Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Robert Louis Stevenson

The brownies and the bankbook

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The more I think of it, the more I am moved to press upon the world my question: Who are the Little People? They are near connections of the dreamer’s, beyond doubt; they share in his financial worries and have an eye to the bankbook; they share plainly in his training; they have plainly learned like him to build the scheme of a considerate story and to arrange emotion in progressive order; only I think they have more talent; and one thing is beyond doubt, they can tell him a story piece by piece, like a serial, and keep him all the while in ignorance of where they aim…What shall I say they are but just my Brownies, God bless them! who do one half my work for me while I am fast asleep, and in all human likelihood, do the rest for me as well, when I am wide awake and fondly suppose I do it for myself…I pull back and I cut down; and I dress the whole in the best words and sentences that I can find and make; I hold the pen, too; and I do the sitting at the table, which is about the worst of it; and when all is done, I make up the manuscript and pay for the registration; so that, on the whole, I have some claim to share, though not so largely as I do, in the profits of our common enterprise.

Robert Louis Stevenson, “A Chapter on Dreaming”

Written by nevalalee

June 24, 2018 at 7:30 am

Quote of the Day

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To be overwise is to ossify; and the scruple-monger ends by standing stock still. Now the man who has his heart on his sleeve, and a good whirling weathercock of a brain, who reckons his life as a thing to be dashingly used and cheerfully hazarded, makes a very different acquaintance of the world, keeps all his pulses going true and fast, and gathers impetus as he runs, until, if he be running towards anything better than wildfire, he may shoot up and become a constellation at the end.

Robert Louis Stevenson“Aes Triplex”

Written by nevalalee

December 14, 2017 at 7:30 am

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

March 17, 2017 at 7:30 am

Quote of the Day

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Robert Louis Stevenson

You have your little handful of facts, little bits of a puzzle, and you sit and think, and fit ’em together this way and that, and get up and throw ’em down, and say damn, and go out for a walk. And it’s real soothing, and when done gives an idea of finish to the writer that is very peaceful.

Robert Louis Stevenson

Written by nevalalee

April 1, 2015 at 7:30 am

“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…

A writer’s treasure map

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Map of Treasure Island

The author must know his countryside, whether real or imaginary, like his hand; the distances, the points of the compass, the place of the sun’s rising, the behavior of the moon, should all be beyond cavil. And how troublesome the moon is…!

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 ; and even when a map is not all the plot, as it was in Treasure Island, it will be found to be a mine of suggestion.

Robert Louis Stevenson

Written by nevalalee

July 6, 2014 at 9:00 am

“A web at once sensuous and logical…”

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Portrait of Robert Louis Stevenson by John Singer Sargent

The conjuror juggles with two oranges, and our pleasure in beholding him springs from this, that neither is for an instant overlooked or sacrificed. So with the writer…

[I]t is just that wit, those perpetual nice contrivances, these difficulties overcome, this double purpose attained, these two oranges kept simultaneously dancing in the air, that, consciously or not, afford the reader his delight…That style is therefore the most perfect, not, as fools say, which is the most natural, for the most natural is the disjointed babble of the chronicler; but which attains the highest degree of elegant and pregnant implication unobtrusively; or if obtrusively, then with the greatest gain to sense and vigor. Even the derangement of the phrases from their (so-called) natural order is luminous for the mind; and it is by the means of such designed reversal that the elements of a judgment may be most pertinently marshaled, or the stages of a complicated action most perspicuously bound into one.

The web, then, or the pattern: a web at once sensuous and logical, an elegant and pregnant texture: that is style, that is the foundation of the art of literature.

Robert Louis Stevenson

Written by nevalalee

November 3, 2013 at 9:00 am

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