“He knows what needs to be done…”
A few days ago, I was browsing the shelves of my neighborhood thrift store when my eye was caught by a book called Alaskan Bush Pilots in the Float Country. Its dust jacket reads: “The men who brought airplanes to Alaska’s Panhandle were a different breed: a little braver than the average pilot and blessed with the particular skills and set of nerves it requires to fly float planes, those Lockheed Vegas made of plywood that were held together by termites holding hands, as well as the sturdy Fairchild 71s and Bellanca Pacemakers.” And while this isn’t a title that might appeal to your average reader, I came very close to buying it—and I have a feeling that I will soon. Why? Like most writers, I’m constantly on the lookout for promising veins of material, and my inner spidey sense began to tingle as soon as I saw that cover. If I had to describe the kind of short stories I like to write, I’d call them plot-driven works of science fiction, usually staged against a colorful backdrop, and often with elements of horror. The Alaskan Panhandle in the early twenties seems like as good a setting as any for this kind of narrative, and that little book on bush pilots was visibly packed with more information than I would ever need to construct a novelette. Writers of a certain stripe come to treasure works of nonfiction that provide a narrow but deep slice of knowledge about a previously unexplored area, and finding that book automatically set me thinking about bush pilots in Alaska, even though the subject had never occurred to me before.
When you’re a writer, you often find yourself shaping the elements of a story, or even entire premises, based on the material that happens to be available. Constructing a plot of any kind is hard enough without having to squeeze useful color out of a bare handful of facts, and the richer and more abundant your source material, the better your chances of emerging with something good. Elsewhere, I’ve called this the availability factor, with a nod to a similar principle that W.I.B. Beveridge discusses in The Art of Scientific Investigation: “The great American bacteriologist Theobald Smith said that he always took up the problem that lay before him, chiefly because of the easy access of material, without which research is crippled.” The italics here are mine. Finding a promising source can mean the difference between a story that seems to write itself and one that never gets off the ground. As I’ve stated before, I often leaf through tattered science magazines in search of articles that might lead to an interesting combination of ideas. (And it isn’t enough to have just one. A good story almost always comes from the intersection of two or more.) But during the initial browsing stage, I’m not just looking for topics that pique my interest: I’m looking for articles of a certain length and density of detail. Within a few seconds, I can usually tell if the article will have enough of the raw goods to be worth revisiting, and I fold down that page before moving on.
Of course, in most cases, you don’t end up using all of the material that a source provides: more often, you’re lucky to get a couple of tidbits that can be turned into the germ of a scene or plot point. Yet that doesn’t undermine the validity of this approach; if anything, it confirms it. I never tire of quoting the words of the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky: “Poetry is like mining for radium. The output an ounce, the labor a year.” And good ore is more likely to yield those few useful fragments. Let’s say that one percent of what a writer reads while doing research ends up being used in the finished work—a fraction that is probably on the high side. You’re better off, then, if you learn to concentrate your reading on sources fruitful enough for that proportion to pay off in a meaningful way, and, even more usefully, to nudge the story in one direction or another based on the presence of existing material. If writing a story is like an excursion into unknown territory, there’s no harm in bending the path a little in order to pass through caches that previous explorers have left behind. And as with Alaskan Bush Pilots in the Float Country, the discovery of one especially dense, unexploited mine of ideas can be enough to encourage you to spend more time in one area, and maybe to even set up camp there for good. (Like a bush pilot, a consistently productive writer needs particular skills and a set of nerves, especially when the plot is held together by termites holding hands.)
In the case of Eternal Empire, I don’t think I would have taken the story into one important direction—Ilya’s excursion into Moldova—if I hadn’t stumbled across the book Siberian Education by Nicolai Lilin. As a work of nonfiction, Lilin’s memoir has been questioned, and even while reading it for the first time, I found it hard to shake the nagging sense that it was too tidy to be real. (It was a little like the “exercise in counterintelligence” that Norman Mailer describes in the afterword to Harlot’s Ghost, as the researcher learns “to penetrate the obfuscations, cover-ups, evasions, and misapprehensions” of a dubious work.) But much of the detail, when separated from its autobiographical substrate, was convincing, and there was so much worth preserving that I deliberately bent Ilya’s path across Europe to take advantage of it. A few of the details, notably the idea of the symbolic objects that thieves use to send coded messages, ended up being important to the plot. But there was so much else that I liked that I essentially invented Chapter 35 as a kind of clearinghouse to hold it all. The pigeons on the old man’s rooftop; the door taken off its hinges, indicating that all are free to enter the house; the slightly stooped posture of a former convict used to knocking his head on the bunk above; the elaborate way the thieves make tea; how they pass a shared cigarette back and forth; all of this is taken from Lilin, and it added a lot of flavor to what was otherwise a purely functional scene. As a writer, you learn not to spurn such gifts. And taking any novel to completion is an education in itself…