Chicago, Gangster style.

The hosts of the Untouchable Tour: Johnny Rocco, and South Side.

Since I’m writing a 1920s Chicago gangster novel, naturally I would be all about finding out the gangster history of the city. Part of this was done via the Newberry library, and part of it was done via a tour with Untouchable Tours. For me, being in a city where I don’t drive and I’m not familiar with the area, a bus tour worked perfectly.

The tour started at quite possibly the largest McDonald’s restaurant I’ve ever seen in my life. (600 N. Clark St.) Two floors, an escalator, and a food service counter on each floor. A black-painted school bus drew up to the curb, and we piled on.

First stop was the Holy Name Cathedral, opposite which was the flower shop where Dion O’Banion (leader of the North Side gang) was murdered. Alas, the flower shop is now a handicapped parking lot, but that’s progress. The cathedral is still there, with pits in the stone from where the bullets killed Hymie Weiss, O’Banion’s successor. Then, to more stops, including the former location of Colosimo’s Cafe (now a 1920s themed dinner theatre), an old brewery, the former location of the Lexington Hotel where Al Capone used to stay (shame that was gone), and a short tour of the South Side, and Little Sicily (now near to the university campus).

Perhaps my favourite part of the tour was seeing the Biograph theatre, where Johnny Dillinger was killed by G-men. Likely that’s because I’d only recently watched the film ‘Public Enemies’ (Johnny Depp, Marion Cotillard), and thus the scene was fresh in my mind. The theatre (and I wish we could have stopped) looked like it could have come straight out of the 1930s. When I next go to Chicago, I’d like to find out what plays there, and go so I can see the interior.

The final stop on the tour was the location of the St. Valentine’s Day massacre in 1929, where Bugs Moran was nearly killed, and seven of his associates were gunned down in cold blood. As the guide pointed out, the event brought Chicago and its gangsters into the national and international news. According to him (and I’ll take his word for it), a Chicagoan traveling cannot escape the relation to this event that occurred over eighty years ago. Capone and his men went down in history.

In all, nearly two hours of gangster tales and history, and a very charming delivery by the two tour guides. Next up… the Tall Ship Windy.

Traveling is fun! Day 1 in Chicago.

I love traveling. At the moment I’m in Chicago, and it’s been delightful. Taking it easy tonight, but I’ve been here two days and it’s felt a bit non-stop. Today I went on a gangster tour, sailed the Tall Ship Windy, and then went to Gibson’s for dinner.

The front of the Newberry Library.

But, today’s post isn’t about those places. Today’s post is about the awesomeness of the research library, Newberry Library. (at 60 W. Walton Street, across from the Washington Square Park.) I spent five hours in their reading rooms. Truly, I could have spent a lot more time, but I just didn’t have that much time. My main research goals were to look at several maps, the Illinois Crime Survey (a massive tome), and part of the Bessie Barnes papers.

Ms. Barnes was a producer of nightclub entertainment in Chicago and Milwaukee, and she worked during the 1920s and 1930s, with celebrities like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. The library has all her papers and production notes, and I went through a box that included theatrical photographs of some of the performers, some letters, a stack of receipts and bills for shows, and some postcards. Stuff like that is what can help bring a story alive, all those little details that can make things that much more vivid in the reader’s imagination. (It also gives me a good idea of the cost of things, what people were eating– there were several menus too –and what some of the costumes were like.)

One of my favourite items to look at was a map of gangsters’ saloons and clubs, marked on a map of Chicago that was created in 1927. All the red dots give an idea as to which neighbourhoods were the most criminally populated, and there were also notes about which ethnicities lived in which areas of the city. Perfectly handy for me to use to create my fictional spots in the Roaring Twenties Chicago landscape.

And then, going on the gangster tour, I got to see some of the places up close… but that’s another post!

The Unabashed Francophile Post, Part 10: My Trip to Paris (2)

In re-reading my journal, I’d nearly forgotten that the summer of 2003 was a bad one for Paris. When I was there in June, the temperatures hovered around 30C, but later in the summer, a number of elderly people died from the heat. The heat made it difficult for me. Hard to sleep, hard to walk for long periods without feeling exhausted… but I did it anyway. I only had ten days and I wanted to make the most of it.

During my first full day, we went to Notre Dame on the Île de la Cité, and viewed the Roman ruins under the square, as well as viewing the World War II memorial (of which at that time I knew nothing). I knew Paris had a long history, but somehow seeing the remains of Roman buildings made me realize exactly how long that history has been. There’s nothing here to compare. (As Eddie Izzard says ‘I’m from Europe, that’s where the history’s from.’)

