Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

“Moving blindly up the path through the trees…”

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"The park was peaceful enough..."

Note: This post is the fortieth installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 39. You can read the previous installments here.

One of these days, I’m going to write an oral history of novelists who use Google Maps. I have a feeling that most of us do it, even though there seems to be a certain retience—perhaps because we’re supposed to have done our research using more occult methods—to admitting this. E.L. James, who never visited Seattle before using it as the setting of Fifty Shades of Grey, cops to it happily: “I spent a lot of time on Google Maps.” And the novelist David Nicholls, best known for One Day, wrote an excellent essay on the subject last year for The Guardian, in which he discusses how he researched a scene for his novel Us:

I have never visited Bologna but a few clicks of the computer mouse bring me a thousand images of the railway station, inside and out. The online website has already told me the train’s arrival time on the day of the fictional events, and a few more clicks will bring up a map of the fastest taxi route to the airport. Zooming in on the station, I can take the hand of the little unisex figure in the right-hand corner, drop it in the ticket hall and, in view mode, click through the doors and find a taxi…In the finished novel, this journey will take up four sentences. My virtual mapping of the route will have almost no discernible impact on the prose that I’ve already sketched out…It’s certainly less costly and time-consuming than visiting Bologna, but it still feels a little like cheating. What if I’ve missed something? Isn’t being there part of the job?

Of course, Google Maps is no substitute for real location research, when your time and resources allow for it. Location work has been an integral part of my writing ever since my first published story, “Inversus,” in which the idea of an homage to the Alice novels set in contemporary Boston led me inexorably to the statue of the hare in Copley Square. And my scouting trips for The Icon Thief and City of Exiles rank among my favorite memories as a novelist. Nicholls does a nice job of evoking what this kind of reconnaissance means:

Many years ago, while writing my first novel, I took a train to find the house where my fictional character lived. I brought with me a notebook, pen and camera and walked the streets from the station down to the sea, found a spot that felt right and took a great many photographs of quite staggering dullness. In retrospect, the expedition was probably little more than an exercise in procrastination…Still, it felt important to make the journey, find the address and trace the character’s route from that house to the pier so that I could place pins in a map and know “here’s the house, the takeaway, the pub, it all happened right here,” even if it hadn’t really happened at all. Little of that research found its way on to the page directly. Reading the novel now, through the gaps in my fingers, there is nothing you could call descriptive prose and the fictional address I attributed to the house, 16 Archer Street, sounds horribly made up. But if the expedition was a little foolish and pretentious, it still felt important to go, because wasn’t this what proper writers were meant to do?

"Moving blindly up the path through the trees.."

The answer is yes—but Google Maps also affords peculiar advantages and delights of its own. What I’ve come to value the most about it, weirdly, is its vagueness. No matter how comprehensive the images are on Street View, there are always nooks of your ideal route that remain maddeningly opaque, and you inevitably end up wishing for greater resolution, or the ability to peek around a particular corner. But that’s exactly how it should be. Research, as I’ve said many times before, isn’t about factual accuracy, but furnishing material for dreams, and it’s easier to write, say, a chase scene if you have some landmarks to guide you on your way. But it helps to have some gaps, too, if only for the effort of imagination they impose. I flew to London for a week to research City of Exiles, and the payoff is visible in many scenes. Yet the novel’s two most memorable sequences, at the London Chess Classic at Olympia and in the tunnels underneath Helsinki, took place at a pair of locations that I was unable to visit firsthand. For the details, I was obliged to rely on photographs, descriptions, and an infuriatingly brief video or two. None of it was as comprehensive as I would have liked, but it forced me to think a little harder, and it shows. If I got a detail wrong here or there, few readers could be expected to notice, but the ensuing action had to be envisioned all the more intensely. And the state of mind that comes from poring over a map, while different from location work, can be no less rewarding. It’s never my first choice, but I’ve rarely been disappointed with the results.

This issue became particularly important for Eternal Empire, which spans many locations in Europe that I was unable to visit for myself. But that didn’t prelude the possibility of other discoveries. In Chapter 39, Maddy disembarks from the yacht in Yalta for her pivotal meeting with Ilya—their first encounter in several years. Why Yalta? For reasons of plot, the yacht had disembarked from Romania and was on its way to Sochi, and Yalta seemed like a reasonable port of call along the way. As for the location of the meeting itself, I wanted somewhere within walking distance or a short drive of the marina, which seemed logical enough. And after a quick search, I settled on the nearby zoo and children’s park. It features grotesque wooden carvings of trolls and dwarves, as well as a live actor playing the witch Baba Yaga, and it was obvious that it would provide the kind of atmosphere and variety of settings that this sort of scene demands. (Maddy and Ilya end up meeting by a statue of a slain dragon, which neatly ties into the image of the Scythian rider that recurs throughout the novel, and they have the bulk of their conversation near the bars of an animal cage that mirrors Maddy’s own situation.) Once I had that location, I cobbled together a route as best I could from Google Maps, photos, and videos, and the result was more than adequate for an evocative scene of six pages, even if, as Nicholls puts it, it was “a fish-eyed lens view with no sounds or smells or interaction.” The picture I had was incomplete. But it gave me the chance to fill in the rest myself…

Written by nevalalee

January 7, 2016 at 8:12 am

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