Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

“He took in his surroundings…”

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"He took in his surroundings..."

Note: This post is the fifty-first installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 50. You can read the earlier installments here

One of the few really useful tricks I’ve picked up as a writer is that if you don’t know what happens in a particular scene, try giving it a location. There’s a book on the movies—I think it’s Frank Capra’s The Name Above the Title, but it could also be Walter Kerr’s The Silent Clowns—that describes a comedian walking onto a standing set and immediately coming up with bits of business involving the furniture and props on hand, and a similar process seems to operate in fiction. When you’re inventing a sequence from scratch, whether it’s a chase scene or a quiet interaction between two characters, you’re initially handicapped because the setting in which it occurs is a blank stage. If you can assign it a location, even a relatively arbitrary one, the layout of the surroundings quickly suggests ideas for movement, action, and rhythm, or what a stage director would call blocking. And although a novelist can design a fictional location in any way he likes, in practice, it’s best if the place involved is a real one with concrete physical constraints.

This is part of the reason why so many authors enjoy drawing maps. In fantasy fiction, a map of the territory often precedes the writing of the story itself, both because worldbuilding is a fun pursuit—even without a narrative to support it—and because the landmarks can impose their own kind of logic. (There’s an entire book, Maps of the Imagination by Peter Turchi, devoted to teasing out the parallels between cartographic and narrative thinking, and it’s worth a read.) Robert Louis Stevenson went so far as to recommend mapmaking to writers of all kinds:

But it is my contention—my superstition, if you like—that who is faithful to his map, and consults it, and draws from it his inspiration, daily and hourly, gains positive support, and not mere negative immunity from accident. The tale has a root there; it grows in that soil; it has a spine of its own behind the words. Better if the country be real, and he has walked every foot of it and knows every milestone. But even with imaginary places, he will do well in the beginning to provide a map; as he studies it, relations will appear that he had not thought upon; he will discover obvious, though unsuspected, shortcuts and footprints for his messengers.

"He forced himself to think..."

The value of maps may be less obvious for a novel like City of Exiles, but in practice, they turned out to be absolutely crucial. Much of suspense fiction, as I’ve noted before, consists of laying down an intensely detailed stratum of “realism” that allows the writer to get away with greater imaginative leaps, and that was especially the case here: the plot hinges on a series of implausible events that work only if they’ve been grounded in what seems like some version of the real world. Location research played an important role here, and the trip to London I took paid dividends in such scenes as Karvonen’s first hit and the chase at the London Chess Classic. These are scenes in which real locations dictated much the action, and I don’t think I could have invented anything nearly as convincing if I hadn’t, as Stevenson says, walked every foot and learned every milestone. And even when I wasn’t able to check out a location firsthand, I still relied on maps and landmarks, arguably to an even greater extent, since it meant that I had to plot out complicated action from an armchair.

In Chapter 50, for example, the logic of the story hinged on a solution to a specific series of geographical problems. Karvonen is driving through a snowstorm in Helsinki, heading for the passenger harbor, when he’s forced to make a detour because of a traffic accident. Along the way, he’s stopped by a police van, and in order to avoid being arrested, he shoots and kills the officer. The crime has to be witnessed, forcing him to abandon his car, but he still has to be able to slip away and head for the next place in his itinerary, the network of tunnels under the city that I knew from the beginning would be the setting for my climax. After poring over Google Maps for most of an afternoon, I finally ended up with a location that worked, near the park by Uspenski Cathedral. (Among other things, it allowed me to conveniently interpose a canal between Karvonen and the onlookers to the shooting, who could witness it without being able to respond in time.) If you read the chapter carefully, you’ll see that every beat was suggested or determined by the geography I had to follow. The result is one of my favorite scenes in the novel. And it wouldn’t have worked at all if I hadn’t had a map…

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