Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

“It was forty minutes to Belmarsh…”

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"It was forty minutes to Belmarsh..."

Note: This post is the twenty-sixth installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 25. You can read the earlier installments here.)

Researching a novel is like researching nothing else, and you soon find that whatever scholarly skills you acquired in school aren’t particularly useful when it comes to furnishing the details of an imaginary world. Whenever possible, I like to base stories on my own observations, whether picked up on the fly or gathered during a systematic process of investigation, but there are times—as when you’re writing about a different historical period or a world that you can’t conveniently explore on your own—when you need to rely on published materials. Once you start, you quickly find that the process goes both ways. Early on, when the story you’ve got in mind is still relatively unformed, you’re looking to existing works to fill out your picture of a location or milieu, and important elements of the story will often be shaped by the resources you happen to have. Later, when the plot is more or less locked into place and you’re refining minor points, you find yourself looking for specific information, which is a much chancier proposition. Sometimes, you get lucky, and you stumble across an article that contains the exact tidbit of material you need. Otherwise, you can either change the scene, skip over the parts you can’t confirm, or make up something plausible. And if you’ve done it right, even an attentive reader won’t be able to tell the difference.

From a writer’s point of view, there’s nothing more useful than a good memoir. Academic works, which approach the subject on a higher level, can be useful for sanity checks and confirming that your overall conception makes sense, but as a novelist, you’re often more interested in details that don’t turn up in more general treatments: sounds and smells, the layout of rooms, the color of the wallpaper, the minutiae of someone’s daily routine. Good works of journalism can be equally useful, and I’ve learned to always check the archives of The New York Times and The New Yorker for any articles on a subject for which I need to quickly acquire a working knowledge. A Times piece on the history of the boardwalk at Brighton Beach, for instance, provided me with some vivid anecdotes for an opening chapter of The Icon Thief, which was essentially written around the material I’d found. Whatever the source may be, I’ll usually go over it several times, underlining or marking the margins whenever I find something interesting, and I’ll revisit it at various points throughout the process, keeping an eye out for fresh insights along the way. (A detail that may have seemed irrelevant during the outlining phase may turn out to be crucial in the rewrite.)

"The guard looked him over..."

For the sections of City of Exiles relating to Ilya’s experience within the British legal and penal system, my primary source was A Prison Diary by Jeffrey Archer, which is the kind of nonfiction resource that a writer dreams of finding. Archer, as some of you probably know, is the thriller author and life peer who spent two years in prison on a perjury charge, and his memoir of his time in Belmarsh is both a mine of firsthand information and a compelling read in its own right, which isn’t always true of the books I use for background. (Whenever I deliver the final draft of a writing project, I’ll do a purge of the works that I’ve accumulated for research purposes, and Archer’s book is one of the few I’ve kept for its own sake.) He seems to have approached his experience with an eye to using it as material himself, as he later did in his novel A Prisoner of Birth, and along the way, he produced an invaluable document for other writers. I consulted several other texts for additional details, including the works of the notorious Charles Bronson, and collected visual references whenever I could. Given the circumstances of my research trip to London, a visit to Belmarsh itself was unfortunately out of the question, and if I hadn’t had so much good background at my disposal, I’m not sure I would have had the confidence to put Ilya in prison at all.

Of course, not all of what you find ends up in the final draft. Chapter 25, in which Ilya is remanded to prison and arrives at Belmarsh for the first time, was originally much longer than it is now; in fact, it may have been the chapter in the novel that I cut the most. It’s one of those overstuffed portmanteau scenes, like Chapter 23, that falls at the point in the story where it has to cover a ton of ground in a short amount of time, bringing Ilya from the courtroom to a quick interview with Powell to the bus, the prison entrance, the receiving area, and the medical ward, with several layers of bureaucracy and important secondary characters introduced at each stage. The problem is that the real action is taking place elsewhere, at least for now, so I cut the chapter with every draft to get the reader more quickly to the next development. As a result, the details that survived the process are the ones that do double duty, unobtrusively providing atmosphere while also underlining Ilya’s isolation, which stands in contrast to the freedom with which Karvonen, his antagonist, is able to operate. If it works, it’s because the material itself is interesting and Ilya’s progression from one form of imprisonment to the next gives it a logical structure. The details themselves are all well and good, but they’re only useful to the extent that when Ilya enters his cell at last, we’re with him every step of the way…

Written by nevalalee

April 10, 2014 at 10:03 am

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