Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

“The following morning, a few blocks from the courthouse…”

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"The following morning..."

(Note: This post is the thirty-fourth installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 33. You can read the earlier installments here.)

One of the great pleasures of planning a new writing project is the chance to do research on location. Writing is such a sedentary pursuit that any excuse to get out of the house is usually welcome, and one of the best ways a writer can spend his time is by exploring new or familiar places with an eye to their dramatic potential. And you don’t need to go far afield to make fascinating discoveries. One thing I’ve learned as a writer is that the observing faculty—the part of the brain that mines the world around you for material—can’t stay switched on all the time: it’s just too exhausting. Ideally, a writer, as Henry James said, should be one on whom nothing is lost, but aside from a few exceptional personalities like Proust or Updike, most of us learn to parcel out our energies, activating that ravenous inner eye only when necessary. In particular, it tends to be most alert when we’re regarding a location with a specific story in mind. And once we’ve made that inward adjustment, the most ordinary places are suddenly bursting with meaning.

In particular, when you’re writing a thriller, you’re often looking for a new way to stage a murder or a chase in a real location. Most suspense novelists ultimately become what Thomas Pynchon calls “aficionados of the chase scene, those who cannot look at the Taj Mahal, the Uffizi, the Statue of Liberty without thinking chase scene, chase scene, wow yeah Douglas Fairbanks scampering across that moon minaret there…” In my own work, I’ve mentally planned heists, killings, and chases in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, London, and elsewhere, a process that usually involves spending hours at a museum, neighborhood, or public building, taking surreptitious photographs and generally acting as suspiciously as possible. On a few occasions, I’ve received stern warnings from security. And although I’ve sometimes been forced to plan scenes from a distance, with the help of guidebooks, photo references, and Google Maps, there’s no substitute for being there on the ground yourself, pacing off the exact route that your hero or villain will follow.

"Leaving the checkpoint, he entered the courthouse..."

And like most forms of research, location work isn’t primarily about factual accuracy, but about furnishing the material for dreams. It’s much more rewarding to write a scene that takes place on a real, particular street, with specific alleys and stairwells and other landmarks for the action, than to invent one for a street that exists only in your imagination. A real location, like a standing set, suggests props, story beats, and bits of business that would never occur to you on your own. Later, while you’re writing, you’re free to fudge the details if you must, but it’s better to work within the constraints that the actual location affords. James Joyce knew this when he asked his aunt to verify that an ordinary man could climb over the fence at No. 7 Eccles Street. And if you’re writing a chase scene, you’re more likely to come up with something ingenious or surprising when you notice, say, that none of the exits are conveniently located near the area where the main action takes place, and that your protagonist will need to get past several levels of security in order to make his escape.

This is basically the process that went into Chapter 33 of The Icon Thief, in which Ilya meets Sharkovsky for an exchange at the New York County Courthouse. I chose this landmark because I wanted my characters to meet in a secure location with metal detectors, so that neither one could be armed, and a courthouse seemed like an interesting backdrop. Once the decision was made, I spent the better part of an afternoon hanging out in Foley Square, checking out the surroundings and taking notes on secondary locations I might want to use—the playground, the comfort station, the construction site at the federal building next door—before entering the courthouse itself. Inside, I took notes on security, layout, and architecture, and paid special attention to the placement of the emergency exits. Above all else, I tried to see the building as it would look through Ilya’s eyes. And by the time I was done, I found that the logic of the building had determined the shape of the chapter itself, as well as the two that followed. Because I couldn’t see it, naturally, without thinking of a chase scene…

Written by nevalalee

February 7, 2013 at 9:50 am

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