When “Too Much” Research Leaves You With One More Story
Eleven years. That’s what it took to complete my first attempt at a historical novel. When I was done, in many ways I was far from finished. It was just the beginning.
My Ukrainian grandmother was a prolific writer. She wrote plays, poetry, songs and novels. On her deathbed, she asked me to tell her “stories”, which I took to mean translating her many works from Ukrainian into English. Though I dreaded the idea, I felt obligated, I was the one who had taken up the pen herself. After she’d passed, I was talking with my father about his childhood and realised what she’d meant was for me to tell her history.
In 1994, I started the first interviews with both sides of my immigrant family. They shared their experiences in World War II and I was awed by what they told me. But I was getting married, got caught up in setting up house, and then—more distracting—in getting divorced. In a moment of trying to remember where I’d been going before all those detours, I dug up those tapes, began transcribing and piecing the puzzle of my family’s story. I couldn’t, however, understand what I was looking at. I couldn’t comprehend the Ukrainian perspective and felt wholly unprepared to tell these people’s stories.
I started reading. The result was that I quickly got sucked into the big black hole of research. I decided I had to travel to Europe, and put myself into situations that were both unfamiliar and sometimes even dangerous so that I could relate to my displaced “characters”. A couple of years later, I even moved to Austria. I was without a plan and too easily deviated from my path. It’s like when you want to respond to a friend’s Facebook post and three hours later realise you haven’t even done that yet.
At some point, I decided it was time to focus and write. I was an amateur at everything: researching, plotting, technique, getting the right style going, capturing the language to make it authentic. Worst of all, I didn’t know how to shut out the Doubt Demons. I made every single technical mistake a novice could. But I did not give up. I plugged away at it and the result was something like narrative fiction. Mistake number two: I believed I was finished with draft two. Then even more convincingly with draft three. And still nobody wanted it. Except my relatives of course.
Eleven years after I started the project, I published the book on my own. Sure, I had big ideas for it. I’d be discovered. Somehow. Daniel Craig would star in it. Unfortunately, Daniel Craig starred in a different WWII/Ukrainian story. That story was better. Mostly, I published the book for my Big Fat Greek Wedding-styled family, with a minimum of 60 relatives, and those were the close ones.
In the summer of 2005, I joined friends in South Tyrol, northern Italy for a mini-break. It was a huge relief to be done with a book I’d felt beholden to. Two things happened on that car trip: I stopped at the Reschen Pass lake, a four-mile-long reservoir under which are the remnants of seven villages flooded out by the Italians in 1950. I was only vaguely familiar with its history but, sitting on the shore of that lake, an entire series rose to the surface. A series! I was stunned. I had done no research whatsoever but I knew that there was a farmer’s granddaughter, a dog, a journeyman from the north, and an Italian engineer. There was also a no-nonsense innkeeper and a whole slew of other minor characters that materialised before my eyes. I shoved that away, though, because something else was taking hold of me. As I drove on, I realised a whole different character demanded my attention. A seamstress. In Ukraine. In Kiev. Set in World War II.
Larissa was persistent. As a matter of fact, so persistent she started telling me her story as I drove. She knew it all. I knew it all. Every detail.
I reached the campground where my friends were, and excused myself with a glass of wine, found a quiet spot and wrote for six hours in a folding chair. But when I wrote the end I was really done. The story of Ukraine in WWII was finished for me. And it was the best one I’d written.
On the way home, as I passed the Reschen Lake reservoir, those characters from South Tyrol marched into my car and took over my life. I wrote the first chapter that winter and put it away. I did not move another inch on paper but, each year on my way to visit those friends, the coals were getting hotter and hotter.
Some years later, my German was good enough that I could begin researching and understanding what had happened in South Tyrol and that valley. By that time, the story was developing. It got so hot I had no choice but to write. At the same time, I committed myself to learning the craft of historical fiction.
I was well into the series by 2014 when I fell ill and was flat on my back for six weeks. I am not one to lie still, even if I must lie in. I decided it was a good time to drum up interest in my writing, to put myself “out there”. I dug out old manuscripts, even cut up copies from old drafts and whom should I find? It was the seamstress of Kiev, singing as strong and true as nine years before. I had one week to polish her up and send her in to the HNS Short Story competition. To my surprise, Souvenirs from Kiev won second prize and now appears in the HNS Anthology Distant Echoes: Stories of People, Places and Times Past, released September 2017.
I had learned my lesson: research is surely necessary but most importantly, just sit down and write the story.
About the contributor: Chrystyna Lucyk-Berger lives in western Austria in a little hut in the mountains, with her amazing husband, sweet, funny dog and royally possessive cat. The first book of her Reschen Valley series, No Man’s Land, is available on Amazon now. You can visit her on www.inktreks.com.