The thing I like best about writing fiction is solving the problems presented as I weave a story together: How to add flesh to the characters? How to connect them to their environment, to other characters? How to parse out the details of the plot in a way that provides the reader enough hints about what is happening but does not give it all away.
All fiction writers face these questions.
In the current story I’m writing, “The Swamps of Jersey,” (Early draft chapters are located on this website under “Fiction.” Please take a look and let me know what you think.) a problem with the main character was created because I had already written a story about him and the details in that story were intrinsic to that plot.
“Swamps” began life as a notice in a newspaper about an unsolved break-in at the college I attended. Pretty routine.
But on a stormy night at my family’s farm in Cato, N.Y, I scribbled down a sketch called “Killer,” in which an anonymous man gets on a bus, rides out to the college and randomly picks out a female student and kills her. What an imagination.
But after a visit to a downtown bookstore whose owner used a wheelchair, the story moved in a different direction, and Detective Frank Nagler came to life, along with his friend Leonard, the blind man who owns a bookstore and Jimmy Dawson, a local newspaper reporter.
In that story, called “A Game Called Dead,” Nagler is a retired cop who on his own shadows an official investigation into a very brutal murder at the local college.
Frank in his retirement is a cranky, miserable old fart. One of his enduring memories is of his late wife Martha.
So in the current story, which takes place some years before the other story, I needed to get Martha into the story.
A point: “Swamps” evolved from a subplot in “Dead.” In that story, Nagler had solved a case of a serial killer who dumped his victims in a section of river where the water receded in the summer and the weeds and pollution created a smelly mess, called locally The Smelly Flats.
I had thought of taking that piece of story and writing a separate book about it, and over time, I moved the location to Ironton, New Jersey, added a layer of political corruption, and that is “Swamps.”
There are elements of mystery to it, but it is story about political and personal corruption that draws from many of today’s news headlines, including a bad national economy.
The models for the story are “All the King’s Men,” by Robert Penn Warren; Updike’s “Rabbit” stories and “The Sunlight Dialogues,” by John Gardner.
Make no mistake, those are masterworks; I can hope that “Swamps” would be half as good.
Anyway, I needed to introduce Martha into the story, an effort complicated by Nagler’s relationship with a young woman central to the plot.
So how to do this.
I can’t just drop Martha into the story and say something like, “They were deeply in love, she died, he was miserable.”
Her life defined his, her existence brought him great joy and her death, unimaginable sorrow. But she also can not pop in and out of the story.
I needed a chapter that deeply opens up Nagler to the readers. I also needed a scene-setter because the state of the city of Ironton is as important to the story as the characters. It is also important in this chapter to lay in a few hints about the plot.
Here’s how I tried to do it.
Nagler grew up in the town.
Here’s an opening description:
“Ironton was a city of alleys.
The big highways passed to the north and south of the city and the main local streets followed the river and the hilly terrain.
What connected all of them were the alleys, warrens of deadends, a network of narrow potholed passageways that carried the news of the neighborhoods from house to house, block to block, until it passed from the Italians to the Irish, through the Germans and back, so changed, so lost in translation it had become new again.
The alleys were where the household commerce took place. While the front porches stood guard over the main street, doors locked, shades drawn like deserted rooms in some dead train station, the back doors squeaked and slammed a hundred times a day as the family’s kids ran off to school, off to baseball practice, or off to Cheryl Johnson’s house, where she promised Bobby DeLuca she’d give him a blowjob.
The alleys were where the garbage trucks waddled down the street barely clearing the fender of George Stein’s new F-150, and where the snow plows, not so careful, nudged a few garbage cans into the light poles as they dug out a path.”
I also needed to connect Nagler with his old neighborhood and that neighborhood to history of the town.
Here’s how that goes:
“There were no sidewalks when he lived there, just two narrow worn down pathways on either side of the street that carried the men of the neighborhood to the mill, clean from an overnight bath, blue denim shirt, hair slicked back under a wool cap; and then back home at night smelling of ash and coal, hair dusted with white powder, faces black with oily grime, the blister on the left heel a little more raw where the cardboard inserted to stiffen the sole had rubbed through the sock.
Each trip to and from the stoveworks made the men five dollars richer. Five dollars closer to death.
Each day they molded doors, stove tops, stacks and panels for the Perfect Cooking Stove, a cast iron kitchen stove that was the star of many kitchens. During the wars they made small heaters designed to give foot soldiers some carry-along warmth.
This was Ironton at its peak. A dozen iron and steel mills operated along the river and rail lines; in the hills to the north and west mines has been dug into the rich deposits of iron ore that had supplied George Washington with cannon balls, and then with better technology, had been tapped to unimaginable depths so that the hills contained a lattice work of mine shafts and tunnels that generated the wealth that propelled the county into the Twentieth Century.
That only mattered to young Frank Nagler as he watched his father leave for the mill each morning and return each night. As he got older, Nagler measured the state of his world against the condition of his father’s nightly return from work as it transformed from the homecoming of the young, fit worker who carried his young son on his shoulders the last block to home while the boy breathed in the dust, ash and sweat of his father’s labors, to the middle aged man who limped on a bad ankle as his son took up his lunchpail and sometimes had his father lean on him to make the walk easier.”
So, with that setting, Nagler visits the ironworks and finds a hobo village, and in it, an old friend, Delvin Williams.
Del becomes an important minor character because he has news that informs the plot, and he introduces Martha Nagler.
This was the way in. Up to this point, all the talk has been about Nagler and Lauren Fox. Now that changes.
But I get only one chance with Martha. The scene needs to be intense and complete in both a character development sense and for the emotional needs of the reader.
