Elizabeth Ducie’s Gorgito’s Ice Rink is set in Russia between 1995 and 2005, with an additional thread running between the 1940s and 1970s. The Suzanne Jones thrillers are set primarily outside the UK: Corruption! in Southern Africa; Deception! in Brazil with a historic thread set in 1960s-1980s Southern Africa; Corruption! in Russia and Ukraine. So all of Elizabeth’s novels are set in overseas locations and at least two have major historical backstories: ideal further reading for #meanwhileelsewhere. Here, Elizabeth answers questions in relation to Gorgito’s Ice Rink, which is coming up for its fifth birthday later this year.
Gorgito’s Ice Rink is set in post-Soviet Russia. How did you go about researching the setting?
Between 1993 and 2007, I made over fifty business trips to Russia and more than one hundred to the Former Soviet Union countries (Russia, Ukraine, Georgia, Armenia and Kazakhstan). I was able to observe first-hand the effects of the collapse of the regime in December 1991 on the people and organisations I was working with. (I was a technical consultant to the pharmaceutical manufacturing industry, working with governments to set up appropriate guidelines for global trading and/or with companies to help them implement those guidelines.)
How conscious were you of the weight of history that is often presumed to hang over Russia? Do stereotypes such as that affect the way that you plan for your novels?
Although I didn’t speak enough Russian to understand everything that was going on, I was very conscious of a number of aspects of history: the Soviet mentality was based on rules and regulations, which was very different from the guidelines approach we had in Western Europe. The most common phrase I encountered when suggesting how something should be done was “Where is it written?” The concept of thinking for themselves and interpreting guidelines was a hard one for them to accept.
I was also conscious of a split across society, based on age. For the under-30s, life had suddenly become exciting, challenging and full of opportunities. For anyone older than that, there tended to be a fear of the unknown and a concern at the removal of the safety nets provided by the old regime.
I was also conscious of great pride in Mother Russia, in traditions, arts and culture. And a surprising harking back to the pre-Soviet days where religion was more important. I remember being taken aback by the seven churches, from tiny chapel to near-cathedral, erected in the forest around Porosenkov Log. where the remains of the last tsar and his family were discovered; and by the near-canonisation of the Romanov family.
And yes, I try to include aspects of the Russian psyche in my novels, but without it being too stereotypical.
The backstory in your novel goes back to the 1940s. What challenges did you face when researching this period?
All my research for the back story was carried out from secondary sources. I was too shy, and didn’t have good enough Russian, to ask any of my older Russian colleagues for their memories. I was conscious that the period I was researching was very painful for many people and didn’t feel it was appropriate to try to do it via an interpreter.
I did a lot of background reading, both fiction and non-fiction. But the real breakthrough came when I heard Orlando Figes speak at Way With Words, Dartington. He had recently published Just Send Me Word, the true story of Lev and Svetlana, a young couple whose love survived the Gulag. Their experiences opened my eyes to many different aspects of that time; and led to a major change in the direction of the backstory.
How did you get into writing?
I have been a technical writer throughout my career, and must have written millions of words in textbooks, articles, audit reports and training programmes. I gathered lots of wonderful anecdotes and experiences which I always said I would write about ‘one of these days’. Then a major health scare in 2005 made me realise time wasn’t unlimited. I started writing memoirs, but quickly found I was happier, and frankly better, putting real incidents into fictional settings. And the rest, as they say, is history.
How do you go about planning your novels?
I’m a great planner in theory, as befits someone with a manufacturing and project management background. But my plans never stretch past the first few chapters, after which I morph into a pantser (someone who writes by the seat of their pants) and just see where the story goes. I am perfectly relaxed with the idea that the first draft will be very rough indeed and that a lot of editing will be needed. I think the term for me is a plantser.
But in most cases, the first thing that is fixed is the location. I know where I want to write about. Then I do some work on the characters, the who. The actual meat of the story – the what and why – come quite a way down the line.
How do you balance the fact and fiction when writing this type of novel?
Very carefully. Especially as I am usually writing about someone else’s culture. I try very hard to get the irrefutable facts right. And if I am making things up, I do so with as light a touch as possible. And I often use fictional place names, which allow me to use features of more than one real place. For example, Nikolevsky in Gorgito’s Ice Rink has characteristics of both Kostroma and Kursk, the first two cities I worked in, back in the 1990s.
One of the areas that my website is looking at currently is the way that history is interpreted and presented to the general public. How do you go about deciding how to portray your characters and the events in which they become involved?
In most cases, the real events are a background to what happens to my characters. And often I will have a third party narrator who is one step removed from the events being described. But for example, when writing about the rouble crash in August 1998, I wanted to show the impact as strongly as possible. That is one of only two chapters in the whole novel which are written from Gorgito’s point of view. The crash is devastating for him and his plans, and I didn’t want anything to get in the way of the emotion.
Which authors have been most influential to your own writing to date?
From a non-fiction viewpoint, it would have to be Orlando Figes, plus Alexander Solzhenitsyn. For fiction, I love the way Robert Harris writes, whether it’s nineteenth-century France or first century BCE Rome. I also read a lot of mystery thrillers by authors such as Ellis Peters and C J Sansom.
Have you got any plans for future books that are in a historical setting?
Remember I said I always start with the location? Well there are five locations that have been lodged in my mind for many years now. I have visited each of them; they all made a lasting impression on me; and they all have a strong connection to the Romanovs: Kostroma (where in 1613, Mikhail was elected to be the first Romanov tsar); Moscow (where the family resided for many years and built the Kremlin); Yekaterinburg (where the last tsar and his family was imprisoned and killed in 1918); Porosenkov Log (where their bodies were discovered); and St Petersburg (with many years’ history, and magnificent buildings – but also the final resting place of many of them, including Nicholas II and his family, are interred.)
My aim is to write a book incorporating all these locations. For a long time, I thought it would be a timeslip novel. But now I’m not so sure. It may end up as a series of interconnecting short stories. At the moment, I’m just enjoying doing the research. What a family they were!
What advice would you give to an aspiring author?
Despite what my previous answer might imply, don’t get too bogged down in the detail at the start. Begin by writing the first draft. If you are unsure about anything, or need to confirm a fact, make a note of it; or put in a couple of asterisks; or make it up for now. Don’t let anything interrupt the flow. When you take off your creative hat and replace it with your editor’s hat, that’s when you start looking at specific details. In the beginning, the story is everything. You might write the most historically accurate book in the world, but if it’s not a great story, people won’t want to read it.
Obviously, I’m talking to novelists here. The same logic probably won’t work for writers of non-fiction. Although, for me, even non-fiction has to read like a great story if it’s going to hold my interest.
Having left Birmingham to study in London, I lived for more than twenty years in Wilmington, Kent. In 2007, I moved to the South West of England, where I live with my husband, Michael, in a converted granary sited picturesquely on the banks of, and occasionally within the path of, a small stream. In 2012, I closed down my technical consultancy in order to concentrate full-time on my writing. In the same year, I graduated from Exeter University with an MA in Creative Writing
I am the editor of the Chudleigh Phoenix Community Magazine, a monthly online newsletter. I am a member of the Chudleigh Writers’ Circle, ExeterWriters, and ALLi (The Alliance of Independent Authors). I spend far too much time on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, but have met some wonderful members of the writing community as a result.
Historical Fiction – full archive