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Novels: Be Curious

Because the more you know, the better the story.

When I’m not writing copy at Now, I write novels. Many years ago, I pitched an idea to my agent. It was one of those off the top of the head ideas I didn’t think would go anywhere. A detective novel set in 19th century St Petersburg, featuring the investigating magistrate from Dostoevsky’s masterpiece Crime and Punishment.

‘That could work,’ said my agent.

Only problem was, I didn’t know anything about Russia, other than what I’d picked up from reading, well, one book in translation. You’ve guessed it, Crime and Punishment by Dostoevsky.

So it was a bit of a blag. But one I now had to make good on.

The thing about historical fiction is the detail has to be right – or at least feel right. Fans of the genre love to feel they are immersed in the atmosphere of a distant period and place. The grittier, dirtier, smellier, more authentic you can make it, the better.

As a historical novelist, your job is to conjure this out of your imagination, but it has to be based on something. The more you can find out about life in your period, the easier your job is. It’s a creative springboard, the research, a bit like the briefs we work to in the agency. So I set about learning everything I could.

Some of the things I found out: shopkeepers on the northern side of Nevsky Prospect paid higher rents because it was the sunny side of the street; Russian aristocrats’ favourite brand of champagne at the time was Veuve Clicquot – ‘the Widow’; in the spring, Russian market gardeners would sleep wrapped in sheepskin next to their plants with one bare foot exposed so that if frost came in the night their foot would wake them.

Of course, you can’t just write up your research notes and call it a story. (In the same way you can’t just film the brief and call it an ad.) At some point, you have to put the notes to one side and close the books. That’s when the fun starts.

Written by Roger Morris, Copywriter at Now

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