Write-by-the-Lake student returns with published novel

Nick Chiarkas started as a student at the Write-by-the-Lake Writer’s Workshop and Retreat, embarking on a first novel. He returns to the 2015 event as a presenter, with published book in hand.

Write-by-the-Lake instructor Christine DeSmet: 'Her advice and guidance were spot-on.'
Write-by-the-Lake instructor Christine DeSmet: ‘Her advice and guidance were spot-on.’

Weepers (Three Towers Press) is a mystery novel that draws on Chiarkas’ colorful past as a police officer in New York City. It’s also set in the place where the author grew up: the Al Smith Housing Projects on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. In 1957, an undercover cop is murdered in the neighborhood, and the only witness is a 13-year-old gang member who’s spotted by the killers. Add a priest, a Mafia boss, and a police detective, and you’ve got a thriller that evokes the mean streets from an insider’s perspective.

Weepers is a story about murder, courage, connections, and revenge in a neighborhood where good and evil commune,” Chiarkas says. “It shows us that the courage of the underdog—despite fear and moral ambiguity—will conquer intimidation.”

Chiarkas started writing Weepers while serving as the director of the Wisconsin State Public Defender Agency. He immersed himself in books about writing but made his breakthrough while attending the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Write-by-the-Lake.

“I took the beginners’ course in writing a novel with Christine DeSmet, and that made all the difference in the world,” Chiarkas says. “Her advice and guidance was spot-on. I didn’t always listen, but she always turned out to be right.”

Chiarkas started writing 'Weepers' while serving as the director of the Wisconsin State Public Defender Agency.
Chiarkas started writing ‘Weepers’ while serving as the director of the Wisconsin State Public Defender Agency.

DeSmet will teach a master class called “Finish, Polish, Publish” at this year’s Write-by-the-Lake Writer’s Workshop and Retreat, which helps writers of all levels improve their skills and find a path to publishing. On June 15-19, over a hundred participants from around the country will gather in a facility overlooking Lake Mendota in Madison, Wisconsin. Writing coaches and mentors will offer instruction in memoir, fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry, among other genres.

Along with master classes for those with full novels, sessions include “Thrill Me: Creating the Momentum That Publishers Crave” and “Turning Your Life-Changing Experiences into a Book.” Students also have the option of earning graduate credits in English from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

‘The most valuable lessons’

After attending Write-by-the-Lake as a beginner, Chiarkas returned to the workshop to refine his manuscript. He’s back again this year as both a participant and a speaker. He’ll work with instructors on the novel he’s currently writing, Nunzio’s Way (the next installment in the Weepers series), as well as counseling fellow students on the publishing process.

Despite landing a traditional publishing contract for Weepers, Chiarkas thinks he made missteps along the way—missteps he can help others avoid.

“I want to share the mistakes and successes that have taught me the most valuable lessons,” he says of his Write-by-the-Lake presentation. “My hope is that by sharing my missteps, desire for shortcuts, and wrong turns, I will help other writers find their best path faster and more directly than I.”

Chiarkas got the idea of writing a novel during his stint as a New York City police officer. He began keeping notes on his conversations in the police car. So it’s no surprise that he urges budding novelists to be aggressive in finding their subject matter.

“Write anything: thoughts, poems, fears,” he says. “Go out and watch and listen to people; read poetry; read J.D. Salinger, Anne Lamott, whomever you like; newspapers. Dream; listen to music; go to a museum and look at art. Your muse will find you, I promise.”

Chiarkas also recommends attending workshops like Write-by-the-Lake.

“This is where I came to get inspired, to feel, and to learn it all again,” he says. “This is the best retreat for lots of reasons. The instructors are brilliant. The writers and student attendees bring a diversity of backgrounds, ages, and interests. They all come together not to compete, but to lend a hand, brainstorm, give support. We learn so much from each other.”

Weepers is available from the publisher and will also be on sale at the Write-by-the-Lake Book Fair on June 18. For more information about Write-by-the-Lake, contact Christine DeSmet, cdesmet@dcs.wisc.edu, 608-262-3447.