The Big Idea: Stina Leicht
Posted on March 22, 2012 Posted by John Scalzi 23 Comments
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.)
And Blue Skies From Pain: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s
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The car scenes in Of Blood and Honey are among the best in the novel. Its easy to see you poured your love of cars into those scenes. (Making Liam a wheelman is now an obvious move on your part)
> I’m sure there are others somewhere. There have to be.
Well, there’s at least one more now…
Might I ask about the title of your novel? It would make sense if the phrase has some significance to the situation in Northern Ireland, but my pop-culture soaked brain only associates it with the Pink Floyd song “Wish You Were Here,” and Google isn’t providing me with better answers. (Although, that particular song was on the radio when I hit a deer with my car a few years back, so I now associate it with screeching tires and sudden bursts of adrenalin, but I don’t think that’s what you meant.)
The only book that I know of with really good car chases in it is Steven L. Thompson’s “Recovery”. It’s been out of print for decades, but half.com is showing a bunch of copies. It’s a Cold War thriller.
is the sequel going to be “… from a cold steel rail”? or Am I just seeing Pink Floyd lyrics where none pursue?
Might I ask about the title of your novel? It would make sense if the phrase has some significance to the situation in Northern Ireland…
The title *does* have an association with the Troubles — at least in my mind. Nonetheless, I chose it because of how it fit with the first title. I wanted the titles in this series to make a poem. ‘Of blood and honey, and blue skies from pain…” works for me. [shrug] The third will fill with the previous two in the same manner, but it definitely won’t be the next verse in that Pink Floyd song. It’ll be something else.
“I wanted the titles in this series to make a poem.” –
That is a great idea. I take it that you haven’t already written the poem in your mind?
I’m thinking that the opening scenes of Snow Crash have to count for something.
I thought “Mortality Bridge” did a pretty good car chase
There’s a really looonnnggg car chase that takes up several tens of pages in Peter F. Hamilton’s The Neutronium Alchemist. That might sound like a lot of the book, but trust me, it’s just a drop in the bucket. It was, however, certainly a detailed chase.
As a gearhead and amateur mechanic, I find myself drawing a blank trying to imagine the mechanics of an actual car chase. It’s one thing to know the engine and another to know how the vehicle will perform. If I were trying to find out, I’d probably talk to folks who had worked as drivers for VIPs, from the US Secret Service and UK Household Cavalry to private security firms and celebrity drivers.
I was particularly interested to hear that you used essentially a cinematographer’s approach in “blocking out” scenes physically with miniatures and figures as part of their conception. That’s an approach I’ve never heard of before in the literary field, although I admit I’m not the least bit knowledgeable about such things (used to be an industrial accountant, probably at the opposite end of the creative spectrum) and it might be relatively common.
There’s generally a car chase or two in most Dirk Pitt (Clive Cussler) books. Usually involving some vintage car that valiantly takes our hero to freedom. Ugh.
Stina- Really looking forward to this. The car chases were my favorite parts of Of Blood and Honey.
Ooh, new books to look for. My to-read stack has been dwindling
Mary Stewart has a great car chase in Madam, Will You Talk?
Ha! Too bad I didn’t have access to so many knowledgeable readers while writing Of Blood and Honey. Again, I *knew* there had to be other novels with car chases in them. (I don’t know why none of us thought of Snow Crash. That’s silly. I adored that book.) Thanks for mentioning the other titles, y’all.
I take it that you haven’t already written the [entire book titles for the series] poem in your mind?
First, I’m what’s called an organic writer. So… ah, no. Like Indiana Jones, I make it up as I go along. ;) Second, the situation for new writers is pretty unstable. I wasn’t sure any publisher was going to be interested in a second book, let alone a third or a fourth. Therefore, you’ve pegged it. I don’t know the next title — not yet. I’m sure it’ll come to me.
I was particularly interested to hear that you used essentially a cinematographer’s approach in “blocking out” scenes physically with miniatures and figures as part of their conception. That’s an approach I’ve never heard of before in the literary field…
I suspect it’s fairly common. Nonetheless, Bruce Sterling taught me to block scenes using toys (in his case, using DnD figures) during a Turkey City Workshop a few years back. I liked it so much that I continue to work that way from time to time.
I love the idea of actually blocking out the scenes! I had never thought of that and yet it makes so much sense. Plus, you get to play with toys. Kind of a win win. I’m really looking forward to this book, the first one was wonderful and it came into my life via the Big Idea. The book even spurred me to do more reading about the Irish War in general, and I love it when that happens.
Oh so excited to know this is out now. I picked up the first book based on your Big Idea post awhile ago. Glad to add this one to my stack of books to read.
I read both books this past weekend. I had purchased the first book after the Big Idea post but didn’t get around to reading it until Saturday. To be honest, I was only moderately interested in it based on the description and the original post, but the book was nothing like I expected. I was sucked into the story and the setting and it didn’t let me go until I finished it. I then had to immediately start (and finish) on the second one.
I highly, highly recommend this series. One of the best reads for me so far this year.
I just finished this book a few weeks ago. I don’t consider myself a big fantasy reader but I LOVED both of these books and you’ve got me looking for other great fantasy I’ve been missing. Thank you for these.
Ha! Definitely an unexpected topic. I like the blocking out of action with cars and action figures — I’ve read many a fight scene where characters have sporadic teleportation powers. Keep up the good work, Stina.
Stina: ex RUC cops. I know a couple, one of them is a gamer and fantasy fan. I could put you in touch,if you think it would be useful. They’re NI based, of course…
Ian, that would be beyond terrific — the moment I’m ready to crank up book 3, of course. Yes. Please. Absolutely! (Note to self: must finish current project asap!)