Monday, January 04, 2010

The hard, cold, gray part of the year

By David Heinzmann

When I was reading the uncorrected proofs of A Word to the Wise last summer, at one point I was hit full in the face by a passage that basically connected all the dots of the plot.

The problem was the scene was only about a third of the way through the book. What was I thinking?

Not that the book is intended to be an elaborately puzzling whodunit. It’s more of a howdunit or whydunit, but what I had thought was foreshadowing in previous drafts now stuck out as giving the story away. I trimmed the passage, nearly a whole page of a scene between my protagonist, Augustine Flood and his journalist friend, before the book went to press.

This blunder, or near blunder, is evidence that plotting is the hardest part for me. I think it’s too easy for me to get lost in the flavor of a stretch of dialog, the setting, or even the action once it starts. But keeping the plot structured, taut and apace, especially when the story starts to take on a life of its own and find new directions, is where the painful work really lies for me.

I’d love to hear other writer’s thoughts on this. What aspects of fiction do you struggle with more, and how do you keep your problems in check while you’re cruising on other fronts?

I’ve thought about this a bit over the last several days as people I know who have read A Word to the Wise since it was published last month have reached out to me about the places and stories they recognize. A lawyer I met when I was a reporter at the Daily Southtown years ago sent me an email noting the harrowing scene in Orland Park. An old friend who knows well the restaurant on which the fictional Napoli Tap was fashioned called me over the weekend. We’ve eaten together at that restaurant countless times over the last fifteen years. A colleague asked whether a murder in the book was inspired by a now-forgotten but once-famous murder in the south suburbs. Sort of.

Anyway, the feedback has put a finer point on what I subconsciously knew I had set out to do in A Word to the Wise. This is Chicago as I have known it. I’ve lived and worked in the city exactly fifteen years. Because it’s been five years since I actually started writing the novel, I’ll say that the book is Chicago as I experienced and observed it in the first decade that I lived here.

My next novel is a very different book, although it is another Augustine Flood story. But I know Chicago in a different way than I did five years ago and the book explores some of that new territory.

A Word to the Wise is set in exactly this time of year, the middle weeks of January during a brutally cold winter, after the holiday machinery is put away and the city hunkers down for the grimmest part of the season. It’s sort of fitting that the book was published just before Christmas, giving me a hectic few weeks of trying to get books into people’s hands before the holidays. And now… January. Months ago when I started to talk to book store owners about setting up events they all said forget January. It’s not worth it in the post-holiday doldrums. So I’ll be laying low for a few weeks. My next event for the book will be a discussion and signing at Centuries and Sleuths in Forest Park on January 24.

And a couple words of thanks.

When I joined the Outfit last summer I was extremely proud to have my name affixed to a list of writers that included Sara Paretsky. It has been an extraordinary privilege. But beyond that, Sara has gone out of her way to be welcoming and generous. Her feedback on my blog posts about crime in Chicago—especially her concern for the welfare of serious journalism—have given me great encouragement. Many thanks, Sara.

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