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Tim Chapman Writes About Sweet Home, Chicago

Tim Chapman is the author of A Trace of Gold. You can find out more about him here, see his books here, and read his latest post here.

Over the last thirty years, I’ve worked for the Chicago Police Department, the Chicago Tribune, and Chicago City Colleges. I’ve drunk Prosecco in her overpriced restaurants and G&Ts in her jazz clubs. Chicago is the standard by which I compare other cities when I travel. When I write my little stories, Chicago appears as one of the characters. A while back, I was asked to write a short essay about using place as character and to differentiate that technique from setting. “Wha?” I said. Even now, typing that last sentence made my head hurt. Instead, I wrote the following: 

I got up early for a run along the lake, but the alewives had washed up along the shore, and the air smelled like dead fish, so I headed back home. That’s all right. Ellen and I were going to the Art Institute to load up on culture, and I hadn’t shaved or showered yet. By the time I got back, she had coffee made—the thick black stuff that’s her specialty. I tossed it down while I dressed.

Parking in the Loop costs about as much as a kidney transplant these days so we parked near Wrigley Field and took the EL downtown. Michigan Avenue was bustling. It was the start of tourist season and a few panhandlers were working the crowd. I recognized one of the guys selling papers near a group of bucket drummers and slipped him a fin before we hurried past the stone lions and up the museum’s steps. The Art Institute of Chicago is one of the world’s best art museums. No matter how many times I visit, I’m always blown away by the beauty and variety of the collection. We haunted the impressionist galleries, wandered through the modern wing, then stood for a bit in front of one of my favorites—“Two Sisters” by Joaquin Sorolla. What that guy could do with light.

On our way back to the El, we walked past Daley Plaza, which, in the words of Blues Brother Jake, is “where they got that Picasso.” The EL clickety-clacked us north, past Lincoln Park, back to our car. I must have missed the street cleaning sign when I parked because the windshield was wallpapered with tickets. I crammed them into the glove compartment and drove us up to Devon Avenue for some aloo gobi and spicy fish curry. That’s the thing about Chicago; with all her ethnic neighborhoods you can get any kind of food you want. The popular myth is that hot dogs and deep-dish pizza are our signature foods. Bullshit. Chicago has everything from fancy French to tasty tapas to south side soul food. It’s a city rich in diversity of people and culture.

I suppose we should have gone home after our feast, but we were in the mood for some blues, so we headed south to Svengoolie’s adopted hometown, Berwyn. There’s a little blockhouse tavern on Harlem Avenue that serves up cheap beer and smokin’ hot blues bands. We pushed our way past the regulars and grabbed the last two seats at the bar. The guy on the stool next to mine kept falling asleep on my shoulder, and someone behind me was bumping my elbow, but I didn’t care. Toronzo Canon was on stage, making his guitar wail like he’d made a pact with the devil. No human should be able to play that fast and clean.

After the second set, we figured it was time to pack it in. We both had to work in the morning. Ellen would be clocking in at the crime lab to analyze gunshot residue kits from the weekend’s gang shootings. I’d be facing a room full of tired city college students, each one hoping to land a career that pays better than the crappy fast food joints and retail shops they currently work in.

Ellen likes to call Chicago the Paris of the Midwest. The native Algonquian speakers called it the place of the wild onions. The white-picket-fence crowd out in the suburbs think of it as a crime ridden cesspool to be braved once a year when the shop windows are decked out for Christmas, but Chicago is my Calliope. She was an inspiration for my first novel and is as important to the story as any of the human characters. Sure, she’s got plenty of problems—violent crime, poverty, and a long history of corrupt politicians—but hey, what better muse for a mystery writer?

Tim Chapman

Tim Chapman is the author of thrillers A Trace of Gold and The Blue Silence. You can find out more about him on his website, timchapmanauthor.com/, or follow him on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram.

This Post Has 18 Comments

  1. Christine DeSmet

    Fun overview of living the dream in Chicago, Tim. I’ve visited several times in the past and always found it interesting, indeed. A famous fountain there inspired a short screenplay of mine that won a contest and got made.

  2. Loved this tour of Chicago through your eyes and voice, Tim! It’s a city I’m not familiar with, and it would be great to have a Bouchercon there someday!

  3. Tim Chapman

    When my first book came out, it was a finalist in a contest and got really good reviews. Mystery Scene magazine said parts of it were “reminiscent of Steinbeck.” I got pretty full of myself. Thought I was all that and a bag of chips. (I’m not.) So when I submitted this blog post back then (2013? Janet Rudolph’s? I don’t remember.) I thought I could whip off a little travelogue and it would be fine. It’s not. There are big craft problems. Had I been the editor, I wouldn’t have let me get away with it. So why am I posting it here? YOU be the editor. Tell me what the big glaring problem is and how you’d fix it. At the end of the week I’ll give a genuine imitation Marvel Noprize to the fixes I like most. And extra credit if you can tell me what a Marvel Noprize is without looking it up. Red pens go!

