Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Frederick Forsyth

“The need for change is there…”

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"The need for change is there..."

Note: This post is the sixty-first installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 60. You can read the previous installments here.

Vladimir Putin is still here. I type these words not because we need to be reminded of that fact—I can’t think of another foreign political leader whose shadow has loomed so ominously over a peacetime presidential race—but to consider what it means. When I began writing The Icon Thief, more than eight years ago, Putin was ostensibly on his way out: he was ineligible to run for a third term, so the reigns of power were passed to Dmitry Medvedev, his chosen successor. Instead, Medvedev appointed him prime minister, and a few years later, Putin was back in the presidency, as if he’d never been gone. It isn’t hard to imagine him pulling the same trick forever, or for as long as his health holds out, which might be for quite some time. He’s only in his early sixties now, which is practically his young adulthood compared to some of the decrepit Russian leaders of the past, and he’s in what he takes pains to assure us is peak physical condition. It’s a situation that ought to keep most of us up at night, but it’s also a boon to suspense novelists. As I once pointed out, Putin’s name is the most evocative word in the lexicon of the modern thriller: it calls up an entire world of intrigue and implication, allowing a novel to do in a few sentences what might otherwise require five pages. As a rhetorical device, it isn’t just confined to fiction, either. Putin wouldn’t be evoked so often in this election if he didn’t have such a powerful hold over our imaginations, and recent events have only confirmed, as I’ve said from the beginning, that nothing that a writer can invent about Russia can possibly compare to the reality.

Incorporating a contemporary or historical political figure into a thriller is nothing new, of course. The gold standard was set, as it was in so many other things, by Frederick Forsyth, who built The Day of the Jackal around an assassination attempt on Charles de Gaulle, and who gave prominent speaking parts to Margaret Thatcher in several of his later novels. It’s a trick that grows stale when a writer uses it too often, as Forsyth sometimes does, but its easy to understand its appeal. For a certain kind of thriller, the story is less about something that could happen than about what might be happening right now, or that has already happened without our knowledge. Such novels often set up a sliding scale of verisimilitude, starting with big, obvious figures like Putin, working their way down through historical figures or events that aren’t as familiar, and finally entering the realm of pure fiction. Even if you’re reasonably conversant with current events, you can have trouble telling where fact leaves off and invention begins, especially when the novel starts to show its age. (For instance, I have a feeling that most contemporary readers of The Day of the Jackal aren’t aware that the opening sequence, which depicts a failed attempt on de Gaulle’s life, is based on fact—an interesting case of a novel outliving the material that it once used to enhance its own credibility.) Ideally, the transition from someone like Putin to the fictional characters at the bottom of the pecking order should be totally seamless, at least in the moment. We know that Putin is real and that most of the other characters aren’t, but in some cases, we aren’t sure, and the overwhelming fact of Putin himself serves to organize and enhance the rest of the story.

"The protesters were wearing white ribbons..."

Eternal Empire is literally framed by Putin, both in terms of how the novel was conceived and of how it was finally published. It opens with an epigraph from Rachel Polonsky’s Molotov’s Magic Lantern, which describes how Putin asked to have a fragment of the polar seabed brought back to him as a nod to the underground kingdom of Shambhala, and it ends with an excerpt from a New York Times article from December 10, 2011, which describes the abortive protests that flared up that year against the Putin regime. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, the entire novel unfolded like a paper flower from those lines in Polonsky’s book, and it isn’t hard to see why they struck me. In juxtaposing the steely figure of Putin, the ultimate pragmatist, with the gauzy myth of Shambhala, it encapsulates the tension that defined the rest of the series, which in many ways is about the collision between practical spycraft and the weirder elements that have a way of impinging on the rational picture. (As Powell says to Wolfe of the Shambhala story: “That doesn’t sound like the Putin I know.”) The closing epigraph attracted me for many of the same reasons. Its image of protesters with white flowers and ribbons was derived from an actual event, but it could easily stand for something more. A white flower can mean just about anything, so it wasn’t hard for me to tweak the story so that the protests seemed to emerge from the Shambhala plot. And the entire narrative was timed to culminate at this moment, which would serve as the visible eruption of the forces that my characters had spent the entire book marshaling in secret.

