Author Linda Holeman's female protagonists come from distant lands in the distant past. And once these strong, wilful women enter the writer's consciousness, they refuse to budge until they feel understood.
That's a good thing for the readers of the former Winnipegger's historical novels, but try having a normal life with a 19th-century Russian countess gestating in your head.
Not that Holeman knew Antonina Laskya was a countess until well into the process of writing The Lost Souls of Angelkov, her first novel with Random House Canada.
"I can't sit down and say I'm going to write a character born into aristocracy and she's going to be this and she's going to be that and this is why. I don't know any of that until I start writing and researching and something just comes up on the screen in front of me," says Holeman, who now lives in Toronto and San Diego. She was in town this week to promote the book, her 13th since 1995.
"My characters take a long time to find. I work endlessly trying to understand them, and I write a lot that doesn't come into the book before I fully understand not just the main character, but even all the secondary ones."
Holeman, a divorced mother of three grown children, moved to Toronto about four years ago to be closer to the hub of Canada's literary scene. Her agent is based there, and the move also made practical sense, she says, given the amount of international travel she does to research her complex, history-rich storylines.
World falls apart
Set in early 1860s Russia, The Lost Souls of Angelkov tells the story of the beautiful and sheltered wife of a wealthy count and landowner whose world falls apart one spring day when her son is kidnapped and his father mortally wounded.
Holeman, whose recent novels include the Indian trilogy: The Linnet Bird, The Moonlit Cage and In a Far Country -- which were published by Toronto-based McArthur and Co. and have been translated into 12 languages -- says it was a 2007 trip to Russia that inspired this book, although the seed was planted in her childhood.
The author grew up in Winnipeg's North End listening to stories about the old country from her beloved Russian grandmother, who shared the family home. She pulled a painful thread from her grandmother's childhood to weave into Antonina's tragic tale.
"My grandmother had her brother stolen when he was five years old," says Holeman. "They were peasants in a little Russian village outside Odessa. She was nine or 10 and was outside playing with him when a group of horsemen thundered through and stole him -- and probably some other children."
The unimaginable crime, which took place amid the turbulent social upheavals of 1860s Russia, was probably similar to the relative recent kidnappings of African boys, who were forced to become soldiers, Holeman says.
"As a child, to think about that was horrifying and fascinating, and it was something I thought about a lot," she recalls.
In 2010, already working on the novel, Holeman decided to further explore her roots and returned overseas to do the Trans-Siberian Railway journey, which connects Moscow with the Far East city of Vladivostok.
Another of the novel's characters, who walks out of Siberia into Western Russia, was inspired by one of her grandfather's stories.
"Grandpa was in St. Petersburg and inducted into the army as a young man," she says, "and after a couple of weeks he decided he did not like this and did not want to be in the army, so he simply walked out of St. Petersburg and all the way to Paris and never went back to Russia."
Holeman says Lost Souls, with its privileged heroine, went in a different direction from her first four historical novels, whose main character lived more on the "lower stratum of society" and had to fight to find her way in the world.
But at their heart, the women's stories speak to a common, if not universal, struggle, she says.
"Antonina is a countess and she is not fighting for survival, but she is fighting in her own way," Holeman says. "She's a prisoner of her life and time.
"What I'm hoping is that my readers can see something similar happening with women today. It never seems to end in terms of what goes on in the world for women."
In addition to her historical novels, Holeman has published several collections of short stories for both adult and young adult readers. She is currently working on her second novel for Random House Canada, which will be set in 18th-century Portugal.