I’m a person who loves setting. I enjoy reading books in which setting has been developed by the author. Conversely, I don’t enjoy books which, when I’m reading them, feel as if they could “be” anywhere: any city, any time. So, because setting is so important to my enjoyment of a book, I am always aware of it as I write. This doesn’t mean that I get it right in the first draft — but I do develop it more with each draft I write.
When it came time to set The F Words, I chose Chicago for several different reasons, prime among them that it would be easier for me to write about a setting in which I lived. But Chicago is vast: one of the most sprawling cities in the US. It measures 25 miles south to north; 15 miles east to west.
Everyone in Chicago lives in one of its 62-or-more neighborhoods, and identifies with that neighborhood. I wanted Cole to live on the north side (I would use the south side in my next novel), in an ethnically mixed neighborhood that was largely Latino. The two neighborhoods I considered were Albany Park (48% Latino; 30% white; 16% Asian, 5% Black) and Logan Square (46% white, 44% Latino, 5% Black, 3%Asian).
I knew the Logan Square area fairly well, but not the Albany Park area, so I spent a day driving through the two neighborhoods, getting a feel for the schools, streets, parks, businesses, transportation, etc. I was leaning strongly toward the Logan Square area as the setting, but thought I should read up on both neighborhoods.
One of the first things I learned in reading the history of Logan Square was that the initial inhabitants of that neighborhood were English, Norwegian, and Danish. Serendipity once again — Cole Renner’s heritage is Dutch and Danish. So of course I chose Logan Square as the setting for The F Words.
After choosing the neighborhood, I then drove around it again, picking up the names of hardware stores, laundromats, fast-food places, restaurants, schools, bus stops, el stops, and so on. I decided which street Cole lived on (though I don’t name the street in the book) and noted how far it was from the bus stops and the main avenues that run through Logan Square.
Once I had all of that down, I then considered where a high school student’s day is spent. In school, of course! And at school events. So I had to decide whether the school Cole, Felipe, and Treva attend was a real school in the city of Chicago, or a fictitious school in the city of Chicago.
Although Cole lives in a real Chicago neighborhood, Logan Square, I knew immediately that I wanted to create a fictitious high school within that real neighborhood, just as I created a fictitious ballpark in She’s on First and a fictitious newspaper for Dirty Proof. I don’t want problems with real sites claiming I misrepresented them. And if I used a real site, I would be required to be accurate to the tenth degree — or have readers write to tell me I got some aspect of the setting wrong. Therefore: fictitious high school.
As I wrote the first draft of The F Words, I had in front of me a map of the Logan Square neighborhood where Cole lived. I knew the block on which Cole lived, and what bus he had to catch to get to school. I wanted to know exactly where Cole’s [fictitious] school was, so I chose some vacant land on the city map and constructed Cole’s high school on that spot. I felt a sense of great power as I did this!
After quickly building Cole’s high school on an empty lot, I tried to envision what that school looked like. This didn’t take too long: I just modeled it on the various high schools throughout the north side of the city. I gave the school exits and entrances on all four sides, and I constructed a chain link fence along one side of it. The other three sides were bordered by school lawn and public sidewalks, one of them on a major street. I constructed the school out of light-colored brick. And then I had to give the school a name.
Chicago is a very ethnically mixed city, approximately 32% white, 29% Black, 29% Latino, 6% Asian, 4% other. (Percentages vary depending on source.) “White” is not really an ethnic division, but that’s how the Census categorizes people of European and Slavic descent. The so-called white population of Chicago is, likewise, ethnically mixed. In Chicago history Germans were the main ethnic group for many decades, followed by the Irish, Poles, and Swedes. Among the other groups who settled Chicago are Jews, Bosnians, Croatians, Serbians, Greeks, Italians, Hungarians, and Dutch.
Both in choosing character names for The F Words, and especially in naming Cole’s high school, I took into consideration Chicago’s history, particularly the history of its German immigrants.
Most of the Germans who emigrated to Chicago during the 1840s and 1850s were fleeing the failed German Revolution of 1848, which sought democratic rights for German citizens. In the US, these Germans were referred to as Forty-Eighters. Opposed to slavery, they campaigned for Abraham Lincoln and helped him win the 1860 election.
Hundreds of thousands of German-Americans volunteered to fight for the Union Army. Of all white ethnic groups to fight in that war, Germans were the largest. Somewhere between 176,000 and 216,000 of them fought to help end slavery. (More than 179,000 Black soldiers fought for the Union.) Major General Franz Sigel was the highest-ranking German-American in the Union Army. German-American regiments came from Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio, and Wisconsin. And volunteers came from Illinois and from Chicago.
Given this important history, I decided I would name Cole’s high school after a Chicago German-American who fought in the Civil War. In order to do so, I spent a lot of time googling German-Americans, Chicago, and US Civil War. I don’t remember how many names I considered, but when I ran across the name August Mersy, I was intrigued. Born in Germany in 1822, Mersy participated in the 1848 revolution and after its failure emigrated to the United States, where he volunteered to fight with the 9th Illinois, which participated in the critically important Atlanta Campaign led by Major General William Tecumseh Sherman.
Drawn to all the important stuff going on in Mersy’s history (1848 Revolution, US Civil War, Atlanta Campaign), I decided to name Cole’s school August Mersy High School.
Almost two years after naming Cole’s school August Mersy High School, I was doing further research on August Mersy, and I learned that despite what my original source stated, he did not settle in Chicago. He settled in St. Clair County, Illinois, which is near St. Louis, Missouri.
However, by this time I liked the name August Mersy High School so much that I decided to keep it. A mistake, but one that worked out well.
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2 responses to “The F Words: Setting”
A wonderful side trip to your novel, Barbara. Now I understand why the Chicago Christkindlmarket is the most authentic traditional holiday market of its kind outside of Europe. It’s on my bucket list!
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Ha! I never put 2 + 2 together re Chicago’s Germanic heritage and the Christkindlmarket. Now you have done the math for me. Thank you!
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