Respect for Research

Posted: August 31, 2014 by writingsprint in Essay, Writing
Tags: , , , , ,

Citroen Traction Avant

Yesterday I finished the book By Royal Command of the Young James Bond book series. I don’t generally read teen fiction, but this one came highly recommended, and I’ll tell you straight-up that it was a damned good read. Charlie Higson paints a believable young man who could have grown into the world’s greatest spy: hardened by the loss of his parents, self-reliant, resourceful, stubborn, bitterly opposed to injustice.

Higson crafts a world from almost eighty years ago as if he lived in it for eight of his own, and took notes the entire time. Whether it’s the back streets of Lisbon, the campus of Eton College, or a train station in France, you never question whether Higson has been there before. You know he has—if only in the world he created, based on the exhaustive research that he’s done.

I had a glimpse of what this was like when I wrote a large-scale battle scene a few months ago. At first I thought I would wing it and let my creativity sweep me away. After doing the writing equivalent of walking into walls inside a darkened house, I mapped out the battlefield, then the combatants… which led to the invasion before the battle, which led to the political situation surrounding the battle. Then as the battle began, I realized the plan of attack wouldn’t work. I had to find a weakness. Then I had to find an infiltration plan. Which needed a diversion. Which had to escape once the world came down on top of it.

This was one scene. Higson weaves in detail after meaty, tangible detail in every line. For the exercise, I read the first few pages of the story so that I could pick out how much research I would have needed to do to write it myself, starting from a blank sheet of paper.

The story starts off in 1936 or thereabouts. We meet Irina Sedova, a Soviet intelligence officer.

  1. What rank would the “head of section” for an intelligence agency hold? Colonel. Based on this, she would be middle-aged or slightly older.
  2. What is her background? Based on her age – which will be dictated by her rank, unless she’s some kind of prodigy – what world events has she experienced? Colonel Sedova has survived famine and the Russian revolution. She grew up in a world where people ate rats and shoe leather to survive, and she’s survived more than one assassination attempt. She was born on a farm in the Ukraine. She still remembers calling her country “Russia,” as opposed to the title it now wears, “Soviet Union.”
  3. We need to put her in a hotbed of young, European radicalism in the early to mid-1930s, where the Soviets would have a spy cell. Our story begins in Lisbon, Portugal.
  4. What would a Soviet intelligence officer’s alibi be to travel around the world – in 1936? At the time, Soviets sold tractors on the international market. They were symbol of pride and innovation, revolutionizing farming the way that Lenin had revolutionized Russia. Colonel Sedova’s cover is that she part of a group of Soviet businesspersons showing and selling tractors all over Europe. Sedova wanted to leave her life on the farm behind and never look back, so she finds being stuck with tractors galling.
  5. Some details on Russian tractors may come in handy, to make the story feel more real. Sedova’s tractors were built in Chelyabinsk. Tractors symbolized the future. When a tractor arrived in a village, it was at the head of a long procession, followed by people of all ages waving flags and singing patriotic songs.
  6. They need a car. What kind do they drive? She and her secretary are driving a Citroen Traction Avant. It’s a luxury car, so Higson immerses us in the rich textures and scents of the car’s interior, since Sedova, as a military officer with poor roots, has never lived in luxury. Higson would have had to do some digging on luxury cars that were popular in Europe in 1936. My guess is that he read newspapers from the era, either on microfilm, microfiche, or scanned copies.
  7. Where are they going? “ ‘To the Alfama district,’ she grunted.” Higson has looked at a map of 1936 Lisbon or done research on the city, and picked out where the colonel’s spy cell is located. Was the Alfama district where young communists gathered? The district is located in the “old part of town,” which may have been the deciding factor. The newer district may be where the wealthier people live. Spies tend to be those who have nothing to lose. Or maybe he chose it because the old part of town would have more charm in the reader’s mind.

We’re at the bottom of the third page. I’m in awe. This is the standard to which I want to lift up my own writing. That means slowing down the writing process, but if it means I’ll have a denser, more believable, more cool story when I type the words “the end,” then let it be.

Photo credit: “Citroen Traction Avant” by FotoSleuth at Flickr
Picture is unmodified
Shared under Creative Commons license

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