Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

“Sharkovsky slid through the narrow opening…”

with 5 comments

"He ran over to the opening..."

(Note: This post is the forty-seventh installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 46. You can read the earlier installments here.)

I’ve written before about how research for a novel is less about factual accuracy than about finding material for dreams. In particular, it’s a valuable source of specificity. When you first start writing a story, your ideas tend to be vivid in certain areas and amorphous in others, and research is one way of acquiring a useful stash of facts, images, and concrete details—the building blocks out of which all good fiction is assembled. Reading books is no substitute for firsthand observation, of course, but at its best, it can supplement and enrich what you can take in through your own experience. Painters know that you often can’t see what’s right in front of your eyes unless you know what you’re looking for, which is why the formal study of anatomy and perspective is so essential. And although it may sound backward in principle, in practice, it’s often not until you’ve done a bit of work in a library that you’re prepared to take in the specifics of the world around you.

When I started writing The Icon Thief, for instance, I knew that much of the novel would unfold in Brighton Beach, since the world of Russian immigrants and mafiosos was central to the story I had in mind. This inevitably meant that I’d need to incorporate the details of the neighborhood itself into the plot. Just as Hitchcock knew that a movie set in Holland would need to include tulips and windmills, I knew that I had to incorporate the amusement parks and furniture stores of Coney Island: anything less would be a waste of material. I never had the chance to write the amusement park chase of my dreams, but otherwise, I think I made good use of the locations that the setting afforded. This was partially the result of many days spent exploring the beach and the surrounding streets and buildings, including one memorable trip to a steam room in Sheepshead Bay, but I also owed a great deal to some serendipitous secondary sources.

"Sharkovsky slid through the narrow opening..."

I knew, for example, that I would have to go under the boardwalk. Early on, I came up with the image of a woman’s headless body preserved in the sand beneath the boards, and although I didn’t know who she was or how she tied in with the rest of the story, it was an image I wanted to keep, which required a lot of surreptitious legwork. I spent the better part of several days walking on the boardwalk, studying the area underneath and trying to figure out exactly how you’d deposit a body there. I probably could have figured most of the details out on my own, but I also lucked out by finding a piece by Michael Wilson of the New York Times that described the boardwalk’s recent history, and how the space under the boards—which used to be open, walkable, and a popular spot for the homeless—had been reclaimed by the sand after the Army Corps of Engineers extended the beach. Sand, I learned, had blown in and been caught by the newly installed fences at the rear, until finally it was all the way up to the boards themselves.

This piece of information was vital, since it gave me a timeline for the dumping of the body, which could only have been brought to where it was found at a time when that section of the boardwalk was clear. Even more crucially, it taught me how to see. Going back to the boardwalk, I noticed for the first time how certain kinds of fencing allowed the sand to blow through, leaving areas that were clear enough for a man to walk upright, while sections only a few yards away were impassable. This information might have been obvious to anyone with a good pair of eyes, but in my case, it was that initial bit of research that allowed me to see the sand for what it really was. This paid off again in Chapter 46, when Ilya and Sharkovsky make their escape from the raid at the club by utilizing another gap, an area under a drinking fountain that had been deliberately kept clear to allow maintenance crews to reach the plumbing. It was there all along, but it was only because my research had taught me to think about the sand that I saw it. And otherwise, I don’t know how Ilya would ever have gotten away…

Written by nevalalee

May 10, 2013 at 9:06 am

5 Responses

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  1. Thanks for this post. I just started writing my first book and this is really helpful info.

    Everything Aussie

    May 10, 2013 at 3:21 pm

  2. thank you for this clear, concise and informative piece on both researching and knowing the area you’re using in your writing. Not only does it make me want to do a better job in my writing, it makes me want to read your novels.


    May 10, 2013 at 9:32 pm

  3. @Everything Aussie: Glad you liked it—hope you’ll stick around! There’s a lot more where that came from…

    @VictoriaJoDean: I hope you will!


    May 10, 2013 at 9:45 pm

  4. Great post! I really appreciate the examples of how research helped to inform your writing. I hope you don’t mind, but I will “reblog” this because you share important and useful information. Research, or the accumulation of “facts, images and concrete details,” enhances any story. I love stories that have a strong sense of place, and that cannot be achieved unless the writer incorporates details and facts into the story. It’s a challenge for me right now because the setting for my current novels is over a thousand miles away from my current location, and somewhat of a distant memory since I haven’t been there in years. Yet, I feel compelled to have it be the location of my novels. What else can I do but, as you suggest, research?


    May 11, 2013 at 1:23 pm

  5. Reblogged this on 1WriteWay and commented:
    Alec Nevala-Lee offers a good argument on the importance of research in writing a novel. Whether you’re trying to develop a strong and plausible sense of place, or you need to prove that the suicide of character A was really a murder, you need to do your research. If you don’t, your readers will find you out and they won’t be happy :)


    May 11, 2013 at 1:28 pm

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