Anatomy of a story: The Romanov Conspiracy

My next novel, due for release in 2012, has the working title of The Romanov Conspiracy—at least for the English language version—and I thought it might be interesting for readers to learn something of how the story idea process works for some writers.

Sometimes their source comes from real life; sometimes it springs from the imagination but often it’s a combination of both. Ideas can occasionally find their roots in a poignant or unhappy event in your past—and in a roundabout way, this one did for me.

They say all stories find their own lover, and if that’s true then I guess I fell in love with this one when I was twenty-three and trying to get over my first broken heart.

A well-meaning friend suggested that I visit the Cistercian Monastery at Collon, a peaceful retreat near my home in Ireland. He said I needed time alone to reflect. Besides, a monastery visit was cheaper than therapy.

And so one sunny Saturday in spring my brother drove me to Collon, dumped me on the monastery doorstep with my overnight bag and waved goodbye. I was such a misery that he looked happy to see me go.

I was to spend a weekend at Collon.

I ended up staying a week.

The monks were kind, thoughtful men and the centuries-old monastery was blessed with wonderful views of the Mountains of Mourne, which seemed near-aptly named, considering my mood at the time.

I wasn’t exactly religious back then but each morning I was woken at four a.m. to a cup of scorching black tea before being led down to attend 4.30 a.m. mass. I’d listen in semi-darkness and in tired rapture to the monk’s beautiful Gregorian chanting, so soothing that it often sent me back to sleep. I’d like to say that the overwhelming peace of Collon helped me heal.

It didn’t.

Broken hearts never truly mend. Love’s wounds always twinge now and then, like shrapnel forever lodged under healed over scar-tissue.

But every day I walked for hours and sometimes I accompanied Brother Peter, a sprightly eighty year-old monk with crooked front teeth, whose big joy in life was being allowed to drive the monastery’s beat-up old Toyota—often at high speed—to the local store to pick up provisions. ‘Messages’ as Brother Peter called them in a hushed voice, as if we were going to pick up a batch of heavenly communications, and not groceries.

On my last evening in Collon, as we drove past the quaint Victorian village square, I noticed an interesting old property. Once a blacksmith’s, it was converted into a house. The entrance was still in the shape of a horseshoe—as it is to this day should you ever visit Collon. When I remarked on the property, Brother Peter said, ‘That’s where some of the Russians lived.’

‘Russians?’

‘Lots of refugees came to live here after Lenin’s revolution, mostly from St. Petersburg. I bet you didn’t know that, Glenn?’

I didn’t.

‘There was even a Count Tolstoy living in the village, and for a time relatives of the Tsar’s family, the Romanovs, lived further north. Back then there were strong trading connections between Ireland and Russia, in flax and horse-breeding.’

I’d never have connected Russians with royal links to a sleepy Irish village. ‘Who lived in the house?’ I asked.

‘One was a man named Nicolas Couris. But I’m not sure that it was his real name. In fact, I heard tell he was once called Yuri Androv. Some of the Russians who came here changed their original names, you know. All part of starting a new life, I suppose, or hiding their old one.’

‘You knew him?’

‘I did. He was a decent fellow, a strong-willed, determined man who was once a member of the Tsar’s imperial guard but he spoke very little about those days—he didn’t seem to like to bring it up. He was a deep one, all right.’

Brother Peter roared up the monastery hill, foot hard on the pedal, as if competing in the Grand Prix. ‘They said he took part in a mission to rescue the Tsar and his family. Would you believe there was even a rumour that one of the Romanov children survived the massacre and was hidden in Ireland for a time? Couris died an old man, and he’s buried in a local church. You’ll see his grave among some Russian crosses in the cemetery. Say a prayer if ever you’re passing.’

I didn’t know then what a Russian cross looked like, and I didn’t know much about the Romanov mystery—that was to come later.

And that day I never got to know who ‘they’ were who knew about Couris’ past. By then Brother Peter skidded to a halt outside the monastery, disappeared on another of his many errands and I never saw him again.

 

 

 

It was twenty-five years before I saw Collon once more. I was driving home from Belfast one summer and remembering Brother Peter’s words of long ago I decided to stop in the village.

It hadn’t changed much.

I figured many of the elderly monks I’d met had passed away and this time I pulled up outside the church in the main street. It’s a beautiful Victorian construct built in the early 1800’s, its stained glass windows works of art. A small cemetery dating from that time surrounds the church on three sides.

