Sunday, July 30, 2006

Touring Chicago, Revisiting The Jungle

Touring Chicago, revisiting The Jungle
Sara Paretsky

2006 marks the centennial of the publication of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. Set in the meatpacking yards of Chicago, the novel described in unbearable detail the slaughter of livestock—13 million a year at the height of the yards’ activity—and the exhausting, debilitating work performed there by men and women and children trying to piece together enough money to live on.
Because of the centennial, Mayor Daley has proclaimed The Jungle the current “one city, one book” novel for Chicago. The book is filled with so much pain I found it hard to make it through certain sections of it. On the other hand, its publication stirred a national debate on working conditions and sanitation that ended up making major changes in some aspects of urban life. Chicago became the first city in America to provide clean drinking water to its residents, and The Jungle gave a big push to the unions trying to organize the people working there.
I recently had the chance to explore the Back of the Yards, or Packingtown, with Dominic Pacyga. Prof. Pacyga grew up there; he worked in the yards in their twilight years, and now he teaches urban and immigrant history at Columbia College in Chicago.
I’ve lived in Chicago for forty years, but I never had been in the Back of the Yards before. At the height of the Yards activity, the meatpacking plants were popular tourist attractions: as many tourists visited the stockyards as did the 1893 Worlds Fair. Americans couldn’t get enough of the majesty of their industrial machine; seeing 35000 animals killed in a day was proof of the power of the Industrial Age.
The houses in Packingtown today are the same ones Sinclair describes in the Jungle. Some time in the thirties or forties, new siding was slapped on and indoor plumbing built into the kitchens, with tiny bathrooms off to one side, to save the expense of running pipes throughout the buildings. Waves of immigrants have lived in these houses. Today’s population is mostly Mexican, but they’ve followed Czechs, Poles, Lithuanians, Germans, Irish. Only a few of the thirteen original Catholic churches remain. Built by eastern Europeans, they show Jesus sitting despondent with his head in his hands, weeping for humanity.
Most of the bars of the old Whiskey Row are gone, too—including the Lone Star, whose owner, Mickey Finn, invented the original Mickey Finn, the powder his bar girls put in drinks to knock out customers; they’d strip their patrons, then roll their unconscious bodies out into the alleys.
In the thirties, the smoke from the yards was so thick it could cloud the field at Comiskey Park a mile or so away. Mr. Pacyga says it’s an urban myth that games were cancelled because players couldn’t see the field—but the Sox choked on more than their bats back then.
The last of the stockyards in Chicago closed around 1970. They’d become obsolete in the age of refrigerated trucks and air cargo planes. Meatpackers now operate in anti-union states like North Carolina and Nebraska. Reading accounts of the speed at which people have to slaughter hogs in the Smithfield plant ( ) in North Carolina is like being right back in the Jungle.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

the godmother is crabby

You thought the godfather was peevish. Now comes the godmother with a set of grammatical pet peeves.

I’m not talking about grammar in writing dialogue. Dialogue needs all the idioms, grammatical mistakes, and idiosyncrasies that the human tongue is heir to. But there are errors that writers make in narration and in the person of the omniscient narrator that can take me out of the story when I run into them. Instead of seeing through the words to the action, which I love, the mistake leaps out and shouts ‘Ooops.”

My personal list:

Imply and infer. If I say, “John is honest, um, a lot of the time,” I am implying John is quite dishonest. You are entitled to infer that I think that. A synonym for imply is suggest.

“Chaise lounge.” It’s chaise longue, meaning long chair in French. Yes, “longue” and “lounge” are anagrams. Therein lies the subtle, seductive, plausibility of “chaise lounge.” Eventually chaise longue may go the way of the snail darter, but why not be correct in the present day?

Lie and lay. I lie down on my chaise longue. I don’t lay down. I may lay my snail darter down on the chaise longue if I don’t mind being cruel to fish. Lie is intransitive; lay is transitive. To make matters more complicated, lay is the past tense of lie. Yesterday, I lay down on my chaise longue. Or would have, if I had one.

