|St. Martin's Press: The Flat Iron Building|
I'll show you what I mean. Here's the story behind those Louboutin shoes ...
It was the summer of 2008 and my husband and I were driving to New York from the Hamptons. I'd been there researching my second novel By Invitation Only, which I co-wrote with Jodi Della Femina, the popular author of Jodi's Shortcuts, the bestselling guidebook to the Hamptons. (More about that later!)
The hubs and I had spent a couple weeks renting a house just outside of East Hampton. I was researching locations, scenery, even the history of the Hamptons, trying to flesh out the book - which was due out the following summer.
On the way back home, I wanted to stop in New York to meet my new editor, Jennifer Weis. Ms. Weis is pretty famous herself. Especially for publishing The Nanny Diaries, one of the most popular chick lit books of all time. She's also known for letting the authors, Emma McLachlin and Nicola Kraus take their second book to another publisher because she didn't approve of the name of the main character. When the authors wouldn't change it, Ms. Weis let them walk. In other words, she's one tough cookie. As most New York editors are. (For the record, the character's name was 'Girl' so you can draw your own conclusions about that little publishing scuffle.)
When Jodi and I had a choice between about three different publishers (Jodi and her family were famous enough that the project had attracted attention), we went with St. Martin's for a few reasons:
1) When we got on a conference call with Jen and some other reps of the publisher, they were really nice to us;
2) Jen was very open and supportive about the story itself; and
3) It was St. Martin's Press.
The other publishers were great, too! But I always had a soft spot for St. Martin's. Back in my twenties I read Generation X by Douglas Coupland. I loved the book, but I also loved that it was released by St. Martin's. I never forgot that such a big international publisher had supported a fellow Canadian. It was only after we signed the deal that I learned St. Martin's was located in the Flat Iron Building. I couldn't wait to check it out. I'm a nut for New York architecture and the Flat Iron was one of the most iconic buildings in the city - if not the world.
It was a hot Friday afternoon when my husband and I arrived in Manhattan. My meeting with Jen was later that day. We checked into the Royalton, then went across the street to the Algonquin - of Round Table fame - for lunch. We were in the middle of eating when my cell rang. It was Jen asking if she could move our meeting by an hour. I didn't mind. I felt so cool answering a call from my New York editor while lunching at the Algonquin, she could've told me to go to hell and I would've been fine with it.
When I finally did get out of the cab at Fifth and Broadway, I looked up expecting to see a gargantuan building towering high above. The Flat Iron had always been so famous, it seemed larger than life. And when it was built in 1902, it was. One of the highest buildings in New York. But today, at 21 stories and with a much smaller footprint than I imagined, the reality can be a bit less impressive than the fantasy. ;) Like a lot of things in life.
Anyway, I made my way through the front doors and was greeted by a dim, worn-looking lobby. Up the rickety - even spooky - elevator, and into a cramped hallway. It was a lot different from Simon & Schuster, the publisher of my first book. Located in the heart of Midtown, S&S is part of Rockefeller Centre: more modern, spacious and simple. Think Madmen, but with books instead of booze.
Jen was busy on a call, so her assistant, Anne, greeted me and asked if I could wait with her. I was happy to, so I settled into a chair next to her cluttered but organized looking desk. There were manuscripts everywhere. Books and galleys everywhere else. A big bright window behind us. And the phone rang - a lot.
Eventually, the door opened and an attractive brunette walked out smiling. Thick hair, perfect skin, a dress that was very eye-catching and colourful. And tight, if I remember. ;) Flattering though. I was a bit surprised to see that as polished as she looked, Jen was in bare feet. But I didn't blame her. It was a hot summer day and I don't think the Flat Iron had A/C. So screw the shoes and pantyhose.
She invited me into her office and asked me to have a seat. I looked around the place. Because of the shape of the building, all the walls had odd angles in them. With the high ceilings, it made the place seem almost surreal. There were crammed bookshelves on every wall, all titles Jen had edited herself. I noticed that in addition to her other writers' books, there was a copy of The Nanny Diaries on display no matter where you looked. Listen, if I'd edited (and/or wrote) a book that popular, I'd want to wallpaper with it, too.
"Just a sec," Jen said, walking to the other side of the office to put on her shoes: sky-high floral high heels (white with a bright pattern of red, green, yellow, pink). In other words, glamorous, sexy, TDF type shoes. One of them was knocked over so that I could see the red sole. Christian Louboutins? Carrie Bradshaw eat your heart out.
As we opened the conversation with a few chatty pleasantries, Jen climbed into these shoes. In an instant, she went from being sort of average height to Amazonian. I've never been able to forget that image. Especially that one shoe knocked over. Because it made me ask questions:
a) Did she wait to put them on until I was there because she wanted me to see that they were Louboutins? Or
b) Was she just so cool as a person, that she didn't even think about putting on shoes for a meeting until somebody actually showed up?
Because the answer to that question would say two different things about her as a character. Whenever something jumps out at me like this and I find myself speculating about someone or something, there's usually some significance to it. So I make a note of it to use in my writing some day.
When it cam time to introduce 'Delia,' the landlady in my novel - one rich, powerful sexy witch - I remembered those shoes.
I decided to put them in the entryway of the apartment Grace, my main character, has come to see. Just like the real image in Jen's office, I knocked one of the shoes over so Grace could notice the red sole. I also loved that when Delia put the shoes back on, she grew five inches. Making her seem even more powerful and intimidating than she already was.
I think it really worked because it followed the first rule of fiction: 'show don't tell.' So rather than writing "Delia was a sexy, glamorous, wealthy woman," I just placed these shoes in the hall. They said it all.
Now you don't have to be on the lookout for women's footwear 24/7. (Though it's fine if you are.) But these little vignettes are all around us every day and we can use them to add details to characters.
Cars, hairstyles, clothing, art, food, cologne, music, tattoos, books, cell phones - and yes shoes - can all be used as shortcuts to help you create a character. So when something catches your eye, speculate about a person's motivation for making that decision. Try to solve a puzzle about them in your head. Even the kind of coffee someone orders can be helpful.
In fact, Starbucks is a great place to get snoopy and people watch. Because there can be a real difference between a green tea person and a caramel macchiato person. So the next time you're stealing free Wi-fi or getting an afternoon fix, notice what people order. What they wear. How they move. Even a total stranger can help you bring a character to life.
btw, if you're not working on a story right now, give it a shot anyway. When something catches your eye, let your imagination wander. Make up a story about that person. Where they're going, where they came from, what they do for a living. It may seem facile, even childish. But it can be fun, it'll get your imagination going - and it could help you access characters and stories you didn't even know were in you.
Here's more about that famous literary haunt, the Algonquin Round Table.
And for the curious: this is kind of what those Louboutins looked like - but think green, yellow and blue too! Definitely not what you'd call 'sensible shoes. ' ;)