    1. Tracey Phillips

      It seems to me the glaring problem is that you never actually use the setting as a character. Though the descriptions are beautiful, it isn’t a “character.” The setting character would be more than the dressing. It creates a mood and follows your character like a stalker. That’s what I see as your glaring problem. If I’m wrong, please tell me.

  4. Laurie Buchanan

    Tim — I love the way you write. I used to live an hour’s train ride from Chicago, so I’m familiar with the places you wrote about. But that’s the beauty of your writing. Even if I’d never been there, you paint such wonderful word pictures that I’d still be able to see them!

  5. Sheila Lowe

    Chicago, yes. And your writing has the breeziness of a Philip Marlowe.

  6. Sherrill Joseph

    Tim, I enjoyed the tour of your Chicago. Some friends who live in Evanston took me on the EL into downtown a couple years ago. What a fun place! Your descriptive post brought it all back.

  7. Avanti Centrae

    Thanks for the tour of the Windy City. I grew up three hours east, but my family was fonder of country than city. It’s a different world and you do a good job describing it.

  8. joyribar

    Aw Tim, not only did I end your piece by taking a gasp of breath (because I’d been holding mine during your narrative), but it made me even more excited about my upcoming trip to the toddling town at the end of April. I love the Art Institute and was fortunate to be there during a special Renoir exhibit. Who doesn’t love Renoir blue? Thanks for all of this.

  9. saralynrichard

    I lived in Chicago for many years, so all of those iconic places you mentioned triggered fabulous and fun memories. A city like no other! Thanks for the trip down memory lane.

  10. Tim Chapman

    Thanks all. Those of you planning a visit to Chicago, please let me know if you’d like restaurant or other sorts of recommendations. Also, see my comment above.
    ;/)

  11. Donna Rewolinski

    Love the blog. My husband and I live slightly north of Chicago. We cheer for the Brewers, Bucks and Packers, but love taking long weekends to Chicago via the train. It’s where we had to travel to see a production of ‘Cats’ when it first came out. The museums, food, and stores. Who can forget Macy’s at Christmas? Chicago is a great city with endless stories. Keep on writing.

  12. Tracey Phillips

    Tim, You describe Chicago beautifully and now I so miss it. Before 2020, we’d spend a week every summer wandering the parks and museums. One could spend days feeding on art and history there. We’ve seen Wicked, Once and many other Broadway shows. I long to be there again. Thanks for the heart ache, in a good way 😉

  13. Tim Chapman

    The winner of the genuine imitation Marvel Noprize* is Tracey Phillips! Tracey, come on down and get your prize.

    Tracey’s correct that “Sweet Home, Chicago” didn’t address the requirements of the original post, to differentiate between place as setting vs character.

    What I had in mind, though, was that, since this little travelogue is actually a vignette and not a story, it’s difficult to turn place into a character. Characters are primarily defined by how they interact with one another. An author can tell us that Bartholomew has a big nose, always wears the same velour jumpsuit, and is a mahjong champion, but it’s how he interacts with others that really defines him. An example of environment interacting with human characters might be Margaret Mizushima’s “Stalking Ground.” Her protagonists, Mattie and Robo, get caught in a snowstorm on a remote mountain trail. They have to alter their behavior based on their location. (All the Blackbird writers have done this to some extent; Margaret’s was just the first that came to mind.)

    The other issue with “Sweet Home, Chicago” is that it’s basically a travelogue, and as such, lacks description. Our trip to Devon Avenue for Indian food should have been much richer. No secret, I write sparsely. As Sheila Lowe noticed, I’m a fan of Raymond Chandler (and Dashiell Hammett and Ernest Hemingway and Elmore Leonard). But there’s a time to write the way I want to, and a time to write the way a reader needs to read it. Selling that stretch of Devon ought to have included descriptions of sights and sounds and smells. The same is true of a ride on the EL, a walk through Wrigleyville, and a blues roadhouse. In a story, too much description can slow the pace, break the rhythm, cause the reader to skip ahead. But in a travelogue, it’s what they’re there for.

    *During the infancy of Marvel Comics, readers would often write in to point out mistakes: a character given the wrong name, an inconsistent color on Spider-man’s costume, etc. Stan Lee would publish these letters and tell the reader they’d won a Noprize. It really was no prize. Readers really enjoyed this interaction, so eventually Stan started mailing them empty envelopes with “Noprize” written on the outside. Congratulations Tracey!

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