After releasing her stunning debut novel The Lace Weaver, I had the opportunity to ask Lauren Chater about researching the novel, Estonia and advice she has for emerging writers of historical
Congratulations on the release of your debut novel! How long did you spend researching and did it involve any travel?
Thanks, Amy! I spent around two years researching the novel. Most of my research involved reading lots of Estonian texts (translated into English), but I was also fortunate enough to travel to Estonia to undertake ‘on-the-ground’ research. It sounds like fun, and parts of it were, but I had given myself a pretty tight schedule to meet so it was very intense, travelling from town to town, visiting museums etc. I almost had a nervous collapse when I got back! Estonia itself is a beautiful country. It has a very old history, dating back to the Viking Age, and many areas are still wild and unoccupied. Bears and elks still live in the forests, as well as wolves, and harvesting mushrooms and berries is a national past-time when autumn rolls around. Castles are everywhere. The thing that interested me most though, of course, was the creation of Haapsalu knitted lace so I made sure to visit Haapsalu during my trip and spent quite a bit of time in the museum there watching how shawls were made and studying the various patterns.
One of the many wonderful things about the book is the balance between providing context/facts mixed with fiction/creativity. How did you approach trying to be both creative in your writing whilst weaving in facts and WW2 history into your writing?
One of the big challenges for historical fiction writers is giving the reader the information they need to orient themselves without dragging down the narrative. I felt perhaps I’d set myself as an extra challenge, writing about Estonia for an Australian audience, as it’s so very far away and so vastly different from our own experience here. The seasons are extreme in Estonia – winter is brutally cold and then in summer, you have the long ‘white nights’ where it doesn’t get dark until midnight. And again, the history of the country is so integral to the way people think and act and would have been especially relevant during the time period I was writing about, when the Soviet occupation and then the Nazi takeover forced people to question their loyalties, how much they were willing to sacrifice. It was a balancing act, trying to ensure the story was tightly-paced whilst still (hopefully) enriching the experience for the reader, creating that sense of authenticity through snippets of folklore, gossip and song.
Sometimes when researching, you can find yourself in a rabbit hole, did you find yourself discovering anything obscure or an interesting tidbit that you weren't aware of during the research phase?
Oh, rabbit holes, how writers love them! Especially historical fiction writers, I think. You can spend hours reading about stuff that may be completely irrelevant to your topic… but it’s so fascinating. The thing that surprised me most about researching The Lace Weaver was discovering the stories behind the creation of the beautiful lace shawls which originated in the Estonian village of Haapsalu in the late 19th Century. From speaking to Estonian women and reading books about the craft, I learned that the shawls had initially been bought by tourists, mainly wealthy Russians travelling through the port on their way to Tallinn, Estonia’s capital city. The Tsar brought one for his wife, and an American gentleman, the owner of a department store, had plans to take a group of women back with him and start his own business selling knitted shawls in New York. Those little tidbits are the kind of gems writers dream of finding. They add so much colour and interest to a story.
Though many people know the general background of WW2, Estonia's role is rarely talked about. Why did you choose this region to focus your book on?
I feel like Estonia chose me, to be honest! A few years back, I was shelving books at my local library when I came across a book on Estonian knitted lace. Curious, I started reading and soon discovered a whole side of the war I’d never really considered before. The Soviet occupation of the Baltics and the mass-deportations to Siberia and genocide of the Estonian people isn’t one which has been explored much in literature, nor their involvement in WW2 under the Germans. Then there were the shawls themselves – intricate, delicately patterned - which suggested to me a way for women to communicate a culture which had been outlawed and oppressed. Why is Estonia’s involvement in WW2 rarely talked about? Probably because Estonia only regained independence in 1991, after more than fifty years spent under Russia’s rule. During that time, obviously, writing about or talking about the war was too dangerous; punishments would vary from warnings and fines to interrogation or deportation by the KGB. So it’s only recently that people have begun to share their experiences about what happened.
I love that The Lace Weaver focuses on the female experience of WW2, especially when many tend to focus on the battles fought by men or the prominent male figures of the time. Was shining a light on female experience something you set out to achieve with The Lace Weaver?
Yes, certainly. Even in the earliest drafts, I knew I wanted to explore how women’s experience of occupation and war differed to men’s. As the manuscript grew, it was tempting, at times, to try to send my female protagonists into battle or to give them more ‘exciting’roles but my gut instinct always kicked in at the last minute, thankfully. Women did play a big role in the Baltic resistance movement; there were Forest Sisters as well as Forest Brothers, and some women were trained as fighters and given codenames like ‘Storm Baby’ and ‘Doctor Dolittle’. I think having the motif of the shawls really helped anchor the story. The creation of the shawls, the importance of preserving them amidst the horrifying events that unfold – that became the central concern of the story, as well as survival, and I had to allow my characters to behave as they would in real life. Fabricating situations to increase the action and appease some kind of authorial ideology would have rung false, I suspect.
What advice do you have for emerging writers who want to take-on historical fiction, but have no idea where to start?
Historical fiction is a fascinating genre, I love it! My advice for emerging writers is the same as it would be for anyone tackling a manuscript; write what you love, read widely in your chosen genre and be persistent. Show up every day and do the work. Write as if your life depends on it, but don’t forget to enjoy and celebrate your victories, like finishing a first draft or submitting your work. Rejection is part and parcel of this business so don’t let it get the better of you. Try again tomorrow.
You can read my review of The Lace Weaver here.