Listening to Jennifer Egan talk about writing fiction brings to mind the famous quote from E.L. Doctorow: “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

Egan rarely starts with a plot or characters, she says. In fact, she deliberately writes what she doesn’t know. “For me the inspiration and motivation for writing fiction really is escape. I can’t find that escape if my flights of fancy are taking me back into my own world. In the beginning, I just have atmosphere and wait to see what comes out of that,” she says.

This time her search led Egan to the Brooklyn Navy Yard during the Depression and WWII. In her first historical novel, Manhattan Beach (Scribner, Oct.), she tackles organized crime, the Merchant Marine, women’s roles during the war, and class conflict. It’s about as far away from the punk rock scene of her Pulitzer Prize–winning novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad, as a plot can get.

“I was inspired by old photos of New York and the paramount importance of the waterfront in those pictures,” Egan says. “I knew it theoretically, but seeing that the whole center of gravity of the city was at its edges was revelatory.”

While doing research at the Brooklyn Historical Society, Egan found a cache of letters between Alfred Kolkin and his wife, Lucy Kolkin. They met working at the Navy Yard. When he joined the Navy, she continued working at the Yard. Her letters reveal many nuggets about the physical work, the racism, and the unions. “She was really the one who brought the war years to life for me in terms of a woman working there. As I was doing this research, it felt like she was becoming my friend,” Egan says.

At one point, Lucy fantasized about the war ending and where their lives would take them. Egan felt she had to know what happened to her “friend.” Egan typed her name into a computer and was immediately taken to her 1997 obituary. She leapt from reading about this excited woman, imagining her future life, to reading her endnote. Egan ended up writing “Reading Lucy,” about the experience, which was published in an essay collection, Brooklyn Was Mine (2008). After that book came out, Lucy’s daughter tracked down Egan, and they toured the Navy Yard with Alfred, then in his 90s.

Egan began writing Manhattan Beach—as she does all her novels—without an outline, plot, or characters. “I write my first draft by hand, because it helps me to get outside of myself. It ends up a terrible mess, but generally there is a glimmer of what this thing could be. Then I make a map, trying to make something rational and doable out of a big messy outpouring of mostly instinctive material. I definitely need the rational side. I just can’t lead with it,” she says.

With that glimmer as her headlights, Egan makes the whole trip that way.

Today, noon–12:45 p.m. Jennifer Egan signs at the Simon & Schuster booth (2620, 2621).