When I began writing, I knew I wanted a vulnerable contemporary character to anchor the reader in the present. This character could share my love for Russian history and react to situations and discoveries the way I might react. I wanted her to be about my age, with an easily broken heart and an easily bruised ego. At the same time, I thought she could manage whatever challenges came her way with a self-deprecating sense of humor.
I also thought she should be an academic, but not necessarily a successful academic. When it comes to career choices, I’ve definitely taken the nomadic approach. As a result, I wanted my main character to wade uncertainly through a career path, nursing self-doubt the entire time. Like creative writing, the academic world seems to offer budding scholars ample space to question the worth of their intellect, their work, their purpose in life. I like to spend time with people who struggle with confidence in themselves and their place in the world. I think most of my characters reflect this to some degree, but Veronica most of all.
Veronica Herrera actually began life as a minor character in a different manuscript. In that book, Veronica was a journalist peripherally involved with a set of Russian characters who had landed in modern-day Los Angeles. (She was a print journalist who diligently carried notebooks around in her purse along with a mini-cassette recorder. That should give you an idea how long I’ve been writing.) Although that manuscript lives in a witness relocation program in the back of my closet, Veronica felt like a good person to bring along into a new manuscript. I thought she would have fun along the way.
Through the process of writing my novel, Veronica aged along with me. She has evolved from a struggling graduate student to a struggling junior professor. Her taste in music has gone through a change or two, as has her troubled relationship with her grandmother. But Veronica’s humor and nervous energy remain intact. She still struggles to protect her heart. Her sense of wonder at the Romanovs and the world they inhabited has survived. I think all of these qualities make her fine company.
Much as I would like to imagine myself interacting with powerful historical figures on a level playing field, it’s much easier to imagine myself serving tea and curtsying and anxiously trying to remember which form of address I’m expected to use. For this reason, I wanted my character in the Romanov court to be a servant, and a young and inexperienced servant at that. Lena is quiet and humble, but with a strong and grounded sense of identity. So often in life, the most vocal individuals are perceived as the strongest. But I don’t know that this necessarily holds true. Lena’s quiet reserve of strength helps her when she has the opportunity to change her life in remarkable ways.
A key to Lena’s story is her relationship with Alexandra. Lena is not in a position of extreme intimacy with the empress, but she does become a close confidante. Alexandra struggled with her title and was reportedly awkward and uncomfortable in social situations. I believe she would have related well to a new servant with a quietly reassuring presence. I believe she would have trusted her more than women closer to her in social position.
When I was configuring the timeline for the three stories, I realized that Charlotte’s character would be around my age as well. In some ways, with Charlotte, I indulged in a fantasy. I would have loved to be a ballerina…or an actress…or a pop singer…something that gave me time in the spotlight. I would have been more than happy to be a supporting character actress or a back-up singer for a diva. I wanted Charlotte to have this life and so she is a former ballet dancer.
Still, let’s face it, everyone’s time in the spotlight is limited. So at the time her story begins, Charlotte is no longer the center of attention. She’s a teacher and a mother, her own attention turned outward. She embraces these new roles, but I think a part of her misses her former life. To make her nostalgia all the more keen, she has never quite recovered from the collapse of her marriage. She’ll have to come to terms with this change in her life as well. Or will she? Perhaps there are some events in life we never come to terms with in any meaningful sense. But we do learn to deal with them and find joy in life regardless.