Clothes Make the Character

By guest author,  Sally Carpenter

If you saw a stranger walking down the street, what can you tell from her clothes? Sherlock Holmes could determine the social standing, wealth, occupation, education and gender of persons by their clothes.

Authors use to spend much time in describing their characters’ garments, sometimes to a fault. Without TV or film, writers felt they needed many words to help readers depict the characters in their minds.

In the story “A Scandal in Bohemia,” Arthur Conan Doyle writes: “His dress was rich with a richness which would, in England, be looked upon as akin to bad taste. Heavy bands of astrakhan were slashed across the sleeves and fronts of his double-breasted coat, while the deep blue cloak which was thrown over his shoulders was lined with flame-colored silk and secured at the neck with a brooch which consisted of a single flaming beryl. Boots which extended halfway up to his calves, and which were trimmed at the tops with rich brown fur, completed the impression of barbaric opulence . . .” Sensory overload!

Nowadays writers limit their characters’ physical description, because readers often skip over lengthy sketches to get to the action, and also to encouraging readers to imagine their own selves in the story.

Nancy Ddrew 2The only physical description we have of Nancy Drew is her “titian hair” and “blue eyes.” However, we hear a lot about her chic wardrobe and apparently endless clothes closet. Beyond her stylish threads, Nancy often dresses in costumes and old garments found in attic trunks. When the books were originally released in the 1930s, low-income readers could imagine  wearing Nancy’s pretty outfits for themselves.

Cozy mysteries continue the trend of “less is more.” Clothes are mentioned briefly, if at all. With the modern heroine’s casual lifestyle, her wardrobe consists of tee-shirts, sweats and jeans. Readers want a quick and easy read without wading through mounds of description.

But when I started writing my Psychedelic Spy retro-cozy series, clothing was crucial.

Flower_Power_Fatality_jpg (1) (1)The books are set in 1967, an era of vibrant and varied clothes. Poodle skirts and bobby socks gave way to miniskirts and pillbox hats. East Indian garments were in style. The “British invasion” of roc

 

k music also brought English designers such as Mary Quant. African Americans adopted styles that expressed their ethnicity. The hippies had their own unique forms of dress.

Clothing of the 1960s differs so much from today’s styles that I had to describe nearly everything that people wore. I tried to keep such explanations to a minimum, yet the clothes were essential to place the reader into the era.

My protagonist, Noelle McNabb, is single and 25 years old. She apparently spends most of her income on clothes. In the first book, “Flower Power Fatality,” Noelle wears 14 different outfits! And her clothes are new, many purchased at the big city mall. She talks about how she loves shopping and checking out the latest fashions.

In finding clothes for Noelle, I’ve used a few costumes that I’ve seen in 1960s TV shows. I also have a great reference book, “Fashionable Clothing from the Sears catalogs: Mid 1960s.” The book has actual photos (and prices) from the era’s Sears mail order catalogs. I’d love to see those clothes come back into style, as they’re more beautiful and feminine than the women’s tee-shirts and leggings sold today.

Clothes also express the generation gap. When Noelle wears a miniskirt to church, her mother complains that the dress is too short. Mom is clad old, fussy dresses with below-the-knee skirts. Mom wears stockings and garter belts; Noelle is in pantyhose and colored tights.

In the 1960s, women wore dresses more frequently than today. I put Noelle in dresses most of the time. Even when she wears pants at her record store job, she’s in nice slacks and pant suits. The only time she’s in dungarees is when lounging around home.

Jeans are reserved for my “bad boy” characters, a group of young males who spend their time racing their choppers, shooting craps and smoking Marlboro cigarettes. In the mid 1960s denim was only slowing becoming acceptable as a fashion choice.

afro in orangeDestiny King is an African American agent who takes Noelle on her spy missions. Destiny sports a trimmed Afro and frequently wears jumpsuits. Her clothes are functional in more ways than one way. For example, she has a pair of earrings that are really plastic explosives.

My hippie couple, Rambler and Moonbaby, are the most fun to cloth. Hippies wore an eclectic style, often put together from castaways and thrift store finds. Styles, patterns and colors did not need to match. One useful reference book is “The Hippie Handbook” by Chelsea Cain, which has a chapter on “How to Dress Like a Hippie” and information on making skirts out of old jeans and how to tie-dye a shirt.

Trevor Spellman is a newspaper reporter on the prowl for a big scoop. He rebels against the small-town norms by wearing his hair long—below his ears—and he never puts on a tie. In the 1960s the collarless shirt became appropriate for formal/dress wear.

The clothing of Mr. Baldwin, the audio-visual technician at the high school, describes him well: white shirts, skinny dark ties, dark pants, plastic-rim glasses and a “dorky haircut.” Did “geek” and “nerd” pop into your head?

What the retired Army colonel wears also paints a picture. He’s in an Army bomber jacket over a khaki shirt. “His voice was as crisp and sharp as the creases pressed into his khaki pants.” Even in retirement he runs his life with military precision.

Clothes can describe a character more efficiently than a long list of traits, helping a reader to visualize a person more so that relying on the reader’s imagination alone.

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NEW Carpenter photoSally Carpenter is native Hoosier living in southern California.  She has a master’s degree in theater, a Master of Divinity and a black belt in tae kwon do.

