A fantasy novel is not a place one generally expects to find a good car chase — but then, why not? Fantasy takes on more forms than simply swords and sorcery. To that end, in her latest fantasy novel And Blue Skies From Pain, author Stina Leicht found that for her fantasy, she needed to learn a little bit about car chases. And boy, did she throw herself into her research.
When I was a girl I worked on the family car with my Dad. Herbie the Love Bug was my first car crush. (The second was a neighbor’s Jaguar. The third? A 1969 Mustang Cobra Jet with a Shaker scoop — I do so adore the throaty sound of a muscle car engine.) Of course, not long after that I discovered The Avengers and Diana Rigg’s Emma Peel. She became my new hero, and the Lotus Elan entered my vocabulary.
After that, I was hooked. Car chases are exhilarating to watch. I love them. So, when I decided to write about Northern Ireland and knew my main character would end up in the IRA, I naturally chose to make him a wheelman. The first thing I did was watch what are considered some of the best car chases in cinema — Bullett, The Italian Job, Ronin, and The French Connection. Then I followed them up with Gone in Sixty Seconds, The Fast and the Furious, and The Transporter. Once I had a good idea of what I needed to do, I decided to find novels with car chases in them to see how others had done it… and drew a blank.
I asked friends who are very well read, and the only novel anyone named was The Wheelman by Duane Swierczynski.* (It’s a great novel, by the way.) After that, I decided to talk to friends who were into rally racing because I knew rally racing was the closest I’d ever come to a real car chase. (It’s the closest I ever want to come to one too.)
At that point, I lucked out. My friend Sondra Sondregger not only races, but she runs rally racing events. So, I called her up, and we discussed vehicle requirements and specifications. Then she offered to put me in contact with the owner of a local race track (Harris Hill Raceway.) I owe her a debt. Not only did she set up a meeting with the owner, but she also arranged for him to take me around the track in her boyfriend’s (Jack’s) Porsche. That wasn’t all. After a few laps, Eric pulled over and made me drive.
Seeing how much I enjoyed it, Sondra and Eric made arrangements for me to participate in Sondra’s upcoming racing event. The next thing I knew, I was flying around a racetrack in a Lotus with a driver who could compete with Emma Peel. (The spin-out during the race was the most incredible thing. A red flag went up. The other drivers followed safety procedures and stopped. Meanwhile, my driver had everything perfectly under control. Although I knew better, it was as if he’d done it on purpose.) During the rest of the event, my instructors guided me through races with the other newbs. I returned home with a giant grin and tons of information.
After that, I picked another friend’s brain. Troy Hunt knows quite a bit about vintage cars, and with his help, I decided on a year, make and model for Liam’s favorite ride. The final bit of research was a series of recommended rally racing videos on YouTube. With all of that information packed into my brain, I was finally ready to write a car chase — a bit intimidated, but ready.
Since I didn’t have much to go on, literary precedent-wise, I approached it like I would any other action scene. At their base, car chases are fight scenes. So, I chose to use similar methods — short sentences and punchy verbs. I used all the senses including smell to keep the point of view tight and real. I blocked out the action, using model cars just as I use silly action figures to block out fight scenes. I thought back on how a car feels while I drive — particularly the older, heavier cars. I imagined the weight of the machine around me, and the way the driver can sense the tires on the road as well as the other vehicles. I remembered what it felt like to be in a car wreck, the huge sound of metal crunching into metal, and (just like in fencing or Kung fu) how one doesn’t always know where the blow comes from. The rest was easy.
When the time came to write the second Fey and the Fallen book, I knew I had to fit another car chase in there because I enjoyed writing the first two so much. However, I wanted to do something different, something smarter.
So, for And Blue Skies from Pain, I interviewed a San Antonio police detective. We talked about the things I’d already worked into the first book and the ideas I had for the second. Joe explained how these things wouldn’t work now due to traffic cameras — definitely not something I was worried about — but might work well in 1971-77. He also talked about how a wheelman might think, and some of the biggest mistakes made in films.
All in all, Joe was a tremendous help. However, it’s clear to me that next time I’ll have to interview a cop who has served in Northern Ireland. I’ve a hunch there are big differences in how security was handled there in the ‘70s versus how it was handled in the States.
(* I’m sure there are others somewhere. There have to be.)