What I learned about writing from reading The White City by Alec Michod

WhiteCityThe White City
By Alec Michod
St. Martin’s Griffin, 2004

I’ll start off by saying that I didn’t actually like this book. I finished it not because I needed to know how it ended, or because I cared about the characters, but because I am revising a book of my own right now and I do care deeply about what breaks an otherwise promising novel.

What works about The White City

In this case, the location is excellent, and the premise is solid — one of America’s first female forensic detectives investigating one of America’s first serial killers. I enjoyed Michod’s descriptions of life in Chicago during the World’s Fair of 1893 and Michod’s descriptions of the White City which Chicago built to house the fair. The subplots with the boy and his kidnapper were also interesting, as were the descriptions of the impact the boy’s disappearance had upon his family.

The rest of the book was just one teachable moment after another in how to ruin a story’s potential.

Teachable Moment #1: If you limit your main character’s emotional arc, your readers’ interest in the story will be limited as well. 

In my opinion, the main character’s storyline is the most problematic thing about the entire book.

Michod’s protagonist, Elizabeth Handley, starts the book exhausted and hungry and proceeds to spend the rest of the book becoming more exhausted and more hungry, all the while telling herself that what she really needs to do is stop and rest and maybe eat something because walking up and down the streets of Chicago is no way to hunt for a serial killer.

But here’s the thing — she walks aimlessly for hours anyway because she’s too tired to think of anything better to do. The mystery is only solved because Handley stops stumbling around the city long enough for the deus ex machina (in the form of a survivor of the serial killer) to appear to tell Handley who the serial killer is.

Handley never evolves beyond the exhausted, hungry, restless, insecure, self-involved woman she was at the start of the story. That’s a pretty limited emotional arc. It prevented me from making any sort of emotional investment in Handley as a character, and by extension in this book.

Teachable Moment #2: If you are going to include a tidbit from your research, make sure you get the details right. Also, only use details that actually support the story.

For the most part, I enjoyed Michod’s descriptions of 1893 Chicago. But there were a few distracting flaws in his research. Some are super picky, like the fact that he calls the asylum outside of Boston McClean instead of McLean.

One though, really bugged me. At the tail end of the book, it suddenly becomes important to Michod to describe Handley’s clothing. He dresses her in a hoop skirt and uses the skirt to great effect to emphasize the cramped spooky monster’s lair she’s found herself in at the end of the novel. This would have been awesome if it had been at all believable that Handley would have worn a hoop skirt.

It’s not out of the realm of possibility, mind you. The hoop skirt made a brief comeback in the Midwest in the 1890s, however, nothing about Handley’s character led me to believe that she cared at all about fashion. She can hardly be troubled to stop walking long enough to take the most basic care of herself. Frankly, it’s impossible for me to believe that this woman would sacrifice her beloved freedom of movement in the interest of fashion.

If Handley must wear a skirt and not pants, it seems more credible that she’d wear the slimmer tailored skirts prevalent at the time, perhaps hemmed a few inches higher than was strictly proper so that they wouldn’t drag in the streets on her ramblings or interfere unduly with the toting of tripods to crime scenes. By all means, have her trip on her skirts on the stairs in the monster’s lair, but don’t distract me with talk of hoop skirts scraping against walls. I just can’t believe this woman would wear them.

Teachable Moment #3: Mysteries are not enhanced by shortcuts. 

Finally, it bugs me a bit that the serial killer himself doesn’t actually appear as a character in the story until the Survivor tells us about him, relatively late in the game.

It bugs me more, however, that Handley is simply told outright who the killer was. That undercuts the entire point of telling a story about one of America’s first female forensic detectives. In the end, her forensic skills (if in fact she had any) don’t matter at all. If she just wanders around the city long enough, she’ll stumble across someone who’ll tell her the answer. And if you’re just going to tell a story about a case like that, why bother?

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About Shala Howell

Writer of things ranging from optical network switching white papers to genetic testing patient education materials to historical fiction set in an 1880s asylum. When I’m not scratching my head over pesky characters who refuse to do things how I want them done or dreaming of my next book (which will of course be much easier to write than the current one), my writerly self can be found blogging about life with a very curious Ten-Year-Old at Caterpickles.com, or musing about books and the writing life at BostonWriters.wordpress.com.
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