Friday, July 6, 2018

Clothing your characters and other #amwriting guilty pleasures ~ by Leah St. James

A week or so ago, Betsy wrote about the “box” of character traits she creates for each of her characters, details that may never make it into a story – like what a woman would put into her purse – but that enrich each character’s persona.

I don’t go to the level of detail Betsy does (although maybe I should!), but I do create visual storyboards for settings and each main character—the clothing they’d wear, their day-to-day environments and anything visual I might have need to describe. Even if I don’t use  these images in the story, they stick in my head, and they usually help in choosing the right words to describe the character’s emotions or actions.

These visuals are especially important when I’m writing about a character that’s far from my personal reality—like rich people. :-)

I like writing about rich people. But not just any old rich people. Old rich. Filthy rich, as my mother used to say...which makes me speculate where the adjective came from.

I like reading about rich people, too. It’s one form of escapism, I suppose, without the headaches of having to manage massive investment portfolios or worry about threats of kidnapping or people stealing from me, or befriending me for the wads of cash in my piggy bank.

With the resources available via a quick Google search, outfitting the fictional rich is easy, and probably much more fun than real-life shopping (or so I tell myself).

For housing, I laze my way through magazines like Coastal Living or Southern Living – wherever the character is from. Or Pinterest, of course. I create my dream kitchen or garden for that particular story, or whatever setting a scene calls for. 

For example, in my current WIP, I have a scene where the heroine, her mother and sister are having a girls’ night out to watch movies. Since they’re not just rich, but rule-the-world rich, I searched for theater-style seating for the home, added a bar and mini kitchen (so, you know, they don’t have to travel all the way to the kitchen for food), and gave the room luxurious accessories, like cashmere throws to cuddle in.

Here’s an image on my Pinterest storyboard of seating available from I used the general layout but made the seating more plush with brighter fabrics. (It's not like we have to worry about cleaning after all!)

For my heroine's family home, I'm using the manor house at the real Westover Plantation on the James River in Virginia, which is also the general setting for my story. Here's an image of their entry gate. (In my story, concealed security cameras help to guard the family from evil-minded interlopers.)

(An aside for you history buffs: The real plantation’s manor house was thought to be built by William Byrd, III, whose father, William Byrd II, founded Richmond, Virginia.)

But I digress...

To clothe my rich characters, one of my favorite sources is the J. Peterman catalog. Have you ever checked one out? It’s different. The inventory is limited and mostly consists of clothing for men and women, along with a few accessories. Each item is depicted by a hand-drawn illustration—like a designer’s sketch— instead of just a boring old photo, and each is accompanied by its own story.

Here’s an example of the “Adventurous Shirtdress” I’m coveting.

(The current sale has it priced down from $149 to a palatable $54...and free shipping! Luckily for me, my size is sold out.) 

Here’s the fun story that describes the dress:
"Wearing this, you could be standing in Nairobi, in Santa Fe, or even in midtown Manhattan and still look better than everyone else.

"You could be carrying oversized portfolios through humid streets, haggling in the Ixtapa bazaar, shepherding small children through Epcot, and still look self-possessed.

"To look like Ava, open three buttons. Or wear it entirely open, like a duster,  with a white tank and shorts. That would be an adventure...."
Even without the image, I want this dress! 

Granted, these prices don't rise to the level of what the rule-the-world rich might pay, but the lifestyle stories match. So to feed my Peterman obsession, I signed up for their newsletter, and sometimes I have to delete the emails without opening because I know I’ll be sucked into pouring over the latest sale items and their “stories,” instead of focusing on my own.  But even when I do, I tell myself it’s all in the name of research. Right?

Maybe that’s why I like writing about rich people. I like to imagine myself having the kind of resources to do whatever I want, whenever I want—without all the worry and work, of course! Writing gives me a reason to indulge in this one guilty pleasure, without any real guilt.

Don't we all have "guilty" reading pleasures? What about writing? What are yours?


When not researching clothing and environments for her super-rich characters, Leah writes stories of mystery and romance, good and evil and the power of love. Learn more at Check out her storyboards on Pinterest. She also occasionally posts about life and writing on Facebook.


Jannine Gallant said...

J. Peterman! I haven't heard that name since Elaine worked there on Seinfeld! I remember the clothing descriptions in the catalog from the episode. My characters usually wear jeans and T-shirts. Sometimes they're rich, but they don't dress or act like they are. Reading this, I feel deprived since I don't think I have a writing guilty pleasure. No time. LOL

Alicia Dean said...