Now that five years have passed, the image that concludes the trilogy, of Maddy watching the protesters on television, feels very different in tone. The protests themselves are little more than a footnote, and Putin’s hold on power has never been stronger. Since the plot hinges on a plan to change Russian politics from the inside, the historical outcome might seem to undermine the whole story. I’m not sure it does, though. Maddy notes that Tarkovsky has bought himself “a few years” to prepare, which might well mean that his plan is underway even now—although I doubt it. More pragmatically, the characters observe, both here and in the epilogue, that most attempts at reform are crushed, and that a revolution is more likely to die than to endure. (You can picture me typing those lines, more than three years ago, as a way of hedging my bets.) But if there’s a thread that runs through all these novels, it’s the importance of small, private victories in the face of the indifference or hostility of larger systems. I began the series with a conspiracy novel, which is a genre that implicitly raises the issue, even in its pulpiest incarnations, of the relationship between the individual and the impersonal forces to which he or she is subjected. All three books conclude on a similar note, which is that we can try to get glimpse behind the mask, if only for a moment, and then return to the more achievable task of establishing what little order we can in our own lives. It isn’t much of an answer, but it provides just enough consolation to see us through, both in a novel and in the real world. Putin survives, as I suspect I always knew he would. But so do Wolfe and Maddy. And that’s how their story ends…

“There’s something we need to talk about…”

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"There's something we need to talk about..."

Note: This post is the fifty-first installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 50. You can read the previous installments here.

Suspense is usually the most linear of genres, but a lot of thrillers include exactly one flashback. You know the one I mean: it comes near the end, just after the big twist, to explain precisely how you were fooled. In a heist movie, it frequently involves the revelation that the plan you thought the protagonists were following was actually something else entirely, and in films that are heavily dependent on fridge logic, it can reveal that much of the movie you believed you were watching was really an elaborate mislead. At its best, as with the unforgettable flashback that occurs two-thirds of the way through Vertigo, it can singlehandedly justify the whole concept of flashbacks in general; at its worst, in a movie like Now You See Me, it can leave you asking why you bothered taking any interest in the plot at all. And these reveals seem to be becoming more common, as the need to find new variations on old surprises has caused such plots to become ever more convoluted and implausible. (We’re at a point now where a single flashback scene isn’t enough: we’re treated to entire flashback montages, replaying what seems like half of the movie from a different point of view. When handled well, as in The Illusionist, this sort of thing can be delightful, but it can also leave a viewer feeling that the film hasn’t played fair with its obligation to mislead us with what it shows, rather than what it omits.)

This sort of flashback is obviously designed to save a surprise for the end of the movie, which is where we’ve been conditioned to expect it—even if some violence has to be done to the fabric of the narrative to put the reveal in the last ten minutes, instead of where it naturally occurred. This isn’t a new strategy. Jack Woodford, the pulp writer whose instructional book Trial and Error was carefully studied by Robert A. Heinlein, thought that all stories should end with a punch ending, and he offered a very useful tip on how to artificially create one:

A good way to do this is to go ahead and end it with the usual driveling collection of super-climaxes, anti-climaxes and what not that amateurs end stories with, and then go over it, find where the punch ending is, rework the ending so that the anti-climaxes, if there is anything in them at all that really needs to be told, come before the final crux ending.

This is why so many stories contrive to withhold crucial information until the point where it carries the most impact, even if it doesn’t quite play fair. (You frequently see this in the early novels of Frederick Forsyth, like The Odessa File or The Dogs of War, which leave out a key element of the protagonist’s motivation, only to reveal it at the climax or on the very last page. It’s such a good trick that you can almost forgive Forsyth for reusing it three or four times.)

