Dwyer Murphy on How to Write About a City
“You’re going to want to get out and walk around.”
The following first appeared in Lit Hub’s The Craft of Writing newsletter—sign up here.
You could go mad trying to write about a city. Taking the city as your subject, that is, and building a fiction around and within it. I’ve just tried it myself and I can tell you that it’s a fairly bewildering experience. My subject, supposedly, was New York. I wanted to write a mystery where people occasionally vanished, presumed dead, but really what the detective was looking for was a disappearing city: the little movie houses, twenty-four hour diners, used bookshops, news kiosks, bars, and restaurants that are always, inevitably moving through their own life cycles and waves of success and failure and sometimes you walk down the same street one weekend to the next and it appears every other storefront has turned over. A new sign up, new management. Maybe it’s a bank now, or a bagel shop, or just a metal shutter that’s been drawn.
So, how do you start? If your city is New York, or a comparably chronicled metropolis, you’re in luck, because the printed record is abundant and wildly colorful. So you’re going to want to get your hands on, say, a lot of old Village Voices or Time Out New Yorks, so you can read about the latest breathless coverage of art world openings and the kinds of bands that used to play in clubs and lounges just below Houston. You’re going to want, also, to see a collection of the dailies they used to hand out free on the subway, not to mention the various above-ground editions you paid for. If your preferred genre is crime, I’m begging you, also, go to the New York Historical Society, and then maybe one or two law libraries, because there’s nowhere in the world with better collections of old trial pamphlets, and how better to learn about a city than reading about the crimes people committed there? Lust, greed, confession, retribution—trial pamphlets have it all. Also, please don’t forget about the ‘zines. My God, all the beautiful, wild, eccentric ‘zines.
But that’s all for fun, really. There’s a bigger conceptual matter at play. A question, really: do you want your city to feel vast and intricate or personal and intimate? In New York terms, I think of this as the Price / Kushner divide, since I’ve long had Richard Price’s Lush Life and Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers in mind as two fairly opposed storytelling approaches that both capture downtown New York at its core. For Kushner, the details of the city are about one character’s intimate memories, whereas Price is aiming to take on the city at a more structural level, incorporating as many different experiences as possible and throwing them into collision. (For those who like their craft with a tinge of francophilia, you could also think of this as the Modiano / Balzac division. Both writers conjure up an impossibly vivid and ambitious portrait of Paris, but Modiano’s is largely built of one person’s impressionist questioning of his own memories; whereas Balzac, he wasn’t going to quit until he wrote a book about every block.)
There’s one more crucial step to cover, and it’s going to take you a long time, maybe years to complete. You’re going to want to get out and walk around. I don’t just mean a few blocks. I’d suggest putting in a few thousand miles over the course of several years, if at all possible. Teju Cole’s Open City is, for me, the ultimate novel of wandering around New York: Julius, the doctor, on his uptown odyssey through neighborhoods, disappointments, memories. The flâneur novel is, after all, the essential form of city fiction, with characters who allow for a meandering, open perspective, taking in block after block, allowing the stories and lives to present themselves as they will. For my novel, I had the built-in formal excuse—I was writing a detective novel, which is really another form of flâneur fiction, at least in the American noir tradition, where the gumshoe is all but required to name the streets so that we can determine how mean they are.
Don’t scrimp on detail, either. If you want to claim your character could get from Williamsburg to Delancey Street on foot in under thirty-five minutes, write it down that way, because later, during the fact-checking process, when that timing is questioned, you’re going to have the rather wonderful task of actually leaving your old apartment on Manhattan Avenue, crossing the Williamsburg Bridge, and pouring down into the Lower East Side, so that everyone can agree on the precise, to the minute arrival. What could be more fun? Anyway, it’s better than writing.
Well, there’s a lot more to it, more tricks to pick up along the way, countless more novels to reference, but what do I know? Nothing authoritative. This is just one writer’s experience. And really, why go on, since, as I mentioned at the top, this entire task is destined for failure. You’re never going to capture the city as you might want. It’s too vast. There are too many lives carrying on. Too many mysteries to note and never to solve. Ultimately your city will be found wanting.
Better to just take the subway some miles away, walk home with an open mind, talk to a few people, then live quietly with your thoughts for a few hours, and you may find you have the start of something new, quite possibly a novel that wants to be written, and you’ll only have to wear out a few shoes and what’s left of your sanity working it through to the end.
An Honest Living by Dwyer Murphy is available via Viking.