I thought the rose windows at Notre Dame were impressive. Not so impressive were the masses of tourists and their noise. It negated the sense of sacred space. Though I’m not religious, cathedrals like Notre Dame (or Yorkminster, or Notre Dame in Montreal) should be places of awe and meditation. I love old churches for their art, for the stones worn smooth by centuries of use, and the smell of candle wax and incense. So to visit such a grandiose monument and be frustrated… it was a disappointment.

Me outside Notre Dame, in the heat. The bushes behind me were filled with tiny, chirping sparrows.

Another frustration… my poor skill in the French language. If I had a dollar for every person prior to my trip who said ‘Oh, it’ll come back to you!’, I would have had a lot more spending money. I was intimidated. The French I thought I knew had vanished. People spoke so swiftly that I had difficulty catching more than one or two words.

Of course, it didn’t help that I had a massive case of jet lag. Day two ended with a delicious meal – I note in my journal that I had a veal dish with a mushroom and white wine sauce, kir as an apéritif, and a chocolate mousse for dessert. A bit of chocolate always helps… and my third day would be better after a proper sleep.

RWA 2011, Part 2: NYC

First the conference, now, New York City.

Though I could have spent my time entirely closeted in the hotel, overdosing on workshops and networking, I had to get out and see a bit of the city. My usual destinations when I travel: museums, churches, food, and music.

St Patrick's Cathedral

Churches included St. Patrick’s Cathedral, St. Malachy’s (the Actors church) in the Theatre District, and a quick pop into St Mary’s episcopal church (the parish church of midtown). I’d been to St. Patrick’s on my previous visit and I knew I had to go back. Located near the busy Rockefeller Centre and Saks, it’s nearly always crawling with tourists. Fortunately, the tourists are generally quiet and respectful. Stepping into the cool, incense and candle-wax scented air is a welcome break from the noise of people and traffic just outside the doors.

St. Malachy’s is much smaller. In the middle of the block, it’s the sort of church that you might just stroll by, mistaking its front for yet another theatre in the Theatre District. I popped in on my way back from a run to the grocery store for breakfast items, and it was one of the loveliest churches I’ve had the pleasure of seeing. If I lived in NYC, I could see myself going there regularly just to enjoy the peace and quiet. I have no idea of its history, but it is billed as the ‘Actors Church’. Given its location, I imagine that it is more likely to be attended by actors.

The Birdland.

I didn’t visit a lot of restaurants on this trip. However, there’s one that is now one of my favourite restaurants ever. Zen Palate. Located on 9th Avenue at 46 Street, it’s a vegetarian restaurant with primarily Asian cuisine. There was so much on the menu that I had a hard time deciding, but I finally settled on a Portobello mushroom burger with yam fries. (No, that doesn’t sound especially Asian, but most of the rest of the menu was.) I wish we’d been able to stay and sample more dishes, but we were running late, having to get back to the hotel to get ready for the RITAs.

My favourite evening out was on Wednesday, when I had the evening to myself. A bit of googling found the Birdland jazz club on W 44 Street just past 8th Avenue. They have early shows on Wednesdays and I got there just in time to catch the performance of the Louis Armstrong Centennial band. They played a selection of tunes, all classic jazz, from Armstrong to Duke Ellington, and more. After the crush of people during the first day of the conference, I couldn’t have asked for anywhere better to sit and unwind.

The interior of the Birdland.

It’s difficult for me to explain exactly what it is that music does to me. Sitting on that bar stool, sipping my drink and listening to the jazz, I felt the stress drain away. The music takes over.

A flute of kir royale (with a twist of lemon) led to another, and then a full meal, including a very delicious mushroom risotto. If I could have stayed there all night, I would have. The interior of the club is dark, with a red glow from the stage-lights, and the gleam of the neon that encircles the top of the bar. Framed photos of jazz legends adorn the walls and half the club is taken up with tables, spread with linen, in front of the stage. The other half, on the far side of the bar, is bar stools along the window, and several small high tables. The bar seats come with a cheaper cover charge, so I sat there. The bartender (whose name I never got, and should have) was friendly, and the service was excellent.

Art at the Museum of Sex.

