During an episode of Benedict Cumberbach’s delightful run of Sherlock Holmes, there’s a scene where he talks about the first case he ever solved. In it, he explicates a boy’s shoes, delivering a monologue about how the kid clearly had eczema on his fingers because of the fray on the shoe’s shoelaces. He goes on about how precious the shoes must’ve been for the boy; the care he took in cleaning them, the pride he must’ve felt wearing them, etc. and he uses this accumulation of detail to concoct a window-like story about the boy, a glimpse of who he was.
Incidentally, this diatribe also illustrates one of the defining aspects of character.
People don’t wear their shoes.
They are their shoes.
Think about it. The average person has, like, 1-5 pairs of shoes (thank you, madeupstats.com). And if you can glean information about someone based on their clothing, doesn’t it make sense the most information you can glean from someone is from the piece of clothing they wear the most?
Even if someone’s shoe-obsessed and own dozens of pairs of shoes you can use that to deduce information about a person’s character—maybe they are vain, rich, or fickle; maybe they’re a shoe fetishist, or enjoy cross-dressing, or are poor because they spend all their money on Louis Vuittons; maybe because they have so many shoes their shoes are never broken-in, so they’re constantly shifting and grimacing and cranky.
You wear the shoe, you wear the shoe, and in return, the shoe wears you. There are, I feel, when you’re Sherlocking an individual, a few details you should prioritize:
1. The particular kind of wear on a shoe can tell us something about a person. For example, I am right-handed, and dominant hands tend to be paralleled by a dominant foot. In this case, my right foot. My boots wear more on the right heel than the left. Additionally, my boot heels round symmetrically as they wear—a result of my robot-like stride, which is an echo of the many, many hours I spent in high school performing in a Texas high school marching band.
2. The type of shoe gives information about its wearer—cleats: sports; unblemished Converses: poser; rounded, clompy slip-ons: nurse.
3. The brand of a shoe also can tell us something about the shoe’s wearer—people who like running and soccer tend to, I’ve noticed, wear Adidas. Men who wear Toms usually own non-blue/khaki slacks. Women who walk around in high heels during the day in New York tend to be tourists.
4. And what you pair with those shoes gives a certain amount of information as well. Someone with new kicks and dark jeans is probably fashionable, while someone with lusterless work boots and jeans probably doesn’t own a shoe cleaning kit. Someone in boyfriend jeans and sandals is likely going out for groceries, and someone in skirts and sneakers is going to work and has a pair of flats in her purse (btw, they’re carrying a purse).
By piecing these little details together, you can solve mysteries of identity with a single glance.
The caveat here is that this is total bullshit.
Got ya there, didn’t I?
This is a writing post, so obviously this is going to be about writing. And while I enjoy the nuanced details of Holmes’s shoe-based deductions, nuance is a fickle thing, and it’s just as likely, say, someone’s shoelaces are frayed because they own a malicious feline or suffer from recurring hangnail as it is because they have eczema. The deductions in Sherlock’s world are always obscenely specific, and it’s likely not repeatable even by the most intuitive mind.
Luckily, as writers, we conjure up world where we already know what’s going down. We don’t need intuition, because it’s our will that builds worlds.
Describing a character’s shoes is what I refer to as an “opportunity space” in writing. It’s a single element of a character that can provide years of information because, like the readers/viewers of Sherlock Holmes, we want to be given information about characters, particularly when the method of description gives us a little work to do. (Ah, yes, the frayed laces! Eczema! Of course! It makes so much sense!) Information in writing has to be delivered economically, in digestible bits, and describing with exactness a character’s shoes can provide a wealth of information while avoiding pages of purple prose.
I dislike it when writers are flippant about their characters’ footwear. It’s inauthentic. One of the biggest commitments a character has in a book is to their shoes. Shoes, like plot, are the thing that shuttle characters from point A to point B. I can’t think of many books where the character didn’t change shoes without it Being A Big Deal. Sometimes characters change footwear to appropriate the culture they’ve entered; think of Daenerys’s costume change once she becomes Drogo’s bride and fully adopts his culture. Sometimes it’s to show major conflict and change in a character—I recently finished the third book in Laini Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke and Bones series, and Zuzana’s abandonment of her mangled, zebra-striped sneakers gives agency to the idea that she too has had something in her removed, that the girl who wore those sneakers has transformed into the woman that discarded them. Sometimes it’s to set the scene or its timbre, to let the reader know what will happen next; sneakers for a jog, Oxfords for an interview, boots for a hike, rollerblades for some misguided attachment to the 90’s.
In addition to being an opportunity space for describing a character, a character’s shoes can be their starting point too, a literal “building from the ground up” that describes a character while giving the reader insight to their personality.
This is where Sherlock Holmes and Writer’s Block comes in.
Prior to my plunge into writing science fiction I suffered from a serious bout of writer’s block. I had ideas, but I was incredibly insecure about their execution. (Still am, but I’m writing now. That’s for a different post.) Then one of my friends suggested I write short stories about people I observed during my three hours of daily commuting in New York City. At first I balked at the idea, but then I realized I was already doing it—looking at people’s shoes and making up stories about the person wearing them. The only difference now was I started to write them down. I don’t do it often, but, as I’ve mentioned in a previous post, creativity breeds creativity, and in penning down these short descriptions of other commuters I managed to rebuild my confidence and banish my writer’s block.
(And yes, the key to getting rid of writer’s block is to write. Any other advice you read is a platitude.)
It’s what I call my Holmes-work. I hope to, just by noting specific details of someone’s clothes, starting with their shoes, to create a narrative for a stranger. It avoids all the pitfalls of writing: there’s no investment beyond a bout of logorrhea; it doesn’t matter if it’s beautiful or banal; no one will read it or judge it; and it exercises the creative descriptive parts of your pen-brain, you know, the ones you use to describe a scene, a gesture, a moon. It’s a way to write when you don’t think you can, because you just need to write what you see and see where what you write takes you.
Here’s a sample, plucked from my iPhone:
Pointed suede black boots low-heeled and calf-high front toe scuff left (left-footed & clumsy?) pantyhose nylon black skirt iPod not iPhone clutched in her hand orange ear buds fierce black fitted blouse pleather cracked purse thick dreads dangle chest-high jacket also black too light for the weather but nicer than her shoes cashmere blend wide forehead lips pursed as if thinking not reading not bobbing her head to music (podcast?) acne scars on her cheeks striking profile the kind that belongs on a coin eyes set slightly too far apart like Manga.
From here, I let my mind wander. Here was a woman, dressed entirely in black, a young professional, who had something serious on her mind. (Presumably.) On this day, evidently, I was thinking of my loudass upstairs neighbors and death (I guess?) and, when I combined my subconsciousness with my explication I came up with this:
She is a clerical worker for a high-end mausoleum real estate agency that specializes in making sure its undead customers are kept happy and resting in peace. Recently a band of heroes has come into her graveyard and killed one of their lesser tenants who coincidentally was in need of having their mausoleum rental contract renewed so some of the tenants are now worried not renewing their contract will lead to execution, ie eviction by execution. She is attempting to negotiate with the tenants but some are prone to violence and she ends up needing the services of the heroes to act as her agency’s muscle. In the end the whole thing was entirely planned by a Dracula character that was tired of the victim’s/his neighbor’s loud music.
See? It’s not genius, but I can guarantee you I had no idea it was going to end up like that!
So go out and stare at people and then write something. You may be surprised what happens next.