Riffle and rifle. I go to my file cabinet. If I let my fingers do the walking, I riffle through the papers there. When I stick paper in my print tray, I riffle through it first, hoping that will make double-paging and paper jams less likely. If a burglar comes in and steals the files from my file cabinet, he has rifled it. How won’t get anything valuable, but that’s his problem. A synonym for rifle is ransack.

And by the way, Sally doesn’t “go to the market with John and I.” Sally wouldn’t go to the market with I, would she? Worse is “Sally went to the market with he and I.”

Sorry to be crabby.


Barbara D’Amato

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Strangers In My Head

So I had this whole other post in mind.

I was going to share some of my research into Chicago gangs, fascinating stuff that’s been a big part of my work-in-progress. Had the entry written and everything. And then something unexpected happened: I finished my new novel.

Okay, unexpected is an odd word choice. When I laid that on my wife, she doubled over. When she could breath again, she pointed out that the ending had snuck up on me stealthy as an elephant—that I had in fact spent the last three months saying things like, “I’m so goddamn close I may as well start vacation now,” and "the end is nigh!"

Which I suppose is true, if you want to get all technical.

Still, even though I could feel the end approaching, and even though I work from a synopsis and thus knew approximately what was going to happen, the ending still snuck up on me. I finished on Friday about 5:00, and if any of you heard a strange whoop rising from the Midwest, the kind of noise that frightens newborns and sets dogs to howling, well, that was me, and I apologize.

Anyway, finishing the book got me thinking about endings. About what it means to finish something, especially something so personal and deliberate as a novel.

A book takes about a year to write. Give or take, of course: if you’re Joe Konrath, you can turn out a book in the time it takes to read this column; if you’re Thomas Harris, you finish a book whenever you goddamn well feel like it. But for most of us, a year is both the expectation and a pretty good measure of the time required.

Of course, it doesn’t take a year to write. For me, at least, the actual writing is a smallish percentage of my day. The bulk of the time is spent pacing in small circles, banging head-shaped holes in the drywall, and resigning myself to my utter lack of talent. Somewhere along the line, usually about the time my forehead hits a wall stud, something clicks. My subconscious has gotten off its tookus and delivered up the goods, and I scramble to my keyboard and jam for an hour or three.

But even this is a simplification. Because the truth is that we’re always writing. That’s part of what’s both magical and scary about starting a new project—it’s like welcoming houseguests that won’t move out for a year. The first weeks are delightful, spent getting to know them, listening to them assure you this will be easy, watching them flex their muscles. But as the year goes on, their novelty wears off. They become part of you, and everything you see and do is filtered through their eyes. Sometimes they’re wonderful friends, and sometimes you want to slap the shit out of them.

But either way, so long as you are diligently putting in your time, every day you creep a little closer towards the two sweetest words in the English language: THE END.

One day you realize that goal is in sight. You’re on the down-rushing slope of all your character arcs. Instead of introducing complications, you’re resolving them. The dominoes have been set up and nudged, and now your goal is simply to find the most elegant way to describe their fall. And what’s interesting to me is that the closer I get to the end, the less I’m planning what will happen, and the more I’m seeing it.

Which is what I mean when I say it snuck up on me. I knew what had to happen. As in any good story, the conclusion was inevitable. But the specifics, the details, they worked themselves out. Twists cropped up that I hadn’t anticipated. Characters made plays that took me by surprise. Emotional and thematic ties plaited themselves neatly into gun-battle action. I don’t want to suggest I just leaned back and typed, gasping in astonishment. But there was a momentum powered by a year of steady forward motion, and it smashed through a lot of obstacles.

Norman Mailer has a book on writing called The Spooky Art, and I've always dug on the title. There is something spooky to writing. And part of it is that after a year of thought and planning and obsession, the ending of my own book took me by surprise.

What about you? Do you know what I’m talking about? Do you ever feel that momentum?

Does it feel spooky?

Sunday, July 23, 2006

History. Our Stories.

History is simply what is recollected by the victors and survivors, or reconstructed from remains. At best it's an approximation, at worst (sometimes mercifully) a fabrication. A story. Fiction. Most people don’t see it that way, but ask a Native American what he thinks of Custer. Or Kit Carson. Or Andrew Jackson.

