If you follow me on Facebook or Twitter, or hell even Tumblr (sup my favorite weirdos), then you might have heard that I recently had to put down my current writing project, tentatively titled The Fever From Krakow, part one of the Bulletproof Spy series. This does not mean I’m putting it to rest–it means I reached a moment where I realized the thing I fear most in writing had happened: I had not researched the story well enough to execute it honestly.
And what do I mean by executing it honestly? Well, for me that means creating characters and story lines that ring true to setting both in location and era, regardless of how weird the story gets. And I hope that rings true for every writer. And every client I ever have. Sometimes it doesn’t, and thats when you get the Very Long Editorial Letter.
That’s what an honest execution boils down to…regardless of your own preconceived ideas about it.
Anyway! Back to point. No matter how fucked up I decide to let the story get, or in this case How Many Monsters Will Walk Into This Cold War Espionage Novel? (answer: A LOT) the story has to still fit in with the when and the where. And while writing 1960s America is pretty simple for most of us, writing in Cold War era Russia is not. Which should be really, really obvious, because its a period of history we know fuck all about. I distinctly remember reading Battleground Berlin for the first time and going “Why the fuck wasn’t I taught this in school?!” My schooling glossed over this period as “It wasn’t a real war, so nothing really happened aside from the Cuban Missile Crisis. And that wall.”
Then I read the forward that clearly states “This book was written largely in part with previously sealed Soviet Union records made public in 2009.”
And then it all made sense–they couldn’t impart on me knowledge that didn’t exist when I was in grade school. But that doesn’t mean I have an excuse to not pursue this newly revealed information. Especially when its going completely against my preconceived notions–which my latest research round is.
That’s what an honest execution boils down to–a story that accurately portrays character and setting in the place and time you’ve put it in–regardless of your own preconceived ideas about it.
I thought Russia was super homophobic–turns out 1800s Russia was the absolute gayest of anywhere. This was due to the Russian Orthodox church having vague as hell rules because Peter the Great was, I shit you not, too afraid to firmly declare sodomy as a sin because he thought that if he described in detail what men and women ought not to be doing, they would then realize this was a thing they could do, and go do it. (And if you read that without laughing, I’m sorry we can’t be friends here.) Russia has a very firm foundation for a wide-spread belief that being homosexual wasn’t an awful thing. This gives queer subculture a foothold to hang on to, even against the odds when it becomes criminalized under Stalin with five years hard labor.
There is no shame in admitting you’re not knowledgeable about something.
And thats it, thats the crime up until the point which I’m writing in (1960s). But I had this whole idea in my head of firing squads and absolute Death To Gay Peoples because of our current day issues with Putin, which have essentially put Russia in one of the worst points in history for queer culture.
So how do we fight those preconceived notions? We write a lot, and we research even more. It’s one thing to be nit-picky about accuracy in terms of firearms research (which you should still be and I highly recommend the Shooter’s Bible for this) and another to completely disregard an important part of history in the culture you’re playing in, just because you think you already know it.
There is no shame in admitting you’re not knowledgeable about something–this is where the jumping off point is; this is where you start. The shame comes when you recognize that you aren’t, and create the thing anyway, continuing the cycle of misinformation and poor portrayal of person and culture. If you ever have a moment in writing where a thing you don’t know goes from being a note in your document that says something along the lines of “fact check this” and turns into having the weight of your entire character’s persona or the workings of your plot hanging precariously in the balance–step away and go learn whatever it is you need to learn. Then come back to the drawing board.
It’s true that you should only write what you know. And with the endless resources at your disposal today(many of them entirely free), you should have no problem gaining the knowledge you need to craft an honest execution.
Unless you’re trying to find a map of Moscow in the 1960-69 era and don’t have access to the Library of Congress. Then you’re out $48.
Curious about what the hell I’m reading? Thats fair dude, its kind of an important time to know The Real Shit when it comes to Russia today (Mind you I PLANNED THIS SERIES BEFORE THE ELECTION when the Cold War was still just A Past Thing we discussed and Russia was That Large Country Run By A Mob Boss Who Looks Like He’s Been Bred With A Shark).
Anyway, here’s my reading list:
- Homosexual Desire In Revolutionary Russia: the regulation of gender and sexual dissent by Dan Healey
Based on newly released primary sources from the 1800s and onward detailing first-hand accounts and histories of Russia’s queer subculture.
- Battleground Berlin: CIA vs The KGB in the Cold War by David E. Murphy, Sergei A. Kondrashev and George Bailey.
Written by the former head of OSS(the precursor to the CIA), former head of KGB, and one reporter to put it all together. The only book of its kind to date. If you only read one book on Cold War history, let it be this book.
- Legacy of Ashes: the History of the CIA by Tim Weiner
Written solely by an American reporter largely criticizing the work of the CIA. Biased but largely factual.
- The Dead Hand: the Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and its Dangerous Legacy by David Hoffman
Solely reporter written, but sticks closer to fact than Weiner.
- A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal by Ben Macintyre
This one is just for fun. Essential if you want a detailed look at just how good the USSR was at having double agents in every major government agency, but you can also get the idea of just how wide spread this was by reading Battleground Berlin.