It goes like this:
“The streets settled into a pre-dawn, holy quiet. A stillness so deep the sound of a car spinning its wheels in gravel three blocks away filtered through the dark streets; a quiet so dense the tapping of Frank Nagler’s shoes on the cement sidewalk sounded like a crack of steel against steel.
The house was a few blocks up and over. He knew the route so well he could walk it blindfolded: Out the back door on Lincoln, through the Harrigan’s yard, down the narrow walkway that led to the stairs the city put in so people could get down the hill to stores on Washington. Then a jog up to Elm, through the grouchy lady’s yard, which got easier after her stupid pit bull died, and there it was.
Martha Shannon’s house. 14 Elm Street. White with blue trim, one center gable and a roof so steep it would kill you just to try to climb it. Her room was on the second floor on the right, with two windows, one front, one side, and pink curtains.
Frank Nagler sat behind her in second grade . She had the neatest handwriting, and long straight red hair that she held together with a silver barrette. When they walked home from school she filled the air with vivid stories of her day. They stopped and spoke with everyone on the streets: old Mrs. Drake, whose husband died in the war and whose children never call; Mr. Adams who was always washing his car; Bobbi Jackson who had two kids by the time she was 20 and worked nights cleaning offices, but waited at the corner of Main Street for the little one to get off the school bus and run into her arms, jacket flapping, papers slipping from his tiny hand so he had to stop and pick them up and dropped his lunchbox, and just before he was going to cry she scooped him into her arms and they laughed all the way home.
The first time Frank Nagler held Martha Shannon’s hand was in the third grade. It was the softest thing he had ever touched and he knew he would hold it forever.
The early sun glinted off the topmost window of the old Shannon home. It had been vacant for years when the last owner lost it to the bank. The fence leaned to the street, a porch railing rested on the stairs and the glass in a couple windows in the upper floor surrounded the perfectly round entry hole of a small rock.
Her parents moved away years ago. They were probably dead now.
More than once on one of these night prowls he took the three concrete steps, walked around the pile of leaves and branches, opened the unlocked front door and stood in the dark hallway where he had waited for Martha Shannon to go the Baker Theater for the double bill, or waited for Martha Shannon to change sweaters one more time because, Frank, the green one just really didn’t go with my skirt, silly.
Sometimes her mother would walk in from the kitchen, still wearing a white apron, wiping a pot and sweetly chide her precious daughter, “Hurry, dear. Frank’s still waiting, Martha.” Or her father would walk through the hallway to share the conspiracy, just to say, “Her mother made me wait, too. Can’t hurry them, no matter what.” Frank would just say, yes, sir and smile and when they left the house, he’d roll his eyes at Martha as they walked down the street.
He stood in the hallway where he had waited hopefully and thrilled to even have the chance to wait for her so many times before, so many, many times for dates, school, football games, walks, or trips to the Old Iron Bog. He laughed to himself when Foley talked about the kids in the car who called the police about the woman’s body. Thirty years ago those kids were Frank Nagler and Martha Shannon, huddling naked under an old quilt, the scent of her lavender perfume mixing with the musty quilt smell, the taste of her mouth and the softness of her neck and belly still fresh in his memory.
The hallway held all those ghosts, the trapped sounds of their young love woven into the dusty spiderwebs that clung to the corner of the ceiling, silent witnesses to all the times they kissed and then jumped apart when the floor above them creaked or a light carved a slice into the darkness. Or stood facing opposite walls when they argued over something they never remembered. But then they made up when he would ask, “Are you okay?” and she’d say yes, and she’d ask “Are you?” And Frank Nagler would gaze deeply into her green eyes, hesitant to answer because they had been at this point before and sometimes he said he was okay when he was still sore, but he would gaze into her green eyes and the little hurt would be drawn out and he’d slowly nod his head and say, “yeah.”
The hallway where he stood stunned on senior prom night as 17-year-old Martha Shannon slowly and elegantly descended the stairs in a red satin gown with thin straps on her pale shoulders with a smile as wide as tomorrow, trying to be as cool and adult as possible when she really just wanted to shout, half crying, “Look at this dress, Frank. Isn’t it beautiful? I want you to like it so much. I got it just for you.” A gown that hugged her body and billowed around her legs as it ran to the floor, a gown like Hollywood actresses wear to the Academy Awards. A gown that had been her big secret for weeks, and had been so secret that she yelled at him for even asking about it; a gown that comically knocked Frank Nagler back against the front door, his knees so weak he grabbed for the door handle.
A gown so red and so perfect on the girl he had loved since the third grade, he cried.
It was the hallway where Frank Nagler reached out to steady the ambulance gurney that carried Martha Shannon Nagler down from the second floor bedroom around the tight platform turn to the first floor, where the medics put it down and with a jerk popped out the wheels; where they slowly passed through the front door, toward the ambulance with the pulsing red and blue lights that shined off the darkness, pausing to lift it above the concrete steps while he stood transfixed by fear and pain and dread until one of the men said softly, “you need to come, Frank,” and he walked out of the Shannon house for the last time and into the back of the ambulance.
He kneeled beside the gurney and held her hands as carefully as he could. The leukemia that had been diagnosed at 19 had come back, eating her away for the past four years, until all she could do was rest in bed. Nagler the young cop was at her side every night as she told him about all her visitors in as bright a voice as she could muster, that in the last few days had become a whisper.
The ambulance bounced through Ironton’s street and Frank Nagler held on to his wife’s gurney and tried to gently brush from her forehead her red hair, now thin and sparse and streaked with gray, all the while whispering, “it’s okay; it’s okay.”
She gazed up from the pillow, eyes soft with love for her husband, then dark as pain flowed, then unfocused as the last moments they had entered and passed, her eyes worried not for herself but for her husband, helpless in his grief, searching her eyes for solace that she could not offer, and trying to pass to her what strength he could find, what words he knew, what prayers, what hope, what love; something that would last.