Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

London through an exile’s eyes

with 2 comments

From the very beginning, I knew that City of Exiles would be set in London, but I’m not entirely sure how I decided this. The obvious explanation is that this is where the last few pages of The Icon Thief unfold, with a quiet act of revenge at a town house in Fulham, and it was easiest to pick up the story more or less where it left off. But that’s only part of the reason. Once I realized that I was writing a series of at least two books, and probably three, it seemed inevitable that the action would gradually move east, starting in New York, crossing the ocean, and continuing across Europe until it finally ended, in the concluding installment, in Russia. London was the logical next step. And because it’s a city with a rich history as a setting for the kind of suspense and mystery novels I love, from Conan Doyle to John le Carré, I knew that I had to do it justice, as I hoped I’d done with the New York and Philadelphia locations of The Icon Thief.

The trouble was that although I’d been to London several times, I’d never regarded it with the sort of greedy, scavenging eye of an author looking for material, which meant that if this novel was going to work at all, I had to do research on location. In the end, I flew out for a week in February of last year for what must be one of the strangest trips on record. I had six full days to visit a range of places that could have easily taken twice as long to cover properly. My only guide was a very tentative outline of the plot. I’d assigned various parts of the city to different chapters as best as I could, based on geographical or narrative considerations, but in many cases, I wasn’t sure what would happen in the scene until I got there. (For example, the chapter in which Lasse Karvonen, my Finnish assassin, pays a visit to Finsbury Park was basically plotted in real time, as I walked up and down a block of houses below the railway tracks, looking for the best way to kill a man.)

And the result was a very unusual working vacation, the highlight of which was probably my side trip to Belgium, in which I spent $300 on a train ticket to Brussels only to turn around and come back within a couple of hours, all for the sake of describing a similar trip that a character takes in a single chapter. (I did have a chance to visit the Royal Museums, where I paid homage to The Death of Marat, the painting that makes a brief appearance in the epilogue of The Icon Thief.) When I left, my phone didn’t have any of the usual snapshots of tourist attractions or historic sites. Instead, it was picture after picture of garages, weedy lots, council estates, apartment complexes, and pub toilets. My only real tourist stop appears in the novel as well: like my protagonist, Rachel Wolfe, I made a pilgrimage to Baker Street, only to find a block of dry cleaning shops and fast food restaurants. I wore out a pair of shoes and developed a bad case of blisters, and every night, I wrote in my tiny hotel room for hours.

But none of this, I should make clear, was for the sake of mere accuracy, although I was trying to be as correct in my descriptions as possible: it was about gathering imaginative material. Knowing that one of your characters will die in a garage in Stoke Newington isn’t as helpful as knowing that he’ll die in this garage, on this particular block, with a Turkish restaurant on the corner and peeling wheatpaste flyers on the fence across the street. Later, after realizing that a large part of the novel would essentially consist of a detailed crime procedural, I supplemented my location work by reading a shelf’s worth of books on police work and forensics, many of which I picked up in the true crime sections of used bookstores in London. But without that short but intense visit, I don’t think the resulting novel would have worked at all. I doubt I’ll ever be able capture the city in all its complexity, but I can at least write about it from the point of view of a visitor—or an exile. Tomorrow, I’ll talk a bit more about some of the exiles themselves, and how I found my novel’s unlikely heroine.

Written by nevalalee

November 29, 2012 at 9:37 am

Posted in Books, Publishing, Writing

Tagged with ,

2 Responses

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  1. Alec — this calls to mind a whole bunch of things, but firstly of my husband’s pet peeve as a child (but very advanced) reader against fiction set in real places that could be falsified. In his own stories he would always scrupulously avoid having his characters doing anything really newsworthy, lest someone be able to check the region’s newspapers and realize it hadn’t happened.

    Of course in the (very little!) time since our childhood, it has in American culture become all but impossible for any life, however short and (objectively) inconsequential, to go undocumented. I wonder whether my husband would have written stories at all had he been born 12 years later … or might he just have jumped straight to fantasy?

    Follow-up questions I’m raising for myself as I write: was my husband’s pet peeve different in kind or merely in degree from Arthur C. Clarke’s wonderful self-limitation to actual known physics?

    And by now the other things of which I’m reminded by your post have faded somewhat. Ah well … Looking forward to your sequel.


    November 29, 2012 at 7:20 pm

  2. I’m actually a little obsessive when it comes to facts like train schedules and the days of a week on which a scene could have taken place, probably due to my reading of the Sherlock Holmes stories, whose fans gleefully point out every story in which the weather doesn’t match the forecast for London that day. Not sure if I’ll ever have any readers who give my stories that degree of attention, but it’s not the worst writing habit to have.


    December 1, 2012 at 4:54 pm

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