"Let it play out..."

Another advantage to delaying the explanatory scene for as long as possible is that it turns an implausible twist into a fait accompli. I’ve noted before that if there’s a particularly weak point in the story on which the credibility of the plot depends, the best strategy for dealing with it is to act as if has already happened, and to insert any necessary justifications after you’ve presented the situation as blandly as possible. Readers or audiences are more likely to accept a farfetched plot development after it has already been taken for granted. If they had been allowed to watch it unfold from scratch, during the fragile early stages, they would have been more likely to object. (My favorite example is how in the two great American drag comedies, Some Like it Hot and Tootsie, we never see the main characters make the decision to pose as women—we cut to them already in makeup and heels, which mostly prevents us from raising any of the obvious objections.) This explains why the expository flashback, while often ludicrously detailed, rarely shows us the one scene that we really want to see: the conversation in which one character had to explain to the rest what he wanted them to do, and why. Even a classic twist ending like the one in The Sting falls apart when we imagine the characters putting it into words. The act of speaking the plan aloud would only destroy its magic.

I put these principles to good use in Chapter 50 of Eternal Empire, which rewinds the plot slightly to replay a crucial scene in its entirety. Structuring it as a flashback was clearly meant to preserve the surprise, but also to downplay its less plausible angles. For the story to work, Maddy had to reveal herself to Tarkovsky, justify her good intentions, and propose a complicated counterplot, all in the course of a single conversation. I think that the chapter does a decent job of pulling it off, but placing the discussion here, after the effects of the decision have already been revealed, relieves it of some of the weight. The reader is already invested in the premise, simply by reading the events of the preceding chapters, and I hoped that this would carry us past any gaps in the logic. But it’s worth noting that I never actually show the crux of the conversation, in which Maddy spells out the plan she has in mind. Asking a character to fake his death for the sake of some elaborate charade is a scene that can’t possibly play well—which might be why we almost never see it, even though a similar twist seems to lie at the bottom of half of the surprise endings ever written. We don’t hear Maddy telling Tarkovsky what she wants him to do; we just see the results. It’s a form of selective omission that goes a long way toward making it all acceptable. But as the reader will soon discover, the plan hasn’t gone quite as well as they think…

The novel with a key

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The Royal We

As I write this post, my wife is about fifty pages away from finishing The Royal We, a novel that she devoured over the course of the last few days like a bottomless bag of popcorn. I’ve only glanced at the book, but I’ve been impressed by what little of it I’ve seen, starting with the title, which is the kind of clever play on words—while also telling you exactly what the story is about—that could sell a hundred thousand copies in itself. It’s about a college student who meets, falls in love with, and finally marries the Prince of Wales, and if the plot sounds a touch familiar, that’s precisely the point. The Royal We isn’t exactly about Kate Middleton: its protagonist is American, for one thing, and the story diverges from the facts of the most famous public courtship in recent memory in small but meaningful ways. But like Curtis Sittenfeld’s American Wife, another book my wife loved, it’s a novel that all but begs us to fill in the blanks. And although it’s clearly written with taste and skill, it’s also a marketer’s dream. At a time when publishers are struggling to create new brands, the equivalent of high-class celebrity fanfic is as good a way as any to catch a reader’s eye. (Sometimes it doesn’t even need to be especially high class: an erotic fan novel about Harry Stiles of One Direction is being made into a movie as we speak.)