(In the meantime, I’d learned something about the Romanovs:

On the night of July 16/17th, 1918, in Ekaterinburg, the Romanov family—then the world’s wealthiest royals—vanished. The Tsar and Tsarina, and their four pretty daughters and their youngest son, fourteen year-old Alexei—were reputedly shot and bayoneted to death, their skulls smashed by rifle butts and their corpses doused in sulphuric acid.

But rumors flourished for years that one or more of the Tsar’s daughters—most likely Anastasia—and her brother Alexei had escaped death. (The remains of the rest of the royal family were found in a mass grave and positively identified through DNA.

The mystery deepened years later when a dig in a forest pit west of Ekaterinburg discovered two more sets of human remains. DNA tests suggested that they belonged to the Tsar’s missing son and daughter, Alexei and Anastasia. But Anastasia’s remains in particular could not be positively, one hundred percent confirmed—the scientists surmised that in all likelihood it had to be her. It left a nagging feeling that the mystery still persisted).

But back to that day in Collon after a twenty-five year gap.

I walked between the graves and found Nicolas Couris’ resting place among three tombstones with Russian crosses—that strange-looking form they call the eight-point cross.

I couldn’t read the inscriptions on the gravestones that day—they were in Russian Cyrillic writing—but it was a sunny afternoon and I stood there, wondering how a man like Couris had arrived in a small Irish town. And what was his real identity and the nature of the mission that he supposedly took part in?

As for the rumour that one of the Tsar’s children survived the massacre and was hidden in Ireland, it seemed absurd—history records that the entire Romanov family was killed at Ekaterinburg—but Brother Peter’s words and the mystery still rankled after twenty-five years, and I had often found myself thinking about my first visit to the village.

And so in the following months I read all I could about the Russians who had come to Ireland in the turbulent wake of the revolution, and of the many plots that existed to rescue the Tsar. And I stomped the grounds of old Irish country estates and ruined homes once inhabited by the émigré Russians, and spoke with locals who remembered them clearly, as if they could still see their ghosts roam the narrow, thorny lanes of their adopted land.

Here and there I found small clues that began to hint at a bigger picture, a grander tapestry, the first whispers a story that had been shrouded by the fog of time.

I guess by then I had some inkling that this was only the beginning of a journey that was to consume over a year of my life, during which I flew half way around the world and conducted dozens of interviews. In Russia, America, England, Germany, France, so many countries I almost lost count.

I certainly lost count of the sleepless nights when I pored over documents, sipped tea and left my study windows open to let in cold air to keep me awake, as I read everything on the subject that I could lay my hands on.

I kept all of my notes in a big old leather travel trunk on which I stuck an index card written on with black ink: The Romanov Conspiracy. Because in essence that was what I was discovered—a remarkable and convoluted conspiracy that had lasted over ninety years and that had its roots in the fevered days of the Russian revolution, and its revelation in a small Irish town named Collon.

I travelled anywhere there seemed to be a clue, however slight. Anywhere that would lead me to reveal some knowledge or understanding, however small, of the enigma that was Nicolas Couris and the mysterious plan to rescue the Tsar. What I eventually discovered would astonish me.

Brother Peter was right. There was a plot, and a conspiracy that may well have succeeded. What is more, so many tendrils of what proved to be a deeply layered mystery led back to a Russian grave in that small country churchyard in Collon.

So, dear reader, much of what you will read in the story is true. The rest, but a small part, is fiction.

As to which part is truth, and which small part is fiction, I will leave that for you to decide…

 

 

(You may read the opening chapters in my next book on this blog.)





12 comments on “Anatomy of a story: The Romanov Conspiracy

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  7. Rachael Summe-Leonard on said:

    I enjoyed the book and have already recommended to a few friends. I have been to Russia 2 times and have taught Russian History. I was excited to read the story and imagine the possible outcome. Would be a great movie !! Keene, NH

    • Hi Rachel. Many thanks for your email, it’s much appreciated, and I’m very glad you like the book. Thanks, too. for the recommendation to your friends–that matters tremendously. In the coming months I’ll be posting some information and photographs about the real-life characters in the story, and also some fascinating and intriguing facts that I didn’t manage to include in the book. If ever you’re in Ireland, look up the Russian graves in Collon–or in Toronto, see Joe Boyle’s in Woodstock. I see you’re in New Hampshire? I sent a year there many years ago, enjoyed in thoroughly, it’s a very beautiful state, and I used it in part as a setting for another book of mine, Snow Wolf. I keep promising myself I’ll get back there one day….

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