What most people think of as fiction may be made up, but good fiction is truth. Not the literal fact of scientific discovery, or the congruence between reported events and facts placed in evidence, but alethea, from the Greek an-not and lethe-forgetfulness. The truth of fiction is the same truth found in the teachings of the all world's great religions, in the metaphors of Freud, the plays of Shakespeare, Aesop's fables, and myths worldwide and throughout human existence.

Lethe also means oblivion, and a-lethea in fiction is a kind of immortality for its author. One of the reasons writers write is fear that there's no hererafter. Our work insures our continuance—if only in the Library of Congress, and on the shelves of public libraries and private book collectors. We put our little pleas to be discovered and remembered in paper bottles that we launch in the vast oceans of Amazon, Borders, and Barnes and Noble.

We write to share the stories that obsess us. And to give substance to the voices in our heads—if others can hear them, we are not crazy but creative. We write to amuse ourselves, and to entertain or persuade others. We write to share, to clarify, sometimes to conceal. We write to stave off boredom or loneliness. Often we write to avoid dealing directly with what we perceive our lives to be. Or not to be.

We write to experience vicariously what we cannot otherwise achieve—another sex, or race or talent, a distant time or place. And writers are encouraged to do things non-writers would be arrested for—eavesdropping, impersonating cops, committing murder. Lying to the FBI.

We write to learn, because our brains are hard-wired to receive and store information in story form. We write to teach.

We write for the same reason Adam ate the apple—we cannot resist the temptation to become like God. And writers are like gods—just, loving, or capricious.

We write because we love words. And the power that skill with words gives us.

We write because we must.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Who Will Wear The Jacket?

Libby’s post raises a question that Chicagoans have struggled with for a long while: How much corruption should we accept, in exchange for a well-run city?

In the case of the recent Sorich trial, it started like this: Sun-Times columnist Carol Marin broke the story of the hiring of building inspector John Ryan. Ryan is the son of a big shot in the Carpenters Union. Nothing new there. Ryan was also thoroughly unqualified to be a building inspector. In fact, Ryan was a 19-year-old kid. The resume he’d submitted to get the job was, well, fiction…and the hiring process was rigged.

This might be a funny story, if not for the fact that people had died in several incidents over the previous year that involved collapsing balconies and building code violations and so-forth. And Ryan was not the only thoroughly unqualified but politically connected building inspector on the city payroll.

When the story broke, it was clear that heads would have to roll. In the parlance of Chicago Machine Politics, someone would have to wear the jacket for this. Mayor Daley called a press conference, at which he nominated Buildings Commissioner Stan Kaderbek to wear the jacket. The jacket was a perfect fit, and Kaderbek took the fall and lost his job, even though he didn’t like it much.

And in the good old days, that would’ve been the end of it.

But not now. See, now we’ve got these pesky federal prosecutors that Libby was talking about. Guys like US Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald (yes, that Patrick Fitzgerald) and Assistant US Attorney Patrick Collins, who’ve decided to make a real effort to confront the Chicago Machine.

Their investigation yielded indictments – and eventually convictions – against Robert Sorich (Mayor Daley’s patronage chief), Tim McCarthy (Sorich’s assistant in the Mayor’s Office of Intergovernmental Affairs – the department that doles out the plum jobs for City Hall), along with two guys from Streets & San – Patrick Slattery and John Sullivan. Two guys who, the jury agreed, had a hand in rigging the hiring process to screen candidates based on political connections, rather than professional qualifications.

So in the end, Sorich And The Three Bears ended up wearing the jacket. They allowed their lawyers to put up a defense, of sorts, but not to call any witnesses or advance any theories that would suggest they were taking orders from anyone higher on the Machine totem pole.

These guys dreamed up this scheme on their own. Yup. That’s a good one.

In her recent columns, Carol Marin has questioned the federal prosecutor’s aim, and his tactics. Prosecution witnesses were allowed to claim an unbelievable level of ignorance, rather than taking their share of blame. While distasteful, this sort of dealing is nothing new. And the feds didn’t aim high enough, Marin says. Which is true, if in fact, the feds are finished with this business.