But what sets such recent books apart from prior efforts in the same line is how cheerfully they disclose their sources of inspiration. The roman à clef is as old, in one form or another, as the novel itself, but it really came into its own with the works of writers like Harold Robbins and Jacqueline Susann—”The giants,” as Spock calls them in The Voyage Home—whose novels were explicitly designed to encourage readers to put famous faces to lightly fictionalized names. As Dean Koontz said years ago in Writing Popular Fiction:

[A roman à clef is] a story in which all the characters seem to be allusions to real people—preferably quite famous people—and to real events the reader may have read of in newspapers and magazines; this establishes a celebrity guessing game among readers and reviewers that strengthens the illusion that you are telling of genuine events and, not incidentally, increases the book’s sales…In actuality, the [novel] bears only passing resemblance to the real lives of the personalities mentioned, but the reader likes to feel that he is getting the whole, ugly story firsthand.

American Wife

And it’s worth noting how hard the novel, like a con artist “accidentally” displaying a briefcase full of cash to a mark, has to work to give the reader a winking nudge about how it should be read, while superficially acting as if it’s trying to keep a secret. The book needs to insist that names have been changed to protect the innocent, even as it makes its reference points obvious, and it demands a tricky balance. Too obscure, and we won’t make the connection at all; too transparent, and we’ll reject it as fantasy. (I’ll leave aside the example of Irving Wallace, one of Robbins and Susann’s contemporaries, who wasn’t above explicitly stating his sources in the text. In The Plot, a scandal involving a character clearly based on Christine Keeler is described as “ten times more exciting than the old Profumo affair,” while in The Fan Club, a pulpy novel about the kidnapping of a famous movie star, a character comes right out and says: “Picture Elizabeth Taylor or Marilyn Monroe or Brigitte Bardot lying in the next room naked.”) The Royal We and American Wife, although less coy, pull off much the same feat by selectively altering a few recognizable elements, as if industriously disguising their source material while implicitly keeping the spirit unchanged.

The result, if done correctly, offers an easy form of subtext, making the novel somewhat more interesting in ways that have little to do with craft. It’s a temptation to which I haven’t been entirely immune: City of Exiles includes a character so manifestly based on Garry Kasparov that I seriously considered just putting him in the story outright, as Frederick Forsyth did with everyone from Margaret Thatcher to Simon Wiesenthal. (If I chickened out in the end, it was mostly because I felt queasy about making the real Kasparov the target of an assassination attempt.) And it’s such a powerful trick that it gives pause to some novelists. In the afterword to Harlot’s Ghost, Norman Mailer writes:

In the course of putting together this attempt, there was many a choice to make on one’s approach to formal reality. The earliest and most serious decision was not to provide imaginary names for all the prominent people who entered the work. After all, that rejected approach would have left one with such barbarisms as James Fitzpatrick Fennerly, youngest man ever elected President of the United States.

Mailer goes on to note that if he’d given us, say, Howard Hunt under an assumed name, the reader would think: “This is obviously Howard Hunt. Now I’ll get to see what made him tick.” By giving us Hunt without a mask, the reader is free to say: “That isn’t my idea of Howard Hunt at all.” And that might even be the most honorable approach, even if it isn’t likely to thrill publishers, or their lawyers.

“Wolfe lowered herself into the basement…”

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"It was probably nothing..."

Note: This post is the eighth installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 9. You can read the previous installments here.

When you’ve read a novel or seen a movie so many times that you practically know every line, your perspective on its strengths and weaknesses inevitably differs from that of someone who only experiences it once. It’s a little like the difference between a tool that you use just occasionally and one that becomes a regular part of your working life. If the blade on a vegetable peeler is slightly dull, it’s only a minor annoyance if you peel potatoes a couple of times a month; if you’re peeling a hundred a day, it’s a tragedy. And you find yourself correspondingly grateful for features that a more casual user would never notice, like an eye gouger or a handle that fits comfortably in your hand. The hard part about buying tools intended for ongoing use is that you often don’t know what you need until you’ve lived with it for years, and a quick glance in the store won’t tell you much. Experience helps, as do reviews and advice from others, but there’s no substitute for an ongoing trial in the field, which is why a site like The Sweet Home revisits every product it recommends after a year of regular usage. And the same holds true for works of fiction, which don’t often reveal their quality until after an extended period of engagement. (Authors try to replicate this process by reading a manuscript repeatedly over a shorter length of time, the artistic equivalent of accelerated life testing in engineering.)

