Friday, March 15, 2019

Off to the Races

With Song of the Siren (Songs of Steppe & Forest 1) making its way in the world, and Songs 2 with its beta readers, waiting for critique and a final polish (or three), I have time on my hands to consider what’s next in this series. From the moment I started this project, I knew that I wanted to write at least one novel about the two Sheremetev sisters, linked to Nasan in several ways but most simply by having lived next door to her throughout most of her time in Moscow.

Indeed, the inspiration to tell their story was what caused me to undertake Songs of Steppe & Forest in the first place, even if I then chose to explore the lives of Juliana and Grusha first. So theirs was the book I sat down to plan as soon as I had sent Song of the Shaman off by print and e-mail.

Now, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, “plan” is something of a misnomer when it comes to my writing. Whether I put a lot of work into the planning stage or hardly any, when I sit down at my computer, the same thing happens: the story takes on a life of its own, and within five pages (on average), the characters have headed off happily in whatever direction pleases them while I watch, listen, and record.

That said, these days I do find it useful to construct a set of character profiles and a list of potential story events before diving in. Not because I know who my people really are or how they’ll get where they’re going—what fun is that?—but because it helps to have an ongoing sense of where they’ll end up and some reminders of what’s happening in the historical background so that if they head off into the woods and get lost, I can haul them out again in short order.

It’s also easier to see, when a story is a list of eighteen to twenty events instead of 300 pages, whether it has enough conflict and drama to sustain a novel. Same thing with the characters: if their goals are weak or poorly defined and their personalities one-sided, they need more work even before they get a chance to strut their stuff on the page.

So for the last couple of weekends, this is what I’ve been doing with Songs 3—and, as it turns out, Songs 4, because I realized early on that the book would become too complicated and diffuse if I had to follow both sisters at the same time, especially if I attempted overlapping first-person narratives. Hence Song of the Sisters (3) will set up a series of conflicts, of which it will resolve about half. The rest can percolate into the newly titled sequel, Song of the Sinner, and find their resolution there.

Which brings me to what I’ve discovered about the Sheremetev sisters so far. The older sister—Solomonida, now thirty-one—appeared quite often in bit parts throughout Legends of the Five Directions, so readers of that series will recognize her. After a disastrous marriage to Daniil Kolychev’s brutish cousin Semyon, Solomonida secured a divorce when Semyon fell foul of the government, and ever since she’s been refusing to enter a convent—the proper fate of a divorced or widowed woman in her culture. Her excuse is that she needs to bring up her daughter, Anna, and see her suitably settled, but the truth is that Solomonida hasn’t the slightest interest in taking monastic vows and never will.

Not so her half-sister Darya, who has successfully dodged one potential marriage partner and has devoted her last five years to caring for her and Solomonida’s bedridden father. She won’t be as familiar to readers, as she made only a cameo appearance in The Golden Lynx. Here, with her father gone, a male cousin shows up at the door intent on taking possession of the sisters’ estate. He’s determined to marry Darya off, even if it means wedding her himself, and she can attain her dearest wish—the opposite of Solomonida’s, for Darya longs to become a nun—only if she defies a lifetime of training in the virtues of female obedience. Even Solomonida can’t understand why Darya would prefer to retire from the world, and the one person in whom she does confide turns out to have ulterior motives.

Is that enough to get started, even with the addition of the complicated politics roiling the Russian court in the summer and fall of 1543? I think not quite. A heroine who refuses to speak up for herself, even in defense of her own best interests, strikes me as too passive to carry a book. If nothing else, there’s a danger she’ll bore me to tears. So even though I’ve written an opening scene, I have a few more rounds of character wrestling to do before I really stand back and let the imaginary people take over. But it won’t be long, because I can already sense them chomping at the bit, eager to hear the sound of the gate releasing them to race. And if they turn out like Juliana and Grusha, I can expect them to give me quite a run for my money.

If any of you missed my post on Elena Glinskaya, her death, and the surprising results of her recent exhumation, it went up again this week on the history blog Not Even Past. Big thanks to Joan Neuberger, who runs the site, and from whom you’ll hear more next week.

And thanks, too, to G. P. Gottlieb, who interviewed me today for New Books in Literature. Stay tuned for that link, where you can find out more about Song of the Siren, as well as some of its predecessors.

Images: Konstantin Makovsky, The Young Nun; Sergei Solomko, Young Woman in a Hat; and Sergei Solomko, In Pursuit of Happiness, all public domain via

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