But I suspect that we have not seen all of Fitzgerald’s cards. Not by a long shot.

Returning to the question – How much corruption should we accept, in exchange for a well-run city? – I guess it depends on your perspective. I agree with Libby – Chicago is prettier, safer and more accessible then it was during previous administrations. We’re all pleased with Chicago’s recent economic development. Then again, most of us aren’t related to someone who died when a balcony collapsed in a city that hires thoroughly unqualified but politically connected building inspectors.

Politically, Chicago is “The City That Works”…as long as you don’t look too closely at how it works. In this town, we’re not talking about “a little bit” of political corruption. Remember the Minority Hiring Scandal with its over $100-million price tag? Or how about the infamous Hired Trucks Program, which which has yielded federal charges against 44 people, and counting?

There are plenty more jackets available, and Fitzgerald is a tenacious prosecutor.

Stay tuned…

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Mayor Daley as Willie Stark?

“We don’t want nobody nobody sent.”

For those of you who don’t live in Chicago, that’s the take-away sound bite from the recent trial of Mayor Daley’s patronage chief. Among other things, Robert Sorich and three of his associates were found guilty of rigging tests and staging interviews so that city jobs went to political workers loyal to Daley…aka “the guys somebody sent.”

Hi. Libby here, and I am shocked, shocked to find this kind of thing going on in Chicago. Except this time, it doesn’t feel just like business as usual. This time, I sense a darker undercurrent to the story.

For one thing, the usually tight-lipped Feds have made it clear they’re not finished. They’ve said that they intend to pursue higher-ups in the Daley camp. Maybe their public resolve comes from the recent rash of guilty verdicts against white collar VIPS, including former Illinois governor George Ryan. Or maybe it’s because the crimes were such a brazen attempt to scuttle the Shackman decree, passed in 1983 specifically to ban patronage hiring. Or maybe it’s because the mayor keeps insisting there is no “machine” in Chicago.

Or maybe… just maybe… what they’re going after is the systemic corruption that seems to seep into so many governments over time.... the kind of corruption that makes officials think they’re above the law... that leads them to perpetuate their own power instead of serving the people.

All of which reminds me of one of my favorite characters from one of my favorite novels -- Willie Stark from All the King’s Men. A thinly disguised portrayal of Louisiana’s governor Huey Long, the novel follows Willie as an earnest, populist candidate when he first seeks office, full of ideals and ambitious plans for his constituents. After he is elected and gains power, though, he makes back-room deals, betrays his friends, creates enemies, and ends up a powerful but thoroughly corrupt demagogue.

Okay, I admit, a comparison of Daley to Willie Stark is, by no means, perfect. For one thing, Richard Daley doesn’t have the Machievellian personality that Willie Stark had, and I do believe Daley wants to do what’s best for the city. For another, Willie Stark came to a violent end, something I hope never happens to the Mayor. Willie Stark served a largely rural, dirt-poor Southern constituency, while Chicago is uber-urban with a relatively prosperous economy. And Willie Stark was a charismatic silver tongued orator, while the mayor – well...

At the same time, there are similarities. Both men lost an election before they won. Both ran as a “man of the people.” After winning, both men consolidated their power base into an organization that brooks little opposition. But the biggest overlap between them emerges from a theme that’s threaded through All the King’s Men. We’re asked whether Willie’s corruption can be mitigated – at least in part -- because of the good he’s done. Can good come from evil, or perhaps more accurately, can it co-exist with corruption?

If the answer is yes, then we should we give the Daley administration a pass. The Tribune touts his beautification projects, his school reforms, dismantling the CHA high rises, reducing the homicide rate, and improving Chicago’s infrastructure. These are all good things. To that list I’d add Millennium Park, plus his plans for the lakefront. Clearly, Chicago is prettier, safer, and more accessible than it was before he took office.