I’ve probably read The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris more often than any other work of popular fiction, and I’m frequently surprised by what parts hold up for me the best. If you’ve read the book or seen the movie just once, you tend to remember a few big set pieces—Lecter’s escape, his exchanges with Starling, the final showdown in the killer’s darkened basement—and with good reason: they’re all great scenes, and it’s unlikely we’d be talking about this story at all if Harris hadn’t conceived and executed those pivotal moments so expertly. As time goes on, though, the sequence that I find myself revisiting the most, especially with an eye to the writing, is the early scene when Starling explores the storage unit belonging to the late Benjamin Raspail. It covers about twelve pages in the paperback edition, and although it climaxes on the memorable image of a severed head in a specimen jar, for most of its length, it’s merely tense and methodical. Yet I honestly believe that this is some of the best writing that Harris, or just about anyone, has ever done in the field of suspense. And along with Frederick Forsyth’s loving account of testing the rifle in The Day of the Jackal, it’s the scene I read whenever I need to be reminded of why I fell in love with this genre in the first place.

"Wolfe lowered herself into the basement..."

So what makes the chapter live for me, when more conventionally dramatic moments in the novel have faded with time? As with most great scenes in fiction, it’s an instance of pleasure in craft unfolding in parallel with the action itself. Starling is excited, but very careful, and the chapter provides her with many small moments of delightful ingenuity—using oil from a dipstick to lubricate a stubborn lock, raising the rusted gate of the storage unit with the jack from her car—that put us permanently on her side, if we hadn’t already been won over by her competence and determination. We’re won over by Harris, too. In outline form, the scene could have been routine in a way that, say, Lecter’s jailbreak would never be; we’re pretty sure, given the buildup, that Starling is going to find something interesting, but it’s too early in the story for us to really be concerned for her safety. So what Harris does is build the chapter up detail by detail, never hurrying, leaving us confident that we’re in the hands of a writer who knows his stuff. The writing is effective but never showy, as it can sometimes be when Harris indulges himself, with a lot of nice turns of phrase (“The padlock jumped like a frog in her hand”). And you feel that Harris lavished even more care on this scene than usual, since it works only to the extent that it gives us our first real taste of Starling in action.

It was perhaps inevitable that I’d try writing an extended homage , which we find in Chapter 9 of Eternal Empire. Looking back, I’m not sure how conscious this was: I knew that the scene opened with a promising lead and ended with the discovery of a body, and I had a limited number of pages in which to pull it off. Following Harris was a case of taking a useful model and trying to stick to best practices, and while I can’t claim that this scene is the equal of its inspiration, it’s still one of my favorites. Like Starling, Wolfe has to solve a succession of small problems to end up where the story needs her to be, and I tried to make each step as logical as I could, although I didn’t have room to be too clever or complicated. This involved a few pieces of sleight of hand, all designed to make the contrivances go down a little more smoothly: Wolfe finds the address because of a page that’s missing from an old road atlas, which I thought was more acceptable than having it written down in plain sight, and once she’s down in the basement, I have her look in the wrong place first—finding a mouse’s nest—so it doesn’t feel that the body was waiting for her on a silver platter. The first draft was cut to the bone, just to keep things moving along, and the result, at least to my eye, is a nice tight string of beats. Whether or not it holds up on the twentieth reading is something I can’t really say. But I’ve read it a lot, maybe more than I wanted, and it works pretty well for me…

Written by nevalalee

February 19, 2015 at 10:19 am

How I discovered my feminine side

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Gillian Anderson in "Jose Chung's From Outer Space"

Note: Since I’m taking a deserved break for Thanksgiving, I’m reposting a few popular posts this week from earlier in this blog’s run. This post was originally published, in a slightly different form, on December 18, 2012.

