds, weaving history into family anecdotes to bring alive the past.
It’s a tragedy that so much of the Serov family history has been lost or forgotten since their migration to Australia.
When I decided to write The Russian Tapestry, I knew almost nothing about Alexei or Marie. From Alexei’s medals, my in-laws only possessed two, neither of which we knew the name or the importance. Alexei’s diaries and writings of his experiences on the eastern front during WWI had been either destroyed or lost. All I had were the obituaries and a handful of photos, which my mother-in-law had hanging around the house (I later discovered there were more photos but for some reason, they were not forwarded to me till much later). Adding to my woes, despite the fact there is a plethora of material on the western front, there is almost nothing on the Russian experience of the same period. A brilliant book by Norman Stone, The Eastern Front gave a detailed analysis but the narrative was so dry, my mind would go wandering onto other matters and I’d be forced to read the same passage several times before the details sank in.
What I needed but could not get my hands on were diary entries and essays. A War In Words by Svetlana Palmer and Sarah Wallis provided some diary entries but it didn’t go far enough for what I needed. By chance, I came across a set of encyclopedias owned by our friends, who generously agreed to let me borrow them. These volumes proved invaluable in my research. There were essays, diaries, pictures and even a double page of information on military medals and shoulder boards of the Russian Imperial Army. They became the most valuable tool in my research and the reference when I hit a roadblock. I don’t know what I would have done without them.
When arcing Alexei’s character profile, I first had to learn everything I could about the Imperial Army: uniforms, ranks, medals, shoulder boards and status in society.
Take this photo on the left. We know from Alexei’s obituary that he entered the war with the rank of Colonel. After studying the Imperial Russian Army’s uniforms, I could ascertain that this photo is likely to have been taken at the start of WWI. The handle-bar mustache for starters was very much in keeping with the fashion at the time. The dark blue tunic, high collar, medal worn at the throat, and the sash across his belt were all indications that Alexei was a high commander. Revered and addressed as ‘Your Excellency’, he would have enjoyed a status available to only the upper crust. The sash across his chest identified him as a member of the cavalry, hence an excellent horseman.
From the medals Alexei wears, the most important was the First Order of St. Stanislaus, (seen worn at the throat with a star on the left breast,) which was granted to the recipients for services to the king.
The photo on the right-hand side pictures Alexei with different shoulder boards. We know from his obituaries that Alexei was infirmed from the Army in 1915. Studying the history of the Imperial Army, the army lost a great number of their commanders and officers in the first few WWI campaigns which explained how Alexei achieved such rapid promotion in a relatively short period.
Armed with what I learned about the Imperial Army and Russian society, I wrote the following description of Alexei:
Dressed in his dark blue military uniform, the colonel checked his reflection in the mirror. At thirty-seven, Alexei Vasilivich Serov’s hair was just beginning to recede at the temples. The touch of grey above his ears blended well with the blond hair and made him look distinguished. Fluent in German and a little French, he was a fine horseman, a supurb dancer and an excellent shot. Though of medium build and height, Alexei nevertheless struck an imposing figure through the grace and manner in which he held himself. He nodded at his reflection, satisfied, then addressed the maître d’ one more.
‘Have you seen to our usual arrangements?’
‘Of course, Excellency,’ Mikail replied. ‘This way please.’
What did you think? Did you enjoy reading about the origin and research behind the characters? Would you like to learn more? Have you researched your family history? What did you find?
I love to hear your thoughts. Be sure to leave a comment in the section below.
Also, check out my blog on Marie and the research I undertook in bringing to life her character. If interested to learn more about writing, be sure to check out my Top 3 Tips blogs. In 2017 and 2018 I interviewed prominent personalities in the Australian literary world and asked their Top 3 Tips in their area of expertise. A must-read for writers and book lovers alike.
If interested in researching your family history, check out My 3 Tips on Researching Family History by Carol Baxtor.
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The Russian Tapestry is available from the following outlets: