How and Why I Wrote About Boston
Today’s guest post comes from author Chuck Latovich.
Chuck is a former communications executive whose first novel, a mystery entitled The Girl in the Boston Box, is available from Amazon, IndieBound, and most online outlets. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
When developing a book, the truism is “write what you know.” While training myself to be a commercial novelist—ahem, many years ago—I followed that precept. Like all pet owners, I was deeply in love with my cat at the time, so the hero of my first book owned a cat who witnessed a couple of crimes and became a central character. And the set-up of that book wasn’t bad. As for the resolution, well… let’s move on to my next try. During the period I was writing my second mystery, I was in thrall to positive psychology, that is, the study of what makes people happy. I had read two dozen books about the subject. So my central character became a personal coach whose efforts to encourage clients to lead a good life became complicated when one of them is murdered. Neither of these books were ever published.
For try number three, I once more asked myself: What do I know? What could I use as a hook? After considering some of my areas of amateur expertise—among them, movie lore, maybe Francophilia—I chose a subject that I was very familiar with: Boston. I’ve lived there since college—by now, several decades. I’ve seen how its population and neighborhoods have changed. I’ve taken advantage of its access to the arts, culture, sports, and history as much as my pocketbook would allow. It’s a wonderful, interesting place, and it could give richness, a motif, to my book. But there are dozens of novels set in Boston, how could mine be different?
When I travel to a new city or country, I like to read a book about where I’m going. Not a travel guide, but a novel or history that gives me an informal idea of what to expect, something that would heighten my appreciation of a place. Before I went to Amsterdam, I read David Liss’s The Coffee Trader. Before Paris, I read Edward Rutherford’s Paris. Before Prague, Madeleine Albright’s Prague Winter. I decided my new mystery would be a book I would want to read if I were visiting Boston, one that would give a sense of its neighborhoods, sights, style, history, and habits.
Having gotten that far with a concept, I first made sure that my protagonists would have reasons to pay attention to their surroundings so I could integrate Boston as much as possible into the story. I say “protagonists”—plural not single—because the book that resulted, a mystery called The Girl in the Boston Box, has a dual narrative structure. One of my heroes is a tour guide and the other is an architectural historian. The latter character’s obsession with an architectural oddity, secret rooms in historic buildings, became a primary engine for the book’s suspense plot, and an excuse to delve into the city’s development.
In determining what sights to highlight, I started with a list of the city’s ten most famous buildings, then used them as backdrops when I could. I added neighborhood “color,” but not only places on tourist routes like Back Bay or the harbor, but other, more out-of-the-way areas like Jamaica Plain and Lower Mills. Cambridge, which is actually not a part of Boston but right across the river, also ended up with a major role because I live there now. (In truth, the two cities are closely interwoven, despite different governmental structures.)
Of course, I read histories to strengthen my knowledge, but living here meant every walk I took, every excursion, whether purposeful or not, became a possible source of details to add to the book. For instance, a scene in a restaurant offered an opportunity to comment on what traditional foods we do eat (crab cakes, lobster, chowder) and don’t (baked beans), and what a “night out” can cost. As my characters moved around, I included observations about the medical and high-tech neighborhoods, or the crazily designed thoroughfares, or Boston’s confusing nomenclature. (Boston has a South End, and a South Boston, and a South Station, and an Old South Church, and none of them are in the same areas. Good luck with that when you’re visiting!)
Of course, my intention is that The Girl in the Boston Box is much more than a travel book. One local reviewer said that it “goes way beyond a savvy dissection of South End real estate and dead accurate descriptions of T travel from Harvard Square to Fenway Park.”
First and foremost, I hope that the book is a well-written, fun thriller with surprising, complex characters. But having Boston as its backdrop adds flavor and interest and deepens it. My goal is that after you finish The Girl in the Boston Box—you’re going to read it, right?—you’ll feel you’ve learned about one of America’s greatest cities in an almost effortless way, and that you’ll intuit why I’ve decided it’s a terrific place to spend a life.