Ha, Jannine, I was thinking the same thing...Seinfeld! Too funny. Leah, I also do Pinterest boards for my stories, although I'm not all that faithful to using them or updating them. I like your ideas, and that's a great theater room! I've done something new to create a handier place to put all my writing links, images, Pinterest links, etc. I created a Private FB group where I'm the only member. I can go straight there without having to gather a bunch of things before I write. It's been great!

Rolynn Anderson said...

Funny you should be talking about rich peeps when I'm writing about a woman who's downright poor. She's surrounded by people who have wealth...some who want to give her money, with strings attached. Conflict intensifies over money matters. The Peterman catalog is new to me...I'll have a look. I need to work harder on detailing my characters, so I appreciate your post. As for guilty pleasures? My heroes and heroines are all braver than I am as well as more glib. They are also more fit :-)

Andrea Downing said...

What a fun post, Leah! Listen, if you ever want to see the filthy rich in action, come visit East Hampton. Every summer there is an Open House or 2 and I always try to get to the Designers' Showcase house--you won't be able to believe people actually live that way. Or just read the local paper about the parties, the polo, the charity balls. I'm up on the wrong side of the highway, btw--just to clarify :-). And thanks for the Peterman catalog which I'd never heard of. Just sent a link to my daughter who is looking for a dress for a garden party where she works.

Leah St. James said...

I'd forgotten about the Seinfeld connection, Jannine! I remember your rich guy from the first Siren Cove book--Ryan? He's very low key. Not at all rich acting. Great character! I'm a jeans (or sweats) and T-shirt person myself. I mean, it took me months (not to mention half a dozen stores in two states) to find a fancy dress for my son's wedding! :-)

Leah St. James said...

Ally, your private Facebook group is ingenious!! That must be really handy. I'm not as diligent about the Pinterest boards as I should be, but it is fun.

Leah St. James said...

Not much raises conflict between people like money issues, Rolynn, whether rich or poor. I used to work with a software engineer(Ph.D.), and he came from a super wealthy family. He used to tell me stories about all the problems having money caused him. He lived a really simple, middle-class-like lifestyle. I never forgot that.

Leah St. James said...

Andi, I would LOVE to visit East Hampton sometime! Maybe I'll make that my summer roadtrip for next year. I'd feel like Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman (except for the part about being a hooker). :-) J. Peterman absolutely has garden party dresses. I hope your daughter finds something perfect!

Alison Henderson said...

I love to go "shopping" for my characters, too, although I'm not particularly attracted to writing about the filthy rich. Here, I live surrounded by people who are richer than I can imagine, but you could never tell. Their cars and houses are over-the-top expensive, but if you see them around town or in restaurants, they pretty much look like anyone else.

Leah St. James said...

I know what you mean, Alison. We used to go to an upscale restaurant in NJ for our annual anniversary dinner. We'd dress up for the occasion, and the locals from the rich neighborhood would show up in shorts and T-shirts. :-)

Barbara Edwards said...

I've got to get the J. peterman catalogue.
I think 'filthy' rich is from the era of the robber barons in America. Never ehard it applied in Europe.

Margo Hoornstra said...

Again, you reflect my thinking, Leah. Just yesterday (day of your post, I’m late, sorry ;-) I was thinking about writing about research for my next post here. Though not nearly as extensively as you have covered it. Love the JPeterman catalogue. Love that dress too. Rich or not, the fun part about writing, for me, is getting my characters to do say and do exactly what I want them to. Which works, most of the time anyway.

Diane Burton said...

Never heard of JPeterman catalogue until your post. Very interesting. Love that dress. I want one, too. LOL When I need to describe wedding dresses and bridesmaids', MOB dresses, I go to David's online. But like many of your heroines, mine prefer T-shirts and jeans. I'm glad I don't write historicals. I can't imagine trying to describe the dresses.

Leah St. James said...

I think you must be right about the origin of "filty," Barbara. I toured Newport, Rhode Island about six years ago and was truly astonished at the level of excess in those seaside mansions. I think my mouth was hanging open pretty much the whole day.

Leah St. James said...

Most of my characters are of middle-class means, Margo. I still come up with visual story boards for their lifestyles, but the rich are so much more fun for me. :-)

Leah St. James said...

Historicals must be tough, Diane. Not only do you have to get the actual clothing right (or close to it), but you have to describe it in terms that would be used in that time period. After all, you wouldn't describe a man's breeches as "Bermuda shorts"! :-)

RE Mullins said...

I just recently researched clothing from the late 1700's to the early 1800's and the dances from those times. One of my vampires was reminiscing about the era of his youth. What fun! I found so much information and quite a few youtube videos showing exactly what I needed.