Writing Historical Fiction

It has been an interesting couple of weeks in my writing head.

For the last few years, I have been battling with the idea of writing a novel set in the Baltic Region in the not too distant past. My first attempt to write about this was called “You Can’t Bury the Past Forever.” This novel was based around a young English girl who inherited a house in Tallinn and then wanted to find out more about her grandparents who had owned it. The plot followed the investigation into her grandfather’s near arrest and subsequent escape to Sweden, then America. The protagonist was able to track down the informer and expose him. It was, I think, an interesting novel but one which failed to say what I wanted to say.

That novel is still sitting on my hard drive waiting for the moment when I have the idea which will rescue it.

In the meantime, I have been investigating former KGB sites in Estonia and Latvia. I was greatly moved by two visits to the former KGB headquarters in Riga, that I came away wanting to tell the story of the events of that building in fictional form. I have plotted out the novel and done quite a lot of research into the events I am writing about. I have even written the first chapter.

A quick Google search has thrown up several websites and blogs which deal with historical but they all assume you are going to be writing about something way back in time not near-history. As Emma Darwin rightly says, the key thing to remember is not that you are writing history but are writing a story. (http://www.writersworkshop.co.uk/Historical-Fiction.html) Erika Sanders lists the required elements of writing historical fiction are: doing extensive background research, creating factually accurate characters, having a theme which is still relevant to today and basing the setting of the novel on research (http://www.ehow.com/list_6927820_requirements-historical-fiction-writing.html). All good advice.

The internet makes it both easier and harder to write historical fiction. It is easier because so much information is at hand for the writer. It is harder because so much information is at hand for the reader and any errors will be quickly picked up.

Is it worth pursuing? I think it is. There are a lot of stories from our near-history waiting to be told. They need people to find them and tell them. That is what I hope to do.



“Riga 2014” project “Corner House. Case No. 1914/2014”

“One of the goals of the “Riga 2014” project “Corner House. Case No. 1914/2014” was to prompt a public debate about many problems in the history of the 20th century that have not been sufficiently discussed to this day: the consequences of totalitarianism, preservation of the memory of victims of totalitarian regimes, the importance of public debates and discussions in the contemporary political culture, and how the memories of Latvian residents about the history of Latvia in the 20th century should be preserved for the future generations.” (http://riga2014.org/eng/news/54437-a-discussion-about-the-future-of-the-corner-house-video-recording accessed 19/10/14)

The Corner House (Stūra māja) inRiga is so called because it sits on the corner of Stura Street and Freedom Street. During the Soviet Occupation of Latvia from 1940 to 1991 this was one of the most hated and feared buildings in the city. It was in this building that the KGB interrogated and, in some cases, shot Latvians for “crimes against the state.”

Since the demise of the Soviet Union and the Independence of Latvia, the Corner House has been used by the police. For part of this year, the building as been taken over by the Museum of Occupations to mount an exhibition on the events which took place there and the people arrested by the Cheka.

Now, the question for historians and Latvians is what should the future of this building be. The debate held on 13/10/14 brought together many people from different organisations to discuss the topic and no doubt the discussion will be ongoing as the issue of how to record and memorialise the events of 1940 – 1991 continues across Europe.

It is 25 years since the Berlin Wall fell and Communism began to roll back across Europe and there has been enough distance for historians to be able to look back without stirring up old fears. Furthermore, there is now a generation grown up in the post-communist world who do not necessarily know about the recent history of Europe.

Recent events in Russian satellite states and the actions of Russian President Vladimir Putin indicate that the Russian bear is not ready to lie down. The world needs reminding of what could happen should that bear escape it’s cage. The exhibitions in former Communist countries are helping to that but the atrocities committed by the KGB have not yet been fully documented and presented to the public. This exhibition has gone some way to filling the gap.

Former KGB HQ in Riga to reopen in 2014

In July 2014 I am making a research trip to Estonia and Latvia as part of my preparation for writing a series of crime novels based in the region. I am currently editing a novel I have written based on the riots in Tallinn by Russian emigres during April 2007 and the subsequent cyber attacks on the country.

As part of  the trip I will be visiting Riga. As I wrote in the previous post, Riga is one of the Capitals of Culture for 2014, so this should be an exciting time to make a return visit.

As I have an interest in the KGB, resulting from research into a previous novel, I shall be visiting the exhibitions at the former KGB headquarters in Riga.

The building is situated on the corner of Brivības Street and Stabu Street. After the occupation of Latvia on June 17, 1940, the building became the headquarters of the State Security Committee of the Latvian SSR, commonly known as the “čeka”. It did not take long for part of the basement and the ground floor to be reconstructed as prison cells and a place of torture and execution. The building used to hold a total of 44 prison cells with about 175 places (beds). Later, when the number of prisoners grew rapidly, the cells were packed and up to 36 people were confined in cells with six beds. The State Security Committee remained in the building until 1991, when Latvia regained its independence and the State Police moved in. Since 2008, the building has stood empty. (Source: http://www.baltic.travel/company/press-centre/news/date/2013/05/20/kgb-headquarters-riga accessed 06/04/14).

The building is now being reopened as part of the celebrations for Riga 2014, when the city becomes one of the European Capitals of Culture.

There will be exhibitions held here related to the theme of Freedom Street, which will tell the story of the Latvian move towards freedom in 1991.

World War 1 saw the destruction, not only of buildings and people, but the destruction of whole ways of life and culture. Latvia, like the other Baltic States, lost their prestige, their identity and their freedom in the aftermath of the war. Many Latvians were exiled, expelled, killed and impoverished after WW1. Many Latvians left to start a new life elsewhere and, many, never returned.

The exhibition, Latvian Suitcase, aims to demonstrate what was to be found in the luggage of those Latvians who, for different reasons, had to leave their country for ever. It is a multimedia exhibition focusing on memories and asking the individual what they would take in a suitcase if they had to leave their home country for an indeterminate time. The other exhibitions deal with the relationship between people and power, which will be very powerful considering the uses the Corner House were put to for over 50 years.

The exhibitions are free and run from 1st of May to the 19th of October. The opening hours are: Monday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Wednesday from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., Thursday to Sunday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. It is closed on Tuesdays.