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  • Writer's pictureEllen Alpsten

Living Legacy - Why life is better than fiction

Updated: Nov 27, 2023

As an author of Historical Fiction - the only genre that offers the 'triple E' of entertainment, education and escapism - I have learnt that life writes the best stories.

One rainy afternoon, aged 13, I ransacked my parents' library. This was long before the advent of the Internet. Our phone had a proper dial, each spin making a satisfying sound. The TV offered 3 channels, all of which dissolved into a b&w snowstorm come 11 pm. Recording a tape for someone was a declaration of love. I found a book entitled 'Germans and Russians', started to read and got stuck. One chapter was devoted to Catherine I. of Russia, who lived the world's most astonishing Cinderella story: she, an illiterate serf, becomes the first woman to ever rule Russia. When I had matured enough to REALLY write, I realised that, incredibly, there was no book about her: no thesis, no biography, no novel. Nothing!

I wanted to be an author? Well, here was my subject! A real, VERY red-blooded person, who had lived, loved and lost, who had fought, successfully laid siege and sometimes had to surrender. She knew trauma and triumph. It was all there: her-story was recorded in history. But this comes with huge responsibility. The research was vast and writing my debut ‘Tsarina’ an all-encompassing task. I read for almost a year before writing the book's opening sentence; I watched experimental movies such as ‘Russian Ark, immersed myself in the 17th century Russian travel diaries of a German merchant, trawled letters of foreigners at the Russian Court and devoured huge tomes in the library of the School of Slavonic Studies. Slavic fairy tales helped me understand a people’s imaginary and dwell ever deeper into the strange, shocking, sensuous world that is the Russian soul.

Writing a brilliant book about a real person is like baking a layer cake of events and emotions. If you want to get it right, you must know what REALLY happened. How she felt, thought and acted. I used my imagination to make 'Tsarina' feel real, and human - as flawed and fabulous as any of us.

It's this experience and passion that inspires 'Living Legacy'. Writing a book about a real person is a big responsibility and a task I cherish and honour. A writer owes their subject gratitude: twists and turns are more surprising than any plot, their story inspiring. It's a fabulous endeavour. What a privilege it is to say: tell me what happened, and start from the beginning, please.

It's truly the gift of a lifetime.

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