Writing ‘The White City’

First, there was an image: a boy lost in a sun-dappled wood. Later, a man wearing a black hat appears, changing everything. After that, something happens.

Exactly what happens, I didn’t know at the time. Nor did I know where it would happen, or when. If it would happen in the present day, which is when the short stories I infrequently write take place. Another possibility was the sixties, when the never-will-be-published novel I wrote in grad school was set. Or the seventies, the decade of my birth, or the eighties, the decade of my awkwardness, or the nineties, the decade of my growing up. The possibilities were endless. At the beginning of any project—novel, short story, poem—the possibilities are always endless, but for me at least that’s the thrill. The finding out. The not-knowing.

Tentatively, at first, I wrote a lot. Mostly, everything I wrote I threw out. I tried out sentences, voices, styles. Nothing seemed to work out. After all, I had no idea what I was doing. I’m not sure, as a writer, I ever do. That’s why I write: to find out.

This is the rush of coming up with what, one day, with that mysterious mix of luck, talent and daily toiling, will become a world. Listening to your characters. Letting them tell you their story.

So this lost boy, this kid in the wood… What was his story? And the guy with the black hat—where did he come from, and where was he going?

Over time, the image of the kid and the guy with the black hat expanded into a picture. The background came into view. It wasn’t a wood, or it was but it was an urban wood, and I’d been there. Growing up in Chicago, though I’d never admit this at the time, one of my favorite day trips was to the Museum of Science & Industry. Not only was it on the South Side—a seemingly interminable car ride from our North Side home—it had a real, live German submarine. A mine. Planes hanging from the ceiling. Best of all was the wax statue of Abraham Lincoln my grandfather got for me with a nickel.

One day—and I don’t know if this ever really happened, or if I just wanted it to happen—I lost myself on the Wooded Island behind the Museum of Science & Industry. I remember running and running, thinking I was being chased, though I wasn’t being chased.

Years later, the memory came back to me, only it wasn’t my own. It was Billy’s. Billy was the kid lost on the Wooded Island, not me. He would be, as I had been, painfully shy. And naive, a good kid who finds himself in a strange, always-changing situation, who gets lost to get attention, who wants to be found.

The man who found Billy was tall. Really tall. And he wore a black hat. How could he not? Right away, I knew his name. It wasn’t a name I made up. It was a name I’d seen years ago embossed on a plaque tacked to a rafter in a house in Maine. HANNIBAL SKURLOCK, the plaque said. HANNIBAL SKURLOCK: CONDUCTOR. In my book, he wouldn’t be a conductor. He would be a seducer. The Billy-Skurlock relationship would be the plot engine, the thrust from which everything else would flow.

At some point in here, I found out that my story—Billy’s story—was set against the backdrop of the World’s Columbian Exposition. At first, I tried to not write a novel set in 1893. What did I know about 1893, anyway? Couldn’t I just write a thinly veiled semi-auto-biographical coming-of-age story about a kid who used to stutter? But as a writer, you have to listen to your characters. And my characters were alive in 1893.

1893, not 1975, the year of my birth, the year of Watergate and of Jaws. What did I know about 1893? Off I went to the library, ostensibly to find out. Days turned into weeks, weeks into months. For the writer of historical fiction, the small, seemingly unimportant details could matter more than any Big Idea. The research process is more of a gathering of little things. I filled my notebook with almost everything: dates, names, how many inches the wood-plank sidewalks were raised above street level.

Not that I knew what I was doing. Unlike the historian, the historical novelist benefits from not knowing where he is going or even what he is looking for. Having a methodology could kill your prose dead. Likewise, having no methodology could result in never leaving the library.

The world of the White City is endless, endlessly seductive. I tried not to succumb to its allure. Most days, I failed. Hours turned into afternoons and afternoons into weeks. I read encyclopedic, nearly 800-page The History of Chicago, published in 1892, for fun. I ordered a Sears Roebuck catalogue from 1893.

Everything I learned about the White City, I tried to forget. If it was crucial to my story, I figured, I would remember. After all, I needed to create my own White City. I needed to create a world in which my characters could live and breathe, rather than suffocate under the tonnage of too much research. Early on, I made the decision that it was OK to play with the facts. It’s a novel, after all.

Over time, the pages piled up. Sometimes, the sentences slid out from under me. I threw out my first hundred pages. I wrote a hundred more. Two years later, I had a working draft. It was time to go back to page one and begin again.