Fledgling writers are encouraged to “write what you know.” They’re also urged to “write the kind of book you’d like to read.” What do you do if the only profession you’ve known is music, but you like to read gritty private investigator novels?
Make the investigator a “recovering” musician. The smooth segue is into public school teaching as a band director, which may be unsatisfying for any number of reasons, not all of which have to do with the job. After that, he ends up with whoever is hiring.
My undergraduate degree is a B.S. in Music Education; after three years in the Army, I got my Master’s in trumpet performance. I played and taught on a freelance basis, took orchestra auditions when I thought I had a shot. Becoming a father forced me to come to grips with the fact that my talent was inadequate to support a family, so I got a job at Northwestern High School in Hyattsville MD, right on the DC-Maryland border. After breaking up more fights than I can remember, putting out one small fire, and being assaulted by students three times in two years, I pulled the pin and looked for greener pastures.
Nick Forte’s Bachelor’s is from Northwestern, not Indiana University of Pennsylvania. This explains how he would up in Chicago, where I lived when I first started to write him. No Masters, but he also spent three years in an Army Band before returning to Chicago as a freelance player. His daughter born, he took a teaching job on the South Side (the baddest part of town), and quit after a couple of years, tired of being the only unarmed person in the rehearsal hall. The police were hiring and he aced the exam. Musicians don’t do well in paramilitary organizations with externally enforced discipline. (Trust me.) So, a PI.
Forte doesn’t play anymore, except occasionally for his own enjoyment. Music is still a part of his story. In A Small Sacrifice, he takes a date to see Maynard Ferguson and his big band. (Gives you an idea of how long this story has rattled around: Maynard died in 2006.) In yet-to-be-released tales, he stops by a jazz club to listen to a quartet and serves as his own music critic. (”A piano player who thought he was Count Basie tried to maximize his income per note by playing as few as possible. He didn’t understand Basie any better than I understand feng shui. Basie wasn’t great because he played few notes; he was great because he knew which notes not to play.”) A Chicago Symphony performance of Mahler’s Second Symphony is too much for him, as close as he came to that level, seeing his best friend in the principal trumpet chair, missing how they used to play together. A subsequent night out takes him to the House of Blues to hear Tower of Power.
So we have two men, one fictional, one corporeal. (How real I am can, apparently, be debated, as I have been asked more than once “Are you for real?”) Music degrees, military service time, teaching experience in tough schools, divorced father with separation issues concerning their daughters. I didn’t become a cop; Forte did. Forte’s issues over living away from his daughter take primacy as things move along, but he’ll always convey a sense of his willingness to drop whatever he’s doing and go back to music, if the offer were made and he had a year to get his chops in shape.
Just like me.
Bio: Dana King‘s latest novel is A Small Sacrifice ‘the story of a private investigator called in well after the fact to re-investigate that year’s Crime of the Century. Very loosely based on the Jon Benet Ramsey story, it deals with the dead child’s grandmother’s efforts to get her son’s and daughter-in-law’s names cleared. She essentially asks the detective to prove a negative. He plans to poke around and give her something palatable until he learns someone else is taking the whole thing a lot more seriously than he is.‘