That was certainly the case when I wrote Sins of the Empress, an historical novel about Catherine the Great of Russia. I read so many books and Internet articles about her that I lost count. I also read her memoir—regrettably, she never finished it. I read books that she read, including Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the Laws, which was rough going even though I read a 1989 English translation. I do read a little French, but I certainly don’t read it well enough to have tackled the eighteenth-century French version.
I also reread some of Voltaire’s works since Catherine was fond of him and his writings, at least until very late in her life when she considered him too liberal. I took the easy way out and read them in English in spite of the fact that I have some of his works in French collecting dust in my book shelves. Apologies to my French professors for that, but my college days were a long time back, and I’ve lost proficiency since then.
I read books about her lovers and associates. I garnered information about food and clothing styles in eighteenth-century Russia. I dug up information about the Russian Orthodox Church and learned some of the liturgy. As is usually the case when I’m writing a novel, I became so entangled in the life and era of my characters that when I was forced to bring myself back to twenty-first-century America, it seemed foreign to me.
Now I’m wondering if some of the things I had to leave out for the sake of keeping the momentum of the story couldn’t have been worked in somehow. That’s because everything about her life was infinitely interesting to me.
Besides having a fascinating life, Catherine was a highly intelligent and immensely passionate woman—passionate, not just in her love life, but in everything she did.
She was a German princess from a minor principality when her marriage to the heir to the Russian throne was arranged by the reigning Empress Elizabeth. Oddly enough, even though she was chosen as the bride of a future tsar, she was not well treated at court, so she kept to herself at first, and applied herself tirelessly to learning the Russian language as well as the geography and history of the country. It made me tired just to read about the long, long hours she spent at her lessons.
Her husband, Peter III, was cruel and mentally challenged. Since he’d been an alcoholic beginning at age eleven, perhaps his brain was damaged. There is no doubt he was damaged in other ways since he was not able to father a child and, for awhile at least, didn’t understand how the sex act was accomplished.
Never mind his mental and physical condition, it was Catherine who was blamed for not producing a future heir. She found a way to remedy that by taking lovers. She did have children—two boys and a girl. Tragically, they were taken from her by Empress Elizabeth soon after birth. Catherine had to risk her life to see them.
The true story of her tragedies, her lovers, the murder of Peter (Did Catherine kill him?), the death of Elizabeth, and Catherine’s determination to seize the throne and rule Russia is what made up the multilayered plot of Sins of the Empress. It is a story that consumed me as I wrote it, and in some ways still does.
My hope is that others will immerse themselves in the story and allow it to consume them also.
Paula Paul is the award-winning author of 25 novels for both children and adults. She also had a career as a newspaper journalist and has won several state and national awards in that field. A native Texan, she grew up on a cotton farm/ranch in Bailey County, a county named for her ancestor who died at the Alamo. She loves playing the piano and learning how to or about just about anything. Oh, and big family get-togethers with her two children and their families. She lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico, with her husband.