But if the answer is no, then perhaps the Feds have the right idea. Even though the crimes were committed by men who worked for Daley, not the mayor himself, the way those officials – methodically and cynically -- circumvented the law is troubling. It isn’t the attitude I want in my public officials. I’d tolerate a slightly “messier” city if I thought that jobs (and contracts, although that’s a different story) were being filled fairly, and that every point of view, including the opposition, was heard.

Is corruption inevitable in every power structure over time? I don’t know. But maybe the Daley administration should reread All the King’s Men. Hell, maybe we all should. (And then see the new film in the fall). We could learn a lot about politics, governing, and the public trust. After all, isn’t it up to us to ask “What good? For how many? At what cost?”

What do you think?

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Waitin' For My Odometer to Roll Straight Sevens

One of Sancho Panza's beloved aphorisms went something like, "The man whom God helps does better than the man who gets up early," and one thing that strikes you as you watch your novel take the frequently quixotic journey from your imagination through a publisher and into bookstores is how much luck plays a role in your success or lack of it. This is probably true no matter what your business is, but it seems especially acute after you've spent perhaps two years writing a novel, another year shopping it, and a year and a half waiting for it to be published only to watch its fate hinge on a long list of unknowns and variables. You might work extremely hard as a writer, but everyone can use a little mysterious help.

I did a panel with Audrey Niffenegger last year and she was telling the story of how The Time Traveler's Wife became a bestseller. The short version is that Scott Turow's wife was taking Audrey's bookbinding class at Columbia College. Mrs. Turow brought The Time Traveler's Wife home and convinced her husband to read it. A few weeks later the Today Show asked Turow to recommend a novel for its book club.

That's some good luck.

Of course, you need to have an engaging novel that's compellingly written, which Audrey certainly did. But the point is that in order to sell that many books you need to have an engaging novel that's compellingly written AND ALSO have Scott Turow's wife in your bookbinding class. Or the karmic equivalent.

A few months before Cast of Shadows was published I got a call at home from Rick Kogan. I had never met Rick before, but anyone who's remotely media savvy in Chicago knows who he is. He's been a newspaperman and columnist in this city since he was 16 years old. He's written or edited for practically every department of both big papers in town. He's host of a Sunday morning radio show on WGN which, besides baseball, is about the only thing that gets me to turn the channel from NPR. He's authored books on everything from Ann Landers (whom he edited for five years) to the Billy Goat Tavern (an infamous newspaper bar with historical ties to both the Cubs curse and John Belushi). Actually those are just his last two.

So the way Rick tells it is he was sitting around the Trib offices and came across a pile of Advance Reader Editions, which had been sent by various publishers to the Books editor, and he idly picked Cast of Shadows out of the stack. When he turned it over and saw that I was from Chicago he decided to take the book home and read it. The next morning he gives me a call, says many generous things about the book and then tells me he wants to write a feature about it for the Tribune Sunday Magazine. With an excerpt.

Um, wow. Sure.

It's the kind of prominent, outside-the-book-section coverage you kill for, especially as a first-time novelist. And like every nervous author I immediately wanted to know how it might be replicated. Every time Rick and I would meet for an interview I'd ask him exactly what it was that made him pick up my book in the first place. And every time he'd say he wasn't sure. He didn't know. He couldn't remember.

One day we were at Tribune Tower and Rick said he wanted to give me a copy of a book he had co-written with his colleague Maurice Possley, a true crime classic that came out a few years back called Everybody Pays. He dug through some piles on his desk, pulled out a paperback and handed it to me. Right away I had my answer.

The image on the cover was practically identical to the image on the advance copy of Cast of Shadows.

Those many weeks ago, sifting through the pile, Rick had recognized the cover of my book the way a tigress recognizes her cub.

I couldn't guess how many copies of Cast of Shadows were sold by that article. Area bookstores featured the book more prominently. Many ordered extra copies in advance. It also led to speaking engagements and untold book club selections (I know I've personally appeared at more than 40 reading groups) and who knows how much word-of-mouth. I like to think Cast of Shadows is an engaging novel that's compellingly written but I can't deny the other half of it.

Blind, stinking luck.

