Thursday, December 6, 2007

How Times Can Change While You Write Your Mystery

Elizabeth Zelvin

I found a terrible blooper on page 2 of the galley proofs of Death Will Get You Sober, which my publisher sent for my review with a stern warning that if changes were more than minor, I might have to pay for them myself. The offending passage occurred in the first scene, when Bruce, my protagonist, wakes up in a detox ward on the Bowery on Christmas Day without a clue as to how he got there, thanks to the alcoholic blackout that followed the last he can remember. The guy in the next bed is smoking. A nun appears, asks Bruce how he’s feeling, and offers him a cigarette. What’s wrong with this picture?

When I first went down to the Bowery as a counseling intern in 1983, back before the last flophouses were replaced by fern bars, it was okay to smoke in detox. The unshockable nun in my story, at least in the first scene, was loosely based on a real-life nun whose trick for bridging the empathic gap between her and the alienated and defeated men some people still called “Bowery bums” was always to carry a pack of cigarettes that she could whip out and offer as a way to connect.

I thought up the title and wrote the first 2000 words of Death Will Get You Sober so long ago that I can’t remember how long it’s been, certainly more than ten years. I didn’t write the rest until after my second sojourn on the Bowery, where I ran an alcohol outpatient program from 1993 to 1999. Times had already changed considerably. The notorious men’s shelter, with its smoky lobby teeming with edgy humanity and its history of mayhem on the stairs and drug deals on the street outside, had been renovated and transformed into a well regulated social service agency. By the time I left, the fern bars had already started taking over.

I took out the manuscript and finished the first draft in 2002. In the next five years, while looking for an agent and a publisher and writing the next three in the series, I revised it many times. I condensed the first scene as I learned more about the craft of cutting backstory and getting to the first body. I deleted a couple of adverbs along the way. But it never occurred to me to tinker with that first exchange between Bruce, the smoker in the next bed, and the nun. Nor did my editor or the copy editor who reviewed the manuscript question it. Yet when I saw it in print for the first time, the problem leaped out at me. Readers in April 2008, when the book finally comes out, will know perfectly well that patients aren’t allowed to smoke in bed. I had to find another way for the nun to make her entrance.

Smoking’s not the only thing I’ve had to change in the course of writing the book and getting it to publication. The Bowery material in the book had its genesis in notes I took as an intern in 1983. One young black patient (not yet called African American) with whom I worked wore his baseball cap backwards. My comment: “An individualist!” That found its way into the first draft—and had to be deleted after a whole generation started wearing their baseball caps with the bill sticking out behind. Then there was the joke about not knowing whether someone talking to himself on the street is a schizophrenic or merely using a cell phone. That’s no longer funny, since cellphonistas are now a fact of life and far more common than the mentally ill on the streets of New York.

One of Bruce’s sidekicks, Jimmy, is a computer wiz, a handy plot device to help my amateur sleuths get needed information. In the early versions, I had Jimmy laboriously explain to his girlfriend, Barbara, how to search for something on Google. Now “google” is a verb, and Barbara would be odd indeed if she didn’t know how to look up simple facts. Originally, my main characters didn’t have cell phones. That would have flown if I’d sold the manuscript in 2002 when I first finished it, or even in 2003, when I got my first agent. But it didn’t happen that way, and I had to give them cell phones to keep the book from seeming hopelessly dated.

Time keeps rushing on, and publication takes its own sweet time. Meanwhile, the Bowery keeps changing. When I first walked south past Fifth Street in 1983, I entered a different world. In my book, I wanted to convey the flavor of that world before it vanished completely. Well, it has. I recently attended an event at the Bowery Poetry Club, my first time in the area in several years. When I came up out of the subway and looked around, I was dismayed to find the whole neighborhood has been swallowed up by NoHo. It exudes a homogenized trendiness. No trace of the alcoholic’s Mecca remains. My editor dismissed my suggestion that I convey in some kind of note or foreword that I’ve telescoped the gentrification of the Bowery for purposes of the story. Now I just hope that readers aren’t turned off by a greater disconnect between history and reality that I could have dreamed that time would bring about.


Joyce said...

Don't worry so much about it. Unless a reader is from NYC, or has been there recently, they won't know the difference. I know I wouldn't!

Sandra Parshall said...

Liz, many millions of readers will never see New York City, and those who live in NY will be glad you captured that area before it changed.

What drives me crazy are rapid changes in technology. In the book I just finished writing, the characters make use of "disposable" cell phones with temporary accounts that can't be traced. A story in the newspaper made me realize manufacturers are now required to build a tracking signal into all cell phones so people can be located in emergencies -- and the folks at the FBI, bless their hearts, have been quick to seize on this as a way to keep track of "persons of interest." I had to find out how this locating feature can be disabled by the user so I could show my main character doing just that.

Joyce said...

Sandra, the police dept. where I work made use of that tracking feature on cell phones not long ago. We had a woman report her husband missing and she was worried he was going to kill himself. Through the cell phone company the officer was able to track his location even though he'd only turned the phone on for five seconds right before he died. If he'd have turned it on earlier, they might have been able to save him.

spyscribbler said...

Wow, I never thought of things like that. I feel perpetually behind the times. Scary thought!

Anonymous said...

The first novel I wrote (20 years ago and unpublished) involved a high school student getting an electric typewriter for a graduation present. I don't think you can even find those nowadays. Now I worry when I write scenes with my characters talking on cell phones.

Paul Lamb

Sandra Parshall said...

Actually, you can find an electric typewriter in our house -- and an "electronic" typewriter that had a four-page memory. Neither has been used in 20 years, but they're still here. You can't even give away an old computer these days, so I'm sure no one would take an old typewriter.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

I kept my collection of typewriters, including an old Royal manual and a six-pound Olivetti, which was amazingly light for those days, for years. The first time my family tried to talk me into an electronic typewriter with three lines of memory and a primitive form of Spell-check, I was disgusted when I found it couldn't spell "dysfunctional." "What use is it to me if it can't spell the words I use every day?" I asked. ;)