I managed to visit one museum on this trip, taking in the Museum of Sex with some of the other RWA attendees, Daisy Harris, Tiffany Reisz, Monica Kaye and Andrew Shaffer. There were three floors and a gift shop. The first floor highlighted sex in film, from the early silent era, through the Hayes code, and into modern pornography. The second floor dealt with sex in comics, vintage photos, and featured an entire wall of Disney characters engaged in sexual behaviour. (I’d love to know why Disney hasn’t come down on them, but I’m glad they haven’t.) The third floor was an exhibit on sexual behaviour in animals, sometimes with video footage. We’re really not all that different from the bonobo monkeys, apparently…

The only thing that disappointed me about the museum was its very tight focus. I would have liked to see a display of sex toys throughout the ages (ancient dildos, etc.), and just some overall greater depth. However, it was worth the visit.

Most of my other wandering was around the Times Square area, during breaks between events, so I didn’t stray too far from the hotel. Popped into the huge Toys R Us, the Hershey chocolate store, a music store, and a few other places. On my last morning there, I had a chocolate croissant (pain chocolat, to the French) and a glass of juice at the Blue Fin (normally a sushi bar, but it had a breakfast menu) before I went to the airport. On my next trip to NYC, I plan to take in more museums.

RWA 2011, Part 1: The Conference

The idea of dropping $2K+ on a one-week writers conference for the Romance Writers of America had me feeling queasy, but as I’d decided back in January, I certainly wasn’t going back. I landed at Newark on Monday, June 27th, and the whirlwind began.

The view from the 39th floor.

The hotel was smack-dab in the middle of Times Square, which made for a slightly crazy experience. I’m one of those people who likes to go out to get away from the crush, but to go out meant stepping into the chaos that is Times Square (except in the middle of the night, which I didn’t do during this trip.) Handy to most everything, but sometimes I wished for closer proximity to Central Park, or at least a site in the more northerly end of Manhattan.

The conference itself was spread over 3-4 floors, connected by escalators illuminated with golden bulbs, and a computerised elevator system where you’d input your floor and be given a letter (which corresponded to a particular elevator) to attend. That took a bit of getting used to, and on Friday evening, the demand for elevators (and the slowness of getting one) made me wonder if we were going to be late for the RITAs.

View from the Rooftop Patio & Lounge during the Nelson Literary Agency party.

My goals for the conference were simple: meet up with Twitter/online friends, pitch to an agent, and take in some workshops. I did all three. My favourite was the Nelson Literary Agency party on Tuesday night. Hosted at the Rooftop Patio & Lounge on 5th Avenue and 27 Street, I was finally able to meet the very excellent Sara Megibow, Sarah Skilton, Miranda Kenneally, Roni Loren, Steve Vera, Kristin Nelson, Anita Mumm, and Lindsay Mergens, and RT’s Andrew Shaffer. A better bunch of people I could never hope to meet. (And if you’re wondering, I didn’t list Tiffany Reisz because we were roomies at the hotel, and I’d met her already.)

The scheduled luncheons and the opening session were enjoyable. The opening session had a panel of writers: Steve Berry, Diana Gabaldon, and Tess Gerritsen. I’d read most of Diana’s work but none by the other two, so I now have 2 books in my TBR stack. Luncheon #1 had Madeline Hunter as the keynote, and luncheon #2 was Sherrilyn Kenyon. Both were great to listen to. You’ll have to forgive my lack of detail, but all were dynamic and fascinating.

I didn’t get in nearly as many workshops as I’d optimistically plotted out on my RWA agenda. The constant barrage of people and broken sleeping patterns had me hitting the snooze button in the morning or retreating to my room after a luncheon to regain my equilibrium. Still, I managed to take in a few.

My favourite (and most useful) workshop was the Pitch Witch session by Carrie Lofty (author of ‘Portrait of Seduction’, which I reviewed.) She had four points for making the pitch that had me rewriting the entirety of my pitch. It came in handy for my Friday morning appointment, though I was caught off guard by some of the other questions the agent had for me. However, it was my first pitch ever, so I think I did well. My goal there was to do the pitch and get the experience.

I also learned that THE PARIS GAME (my current manuscript) does not have enough romance or erotica in it to be classified as either. Though I don’t tend to take genre specifications very seriously, being at the conference and hearing a publishing perspective made me realise that this book should really be classified as straight-out noir. And thus, not in the least suited to any of the romance sub-genres. What does this mean? Just that I’ll be more precise in my future pitching and querying (and I shall be starting querying agents this month). I’ll be looking for those who rep a broader variety of work, where I can expand my imagination and do noir one book, erotica or romance the next, and so forth.

So, where does this leave me? Recovering from the travel and pondering my next moves. It was definitely worthwhile to attend and hopefully I’ll be able to do it again.