I’ve got a confession to make… by Dan O’Shea

Though he’s been known in crime fiction circles for quite some time, both for his own short story work (see, Old School) as well as his amazing readings of other people’s work (most notably, Steve Weddle‘s Oscar Martello stories), Dan O’Shea hit a milestone this week when his first full-length novel, Penance, was released by Exhibit A. Dan is truly one of the good guys, and it’s my extreme pleasure to welcome him for a guest post to celebrate the occasion of Penance’s release.

Some Ruminations on Short Fiction by Dan O'SheaI’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.

Penance by Dan O'SheaIt 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).

Dan O’Shea is a Chicago-area crime writer represented by Stacia Decker at the Donald Maass Literary Agency. His novel Unto Caesar is currently being circulated to all the usual suspects. His short fiction has appeared in Crimefactory, the Discount Noir anthology, and in an upcoming issue of Needle. His collection of short stories, Old School, is available from Snubnose Press. You can find out more about Dan at his blog, Going Ballistic.


  • Jim WIlsky

    May 3, 2013 - 2:41 PM


    Being an Illinois boy myself, although born a downstate hick, I have literally spent decades in and around the city. Worked there and lived there. Ate and drank at about a ten thousand great restaurants both dives to dining , and stumbled out of taverns and bars. About half way through Penance and it’s just terrific. Like Kent said, you know the city and you got the city. Got it right. It just has a couple new churches. Back in the late 80’s I was looking for a bar close to Navy Pier and asked somebody on the street. The guy says, “Yeah, yeah, it’s over by dare.” And he pointed. So hey, you’re good.

  • Dan O'Shea

    May 3, 2013 - 2:34 PM

    Kent –

    Oh, Fred Hampton was murdered clear enough, and that actually plays a role in my book.


  • sabrina ogden

    May 3, 2013 - 2:07 PM

    Great interview, my friend. And I love this photo!

  • Morgan

    May 3, 2013 - 2:00 PM

    Great interview. Great picture too!

  • Kent Gowran

    May 3, 2013 - 1:25 PM

    I’d say you got the feel of the city down cold, Dan. I may not be a native, but I’ve been here 23 years now, which is more than half my life at this point, so I think I can go ahead and say that.

    There were always rumors about the elder Daley having a certain radical leader murdered, but never any concrete evidence (so far as I know). Which is the magic of the Daley bunch, I suppose.

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