Friday, April 10, 2020

Writing Up a Storm

Just over a year ago, Patrycja Podrazik, who writes as P. K. Adams, and I decided to collaborate on a novel—or novels. I’ve mentioned this joint project on the blog before, but now that we’ve passed our first milestone, I thought I’d bring you into the process a little more.

The decision was relatively simple: she writes mysteries set in sixteenth-century Poland; I write political romances set in sixteenth-century Russia—that makes us the only two novelists we know producing Tudor-era fiction in English about eastern Europe and beyond. And we like each other’s work.

That said, our acquaintance with each other up to that point didn’t go far beyond a New Books in Historical Fiction interview. So we worked on finding out more. A couple of long phone calls and e-mail exchanges led to an in-person meeting at the Historical Novel Society in June and, eventually, a detailed outline of the book we planned to write.


That in itself was a departure for me, as I wrote on this blog last spring. My outlines look more like doodles. At best, I have a list of story events—intended to spark ideas and keep me focused on an endpoint but otherwise useful primarily as a measure of just how far any given story has deviated from its original plan. With Song of the Sisters, that’s 180 degrees. Most of the others haven’t veered that far off course, but only The Shattered Drum and Song of the Siren made it to the end without a major overhaul. Song of the Shaman went round in circles for a while before I figured out at last how to get it where it needed to go.

But following the characters’ bliss doesn’t work so well when someone else has to come in and write the next chapter. Hence the detailed outline, which we followed most of the time. We did adjust the plan as needed, especially in the second half of the manuscript, but by then we’d learned a lot more about each other—our strengths and weaknesses and quirks. We knew more about the characters, too, as well as the details of past scenes that we didn’t want to repeat. By then, the story had progressed to the point where a good ending writes itself, so the changes were more like wrinkles on a surface than fundamental shifts. The last ten chapters or so we exchanged one at a time, offering comments and suggestions until we both felt comfortable that the text said what we wanted it to say.

We settled on a working title early on, These Barbarous Coasts—a reference from one of the early English travelogues produced by George Turberville, who traveled to Russia with the Muscovy Company and was, to put it bluntly, not impressed by what he found there. The title was mostly so I could engage in my preferred form of editing: creating an e-book and reading it through, marking whatever jumps out at me. Patrycja eventually confessed that she’d never liked it, and we came up with a new name: The Merchant’s Tale.

But the big news is that the first draft is done—and in record time. We applied fingers to keyboard right around New Year’s Day, and 85,000 words and 28 chapters later, we reached the end on April 7. It’s a good, solid beginning, too—not perfect, because no rough draft is (or why would they be called “rough”?), but respectable, even engaging. And we’ve established a good working relationship. Indeed, we know far more about each other as writers than we did fourteen months ago.


What else can I tell you without revealing too much? A Polish merchant, traveling to Moscow to see his long-promised bride and her brother, encounters a group of English sailors, subjects of the Tudor king Edward VI. The Englishmen had set out from London intending to find a northeast passage to the Orient, but a series of accidents dumps them in Russia instead. They end up at the court of Ivan the Terrible, where his in-laws, later known as the Romanovs, take an interest in the English merchants. Life looks good. But this is a novel, so you know trouble finds them.…

Images: Anthony Jenkinson's map of Moscovia (late 16th-century); 17th-century map of the Moscow Kremlin (based on a 1604 drawing) public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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