Chicago: The Layered Look
First published in Mystery Readers Journal, Volume 29, Number 2.

When I first started writing my Victorian Chicago Mystery Series over two decades ago, I was only sure of one thing. The books were going to be set in Chicago at the turn of the twentieth century. I foolishly thought that since I am a Chicago native, I was following the adage to “write what you know.” Unfortunately, the Chicago I knew wasn’t the one I was planning to write about. The past is another country and perhaps it’s even trickier when that country is situated in your own backyard. It’s all too easy to make assumptions about what the city was like a hundred years ago based on what it’s like today.

Someone writing contemporary fiction set in Chicago doesn’t have to think twice about mundane things like electricity, indoor plumbing, phone service or streetcar routes. The same is true of someone writing historical fiction set in Chicago two hundred years ago because those conveniences were unimaginable. I, on the other hand, was writing about a time period on the cusp of the modern age. Telephones had been invented by 1893 but how far out of the city proper did phone lines extend? How many electrical power plants did the city possess and what were the limits of their service? Answering those types of questions added another layer of complexity to the already complex process of penning an interesting whodunit.

I found that immersing myself so deeply in Chicago’s past changed my perception of the present in a surreal way. When I would walk down State Street and observe people going about the business of their daily lives, my imagination began to play tricks on me. In my mind’s eye I could see those same pedestrians clad in long gowns or bowler hats. Instead of traffic lights at the corner of State and Madison, I could see a policeman waving his arms wildly to redirect draft wagons around a stalled streetcar. The familiar storefronts lining either side of the street were coated with a generous film of coal dust. The air was thick with it and I could feel it filling my lungs.

It was as if I was on some sort of strange urban archaeological expedition since I now understood that the city existed in sedimentary layers. I had somehow dug deep enough to feel the cobblestones that lay buried beneath the sidewalk under my feet. Even farther below, I could sense the wagon ruts of mud trails that first brought settlers to the tiny village on the shores of the big lake.

The archaeological element of my Chicago experience must have subliminally influenced my choice of topic for my next project when I began writing the Arkana Archaeology Adventure Series. Although much of the action in the Arkana books takes place in exotic locations across the globe, the secret society which drives the story has its base of operations in the Chicago area. I chose the location specifically for its symbolic significance as the heartland.

The plot hinges on a global treasure hunt to recover archaeological evidence of lost female-centric civilizations that predate patriarchy. The Arkana secret society unearths evidence that women lie at the heart of most of the inventions we take for granted: housing, cooking, clothing, writing, even language itself. It seemed fitting that such a story of forgotten female genius belonged in the forgotten heartland of one of the fly-over states.

From a logistical standpoint, the location also made sense since Chicago has historically been the transportation hub of this country. It seemed likely to me that a secret society attempting to maintain a global operation would find the central location of the city attractive. It was equally logical to assume that an archive of priceless artifacts could better be protected in a region which wasn’t as vulnerable to attack as the east and west coast might be.

Aside from Chicago’s symbolic and geographic significance to the story, fans of the Arkana Series might have fun trying to guess the near-North location of the antique shop where Sybil was murdered. Or the Gold Coast highrise where Cassie finds the granite key. They might wonder which suburb holds Faye’s anachronistic farmhouse or which rural hamlet hides the Arkana’s secret vault.

Now that I’ve written two series set in Chicago, the Windy City is no longer simply the place where I grew up. Whenever I go back for a visit now, I’m not simply remembering my personal past but also experiencing the city which my imagination created. It’s said that you can never step into the same river twice because the current keeps moving. Each new chapter of the Arkana saga amplifies my imaginative associations with Chicago and changes the terrain to such a degree that the city is never the same as when I saw it last. There’s always another layer to dig through.
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