Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Writing a thriller in the real world

with 2 comments

The 2011 London riots

When I began researching The Icon Thief in March of 2008, the Dow Jones Industrial Average stood at 12,500 points, and it was about to go much higher. Exactly one year later, while I was revising the rough draft, it had plunged to 6,600, and although it slowly recovered from there, it remained far below its previous heights even after the novel was released. (In fact, it wasn’t until after the release of my second novel that the market earned back its losses from the crash.) For most books, this wouldn’t have been an issue, but it presented me with a peculiar problem: my book was set in the New York art world, which was hit especially hard by the downturn, and many of my assumptions about the art market and art investing—not to mention that state of Russia—were no longer correct. I could have tried to revise the entire manuscript to take these events into account, but I chose a different strategy: I recast the novel to take place explicitly in the months before the financial crisis, which I’d address directly only in the epilogue. That way, I’d be able to retain most of the story I’d written, and setting it in a specific period would lend the plot a useful degree of historical irony.

In retrospect, I needn’t have worried: by the time The Icon Thief was finally released in early 2012, the markets had largely recovered, and the art world—especially on the auction side—had returned to business as usual. Still, it made for a better novel, and it also set a template for the installments that followed, which, for the sake of consistency, I decided to also set on specific dates in the recent past. Of course, this approach has pitfalls of its own. A casual reader isn’t likely to pick up on any chronological inconsistencies, but I’ve always been mindful of the example of obsessive Sherlock Holmes fans, who argue endlessly over the date on which the stories take place and ruthlessly pick apart Arthur Conan Doyle for his “mistakes”—which can be as minor as incorrectly describing the London weather or train schedule for a particular weekend in 1895. As a result, I resolved early on to make the details as accurate as I could. For each of these novels, I’ve put together a calendar to make sure that the action unfolds in a logical way, and I’ve tried to account for things like railway schedules, weekends, and holidays. (Occasionally, there will be a small discrepancy, such as the fact that July 4 comes and goes in The Icon Thief without anyone taking notice of it.)

2011 Russia Protests

This becomes particularly difficult whenever I make use of real historical events. For City of Exiles, this was a minor consideration: the only real limiting factor was the timing of the annual London Chess Classic, which ended up being the event around which the chronology of the rest of the novel was structured. Things got a little more complicated for the third book. Shortly after I returned from a research trip to London for the second novel, the country erupted in riots, and I knew at once that they were something I wanted to incorporate into a future book. Ultimately, I conceived a lengthy sequence covering several chapters in Eternal Empire that unfolds against the backdrop of the riots. When I sat down to write it, however, I found that keeping the action accurate would be a real challenge. I went back and worked out the chronology of the riots as thoroughly as I could, going hour by hour when necessary, and I tried to make the description of the events as close to the facts as possible, although I ended up fudging a few details here and there for the sake of the story. And I’m very proud of the result, which I think is one of the strongest set pieces in the entire trilogy.

The second major historical event that I wanted to include was the series of demonstrations against the Putin regime that occurred in Russia at the end of 2011. Here, my task was a little easier, since the protests took place outside of the main timeframe of the action, and I could hold off on addressing them until the end of the novel. All the same, the novel builds toward these events in many ways, both subtle and unsubtle, and they provided me with a pivotal historical moment that, in retrospect, the entire series seems to anticipate. In the end, of course, the demonstrations didn’t achieve much, and their ultimate significance is more symbolic than real. But having a factual event waiting for me at the conclusion of the novel guided my choices and shaped the characters in ways that wouldn’t have happened if I’d set the story at some indefinite time in the present, and there’s no question that all three novels have been enriched by the historical context in which they were set and written. Like many aspects of this series, this quality began as an accident, then became central to my ambitions for these books. And although I’m not sure I’ll ever try anything quite like it again, I can’t imagine these novels in any other way.

Written by nevalalee

August 29, 2013 at 9:02 am

2 Responses

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  1. I’m interested now to pick up your novels. I can appreciate that, in your work, you are compelled to be as accurate as you can with historical details. So, the Putin demonstrations did not add up to anything? That, in itself, says something. Do you think it is similar to what has since happened to the Occupy movement? Or perhaps this general unrest is something that will just continue to build, one protest leads to another and another in a more consistent fashion.

    Henry Chamberlain

    August 29, 2013 at 10:28 am

  2. Thanks! And no, over the long term, I don’t think the demonstrations led to any perceivable thawing in the Russian political climate. (The analogy to the Occupy movement is tempting but inexact: whatever criticisms one might have of Western democracies, they’re on a different level entirely from the repression one sees in Russia.)


    August 29, 2013 at 11:44 am

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