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. 


Griselda Heppel said…
Not being in the least familiar with the US railway system your post had me completely baffled - while also reminding me of a delightful UK radio programme broadcast a few years ago, in which the presenter tried, by consulting Great Western Railway summer 1914 timetables and interviewing various experts, to ascertain which train Edward Thomas took when he wrote his lovely poem, Adlestrop. I think the upshot was there was some discrepancy, as afternoon trains at that time didn't stop in Adlestrop... or something like that! Which all goes to show you're right in what really matters, that is the crucial bond of trust between reader and writer. If you build the world convincingly enough with careful research, readers will easily forgive - if they can even spot! - the odd glossed over detail. You'd certainly be in completely safe hands with any non-American readers.

Mind you, readers can be very picky, so I understand your concern. I once attended a lecture by the great crime novelist P D James, in which she gave an example of a reader writing to her to point out she'd made an error in having a character listen to BBC Radio 4 Woman's Hour at 2 pm, when everyone knows it's on at 10 am. 'Ah,' says P D James, 'when I wrote that particular book, the programme WAS at 10 am.'

I know. I should get out more. If ONLY.
Jan Needle said…
Transportation problems can be very hard. In my series of novellas Shakespeare of the Globe, about the Bard's early life as a reporter in Flete Strete, I allowed him a 650cc Norton to ride. I mean, how else would he have got about between, say, Macbeth's castle and King Lear's various pads before British Rail (or even local buses)? Verily a no-brainer. Go for it, Reb!
Bill Kirton said…
Fascinating, Reb, especially, as Griselda says, for the UK reader (and this one in particular). The vast lands across which those iron beasts go, the interminable journeys - and yet the Romanticism of it all, the names of the places and machines; the ingredients for what sounds a winner.
And then, on top of all that, your meticulous research and preparation. I hope you're managing to get a lot of pleasure (in retrospect, maybe) in the creation of it all. Good luck with the book.
Ruth Leigh said…
I don't know much about Amtrak either, but I loved this blog. It reminded me of an episode of Modern Family where Cam and Phil encounter their favourite novelist on a train, read his draft, show him that it can't be done, then help him to rewrite it so that it can be. As readers, we enter into a willing suspension of belief - so even if things don't quite add up on your train journey, your fans won't mind.
Reb MacRath said…
Thanks, all, for your comments. Since writing the blog, I've stumbled onto a real godsend online: an expert train traveler has covered all aspects of Amtrak journeys, including sections for individual trains--complete with photos of the scenery on the way. This should answer most of my questions. For any still remaining, I'll try to contact the author, offering a book credit for his assistance.
Eden Baylee said…
HI Reb, sorry to be late!

I'm glad to hear you've found a good resource for resolving the train schedules!

Reb MacRath said…
Thanks for visiting, Eden. It's really amazing, isn't it, the things that we can find online?
I'm sorry to be so late commenting, particularly as I love trains and have even sampled some of the Amtrak routes (I don't think your problem would have loomed so large on our UK trains where there are usually lots of timetable options!). My favourite trip was from Chicago to Denver - I can't remember whether that's the California Zephyr or not. I love the route names.

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