Finding a home in Chicago

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!

Calvary Cemetery
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.

Mission Accomplished
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!

April 5 – two lives changed

A couple of months back, my home room went to a careers seminar. The speakers had pushed that first impressions counted when it came to job interviews. How we looked and how we acted could be the key to getting us a job, or what got us booted out the door.

Well, what could get me booted out the door in this particular instance was my age. I was too young to be in the bar.

But that wasn’t my biggest worry. As I followed Trevor inside I realised I was hardly dressed for an interview. I’d stormed from the house after the argument with my brother in dirty shoes, the t-shirt I’d been wearing three days straight, and a thinned-out puffa jacket. Raking back my hair, I asked if Trevor had a comb.

He looked me up and down. ‘Mr Gordon’s not really going to care about your hair, Owen.’

Yeah, but I did. With the situation obviously out of the ordinary I had to try for a good first impression where I could. Trevor sighed, fished a comb from his back pocket and pointed at the men’s restroom.

The lights in there were unbelievably white and made me look horrendous. The smudges under my eyes at home appeared as massive bruising here. God, would people think I’d been in a fight? I splashed water on my face and dried it with paper towels, causing colour to flush my cheeks and make the ‘bruising’ fade just a little. After running the comb under hot water, I slicked back my hair. Then ruffled my hands through so it didn’t look so slick, and then patted it so it didn’t stand up so much.

Jesus, what am I doing?

The comb shook in my hands. My eyes, when I dared look directly in the mirror, showed dilated pupil. Nerves, and the fear of being in a place I wasn’t allowed. I sucked in deep breaths until my nerves were under control and I was sure I wouldn’t faint at my prospective employer’s feet when I met him.

I unzipped the jacket a little so the top of my t-shirt was showing. It looked tidier that way. My jeans weren’t too bad and I hoped that the light in the bar proper might be dark enough to hide my footwear from serious inspection.

Trevor waited for me just outside the door and took the comb. He wore a half smile. ‘You’re a cute kid, Owen, Mr Gordon will like you.’

God, I hoped so. I really needed a job now; my savings would handle the new power bill but not much else.

Trevor led me through the crowd to a secondary bar at the back of the building. Less crowded, but the light was just as dim. Hopefully that would be in my favour. I just had project intelligence and competence for thirty minutes tops. I stiffened my spine, straightened my shoulders, and acted like I had every right to be here.

The careful ‘first impression’ shell cracked when Trevor spoke to a man at the bar and the man turned to me with a frown. Opportunity lost barely after it began! Was it my jeans? Or maybe he could see my sneakers. Or maybe the dimness didn’t hide the smudges under—

‘Owen,’ Trevor said, cutting off my self-diagnosing. ‘This is Andrew Gordon.’

And so it beigns….

This is the opening moment of my long-time-coming novel, which is marked here because it’s April 5th. This whole meeting between Owen and Andrew is on Andrew’s 40th birthday. (Though he never reveals that!). Thinking about it just now is a little depressing, since turning 40 iss momentous, but Andrew’s been at work longer than needed and is now drinking alone. Not only that, but he’s not even able to go home. He’s been at the hotel for a few days because of water issues with his apartment.

I was very lucky on my 40th – my sister and her hubby flew me to Melbourne for the weekend!

Not that Andrew’s birthday was in any way forgettable!

Judging a book by its cover

How often are we told not to judge a book by its cover? How often are we told that first impressions count?

If first impressions count, then we ARE judging by the cover if the cover’s the first thing you see on a bookstore shelf.

That contrariness is just another thing to make writers nervous. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t, right? And panic starts to set in when you see other covers that are just awesome and your brain’s hit a creative brick wall.

Many of my novels don’t even have titles, let alone time spent on wondering about cover design. But when I did a self-publishing course run a few years ago (which actually set me on this self-publishing treadmill), one of the classes was on covers and suddenly I was checking out designers and images and going into overload. Sort of forgetting about the novel behind the scenes too. I covered this new addiction in a previous post Covers without stories.

Mackerel Sky – first cover

But… getting sidetracked in that manner led me to the MC of Mackerel Sky. I’ve been writing his story for years but I knew very little about what he looked like. Not helped that he’s a first-person narrator who doesn’t like to stand in front of mirrors and ruminate on his looks. Anyway… on SelfPubBookCovers I found a cover by Shardel. The general design didn’t relate to Owen’s story, but the young man on the cover was Owen to a T! ‘There you are,’ I said. ‘I’ve been looking for you for a long time.’

Out of that discovery and some wonderful work by the artist came the first cover for Mackerel Sky (and I was stoked that one of the three main images was mine!)

Shardel’s covers can be found on Facebook and on SelfPubBookCovers

Mackerel Sky – second cover

This one doesn’t exist, but fragments are whirling in my head. Why am I looking at having a different cover? Because I had a look at other books in the LGBT/Teen and Young Adult genre(s), and the original cover doesn’t come close to being similar. Of course, I want something different but I don’t want it so different that it doesn’t ‘fit’. And, well, even though the Pantheon is still part of the story, I’m thinking it’s not really big enough to be on the cover. I’m also not going to use Owen – at least not this lovely version.