Now, I tell that story for the purpose of full disclosure because when Libby first approached me about a blog that would discuss good writing, Chicago, and crime stories, Everybody Pays was the first thing that popped into my head. It's the true tale of a twenty-something west side auto mechanic who, in 1972, witnessed a murder by one of the most prolific and notorious hit men ever employed by the Chicago mob (known locally as The Outfit, of course). What happened to that mechanic over the next twenty years makes one of the most riveting and shocking true crime stories I've ever read. If you're familiar with the authors then I don't need to tell you that Everybody Pays is well-written and meticulously reported. And it's heartbreaking, too. Plus if you're a mystery novelist there's loads of good cribbing material about both the Chicago courts and witness protection.

I'm not just saying this because I owe Rick Kogan. In fact, I think Everybody Pays might be out of print, an injustice that means you'll probably have to go online and find a used copy somewhere. If you do it will be well worth the effort. It's an absolute true crime must read and an important piece of Chicago lore.

I do owe Rick Kogan, of course, but let karma know that I'm paying him back in installments of Scotch.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Drink and the Noir Detective

Early in V I Warshawski’s career, a lot of people objected, loudly, to her drinking. One reader said when she came to a passage where V I got home from a hard day’s detecting and poured herself a whisky, she threw the book across the room hard enough to break its spine. Others weren't quite as violent, but they certainly didn’t think a woman should drink hard liquor. The occasional sip of chardonnay was okay, but not whisky—that’s a man’s drink.
Indeed, the great Fathers of the American hardboiled novel, Chandler and Hammett, were great drinkers, both on and off the page. Marlowe, in fact, kept a bottle of rye in his glove compartment for just those moments when he’d been knocked cold and needed a revivifying drink on gaining consciousness. He and his creator drank often, but Marlowe, at least, never actually got drunk. Chandler, unfortunately, had increasing problems staying sober enough to write at the end of his life.
Hammett, similarly, was a great drinker. Nick and Nora Charles, in The Thin Man, have a little drop of something to start the day, and, in the movie version, gulp down six martinis without flinching—Myrna Loy has five at the same time to catch up with William Powell, all without wrinkling her exquisite costume.
One weekend, when Hammett was drinking with William Faulkner. Faulkner’s editor, Bennet Cerf, stopped by to check on him and mentioned that he was dining that night at the Knopfs, along with Willa Cather. Miffed that they hadn’t been included—Blanche Knopf was Hammett’s editor—the two bullied Cerf into getting them an invitation. When they arrived that night at the mansion, Hammett and Faulkner promptly passed out. The staff were able to revive Faulkner and prop him up at the table, but Hammett they had to carry out to a taxi to take him back to his apartment.
Nowadays, when writers get together, they sip chardonnay. At a recent crime writers dinner, we all boldly ordered martinis—and then most of us, men included, took a sip and retreated to wine or even water.
When I first created V I, I gave her my own Scotch, Johnny Walker Black. As the years have gone by, I find myself able to drink less and less—a glass of wine with dinner is my sorry limit. Without realizing it, I’ve cut back V I’s rations as well. A reader recently wrote to complain that V I Warshawski—wasn’t drinking enough. I’m going to up the girl detective’s intake—she works hard, she’s fitter than I am, tougher in every way—I’m going to give her back her whisky bottle. But she will remain, as she always has been, a careful drinker: she doesn’t drink and drive, and when she’s hit on the head, she always has a hot sweet drink, sans booze. I worry that while this makes her more credible as a person, though, it sadly diminishes her noir credentials.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Losing Your Character

Hi, I’m Barbara D’Amato. Thank you for visiting The Outfit Collective.

I read when I should be writing, when I should be cleaning out a closet or flushing the septic tank or mincing leeks. Probably I read one crime novel every two days or so— a long one takes maybe three days. Lately, I’ve read a few books where one or more characters are not adequately introduced.

See, I’m reading along happily, a hundred pages or so in, and some guy named Bill pops up. Who is Bill? Is he the best friend, the old enemy, the family lawyer, the drug pusher? These are not all the same people, mind you. I start paging back through the book, looking for the first appearance of Bill. Talk about taking the reader out of the story!

