Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

“Kneeling on the bathroom floor was a man’s body…”

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"Keeping to the approach path..."

Note: This post is the third installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 2. You can read the earlier installments here.)

One of the most important decisions an author can make when starting a new project is settling on a genre. We tend to think of genres as marketing categories, but really, they’re a set of best practices—a list of conventions that an author can choose to honor, subvert, or ignore. Even if the story you have in mind can’t easily be classified, a healthy respect for genre is a useful tool, and it allows you to structure stories that might otherwise fly out of control. And while some authors begin with a fairly clear genre in mind, I’ve tended to discover what kind of story I’m telling only after I’m deep into the planning process. With City of Exiles, rather than repeating the conspiracy element that was so pervasive in The Icon Thief, I began with the assumption that this was going to be a spy story. This meant reading some thick tomes on the history of Russian intelligence—The Sword and the Shield was by far the best—and looking closely at the recent history of that part of the world. I also planned a research trip to London to scout locations. But it wasn’t until my departure was a week away that I realized I’d been wrong about the genre, or at least only partially correct. This would be a spy story, yes, but it would also be a police procedural.

On some level, this shouldn’t have taken me by surprise. I’d used procedural elements in The Icon Thief to shape parts of the novel that might otherwise feel unstructured, and I knew that these conventions were incredibly useful as a means of painlessly guiding the reader through webs of necessary information. For this novel, I planned to do much the same thing, but I only belatedly understood that I’d also have to deal with a fresh set of genre expectations. Procedurals, as their name implies, are most interesting when they’re grounded in the specific language, organization, and tools of law enforcement. And although I felt reasonably comfortable navigating these subjects in the United States, I didn’t know the first thing about how they worked in London. Fortunately, I had enough time to plan my trip with these points in mind, so much of my research was spent checking out locations—the Old Bailey, New Scotland Yard, the headquarters of the Serious Organised Crime Agency in Vauxhall—that I suspected would be useful. I also raided the true crime shelves of every bookstore I could find, which stocked the same sort of lurid paperback I’d find at home, except from a British perspective. And books like Gangland London, The Filth, Crime Scene Investigator, and Cause of Death were incredibly useful. (I also watched more than a few episodes of Law and Order: UK).

"Kneeling on the bathroom floor was a man's body..."

Chapter 2 of the novel, in which my FBI agent Rachel Wolfe, working as a liaison in London, talks her way into a particularly gruesome crime scene, is the first visible result of this work. Much of the lore here is material I’d gleaned from my crash course in British true crime, and particularly in forensic pathology: I wanted the details to be as accurate as possible, even if they were only glimpsed in passing, so I learned as much as I could about the scenes of crime officers and their work, down to the color of the barrier tape used to close off a murder site. The description of the victim—burned after being shot to death, in a kneeling position, with his arms and fists raised in a pugilistic stance from the heat—is based closely on one of the cases I studied in the course of my research. The location is a real one, although adjusted as necessary for the needs of the story. Names, makes of weapons, and other arcana are as correct as I could make them. And although I’d hope that the reader only subconsciously perceives this material, it serves an important purpose. This is a real world with its own rules, history, and vocabulary, and if I can make it as convincing as I can, the characters, particularly Wolfe, can slip inside and go about their business. Wolfe is an emotional exile, far from home, and I needed her surroundings to pop as much as possible.

This makes it seem as if I’d reasoned all of this out beforehand, but really, it was a series of intuitive leaps into fresh territory, and this chapter was extensively revised several times. Calibrating the interactions between Wolfe and Powell was particularly difficult: in earlier drafts, Powell seemed sadder and more frustrated, until I finally realized that his appeal as a character lies entirely in his willingness to seize on new problems. Wolfe, too, is reintroduced here after a long absence, now in the role of the novel’s protagonist, so I had to establish as much as I could about her personality—tenacious, observant, practical—in only a handful of beats. Doing this while also setting the machine of the plot in motion took a lot of fiddling, and it isn’t even the most ambitious version I had once planned. Early in the process, I had the idea of making the initial crime scene a locked room mystery, as a nod to a genre that I’ve always enjoyed, and I spent several days trying to puzzle out a workable solution before finally giving up. The trouble, I realized, was that I was shoehorning a locked room scenario into a setting and story I’d already established, when the best stories of this kind start with a clever idea, then allow the setting and other details to grow around it. Trying to do it the other way around was a problem I wasn’t able to crack, so I finally abandoned it, deciding that it wasn’t really necessary. And an opening like this is complicated enough as it is…

Written by nevalalee

September 20, 2013 at 8:40 am

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