I’m still going to use clouds, because the mackerel sky formation is a key aspect of the story. But now I’m thinking clouds, mackerels and the Chicago skyline. The story’s set there so I’d like the skyline somehow in the picture.

I’m a terrible artist so it’s not easy to translate what’s in my head onto paper, but I’m hoping I can get the basics right enough that someone might be able to see where I’m going and help out. At the moment, I’m still thinking photographic images, or at least half of that, but I don’t mind hand-drawn either. They are just as notable in the genre as photographic images are.

I’ve got four months to sort this one

Turning a chimera into…

Well, it’s about turning a 150K word novel with three first-person narrators and multiple themes into a no-more-than 250 word description for Amazon.

Mackerel Sky is twenty-two today, hence my posting. Even if I’m not writing, I know the anniversary date. Twenty-two years is ridiculous, but in all honesty it has really only been since November 2016 that I really picked up the novel and ran with it. And though I had the bones of the draft written prior to that (so many bones that there are now two books) I’m pretty sure that my re-writes and new writes constitute more writing than in the last ten years total.

Anyway, since I’ve chosen my publishing date (June 27, which is Owen’s birthday) it has hit me that that’s really not that far away and I don’t know what I’m doing. I went to my writing/publishing group on Saturday seeking ‘what’s on my checklist’ advice. The three main ones were cover, description, categories (the latter two relating to publishing on Kindle via Amazon). And, honestly, two things I’d totally not thought about. But added to that list were front/back matter and sorting out the ISBN. At least those two things shouldn’t take me too long.

I am going to get a new cover. I love the one I have but I’ve decided it is ‘my’ cover and it won’t be the one on the book. So that’s probably going to be the toughest of the three – finding someone who can put my awesome-in-my-head design into reality (or something close to it). I’ve got a pin-board of covers from books of the same genre. Mine will fit that overall look and also be different.

The categories I’ve also sorted, and the keywords. I even got looking at the numbers of items in the keywords to see what would be the better ones.

The description… this is causing me angst! Back before November 2016 my giant novel really only had one narrator, and so it was fairly easy to put together a description but I really only had to focus on him. After all, his story. But now having two extra narrators (both pivotal to the plot) I feel like I have to give them description time, even though my initial narrator is still the MC. I’ve got about seven drafts of descriptions at the moment and they’ve all got good points (I think) but not the absolutely right points. Furthermore, the chimera in the title. A chimera is a beast made of several different animals. I feel like Mackerel Sky is like that and I’m not sure what I should focus on in the description because I don’t want it to come across as one thing when it’s also other things and people want those other things more.

I think I’m going to narrow the drafts down to maybe four and then put them out for consultation. I know the description can be modified post publishing but I’d rather hit the nail on the head (or as close to it) straight up.

One other thing mentioned (my head was swirling by this time) was marketing. I was gonna push the publish button and then run away. I mean, I’m not publishing for the money (even though a little part of me is saying ‘OMG, making money from this would be AWESOME’) so I’d never thought about marketing or that sort of stuff. One way around it was, I’ve decided, to make more use of this website. Paying for the thing after all and in two-and-a-half years I’ve written six posts. Oh, money well spent. So… not really marketing, but hopefully once a month until publishing time I’ll post on here about how things are going.


I’m one of those weird Capricorns who won’t say a thing, until I’m prompted and then I’m like a volcano spewing forth. Probably because I’ve kept it back for so long. It’s kind of ridiculous, since we’re told over and over to be open and communicative. I feel like being a writer puts me in a rock and a hard place with communication. Writing is solitary but the outcome is for the masses. Writing is personal but everyone sees the outcome. It’s tough if you lack confidence or don’t have a thick skin or are simply a heavily encumbered introvert.

I’m an introvert, though not heavily encumbered. When I get going, I get going, and I’m an extrovert around people I know or on subjects I know. But when all is said and done, I like my own company. The problem with that is, arguing with one’s self over characters or plot holes isn’t that bright because I don’t push myself to fix things that I know are wrong. Or, at least, they’re not things I have to focus on NOW. Capricorns are laid back. Sometimes I’m at the extreme end of that.

Anyhooo… recently I had the great pleasure of chatting with a friend of mine from, Elle. She has been interviewing several authors, poets and bloggers from the site to use on her own personal blog The Road to Elle. Introvert I may be, I do love to talk writing with anyone who shows interest! When I saw her questions, for some of them I really had to think. More importantly, face up to myself on why I was writing and why it was taking so long to actually get anything finished. If you like, you can check out the interview  (and don’t forget to check out the others!), but the thing I most want to get across was that talking with her and answering the questions was really helpful.

Talking with friends, family, and a writing coach (more about that another day) about writing is helpful. I’ve sorted out some huge plot holes recently (yep, that I’ve been ignoring a long time) through talk. And I didn’t feel stupid going through the issues my characters have as if they’re real. They are real, to the characters. And they’re real to me, and now I have a better understanding how I can fill in gaps, solve some issues, and make my fiction stronger.

The point is that sometimes writers need to talk instead of write, and they shouldn’t be afraid of doing so. It helps!