Charles Belfoure believes more folks should “take a crack at fiction.”
“Most books are written by literary types, people with MFAs. It’s intimidating,” the 59-year-old architect-author acknowledged. “But even late in life, people who don’t necessarily have training in writing can apply their backgrounds to telling stories. If [it turns out] they have a knack for writing, it may open up a whole new avenue.”
Belfoure speaks from experience. The Baltimore-bred son of an immigrant single mother said he had no literary influences while growing up. Even now, he rarely reads fiction; notable exceptions include Baltimore-based novelist Anne Tyler’s body of work, and a few legal thrillers by John Grisham, who provided the model for applying his profession to fiction.
Despite his background, Belfoure’s debut novel, “The Paris Architect,” a World War II story about an architect hired to design spaces in which Jews could hide from the Gestapo, was released Oct. 8. The author co-opted the idea of priest holes, hiding places built into manor houses so clerics could celebrate Mass during the 16th century when English law persecuted Catholics.
Architecture was Belfoure’s second career choice. He started off studying illustration, but switched gears as a result of a visit to a modern architecture exhibit fortuitously titled “Transformations” at New York City’s Museum of Modern Art.
“I hadn’t given much thought to architecture before. I paid no attention to it [while growing up] in Baltimore, but at MOMA, I was struck by the wonderful forms,” he recalled.
Belfoure pursued the new field at Pratt Institute and Columbia University, while reveling in the craftsmanship and detailing of the city’s historic architecture. His master’s thesis also led him to recognize he enjoyed the research and writing process.
During the ensuing years, Belfoure developed a practice focused on historic preservation, and now works as an architect as well as a historic preservation consultant with a specialty in historic tax credit consulting. The Westminster, Md., resident has several current projects in Baltimore.
Before taking on the novel, Belfoure wrote nonfiction in his field, co-authoring the books “The Baltimore Rowhouse” and “Niernsee & Neilson, Architects of Baltimore,” and going solo on “Edmund G. Lind: Anglo-American Architect of Baltimore and the South,” “Dying by Design” and “Monuments to Money: The Architecture of American Banks.” He also has contributed freelance pieces to The Baltimore Sun and The New York Times.
There is method to Belfoure’s fiction. He begins with a basic one- or two- sentence outline, defines the protagonist and starts with “a chapter to draw the reader in. … [Then] I write as I go, discovering different plotlines and characters while I write.”
The fledgling novelist has advice for the non-writers he encourages to follow in his footsteps.
“If you haven’t done something before, you need to buy all the equipment and you need someone with experience to give you brutally honest advice,” he said. That person, he added, should be qualified to offer opinions on whether the book has potential as well as whether a chapter should be moved or a character more fully delineated.
Belfoure hired a freelance editor for feedback on his first go-round, because he felt the manuscript must be “as polished and professional as possible.”
Still, he said, writing is not the biggest challenge for a new author.
“The economics of selling and marketing are far more daunting,” Belfoure said. “There’s the hard reality of finding an agent, and a publisher who has to really like the book.”
So far, it appears that Belfoure’s strategy is working. Publishers Weekly called his characters “well-rounded and intricate,” and noted that “heart, reluctant heroism, and art blend together in this spine-chilling page-turner.” And Booklist praised his “unadorned, zippy style and broad-brush characters” and compared him to “an up-and-coming Ken Follett.”
Belfoure said that the book has been sold in Italy, Israel and Brazil, Random House bought the audio rights, and film companies have initiated contact.
He has written a rough draft of a second novel, a crime-thriller with an architect as protagonist. And because of delays in financing on his architectural projects, he has ample time to adhere to a five-day-a-week schedule of writing five to six hours a day.
As for the future, Belfoure said he has one or two other stories to tell. He took a crack, and it seems he has the knack.
Charles Belfoure will read and sign books at 7 p.m. Nov. 6 at the Alexandria Library, Beatley Branch|Alexandria, 5005 Duke St., Alexandria, Va. Call 703-746-1702.