In some ways, this post shouldn’t be necessary. Honestly, there’s no good reason why a realistic novel with a large cast of characters shouldn’t include a roughly equal number of men and women, at least once we’ve accounted for issues of setting and plot. Yet it’s unquestionably the case that interesting female characters can be hard to find, especially in works by male authors. There’s still no better proof of this than the classic Bechdel Test, in which a movie or other narrative work has to meet three simple criteria in order to pass:

  1. It includes at least two women…
  2. Who have at least one conversation…
  3. About something other than a man or men.

It sounds pretty straightforward, but surprisingly few works of art pass the test. And while this isn’t meant to be taken as a measure of a story’s merit—there aren’t any women in Lawrence of Arabia for a reason—it’s still worth asking why narratives that fulfill all three requirements remain the exception, not the rule.

This is especially true in suspense, in which otherwise great authors, like Frederick Forsyth, either ignore women entirely or prove utterly incapable of writing convincing female characters. As far as my own work is concerned, The Icon Thief and City of Exiles both squeak by, but largely on a technicality: both have women in the lead, but only a couple of female supporting characters with whom my protagonists can have a qualifying conversation. Yet something unexpected happened with my third novel. Eternal Empire is the concluding book of a series that has introduced a number of important female characters over time, and two of the three leads are women from the previous novels, along with many smaller but crucial roles. As a result, I’ve found myself writing numerous chapters in which only women appear. This wasn’t a conscious choice, but simply the way the narrative evolved. And although it might seem odd to comment on it, it’s a measure of the relative lack of female characters in this kind of story that it struck me, after the fact, as surprising.

Jodie Foster in The Silence of the Lambs

So how did I end up writing three novels with female protagonists? Part of the answer is that I’ve been enormously influenced by works of art in which unforgettable women appear. I don’t think I’d be writing this kind of book at all if it weren’t for Dana Scully, my favorite character on television, who, in turn, was clearly modeled on the great Clarice Starling. (It’s fitting, then, that Gillian Anderson has played such a prominent role on the Hannibal television series, thus bringing the wheel full circle.) It was also a test for myself as a writer. On some levels, men and women aren’t so different, at least not in a story like this: James Cameron has said that his preferred way of creating a compelling female character is to write for a man and simply change the name—which is how we got Ripley in Alien—and one of William Goldman’s favorite methods for brainstorming his way through a difficult story is to ask, “What if all the characters were women?” All the same, writing for a character whose experience is distinct from my own in certain fundamental ways forces me to think through even the smallest moments, testing them for plausibility, tone, and emotional truth.

Which is something I should be doing anyway, of course, but when I’m writing for a male lead, I’m more likely to overlook such problems, because I’m not subjecting the character to the same kind of scrutiny. When I recently went back to read my first, unpublished novel, for instance, I found that the lead character, a young man not unlike myself at the time, was serviceable, but a little colorless, probably because he was so easily assembled in my imagination that a lot of it failed to make it to the page. A character like Rachel Wolfe, by contrast, seems more real to me than most of my male protagonists, just because I’ve had to work on her more rigorously. In some ways, that’s the greatest possible benefit in writing characters of a different gender. It can’t be an accident that many of our finest novels, from Madame Bovary to Atonement, have been written by male novelists assuming a female point of view. Anything that requires a writer to look twice at things he, or she, might otherwise take for granted can only be a good thing. And in my fiction, as well as in my own life, I have some strong women to thank.

Written by nevalalee

November 27, 2014 at 9:00 am

“Most of the assembly was already done…”

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"Among the electronic parts..."

