Well, first thing, I don’t live in Chicago. My characters do, but up until just recently they lived in an ‘imaginary’ part of the city. All because I had them in a neighbourhood that is a New Zealand neighbourhood and they just don’t really exist in the US. Definitely not in the spots in Chicago where I’d imagined my characters living.
By a New Zealand neighbourhood, I mean individual houses (single or double-storey) on their own land with fences between and fences in front (though not always the latter, but always very much an individual plot). Sidewalks and off-street parking (with or without a garage), letterboxes. Front lawn, back lawn. (Yes, US neighbourhoods have these things but Google what they both look like and you’ll see what I mean.)
The Tremayne house exists in my head (and on paper) with a full layout, and is obviously a major setting for the novel. The outside has more of a role in the second book but that’s such an important role that I couldn’t change the imagined layout of the house or grounds.
When I visited Chicago back in 2014 I thought I’d found the perfect street. It was close enough to walk to Lincoln Park Zoo (which had a small but important role) and there was a community park down the end of the street (which has a recurring role). Thought I had it made, and everything was just perfect. However, when I got to see the street with my own eyes I knew immediately it wouldn’t work. And… and none of the streets around it would work. The houses were multi-story apartment blocks with a communal entrance and no front lawn.
Not feasible at all.
I thought then that it didn’t matter so much, I didn’t need to actually state a street or even a suburb. But I also want this novel to know where it is. It has to be true to Chicago and its environs. I can make things up but I need to be real too.
So… I’m here in Chicago now (two months before publishing) to make things real, and to find a ‘home’ for my characters that suits what I’ve already written.
Yes, sounds like I’m being stubborn – a setting has to fit with my story and not the other way around. But that’s not how it has turned out! I mentioned Lincoln Park Zoo above; well, that’s totally gone. My characters just cannot live close enough to it. I used Google Maps to look at some of the more northern suburbs and streets/houses and spotted both a location that could just work.
Evanston lies lake-side, about forty minutes’ drive north of Chicago. It’s home to Northwestern University, great beaches and some stunningly huge mansions! For a bibliophile like me, it’s got several bookshops! It is, of course, home to a lot more than that: Visit Evanston to find out more. This little park sits between Elgin Road and Clark Street.
The street shall remain nameless. This is because, though it has all the elements I want, I’m going to tweak it just a little bit. Actually, I’m mostly going to tweak the park nearby just a little bit. And, anyway, would you like your street named???
The neighbourhood around my street actually has a New Zealand feel to it. Or that could just be because I’d found my characters’ home. Not sure, but I can very clearly imagine them living there. There are schools close by, shops, main roads, little roads, easy walk into Evanston itself, just as easy walk down to Howard, where the red line starts.
The ability to get out of ‘home’ is important, as is the ability to get into Chicago. The red line takes you all the way in and there are a number of buses that head in too, including a couple that go right past where I’m actually staying. They offer a hop, skip and a jump over to the lake and Owen will use them a lot as he seeks ‘alone’ time far far away from his brothers and sisters!
There’s one other tiny thing that helped me decided Evanston was their home town – Calvary Cemetery. Yep, a cemetery. The fog was rolling in when I visited last week but it was a lovely peaceful spot, and many of Chicago’s mayors are resting here. A few of Chicago’s architects too, as well as Charles Comiskey of the White Sox.
This quiet spot has taken the place of Lincoln Park Zoo in the novel. I love visiting cemeteries and I’ve imparted that to Owen, though I do think he goes there because he knows his brother won’t follow so quickly.
One of my primary ‘must do’ activities while visiting Chicago and experiencing it first-hand was to find Owen and his siblings a home. It’s an activity I can tick off the list. When I envisage the kids now I can ‘see’ the surrounds and put them out into a wider scene – getting groceries, going to school, public transport, walking about ‘downtown’ – which I couldn’t quite do before.
I just need to re-visit on a sunny day to experience what Evanston’s like during a bright spring day, because the day I visited it was foggy and damn cold!