Aha. Maybe he’s this William guy, sometimes called Will. Or Wm. Replevin, Esq., the lawyer. Aha. Yes. Now where was I--?

Putting the reader through this confusion is not necessary. The author may be trying for naturalism or faster pace. Or maybe the author is fearful that saying something clear, like “Bill the lawyer” too often would be tedious for the reader. But the reader’s eye passes right over that extra, helpful information, just taking in the fact of who the character actually is. This is good.

Refer to each character the same way each time. At least until you are sure the reader knows the character, call him by the same name.

There are several other ways, too, of introducing characters and keeping them straight for the reader.

Don’t be afraid to mention the character’s relationship or profession.

Give the character characteristic speech and keep it consistent.

Yes, this can be overdone. Remember the anglo-Indian colonel? Never used pronouns. “Mmmmf, mmmf. Must trek to town. Been a fortnight. Out of Pimm’s cup, what? What-what?” But everybody has some idiosyncrasies in phrasing or accent.

Have other characters react to this character in characteristic ways.

Or: Have the other characters react to this character in the way you want the reader to react. This is one of the least obtrusive techniques for defining a character, and since other characters in the story are having their say as they react, it helps define them, too. “Bill, you talk too much. You never let me get a word in.” The speaker clearly wants some attention, plus we know that Bill is a chatterer.

If other characters in a book like good old Bill, so will the reader. Which is also a neat trick if Bill is the killer.

Connect an event, a point of view, an argument, or even an object to the character. Remember Long John Silver? He had a parrot on his shoulder and a wooden leg. Too much? Sure, but the man who keeps fiddling with his pipe is given memorability and character, especially if he uses the pipe as a cover for not wanting to answer a question, or a barrier between himself and other people. Or maybe he’s just clumsy—spills tobacco, drops his pipe, drops glassware and falls over his feet.

Then there’s the guy who can’t stop grumbling over the lack of parking spaces in Chicago – no, no wait. That’s all of us. Doesn’t distinguish him at all.

One of the books I read in the last week revealed the killer by name on the second-to-last page. On the basis of the name, I could not remember which person he was, although I figured it out from a couple of final details. This really detracted from the surprise the author was trying to produce. [Three of the main characters, by the way, had names beginning with Mi-.]

Don’t do this to your readers.

Friday, July 07, 2006

The Birth of a Blog

So here’s a hell of a thing.

Imagine you’re just getting started as a professional novelist, with your debut six months away. People seem excited about the book, and there’s been a little bit of attention paid, but seriously—you’re just getting started. Barely a blip on the crime fiction radar.

And then imagine you’re invited to join a group blog featuring some of the most admired authors in the genre.

We’re talking winners of the most prestigious honors: Diamond and Silver Daggers, Anthony’s, Agatha’s, Reader’s Choice Awards. Writers whose books the Chicago Tribune has named among the best of the year. New York Times bestselling authors.

And they’ve not only invited you to join, but you get to write the first entry.

If you’re gulping, you know how I feel.

My name is Marcus Sakey, and it is my privilege to introduce The Outfit:

  • Sean Chercover, author of BIG CITY, BAD BLOOD (January 2007)
  • Barbara D’Amato, author of DEATH OF A THOUSAND CUTS
  • Michael Allen Dymmoch, author of WHITE TIGER
  • Kevin Guilfoile, author of CAST OF SHADOWS
  • Libby Fischer Hellman, author of A SHOT TO DIE FOR
  • Sara Paretsky, author of FIRE SALE
  • Marcus Sakey, author of THE BLADE ITSELF (January 2007)

What you’ll find here is a little different. We’re not here to share publishing tips or debate industry news. We’re not going to delve into marketing or the ins and outs of author appearances. Other people are doing those things, and doing them well. So instead, we’re going to focus on what we love most.

Telling stories.

Stories about crime and justice and revenge. About the highs and lows of writing for a living. About Chicago, glorious and soiled city of bright marquees and dark divisions.

True stories and imaginary ones.

Barb D’Amato kicks it off this Wednesday. It’s going to be a fun ride, and we hope you’ll join us for it.

After all, what’s a story without an audience?