Note: This post is the forty-second installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 41. You can read the earlier installments here

Hardware, as I’ve noted before, lies at the heart of a certain kind of thriller, and a lot of suspense novels seem to have written solely to showcase a particularly seductive bit of weaponry. (Two that come to mind, out of many possible examples, are Ken Follett’s The Hammer of Eden and Frederick Forsyth’s The Fourth Protocol, not to mention the Tom Clancy novel of your choice.) At times, the thriller comes startlingly close to science fiction in its fascination with technology, often in the form of gadgets and devices that don’t yet exist, at least not for the likes of us. In the Bond books and movies, hardware serves as another form of escapism, a sort of consumerist fantasy with Q as a combination of personal shopper and bespoke tailor. And even in superficially more realistic stories, technology feeds into the fantasy in a subtler way. An author’s familiarity with the details of guns or other tools of the trade grounds the more extravagant inventions of the plot, and we’re supposed to assume that if our writer knows what kind of holster would go best with a Walther PPK, he’s equally knowledgable about elements of spycraft and backroom politics that we have no way of verifying independently.

Of course, like all good narrative tricks, this one has its pitfalls, especially when the writer loses sight of the original intention. At its best, hardware can clarify and deepen a certain type of character: the heroes and villains of international suspense tend to be hypercompetent at what they do, even if they’re flawed in other ways, and we learn a little more about them as they go about handling their complicated equipment. All too often, though, technical details turn into an end in themselves, and we end up watching a name on the page take us through the fictional equivalent of a user’s manual. As with most descriptive or decorative elements, the amount a reader can tolerate is directly correlated to its apparent importance. When hardware isn’t essential to a particular plot point, the writer can, and should, get away with an evocative detail or two: an author like Thomas Harris, for instance, is a master at using bits of jargon or terminology to flesh out a passing moment. (“Lieutenant, it looks like he’s got two six-shot .38s. We heard three rounds fired and the dump pouches on the gun belts are still full, so he may just have nine left. Advise SWAT it’s +Ps jacketed hollowpoints. This guy favors the face.”)

"Most of the assembly was already done..."

When we’re dealing with an item of hardware that plays a more central role, we can indulge ourselves a bit more, and if we’ve handled it properly, the details enhance the story that follows: the object becomes a supporting actor in itself, and the action benefits in the same way in which a touch of backstory can enrich an important character. The ultimate example here is the rifle in The Day of the Jackal, which is more memorable than many of the human players involved—although it’s worth noting that we only care because it’s the weapon designed to assassinate Charles DeGaulle. On a more modest level, this also applies to the lethal device in City of Exiles. For most of the story, it’s a MacGuffin, designed only to push the characters from one violent appointment to the next, but as the climax nears, it becomes necessary to see exactly how it works. In Chapter 41, I devote a fair amount of time to describing how Karvonen puts it together, with particular emphasis on the cell phone detonator he constructs. All in all, it takes up about two pages at at point where the book has just over a hundred pages left to run, and I wouldn’t have sacrificed so much space to it if the effect hadn’t seemed worth it.

And there are a few distinct threads here. On the most basic level, I’d like to think that it creates a sense of anticipation: with every step in the process, we start to get a better idea of what this device is designed to do, even if the full details are withheld until the decisive moment. It gives us one last look at Karvonen as we’ve known him before, a careful craftsman, a few chapters before his plans start to spiral out of control. And it gives the reader just enough information to make the workings of this slightly implausible gadget more convincing. If I emphasize the detonator, rather than the heart of the weapon itself, it’s both because I didn’t feel entirely at home with the technical specs—which, thankfully, are hard to track down—and because I didn’t want or need to actually provide the reader with a handbook on building a particularly unpleasant device. In the end, Karvonen observes that the weapon isn’t exactly a thing of beauty, with three separate devices cobbled together with tape, but it works well enough for the task at hand. Which is more or less how I approached it in the writing process. It isn’t perfect, but it gets the job done. And we’re about to find out its true purpose…

Written by nevalalee

July 31, 2014 at 10:12 am

“Karvonen set his hands on the container…”

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"The highway toward Namur..."

Note: This post is the twenty-ninth installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 28. You can read the earlier installments here.)

