Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Inventing “The Whale God,” Part 2

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Notebook page for "The Whale God"

Note: This is part two of a three-part post. For the other installments, please see here and here.

If the initial stages of a writing project, as I noted yesterday, are remarkable for all the different directions the plot can take, with its potentialities not yet locked into place and still open to easy revision, there’s an equally fascinating phase in which a handful of  crucial early decisions start to nudge the story into shape. You still have a lot of freedom, but for the first time, you can also start to evaluate specific plot elements more objectively, using a process of elimination based on what you’ve already established. With “The Whale God,” for instance, once I knew that the story would be set during the Vietnam War, a few important details followed almost at once. Since the plot hinged, as usual, on a scientific mystery, I needed a protagonist who knew something about biology and physiology, which suggested to me that he would be an army doctor. And on the same principle that led Alfred Hitchcock to conclude that a movie set in Switzerland had to include the Alps, lakes, and chocolate, I knew that a Vietnam story involving ghost sightings and infrasound would need to engage the legacy of Wandering Soul and similar psychological operations.

At this point, I knew that the story would be set in Vietnam, but didn’t know when or where. Looking back on my notes, I see that I quickly identified several criteria that would allow me to narrow down the possibilities. It would need to be a setting that was historically identified with the Vietnamese whale cult and close to locations where Wandering Soul operations had taken place. Ideally, it would be a region with an American military presence but at some distance from the primary combat zones, since my story would work better in a place where the characters weren’t actively under fire. On a pragmatic level, I also wanted a location for which useful information—memoirs, journalistic accounts, photos, primary documents—was readily available. As I’ve noted before, I try not to spend more than two or three weeks on any one short story, which means that I need to make the research process as efficient as possible, and the choice of one location over another can boil down to finding one really good nonfiction source that will allow me to flesh out the background without a lot of unnecessary digging.

Notebook page for "The Whale God"

I considered several locations, including the Mekong Delta and the McNamara Line at Khe Sanh, but ultimately, I decided to set the story in Phan Thiet. The latter had been a leading candidate from day one, since I knew that it had one of the most famous whale temples in Vietnam, with more than six hundred skeletons, and it met the story’s other requirements. Best of all, there was a trove of useful material available online, including photographs and detailed descriptions of the airstrip at LZ Betty, where my primary characters would be stationed. In theory, I could have invented an imaginary military base and tailored it to my specifications, but I’ve found that the use of real locations, with all their constraints, can be a useful creative tool. I wasn’t able to travel to Vietnam to do research firsthand, but it was still helpful to consult a map of the base and the surrounding region, study pictures of the barracks and hospital, and read accounts of surgeons stationed in the area. I’m always going to get a few things wrong, but I can at least minimize the damage by sticking to the few facts I know, even if they end up invisibly buried within the story itself.

As for when the story would take place, I was constrained by several factors, including the history of Wandering Soul itself, which was active between 1968 and 1970. I had also begun to get a better sense of the story’s themes, which revolved around the unexpected consequences of intervention and how the results of even the most thorough plans can take the participants by surprise. Setting the story on the eve of the Tet Offensive was the next logical step: it fit the timeline, allowed me to incorporate the siege at Khe Sanh into the story, and introduced a useful measure of historical irony for readers who knew what was coming. Once I’d settled on this, I found that I had the major elements of my plot: a time, a place, a protagonist, and a premise with an interesting twist. All that remained was to structure these elements into a story that would sustain the reader’s interest for 10,000 words or more, using the rules of writing that had worked for me in the past. Tomorrow, I’ll go into greater detail about how the final story took shape, as well as my thoughts on the result.

Written by nevalalee

July 2, 2013 at 8:58 am

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