Friday, June 8, 2007

How a Writer Develops an Idea from Plot to Print? Via the Fully Realized Character - By Robert W. Walker

When I set out to write City for Ransom, I knew it would be too large a canvass for a single book, that it was a series from the outset. How did I know this? 1) the number of books handed to me by a Chicago historian and bookstore owner, Kenan Heise--as the stack was almost too heavy. 2) Once I conceived of Inspector Alastair Ransom, I knew him so well that I felt certain his shoulders were large enough to carry the weight of several books if not more. 3) Alastair and men of his time, handicapped by a lack of relevant science applied to police work, had been kicking around in the back of my mind since the early 80s due to a book that Dean R. Koontz insisted I read.

I have since learned that when another author "truly insists" that your read a given book that it is incumbent upon you to do so, especially when you have shared with this author a notion for a book. For an entirely different novel, I followed the advice of J.A. Konrath to read yet another title and it proved invaluable to my writing project. The book Dean Koontz suggested was the invaluable Century of the Detective by Jurgen Thorvald (on my shelf now), and the tomb that Konrath suggested for a horror-thriller entitled Fleshwar ( serialized novel) was Parasite Rex by Carl Zimmer. You see where this is going? An author who does a busload of research often does the wise thing and telegraphs to others the project he is working on so as to gather really good information on said subject. This means much of my writing is predicated on much reading or factual materials.

Perhaps it is the teacher in me. Even in sixth grade I was unofficially "tutoring" other students from the kid who was held back to the cute girl next door. It spills over in my books. There are few chapters over the years that I've written that don't have a research based point to get across be it to remind folks that the mayor of Chicago was murdered on the grandest night of his life--the closing night of the hugely successful World's Fair to the fact that ants have it rough with parasites too--poor ants. Never felt sorry for an ant in my life until I read Carl Zimmer's book.

Getting now to Shadows in the White City--I naturally wrote it as a sequel but as with every sequel I write, I wanted it to stand on its own. Ever try to stand a single volume up on a table and keep it from falling over? Shadows sees the demise of the Phantom of the Fair in the first portion of the novel, just as in City for Ransom the big surprise of the book is revealed in the first 70 pages or so. Shadows moves on to Alastair's next difficult case, the murders brought about by a maniac the press is calling The Leather Apron Killer--who may or may not be an import from London. I wanted this to be an atmospheric, creepy case and it really is. How do I know? When an author can creep himself out...feel the fear his characters must be feeling, well said author just knows. It's like when you create a frozen death scene and your fingers become too cold to work the keys, or when you're doing a heat-wave scene and you begin to perspire at the keyboard and you're dripping sweat onto the keys. You just know you are hitting the right stride when you can cause physical and mental changes in yourself, your first reader. It's what they mean by the power of the pen.

I believe with such accolades as Ken Bruen's remark on Shadows, that it is a "true masterpiece and that's the holy all of it." And remarks such as those by Harriet Klausner below, I believe that I did my job well and made the sequel equally or more compelling than the original. I have just turned in City of the Absent, #3 in the series due out this December.

Here's the kind of review every author works toward and hopes for:

“Brutal…unrelenting…historical fiction at its berst.” –The Chicago Tribune.

The Tribune also said it was like “getting sucker-punched in the face with brass knuckles.”

Jay Boninsinga said “this book will beat the hell out of you.”

I sense a theme here. I do go for the readers emotions and jugular all at once. That’s the writer’s job as I see it.

Rob Walker

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