When he was 10 years old Amor Towles put a note in a bottle that read something like “if this makes it to China . . . please write back.” He tossed it into the ocean off West Chop, then went on with his last two weeks of summer, enjoying the beaches of West Chop and playing tennis.

When he returned home to Dedham, Mass. there was a stack of mail. Somewhere in the middle of the pile of envelopes there was one addressed to him. The letter began: “I’m afraid your bottle did not make it to China.”

The note was from Harrison Salisbury, the assistant managing editor of the New York Times.

Young Mr. Towles wrote back, and the two continued corresponding for years. When Mr. Towles was 18 he traveled to New York with his high school newspaper team and met Mr. Salisbury. Decades later, while compiling research for his latest book, A Gentleman in Moscow, Harrison Salisbury came up again. Mr. Towles was gathering first hand accounts of the Metropol Hotel, the setting for his second novel. The Metropol was one of the few fine hotels operating during the Soviet era in Russia, and nearly anyone who was anyone stayed at, drank at, or passed through the Metropol.

Mr. Towles writes his first drafts by hand while eating lunch. — Jeanna Shepard

He gathered transcripts from e.e. cummings, John Steinbeck, John Reed, Eugene Lyons along with books like The Children of the Arbat and The Master and Margarita.

“I was suddenly like, oh my God, Salisbury was the Moscow correspondent,” Mr. Towles recalled, sitting on his porch in West Chop on a recent afternoon. So he dug up some books by Mr. Salisbury that he’d been given as a Christmas present back in his teens. Mr. Towles read the first-hand accounts during a week-long stay at the Metropol after finishing his first draft of the novel. Mr. Salisbury’s accounts of the day Stalin died sharpened the scene in the book and Mr. Salisbury himself makes an appearance. In fact, his coat and hat play a key role.

“Salisbury was always photographed in Russia wearing a traditional Russian fur hat, so I don’t think he wore a fedora, but I needed him to wear a fedora that day, so he wore one that day.”

Mr. Towles is adamant that his work is pure fiction, rather than historical fiction. The setting and time period serve as a backdrop to the characters and themes and the writing itself. In that, he is unafraid to invent, just like he invented Mr. Salisbury’s fedora, or the sixth floor attic in the Metropol. In fact, to keep the facts out of the way of the story, Mr. Towles follows a stringent process that begins without research.

“I don’t want a research process to get in the way of the imaginative process,” he said. “A little bit of applied research can spur the imagination, but pretty quickly it can pave over the imagination, so I really try to keep that to the side.”

A Gentleman in Moscow is Mr. Towles second book, following The Rules of Civility. It is the story of a 30-year-old Count who has been sentenced to house arrest in the Metropol for being an unrepentant aristocrat. It follows the Count’s encounters with other hotel guests and staff as his world shrinks to the size of the grand hotel, located near the Kremlin.

The idea for the book came to him while staying in a hotel in Geneva, a place he returned to eight years in a row for his job at an investment firm. Before turning to writing full time, Mr. Towles had a successful 21-year career in finance.

“I recognized some of the people in the lobby from the year before,” he said. “It just maybe made me think about what it would actually be like to live in a hotel.”

The idea struck him in the lobby and as soon as he made it to his room upstairs he began to flesh out the story on the hotel stationery.

“Within minutes, it was set in Russia,” he said. There were a variety of reasons, his love of Russian culture being one, but also the notion of house arrest has existed in Russia for a long time, so an aristocrat being confined to a hotel would be plausible. In the first 15 minutes, he knew it would be set in Russia at the Metropol and involve the Count. The basic outline was built in 72 hours, but it took a year to truly develop it into something of mammoth proportions. Mr. Towles’s outlines can be 50 pages long.

“Every chapter, every event, every character and their background, every setting, all the key events and some of the dialogue, I just keep building it up in greater and greater detail,” he said.

Though A Gentleman in Moscow is only his second novel, Mr. Towles said he has known he was destined to be a writer since the first grade. After a poet had come to visit his class, Mr. Towles remembered going home and trying to copy the poet’s style.

“From that moment forward everything I read, I wrote, and wrote and read and read and wrote,” he said. “Read, write, repeat.”

His first published pieces were writing the West Chop column for the Vineyard Gazette. He was 12 years old when he took on the job as a town columnist. Unbeknownst to his editor, or the greater public, young Mr. Towles began to introduce a fictional character, Edward Dillon, into his column. The summer ended, fictionally, with a big party at Mr. Dillon’s house and included gold doubloons.

Mr. Towles is currently at work on his next novel. His process is to have lunch every day by himself in a restaurant and write by hand as he eats. The next morning, he transcribes it onto the computer, tweaking it as he types. A book usually takes him about four years to finish.

He would not reveal what the next book is about. But one can dream that Edward Dillon and his stash of West Chop doubloons makes an appearance.