Her Sandy Fairfax Teen Idol books are: The Baffled Beatlemaniac Caper (2012 Eureka! Award finalist), The Sinister Sitcom Caper, The Cunning Cruise Ship Caper and The Quirky Quiz Show Caper.

Her Psychedelic Spy series has Flower Power Fatality and the upcoming Hippie Haven Homicide (2020).  Sally has stories in three anthologies and a chapter in the group mystery Chasing the Codex.

She’s a member of Sisters in Crime/Los Angeles. Reach her her at Facebook or  http://sandyfairfaxauthor.com or scwriter@earthlink.net.

 

This article was posted for Sally Carpenter by Jackie Houchin

 

The Fun of Writing “Retro-Cozies”

Guest Post by Sally Carpenter*

An interviewer once referred to my stories as “retro-cozies.” I liked the term and use it to describe my work.

A retro-cozy is an amateur sleuth mystery with no graphic gore, violence, sex, or language, and occurs in the past. What defines “the past” is up for grabs—I’d say any time before the 21st century.  My Sandy Fairfax series is set in 1993. The protagonist, a former teen idol, often refers to his TV show, which was filmed in the 1970s.  My newer series, the Psychedelic Spy, takes place in 1967.

Beatlemaniac_final_ large_2500Why do I use a time machine when I write? For Sandy Fairfax, I had no choice. I wanted to write about a ‘70s teen idol because of the culture of that time when teen idols were promoted through TV shows. I like the melodic songs from the era, the cheesy clothes, and the drama that often took place behind the idols’ innocent façades.  \

Sandy was 18 when his TV show started, so if I set the books in today’s world, he would have aged up to 61 or so. But I wanted to write about a younger man who could still do his own stunts and would be making a comeback, not plans for retirement. The year 1993 places Sandy at age 38, still agile but facing a midlife crises.

For the second series, the ‘60s is a ripe era for storytelling: war protests, civil rights and women’s movements, the generation gap, influence of Eastern religions, and the Cold War.  I love the culture of the age, the bright colors, pop art, rock music, movies, mod clothes and hairstyles. Let’s face it, women’s clothing styles in 2018 are—dare I say it—drab and ugly.

I like the simplicity of past times. I use a computer, but I’m out of touch with today’s technology. I don’t even own a cell phone (gasp!). I gave up trying to figure out streaming services, podcasts, YouTube videos, Twitter, social media and whatnot.

If a contemporary protagonist gets in trouble, all she has to do is whip out her cell phone and call for help. Ho hum. But my protags have to think and fight their way out of their predicaments. If my protags need information, they can’t Google or ask Alexis; they have to put in the legwork. They need hard evidence, not just a DNA sample. With fewer crime fighting tools at their disposal, my heroes work harder.

People who stare at their phones or computers all day bore me. Characters who talk face-to-face are more interesting than those who send texts. Modern technology is helpful in real life, but it’s a story killer.  When I read for pleasure, I want to escape into another world, away from the commotion of modern times. Writing a retro-cozy lets me, at least in my mind, take a break from today.

Flower_Power_Fatality_jpg (1)In “Flower Power Fatality,” Noelle McNabb is an actress at a Christmas-theme park in Yuletide, Indiana. Her drab routine is interrupted when a stranger shows up on her porch with a bullet in his chest. Then, a super-secret spy agency recruits Noelle to find missing microdots along with veteran agent Destiny King. As Noelle goes undercover, she finds herself dancing in sleazy nightclubs and chasing bad guys at night while wondering who is going to feed her pet cat.

My next project is putting my first book, “The Baffled Beatlemaniac Caper,” back in print. Washed-up pop star Sandy Fairfax, in a desperate move to get his career back on track, takes his only job offer—a guest appearance at a disorganized Beatles fan convention in Evansville, Indiana. What look like an easy gig turns deadly when a member of the tribute band is killed and the police finger Sandy as the prime suspect.

“Beatlemaniac” will include a new cover art, new forward, updated author’s bio, re-edited text and a bonus short story, a brand new Sandy Fairfax adventure, “The Deadly Disco Caper,” in which the 1970s get skewered. Yowzah, yowzah, yowzah!

 

306141_347563052028408_642323995_n(2)Sally Carpenter was born and raised in southwest Indiana but now lives in Moorpark California, leaving the land of rain and snow for wildfires and earthquakes.  She has a master’s degree in theater from Indian State University. She also has a master’s degree in theology and a black belt in tae kwon do. She’s also “mom” to two black cats.

Her first book, “The Baffled Beatlemaniac Caper,” was named by Left Coast Crime as a 2012 Eureka! Award finalist for best first mystery novel.  She penned chapter three of “Chasing the Codex,” a group mystery written by 34 authors with Cozy Cat Press and has stories in three other anthologies.  She’s a member of Sisters in Crime/Los Angeles and blogs monthly at https://ladiesofmystery.com/ .

For more about Sally Carpenter and her books, go to http://sandyfairfaxauthor.com/   Reach her on Facebook or email her at:  scwriter@earthlink.net .

 

 

*This blog article is posted for Sally Carpenter by The Writers In Residence member, Jackie Houchin