What I Know After Three Weeks

They’re only anonymous if we don’t ask
(Image by Gleb Lucky, via Unsplash)

I had a slow week with the book, doing the necessary work of going backward to earlier scenes to ask myself why people were doing what they were doing. Or, more accurately, what kind of a person would do these things. It really is ethnographic, in which we have to watch people do stuff before we try to guess the meanings behind it.

I know some big structural things about the story. I know my protagonist. I know that the book will see him at four different stages of his life: in his middle-school years, in his early 20s, in his late 30s or early 40s, and again in the present day in his mid-50s. I know that the four novelettes will be called Novice, Apprentice, Journeyman, and Master.

I know that the streetscapes will be characters themselves. No retail store stands on its own, it lives on an urban block, shoulder to shoulder with taverns and markets and bowling alleys and bookstores and florists and diners.

And within that frame, I have no idea what the painting will look like yet. I have to let them tell me.


The big work of this past week has been to learn more about the second tier of characters, the ones who’d be supporting actors. In the case of middle-school Jimmy, that’s his dad, his mom, his mom’s new boyfriend, his brother and sister, and the other people who work in the store. I’ve learned things about each of them this week that I absolutely didn’t know last weekend.

I have to do some work to imagine the array of businesses that would be on a middle-class Milwaukee shopping street in 1980. No Starbucks yet, too small a neighborhood to warrant a vest-pocket Burger King. The neighborhood grocery is now bigger than a corner store, not yet a supermarket. No one drives to the shopping center to Staples or Bed Bath & Beyond yet, so small family versions of housewares and office supplies and bookstores still exist. But exactly what’s on that block of Oakland Avenue in Shorewood… that’s crucial work still to be done.

And what I don’t know yet… can’t know yet… are the early disruptions of Jimmy’s young path. There’s been one, the revelation of his mother’s affair and his parents’ divorce. But there will be a reckoning with his siblings, and with his mother’s new partner, and those I can’t yet describe. They’ll come into view as I sketch, and then pen, and then color those scenes.

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