Novel: One Unique Setting

The historical novel I am currently working on takes place in the southern fringes of medieval Kievan Rus‘ (Russia).

Did I know anything about medieval Russia when I began this project?  No.  But sometimes ideas come along in the most unexpected of places.  For me, it was this painting:


I saw Konstantin Makovsky’s The Boyar Wedding Feast at the Hillwood Museum in Washington, D.C.   Makovsky, a Russian painter living at the end of the 19th century, painted this and many other scenes and portraits of medieval Russia.  His work was a product of the same era of Russian patriotism that produced War and Peace and The Brothers Karamazov.

My sister-in-law gave us a print of the painting and we had it framed for Christmas.   As I was brainstorming ideas for my novel-writing class, I kept coming back to our newly hung print.    Here was a story:  in my mind’s eye, a political drama with a romantic subplot.  See all the machinations going on in the background?   The shabby furs of the land-rich, cash-poor boyar, the father of the groom with the goblet raised?   The juxtaposition of opulence and poverty?  The rich traditions of a Russian wedding – the goose, the chicken, the first kiss, the matchmaker?  The romantic tension?

At first I tried to write a futuristic medievalish story based on the painting, largely because I didn’t want the trouble of doing historical research on top of my classwork.  But I stole Russian elements for my futuristic story, and, as I wrote and read, the story began to shift back in time.

The Dniester River, Moldova

The Dniester River, Moldova

Then I discovered them:  the Brodnici.

A little-known ethnic group on the outskirts of Russia, living along important trade routes, vassals to the larger Russian principalities?  Yes, please!

The painting above is a 16th century Russian scene, but with a little maneuvering, I turned its characters into 12th century Brodnici nobles.

The Brodnici lived in what is now eastern Romania, Moldova, and southern Ukraine along the Dnieper and Dniester rivers, the  Black Sea and the Sea of Azov.  We know they existed because we have textual evidence from a papal bull of the “Brodnici lands” as well as some Russian records of their military service to Kiev in the mid 12th century.  We know that they were vassals of Suzdal (modern day Moscow) in the early 13th century and that they fought with the Mongols against Kiev in 1223.  All this, but I have yet to see the Brodnici on any map of historical Russia.

The Brodnici themselves left no written record nor archeological evidence.  The name “Brodnici” means “wanderer”; likely they were a nomadic warrior clan with little time or ability for writing, being in constant battle against perhaps the Russians, but likely the Cumans and Pechenegs as well.

One source I found in the school library said that the Brodnici “never accepted the rule of Kiev.”   I don’t know about you, but to me that sounds like a story waiting to be written!

Image Credits:  Wikimedia Commons


  1. says

    The Boyar Wedding Feast is gorgeous and it looks like such a neat inspiration for a novel. You are inspiring me! What do you think of NaNoWriMo over all? I was looking at it today and getting some ideas. I’m not sure I could do it, but it would be cool to try.

    • Rhonda says

      Well, we did NaNoWriMo as a class, and in February – our own little NaNoWriMo. :-) I think writing in a group was super, super helpful. I know now going into a NaNoWriMo to expect a big pile of sludge instead of a novel at the end. We were told, “No changes! Keep going!” and it’s a good thing, too, because my story changed a lot over the course of getting it out. In the end, I even changed my protagonist! What’s great about it is that I have a better idea of the story I will be writing, because I had the experience of “discovering” it – and “finishing” (I use the word loosely) it.

      From the sludge pile of 50K words, we had to write our long synopses – a 10-12 page (for us, double-spaced) summary of the main plot line, beginning to end – “plotting” vs. the NaNoWriMo “pantsing”, and it was, by far, the hardest writing assignment I’ve ever undertaken. The synopsis has gone through several revisions, and will go through another few after our workshop on Monday. Once I have it finished, I can write the entire novel over again using the synopsis as an outline.

      I finished my 50K and my story arc a week early, I think – I found a lot of time somehow. And writing that much is exhilarating, anyway! :-) Writing at an indoor (read: enclosed) playground several mornings a week while Ben ran around helped. I wrote at night, when I had my babysitting swap, and at the playground. Jared gave me plenty of time as well. I also gave up everything but the most basic chores. Writing dialogue makes the word count just fly by, and I also didn’t have a severe second week crisis – just a few slow days after I turned the first plot point / 25% mark and landed in Act II with a fat, where-do-I-go-from-here sigh. But I sort of knew what my midpoint would be and just started aiming for that.

      Also helpful was using Scrivener instead of Microsoft Word. Here’s the link for the program – it’s AWESOME:

      I could say more. All in all, I thought the NaNoWriMo model really worked for me because I had zero expectations of producing a work of genius. It was drafting; I found out that the hard work comes later. I say do it, so long as your hubby is on board… .actually, maybe you should read Chris Baty’s book No Plot, No Problem and take his advice on preparing both yourself and your loved ones for the insane adventure you want to undertake. We read him, and I thought he’s a riot… and helpful.

  2. says

    I would absolutely read this. I’ve whet my appetite for medieval Rus in a blanket-sweeping history of Russia, but history as story is so much more engaging. And what a painting! There’s something about the Russian people, those sturdy forest-dwellers who avoided the serf model of the rest of Europe and invited the Vikings to come and be their tzars!

    • says

      Hooray! I love meeting other Russian nerds. :-D Well, it looks like November is my goal for having a first (second?) draft of the novel. We’ll see where it goes from there.


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