From Russia with love

EmptyHearts300No, this post doesn’t have anything to do with the James Bond film, it’s about Empty Hearts, a romantic novel I wrote in the early 1980s. It’s set in Moscow even though I’ve never been there. How did I research it? Well I certainly didn’t use the Internet as at that time it wasn’t available for home use. Nor did I type it on a computer because I didn’t own one. Every word was produced on my old portable typewriter, in triplicate, using Tippex when I made a mistake. It was a slow and tortuous process, made even slower by having to research everything via the reference library and an encyclopaedia as well as something more specific – the National Geographic magazine. Someone gave me a bundle of back copies and for a while they remained piled, unread, on the bookshelf. Then, one rainy day when I was looking for inspiration for my third book, I happened to pick one up. Pretty soon after that I was engrossed in an article about Moscow. I was enraptured by the descriptions and wanted to use them, but how? While I was pondering, two things happened. First I met someone who was very decidedly hero material. Secondly I read a newspaper article about a writer who, to make ends meet, combined caring for other peoples’ children with research. With those two snippets it wasn’t long before the book began to take shape.

Would I dare to write the same story now? Definitely not. Although I frequently use exotic backgrounds for my stories, these days I only use those I’ve visited first hand, which means I can write from the heart. Thanks to National Geographic I think I got most of my facts right in Empty Hearts but nowadays, with the Internet linking almost every town and city across the world, I would worry that my readers would see right through me.

And what of the man who was the inspiration for my hero? Well he never found out, even when I met him again a couple of years later and he asked me if I ever based my characters on real people. And who is he?  Well I hate to admit it, but all these years later I can’t even remember his name!

So there you have it. The inner workings of a writer’s mind.

A short excerpt about a visit to the open air ice rink at Moscow’s Gorky Park where Holly, already disturbed by the fraught relationship she has observed between her employer, Dirk, and his young son, Peter, is determined to find a way to help them bond. Unfortunately it’s not going to happen at Gorky Park, not now she has very stupidly  flirted with Dirk in the hope that it will make him want to spend more time with her and Peter.

Dirk was still grinning as she stood up. “Do you want a hand?”
“No thank you, I can manage perfectly well.” She took a tentative step away from the bench, anxious to avoid his outstretched arm. The boots gripped her ankles like giant hands, displacing her weight, unbalancing her, and she stumbled slightly.
“You ought to help her,” Peter looked anxious.
“No, don’t.” Holly gestured him away indignantly, and the sudden movement proved to be her undoing. Flat on her back, she glared up at Dirk who was laughing openly.
“I think this is one occasion where pride has to take a back seat,” he chuckled, hauling her to her feet. “Peter will be disappointed if you don’t skate, and you can’t do it alone.”
Holly gave up. The vast frozen pond filled her with alarm and she knew he was right. She held out a reluctant hand.
Peter grabbed it, unable to understand her fear. “It’s easy, really it is. Let me show you.”
“Don’t Peter!” Holly’s voice rose to a shriek of alarm as he threatened to unbalance her. “Let your father help me. He’s stronger,” she added weakly as Dirk slipped an arm around her waist.
“An invitation and a compliment!” he teased. “It must be my lucky day.”
Holly didn’t answer as she moved stiffly beside him, concentrating on remaining upright, anything to avoid closer contact. But as they stepped onto the ice her legs shot from under her. Forgetting her intention of keeping Dirk at arm’s length, she clutched at his coat in alarm.
“Just relax,” He dropped his bantering tone and held her tightly. “It will take you a while to get your balance, so put your arm around me. That’s better, now we’re doubly secure.”
His hand was warm across her back, firm at her waist. She concentrated on his instructions, willing herself to ignore his hands and to forget her unexpected reaction to the touch of his fingers when he’d laced her boots.
“You’re skating! You’re really skating!” Peter darted round their rather jerky progress in excitement, his cheeks as red as his bright woollen scarf. “Can’t you let go now Father? See if she can do it on her own.”
“I doubt it,”Dirk looked down at Holly with a grin, relaxing his hold slightly.
“Don’t!” She clutched at his coat, her sudden panic-stricken movement swinging her round to face him.
Dirk tightened his grasp and grinned over her shoulder at Peter. “You can see my problem, can’t you? Perhaps you’d better skate off on your own so as not to waste the morning.”
“All right,” Peter darted off in the direction of several small boys playing tag.
“He’s too young to be alone.” Unsuccessfully, Holly tried to move away from Dirk, her skates skidding awkwardly on the ice. This wasn’t what she’d planned at all. Dirk should be skating with Peter.
“Nonsense! He’s perfectly safe. And, besides, I don’t want him to see how much I envy him his nanny.”
Holly was startled by the declaration.
“Don’t look so surprised,” he told her. “I’m only following up last night’s invitation.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Oh yes you do.” He tucked an escaping curl back into her hat before letting his fingers trail down her cheek, coming to rest on the straight line of her mouth.
“Ah, don’t Holly.” He rubbed his thumb gently across her lips. “Such a pretty mouth to look so stern.”
Holly forgot that they were still on the ice and turned away, her cheeks scarlet with mortification. She was right out of her depth and it was her own fault. She had behaved stupidly.
She ceased her regrets as a passing skater jogged her, sending her legs in wildly opposite directions. Instinctively she grabbed at Dirk, allowing him to pull her close again.
“See, you can’t resist me!” He settled his arm round her waist, laughing at her gasp of indignation. “But as Peter is about to rejoin us, you’ll have to wait.”