When you’re doing research for a novel, you’re really searching for two separate but related things, which can be conveniently described as the how and the what. The how—the aspect of research that focuses on factual details and bits of description—is the part that gives the entire process its bad reputation. When you’ve roughed out a story and are starting to fill in the outlines with experience, observation, and reading, it’s tempting to put in everything you know, to the point where the narrative is overloaded with background information that you’ve gathered and can’t bear to cut. That material has its place as a kind of seasoning, and I enjoy it as much as every other writer, but I’ve learned to cut it down to a minimum, and it’s usually only after several drafts that I figure out how much color and reportage to include without overwhelming the plot. Fortunately, after a few revisions, you start to forget where fact leaves off and invention begins, allowing you to regard it all with the same eye. Once you’ve lived with a novel for a while, it no longer matters whether a detail was spun out of whole cloth or painstakingly unearthed: if it fits, it stays, and if it doesn’t, it goes.

The other half of research, the what, is a lot more fun. I’ve found that the best time to begin research is when the general subject matter of a story is clear but the particulars are still unresolved. That way, when you find an especially lovely piece of material, you can adjust the plot to accommodate it. This may seem like a backward kind of approach—in theory, the story should unfold organically from an initial situation—but in practice, you’ll often find yourself making room for pieces that you want to include just because they’re beautiful for their own sake. When I read Ian McEwan, for instance, I’m often conscious of him bending the story slightly to make room for things he simply wants to talk about, like the digression on the Monty Hall problem that takes up several pages of Sweet Tooth or many of the more vivid moments in the Dunkirk evacuation or military hospital sequences in Atonement. Writing, as I’ve said before, is a kind of bricolage, with the author scrounging through whatever is at hand and arriving at a structure that covers as much of it as possible, and if you take that away, you’re robbing yourself of one of the profoundest pleasures that writing can afford.

"Karvonen set his hands on the container..."

Occasionally, you’ll come across a building block of material so promising that it ends up shaping entire chapters or sequences that never would have occurred to you otherwise. The prologue of The Icon Thief, for example, arises from a vivid anecdote in Stephen Handelman’s Comrade Criminal about an art smuggler being detained by bandits on the road to Hungary: as soon as I read it, I knew that it would make for a great opening for a novel, even if I wasn’t sure how it would fit in with the rest. Similarly, when I stumbled on the account in Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin’s The Sword and the Shield of the weapons caches that the KGB hid throughout Europe for use by undercover agents in case of a violent uprising, I knew I wanted to build a scene around it in City of Exiles. When you’re doing research, you count yourself lucky if you make even one discovery like this in five hundred pages of reading, and this tidbit—which includes a verbatim memo with step-by-step instructions on how to locate the cache and disarm the explosive it contains—seemed too good to pass up. And since Karvonen was already going through Belgium, which is one of the countries in which such caches were kept, it was easy to send him on this errand.

The result is a conscious pastiche of that gorgeous sequence in The Day of the Jackal when the titular assassin tests out his rifle in the forest of the Ardennes, the very same forest, in fact, in which Karvonen finds himself here. (Both men take take the highway from Brussels to Namur, and I’d like to think that the spot where Karvonen digs up the cache is only a stone’s throw away from where the Jackal held his target practice.) While I can’t say what I’ve written here is nearly as good as Forsyth’s scene, which I seem to reread every six months or so, I’d like to think that it captures some of the same spirit. It’s definitely a hardware chapter, complete with inventories of tools and detailed technical background, and it doesn’t serve any larger purpose in the story except in providing Karvonen with a shotgun and pistol that will pay off later on—weapons that I could have given to him in any number of ways. In its own modest fashion, through, it fills in the world and the background of the story, provides a touch of authenticity, and gives Karvonen something interesting to do on his way to his final destination. Best of all, it provides me with a literal example of Chekhov’s gun. And we all know that it’s going to go off sooner or later…

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