Monday, November 7, 2016

On Writing — Fiction As History

The Early Shanahan novels
Occasionally I receive comments from people who have read some of the early books in my Shanahan mystery series.   These notes usually come from people who live or have lived in Indianapolis. Rarely are the comments about the plot, though critics at the time were complimentary. Some are about the main characters – Deets Shanahan and his love, Maureen.  But most of the sentiment is about bringing back memories. The 11 novels in the series set in Indianapolis cover 25 years in the life of the Circle City beginning with The Stone Veil in 1980. History is an unforeseen, but happy consequence of fiction.
I haven’t been the only one.  In fact I wasn’t the first one or necessarily the most prolific.  The acclaimed Michael Z. Lewin not only originated the first series featuring a fictional Indianapolis P.I., but is also credited with popularizing the idea of a regional P.I. series. Many others followed.  My Deets Shanahan character also came after Lewin’s Albert Samson.

Michael Z. Lewin

Lewin and I are roughly the same vintage. However he began writing younger in his life.  Counting his Leroy Powder cop series, Lewin has used Indianapolis as a setting for 11 crime novels with a history going back to 1971 with his first Samson novel, Ask The Right Question, among those being re-released as I write.

I have inadvertently been part of recording this city’s history when, as its first editor, I helped found NUVO Newsweekly, the longest serving alternative newspaper in the city’s history. Long after I was gone it continues to chronicle my hometown and is a powerful, on-going historical reference. However, I would suggest that fiction could go beyond the news as a historical document in many ways by creating the mood, the ambiance and an in-depth characterization of its neighborhoods, restaurants, transportation and particularly its inhabitants.

There are those, of course, who dismiss genre fiction, including the P.I. novel as something less than respectable. The Shanahan mysteries are definitely genre fiction, as are the Samson novels. We gain a sense of the place in time in a way that may not be academic, but in a fluid, experiential way.

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