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Creating THE VOYNICH CYPHER with Russell Blake

Thanks for inviting me to your blog to share with your readers the story behind the story of The Voynich Cypher. I appreciate it, and hope you’ll all find it interesting.

I started thinking of writing the book back in June, 2011, when I was writing a completely different kind of thriller – The Geronimo Breach. I’d written several thrillers that used conspiracies as their basis, but I wanted to do something more adventure driven. One of my favorite movies growing up was Raiders of the Lost Ark, and one of my favorite authors was Umberto Eco, who writes marvelously erudite mysteries, like The Name of the Rose, and Foucault’s Pendulum. I remember when I first read Foucault’s Pendulum, I thought, “Wow, if I ever write a book, I want it to be something like that.”

Fast forward thirty years, and there I was, writing my second or third conspiracy thriller, but while I was doing it, thinking, “What about the adventure/treasure hunt book?” So I started looking around for a suitable foil for the basic plot, and through a convoluted set of highly unlikely circumstances, arrived at a place where the Voynich Manuscript just seemed to make the most sense to use as a basis. It had everything I was looking for. Mysterious authorship, unknown history, written in a language nobody could decipher, covering topics that nobody could agree upon, for unknown purposes.

The Voynich Manuscript was discovered by Wilfred Voynich in 1912, in Italy, in the belongings of a Jesuit General who had recently passed away. Voynich was a rare book dealer, and announced it to the world shortly thereafter, to the consternation of most of the best and brightest minds in cryptology. The entire document is written in glyphs that are highly organized, with elaborate illustrations, but which nobody can make heads or tails of. That was true then, as it is now. Even with super computers and huge advances in decryption technology, we are no closer to figuring out what the Voynich says than we were 100 years ago.

Carbon dating puts the parchment at the mid-1400s. And frequency analysis of the glyphs have debunked theories that it’s written in some sort of a hoax language. That’s about all we actually know about it, and it holds a similar fascination for many as it did when Wilfred Voynich brought it into the modern light of day.

I wanted to write the end-all, be-all of novels that tipped its hat at Clive Cussler’s better work, Dan Brown’s, and of course, Umberto Eco’s. I wanted something highly plausible, that raced and twisted, and that was intellectually engaging. I knew going in that to do so would involve many, many hours of meticulous research into a host of topics that I knew little or nothing about, and would require elaborate plotting so that nobody could see the next surprise coming. I also wanted to avoid being in any way formulaic. Put these criteria out there together, and you quickly see that it’s a tall order to write that kind of a book.

I took a few weeks to think through the basics of the plot and wrote a three paragraph synopsis, and then began writing, but put the book aside to write several others. In December, I picked it back up, and just committed to sit down and write the damned thing. I’d spent months doing the groundwork, reading all the books I could find on the Voynich Manuscript, Catholic history, cryptography, Italian history and geography, secret societies, Middle Eastern geography and history….now it was time to write the book.

The protagonist was the same as from Zero Sum, my Wall Street thriller trilogy. Dr. Steven Archer Cross, amateur cryptographer and adventurer. I loved his character from Zero Sum, and wanted to hear more from him, so I plunged him into this situation to see how he’d handle it. I couldn’t have picked a better protag. He’s layered and complex, and completely unlike the typical bulletproof superman found in many works in the genre, and also unlike the highly cerebral professorial types that have been staples for other authors.

I’ll leave you with the synopsis I came up with for Amazon, as I think it hits all the high notes and cuts to the chase. My parting observation would be that if you liked The Da Vinci Code, you’ll love The Voynich Cypher, and won’t feel like your intelligence is being insulted or that you’re reading something derivative or banal. I’m happy and proud with how it turned out, and think that most will find it an engaging, exciting, fresh take on this genre.

When a sacred relic is stolen from its subterranean guarded vault, Dr. Steven Cross, amateur cryptographer, becomes embroiled in a deadly quest to decipher one of history’s most enigmatic documents – a 15th century parchment written entirely in unbreakable code; The Voynich Manuscript. Stalked by secret societies, and aided by the daughter of a murdered colleague, a trail of riddles catapults Cross from England to Italy to the Middle East, where a Byzantine web of ancient secrets leads him to a revelation so profound it will change the world order.

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6 comments to Creating THE VOYNICH CYPHER with Russell Blake

  • Russell, you truly have written an interesting tale that I hope skyrockets for you! The intrigue and mystery sound riveting and sure to keep readers on the edge of their seats, turning pages to reach the conclusion! Congratulations!!

  • Thanks, Deanna. So far so good. First week’s sales have been stellar, and while I know that’s just the first salvo, it’s heartening. About 4000 copies sold so far, with over 25K free downloads. Now the hard work will be when sales dip, as they inevitably will after the launch, and I have to slowly build momentum and get the word spread about it. Here’s to crossing fingers.

  • Julianne

    Russell, Congrats on your book. It looks rather interesting.

  • I found some wonderful information in your site and bookmarked to visit again . Thanks.

  • Thanks Julianne and Drusilla. Appreciate the warm wishes.

  • Karen C

    I have to admit that I downloaded this book as a free e-read last week because it sounded like the type of book I really enjoy reading. So, I’m especially ‘tickled’ to read your post providing background; having this information just moved The Voynich Cypher higher on the TBR list! I’ll make sure to read Zero Sum first, though, so I have a good feel for Dr. Cross. Hope it turns out to be very successful for you!