I’ve seen some of the early reviews of PENANCE. One of the things I look for is what the reviews have in common. If there’s something, good or bad, that’s showing up in most of them, then it’s worth considering.
And one thing that’s popped up a fair amount is Chicago’s key role in the book – that it’s more than just the setting, that it is almost a character. I’m glad to see that. And a little worried.
‘Cause I made some stuff up. And I started with the very first scene.
I was just starting out, and I knew what I wanted. I wanted this old woman being blown away just stepping out of church after going to confession – and being blown away from a long ways off. That was causing problems. Because I didn’t know a specific church where I could set that scene. I knew it had to be a Catholic church. I knew I wanted it on the northwest side of the city. Now, I know the city pretty well, but it’s not like I know every church in town. I mean c’mon, there are 356 parishes in the Chicago archdiocese. So I started Googling, and then Google Earth-ing, trying to find exactly the right one.
I was wasting a lot of time. Then it hit me. Just make one up. It’s not like the Chicago in my book is a carbon copy of the one in real life. I mean yeah, there’s a dynastic Irish family running the mayor’s office and the political machine in my book and there sure was one in real life. But in real life, the succession from one Daley to another was interrupted by three different intervening administrations. Hell, Little Richie even lost the primary his first time out. And neither Daley ever had anyone killed as far as I know. Daley Sr. never had a dead son chopped up with an ax. I was already making stuff up.
So I made up a church. A few of them, actually. Could I have found real ones that suited my needs? I dunno, maybe. But I decided that level of specificity was unnecessary. The primal role that parish plays for many in the city is still there, it’s just in a made up parish dropped into a real city.
It was the idea of the city I had to be true to, not its addresses.
Still, I’m half expecting a one-star Amazon review from an irate Chicagoan who’s pissed that I dropped a fake church into his neighborhood. But if I’d picked a real church, I’d probably have to take some kind of liberties with the setting anyway, just to make the shot I had in mind possible.
What it really comes down to is time and resources. If I were a full-time novelist, maybe I’d grab a map of the city, mark all the churches in a general area and spend a few days driving around, finding exactly what I needed. But I’m not so I didn’t.
So there’s my confession – I got an old lady getting wasted after saying her confession in a church that doesn’t exist except in my imagination.
Setting has to serve the story – so sometimes you have to bend it a little to make it fit.
If you read PENANCE and you know Chicago, I’m thinking you’ll recognize the city, the sense of it. That I got it right in the ways that matter.
Just don’t use it to pick where you’re going to Mass.
Penance is available from Exhibit A (ISBN: 978-1909223134).