Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Get Out There And Circulate...

by Sean Chercover

Okay, so I’m drinking at the Billy Goat Tavern a few days ago. Sitting at the bar. A college football game is on TV. Nick is behind the stick, smoking a cheap cigar and telling me all about his strategy for betting football. The spread will kill you over time, so don’t mess with the spread. Always bet the over/under. Total points on tonight’s game is 38, and Nick has taken the over. Before the evening is out, he will win his bet.

Not a lot of tourists in the place tonight, and the tourists usually sit at the tables anyway. On any given night, sitting at the bar, you’ll meet newspaper reporters, lawyers, union heavies, cops, teachers, and even the occasional politician.

An interesting mix of people tonight, and the conversation turns to corruption in local politics (a popular subject in bars across Chicago, and here at The Outfit). Tonight at the Billy Goat, we’ve got reformers and status quo-ers, and everybody’s got a story to tell.

The point is, if you write crime fiction and your idea of research is sitting at your computer surfing the Internet, you’re missing out.

I recently heard a mystery writer (who I suspect writes about crime-solving cats, or at least includes recipes and knitting patterns in her books) say, “All these books full of foul-mouthed policemen aren’t actually realistic at all. I’ve been on three ride-alongs with the police and never once heard a profanity.” Right. Going on ride-alongs with cops is worthwhile, but keep in mind that the cops are on a PR assignment.

The fact that I used to work as a private investigator doesn’t mean I can write my name in the dirt with a stick. But it allowed me to experience subcultures that tend to be closed to outsiders (including writers who show up, notebooks in hand, on research assignments).

I’m not advocating such extreme measures for all writers of crime fiction. Chandler was never a detective. Hammett was. Did that make Chandler an inferior writer? Nope. You don’t have to work as a detective to write about detectives, any more than you have to rob a bank to write about bank robbers.

But if you want to write about cops and politicians and bad guys (some of whom may be cops and politicians), then it wouldn’t hurt to at least meet a few. And meet them in their natural habitat.

Which brings us back to the Billy Goat. Chicago is blessed with multitudes of these ‘water cooler’ joints. But whatever city you live in, there are bars and diners and pool halls and cigar shops and bowling alleys and barbershops that serve as community water coolers.

Hang around and keep your ears open, and you’ll soon know which joints cater to which subcultures. It’s far easier than putting in time working as a cop, or a bank robber. And you’ll reap benefits that you just can’t get by surfing websites.

So take some time away from the computer, get out there and circulate.


Pete said...

Sean, this is a very thoughtful reminder to all of us writers (and humans). Though I must point out that Mike Royko would undoubtedly have taken issue with your use of the word "reformer", when the local parlance is "goo goo" (short for goody-goody).

Kevin Guilfoile said...

Man, Sean, I was going to post about the Billy Goat next week, and with similar sentiments. Although not as eloquently, I have to admit.

We've talked about the Trib's Rick Kogan before, but his long-awaited history of the Billy Goat A CHICAGO TAVERN: A GOAT A CURSE, AND THE AMERICAN DREAM is being published next week. It's no substitute for sitting at the bar, but it is loaded with great stories, and since Royko's no longer with us, I can't imagine a better person than Rick to tell them.

Sean Chercover said...

Pete: Good point! And if I remember correctly, Slats Grobnik didn't have much use for the Goo Goos, even though Royko had a soft spot for them.

Kevin: I'm a big fan of Kogan's (as you pointed out in an earlier post, his book EVERYBODY PAYS was really excellent). I'm looking forward to the new book. Are you going to the release party on Friday? If so, I'll see you there.

Libby Hellmann said...

Excellent advice, Sean. I have only one question

A party for Rick? Where and when?

Oh, and didn't Maury Possley co-author EVERYBODY PAYS? Let's not forget him...

Sean Chercover said...

Libby: You're absolutely right, I should've mentioned Possley as well. Thanks for catching that.

There's a release party/signing for Rick Kogan's new book on Friday (the 13th), at the Billy Goat Tavern. 6pm, or 6:30, I can't remember which.

Come, buy a book. Buy two, they're small.

Kevin Guilfoile said...

Rick's signing at the Goat on Friday (10/13) from 5-9 and then on Saturday (10/14) afternoon from Noon-4.

We're planning to go Saturday and bring the boys. It's never too early to start building up their tolerances for second-hand cigar smoke, cholesterol, and Old Style.

John R. said...

Now, I could get out there... but in a town like Eastbourne where big news headlines are along the lines of "MAN SHUFFLES TO END OF STREET - SHOCK!", well, it wouldn't be quite the same.

Sara Paretsky said...

Creating believable dialogue is unbelievably hard. It doesn't replicate street language, which changes so fast that your book can sound archaic in between writing and publishing. And the endless repetition of words that rhyme with "truck" and "trigger" become stale, like pornography watched too many times. I'm not sure it's essential to sit with cops at their watering holes to imagine the emotional reality of the world they inhabit; I'm always a little wary of the middle-class writer of street life--a little too much swagger involved in being a daring tourist. On the other hand, most readers don't know that territory, either, so maybe they enjoy the vicarious sense of danger the tourist writer brings to the page.

Sean Chercover said...

I agree that believable dialogue isn't actualy realistic. If we were to write dialogue the way people actually speak, it would be, in turns, unreadable and boring.

I think it's important to have contact with a wide variety of people ("newspaper reporters, lawyers, union heavies, cops, teachers, politicians"...and so on) from different subcultures. Not to evesdrop as a writer-tourist looking for dialogue, but actually get to know and become friends with people who have different frames of reference, different life histories, different concerns. I think it does help my writing, but I also think the benefits go way beyond writing.

If the intention is to be a tourist, I agree the point will be missed and I'm not sure the writing will benefit very much, either. But if the intention is to expand the number and variety of people who influence you, both in and out of your writing life, then I think the experience is valuable.

Sara Paretsky said...

Sean, you're right, of course. The more voices we really listen to, the more authentic the prose will be.