12 Responses to From Russia with love

  • Ann Herrick says:

    Sounds like a fascinating story! And it’s amazing how you were able to do all your research for it.

    • Thank you Ann. My blood runs cold nowadays to think I could have been so arrogant. The publishers first and second time around seem to think it pulls together though. I’m just grateful, and nowadays I stick with places I know.

  • Great post Sheila! I too have a fascination with Russia and released a historical romance based in St. Petersburg this month called To Love A Horseguard with BooksWeLove. We should get together sometime and swap Russia fun facts! Russia is a truly fascinating country, rich in culture and history.

    • I’ve just downloaded ‘To Love a Horseguard’ Killarney…it’s on my kindle on the tbr list. Now I know it’s set in Russia I’m going to move it to the top. I will be visiting St Petersburg in June, so your book will be a good precursor. I’ll let you know how the trip goes.

  • Hi, Sheila! Great blog post. I teach university students; they don’t even remember a time without the Internet. But I recall writing my doctoral dissertation longhand, on legal pads, and then typing it into an extremely primitive, hardcopy only, computer terminal.
    I did have a computer for my first novel (written in 1999), but I sent the manuscript in hard copy form (airmail!) to the publisher. And there was no Internet for research – although since I was writing about a place I had lived for a couple of years, that wasn’t as much of a problem for me.
    I still tend to set my stories in places I’ve at least visited. I think it’s quite difficult (though possible) to appreciate the feel of a place without personal experience. And all the facts in the world can’t substitute for that sense of “being there”.

    • I so agree Lisabet and these days I’m lucky enough to have travelled to a lot of places, so all my backgrounds are authentic. Not when I wrote Empty Hearts though. I don’t think I’d even travelled outside the UK then. I remember the days of ‘hard copy’ only to the publishers too, and how long i took to get a clean manuscript printed off.

  • That was a pretty brave thing to do, but you pulled it off. Sometimes being a writer means taking chances. Like you, though, nowadays I’d be nervous writing about a place I’d never been. The internet has made readers smarter.

    • I agree Sandy. I couldn’t even begin to think of doing it nowadays. National Geographic was pretty good though, and to think that 30 years on the book is having its second outing!

  • Victoria Chatham says:

    Oh, those were the days Sheila! A friend typed my very first full length manuscript for me. She was a very good critic and prod! I would do my research (reading, interviewing etc) through the week, then write all day Sunday. I would make a pile of sandwiches and a flask of coffee and retreat to my bedroom. I was not to be disturbed except for death or fire. I wrote in longhand and presented my pages to my ‘secretary’ on Monday. By the end of the week she was making suggestions and asking for the next chapter. That book never got published but did get good reviews from the four publishing houses to which I submitted it. 40 years on and I have no idea what happened to the only two copies I had. No floppy disks or external drives then! What a wonderful story about your hero and how funny that you forgot his name. My heroes have changed over the years so I won’t waste space by listing them here!
     

    • Now that really was dedication – sandwiches and a flask of coffee – you deserved to have that book published. What a shame you’ve lost it as it could be a Retro nowadays:-)

  • Hi Sheila–
    Great post that brought back fond memories of my electric typewriter :-)  You were certainly a brave lady to write a novel set in Russia.  I admire your ability to pull it off and congratulations on Empty Hearts having a second outing!
    Victoria–

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  • Life is complicated, which means I sometimes write while I’m travelling. Many of the places I visit appear in my books. I hope you enjoy reading them. Buying them is like buying a ticket to romance.

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