How to Make a 17K Ton Creative Problem Disappear--by Reb MacRath
Only two things are certain in life, Ben Franklin said. But to death and taxes, a third can be added for most working novelists: sooner or later they're sure to encounter a heavyweight problem they must beat or abandon a book. And no matter how many lesser ton fights have been won in the past, the heavyweight variety can take the wind out of one's sails. This is a true account of how I succeeded in making 17k tons of metal and glass disappear.
The problem shouldn't have been there at all. My work in progress had a strong outline and was rolling along toward the final section set on board a train speeding through the American Southwest. The desert setting was essential for the type of creepy karma that I had in mind. Though I'd never ridden a train on this route, I had ridden numerous Amtrak trains and felt confident that Amtrak would sponsor a trip in exchange for a travel piece to print in its on-train magazine. Thus I could nail my research for the setting and the unfamiliar train, including its whereabouts throughout the 3-day game I'd planned. Best of all, the end action occurs on three private cars attached to the Amtrak train--and these cars were custom replicas of a long-gone fabled train.
And so I worked worry-free...until I reached the finale. Then pound by pound--and ton by ton--the problems overwhelmed me.
--I needed a dozen strangers to board at Seattle's King Station. But the two southwest trains available depart from LA--a 36-hour trip from Seattle on Amtrak's Coast Starlight with an overnight layover in a hotel. A too serious loss of momentum.
--Each train left LA only 3 days a week--and the trip was two nights long, not the three I needed.
--Amtrak has suspended the publication of its magazine and now has a hyper-active PR department that does wonderful work online. They were unresponsive to my request for sponsorship.
Any one of these was bad enough. But added together, they amounted to an unbearable weight. Plus: how the hell could I transform 3 private railroad cars, within the story's timeline, into simulacra of The Twentieth Century Limited's cars?
Time to quit or find a friend.
Enter the art of illusion.
1) I saw no sense in starting small and so I focused first on the desert route. Amtrak's Sunset Limited or Southwest Chief were clearly out of the question. Too many things I value--economy, grace, and speed--would be lost in the 36-hour trip to LA. On the other hand, the California Zephyr leaves from Emeryville, CA, and passes through desert terrain, as required. My group of 12 could be driven to the station overnight in a limousine bus.
2) In fact, in an artful line or two I could gloss over the journey by bus and show my group emerging from the station to catch their first glimpse of the train.
3) 2-3K more tons could be lost by ignoring the Zephyr portion of the train and focusing on the private cars. My research on The Twentieth Century Limited was strong enough to save my bacon in the faux Century descriptions. After all, 80 years have passed since the great train rode the rails and books on the subject are rare.
4) At least 5K further tons could be made to vanish through selectivity of details--and letting one thing stand for many. I could start with a glimpse from the outside, moving on to show the sleeping car in brief but telling detail. The diner and the lounge, when we reach them, could be lightly dusted with key particulars without any loss of momentum.
5) Detailed schedules for all trains are available online, along with scenic photos.
6) Call this point Carryover Tonnage Loss: through this growing sense of independence, I began to better understand the bond of trust between writers and readers. If I've done my homework and done my job well, I trust my readers to trust me in the narrative choices I make--and to value the illusion I've taken such care to create. It's okay if readers wonder after they've thrilled to the story itself:: Well how did they get the three renovated private cars to the station in Emeryville, CA? And what happened after the train reached its Chicago destination? How did they secure permission to have the cars attached? Etc. But factual errors--such as listing a station as Oakland, not Emeryville--are breaches of trust that can ruin a story for readers.
7) Condensing the game from three nights to two required my putting my foot down: I was the Boss, not the challenge...and I had 'the stuff' to work my magic in two nights.
With these points in mind, I tackled the finale of my fourth Seattle BOP mystery and have just finished the third draft. Though a lot of fine-tuning remains, I don't mind. I'm here to tell you: it feels sweet to be 17k tons lighter.