[GUEST POST + GIVEAWAY] Ian Hocking on Recreating the Past: What the Hell Do I Know?
Ian Hocking is the author of three science fiction novels in the Saskia Brandt series: Déjà Vu (winner of the 2011 Red Adept Reviews Award for Science Fiction), Flashback, and now The Amber Rooms. He is represented by Kneerim, Williams and Bloom. By day, he is an experimental psychologist. Like all British people, he lives in London, and probably does know that friend/relative of yours who also lives in London.
I have three problems. One, I’m not a woman. Two, I have never traveled in time backwards – only forwards, boringly. Three, my experience of Russia is largely confined to a mafia-run souvenir shop in St Petersburg.
The heroine of my first two novels – Déjà Vu and Flashback – is a woman called Saskia Brandt. She travels in time – backwards. And she has been living in Russia since April of 1905, when book three, The Amber Rooms, begins. She will probably crop up in further installments, given that the series is called The Saskia Brandt Series. (I wouldn’t call that a dead cert, however. British readers will be aware of the Scottish TV crime drama Taggart, which continued long after the Jim Taggart of the title had popped his wee clogs.)
When you’re writing science fiction and you’re talking about technology of which you know precisely nothing, your best strategy is style it out. Writing a scene about a sentient computer the size of a credit card in which the thing needs to power up? Easy; have the human companion drop it in glass water – which is readily absorbed – and mention quantum theory and something about Hilbert space. Job = done. But if you’re writing a scene where your heroine needs to break into the Great Summer Palace of the Tsars and reach the fabled Amber Room, there is nothing for it. You’ll need to do some actual research.
We all know that research is arduous. This is why librarians have stumpy legs. But it can also be surprising. In the course of my own research, I was surprised when reading a book by Prince Felix Yusupov, a rich man-about-Empire whose books was full of those historical details that we writers need in order to look clever. Yusupov was the proverbial colourful character; it was not uncommon for him to find himself singing, in full drag, to a room full of Tsarist military officers. But the thing that stood out among the anecdotes and gossip was his obsession with the wandering monk, Rasputin, who appeared to have developed an unhealthy relationship with the Empress Alexandra. I found Yusupov’s detailed accounts of Rasputin’s oddly-shaped eyebrows and clothing a little hard to take. Imagine my astonishment when I read Yusupov’s first-hand account of killing the man. As a twist, it was up there with The Sixth Sense.
It’s not all about epic sweep, however. You can’t write a book about a country without speaking a little of its language. Thus, I learned me some Russian. One aspect of this was surprising; one was not. The unsurprising aspect was confirmation that I’m rubbish at Russian. I would turn up at my night classes – knackered from a day’s work – and stare in slack-jawed amazement at the other students, each of whom was better than me. Even after a couple of years, I was wont to open conversations with ‘Goodbye!’, and my reading ability never rose above that of a military pilot in the last moments of hypoxic testing prior to blackout. The surprising aspect? That the pronunciation of Cyrillic script is utterly transparent. Within twenty minutes of learning its alphabet, a reader is able to pronounce, allowing for accent and stress, all Russian words. It’s a wonderful key for an ostensibly elaborate lock. If you know a Russian letter, you know its sound. Adult illiteracy? That’s very hard to find in Russia. English, bless it, is the exact opposite. Try explaining the pronunciation of ‘cough’, ‘thought’, and ‘though’.
With the bare modicum of linguistic knowledge obtained, my next job was to check some of the novel’s fine detail. Let’s say it’s three o’clock in the afternoon of September 13, 1907, and you’re in St Petersburg. What time is it for your anarchist friend in Zurich? Famously, the Imperial Russian calendar was Julian, while much of the Europe had switched to Gregorian. How to reconcile the dates? Sure, you can just remember the difference of thirteen days between the calendars… or you can work it out the fun way, using Wolfram Alpha! This is a wonderful service akin to Google, but for mathematical and data-driven calculations. Wolfram Alpha tells me that the above date converts to 31 August for the Gregorian calendar. It can also tell me the times of sunrise and sunset in St Petersburg on that date, the phase of the moon, and many other facts that pertain directly to the book, such as the age of a character at a given time.
Of course, there’s no chance that all the historical information is accurate; I’ve probably made some Russian language blunders; but these things need to be as correct as I can make them. As for the science fiction, I’ll leave that to my imagination – and yours.
This is book three in Ian’s Saskia Brandt series, following Déjà Vu and Flashback — both of which are currently free downloads at your favorite eBook outlet — but only through December 25th, so hurry!
Here is what the book is about:
It is the night of September 5th, 1907, and the Moscow train is approaching St Petersburg. Traveling first class appears to be a young Russian princess and her fiancé. They are impostors. In the luggage car are the spoils of the Yerevan Square Expropriation, the greatest bank heist in history. The money is intended for Finland, and the hands of a man known to the Tsarist authorities as The Mountain Eagle — Vladimir Ilyich Lenin.
Here’s how you can enter for a chance to win:
- Send an email to contest at sfsignal dot com. (That’s us).
- In the subject line, enter ‘The Amber Rooms‘
- Geographic restrictions: None! You will be emailed the eBook in mobi format.
- Only one entry per person please. Duplicate entries will spoils of the Yerevan Square Expropriation. If you’ve won something from us in the past, please give someone else a chance. (You know who you are, and we do, too!)
- The giveaway will end Monday, December 31, 2012 (9:00 PM U.S Central time). The winners will be selected at random, notified, and announced shortly thereafter.
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