The Lady Who Lives in the Walls

Elmira Shelton does not have the instant name recognition of Zelda Fitzgerald, wife of F. Scott Fitzgerald, or Hadley Richardson, the first wife of Ernest Hemingway. For starters, Elmira did not marry her famous writer paramour; secondly, she played down their relationship when asked about it after his mysterious death in Baltimore. Not one, but two engagements to the most famous writer of macabre fiction—or, as some contend, the creator of the detective genre and a forerunner of the science fiction genre—makes the rather stern-looking woman depicted in daguerreotypes a worth subject of further investigation. Edgar Allan Poe saw something in Elmira Shelton that propelled him to declare his love for her not once but twice, despite resistance from her father when she was a teenager and from her children and brothers when she was a thirty-eight-year-old widow.

My interest in her is personal. I live with her. At least, I am fortunate to live in the house where she lived following the death of her husband from pneumonia after he allegedly fell in the James River. There is talk in my family of her continued presence in our house. My youngest daughter frightened her teachers at preschool when she told them that the figure she was drawing with white crayon on black paper was “Elmira, the lady in the walls.” By a strange coincidence, this daughter was named Annabel after the poem “Annabel Lee” years before I moved to Richmond and into the house associated with Poe.

The house stood empty for almost twenty years before we moved in. On the recommendation of mutual acquaintances the owner decided to entrust us with the precious house that he had lovingly restored. The day after we moved in my children were being their usually noisy selves—this time it involved a drum—when, all of a sudden, they stopped what they were doing.

“Mom, who is that?” asked my middle daughter, her face frozen in terror.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“A lady’s voice,” said my oldest daughter. “She said, “Who is it?” It was loud and clear. How could you not hear it?”

I had been sitting not three feet away from them and had heard nothing, yet they were so frightened we had to leave the house for the rest of the day.

Over these past holidays, the sister of one of my friends came to stay for three nights in my house. She had recently suffered the tragic loss of her young son. On the first night of her stay, she said she was woken by the rustle of a lady’s skirts on the stairs, but instead of being disturbed she found it comforting that Elmira might still be presiding over her house.

Elmira’s husband left her a widow at age 34 with a $100,00 fortune that his will stipulated she would lose three quarters of if she remarried. That amount in 1844 would be equivalent to about $2,2 million today. After his death, the widow Shelton went on to live another 44 years and never remarried. Her first love, Edgar, who would have become her second husband, died less than a month after their engagement.

Living in a historic house connected to the a writer with a large and devout following, even 165 years after his death, can be interesting. People walk through the front gate and stroll in the backyard as though it is a public park. Others circle the house peering through the windows, while the bold try the door and ask if they can see inside.

My children, although spooked by the strangers on the property, love to see the trolley tours stop outside our house. Tourists on these trolleys—whether they like it or not—are treated to waving, shouted greetings, impromptu dances in the windows of the house and an exhibition of stuffed animals. On Saturday nights in summer my children wait up with excited anticipation for the arrival of the walking ghost tours that stop outside our house. As the guide talks about blighted love, dead wives and husbands, ravens, and nevermore, my children turn out all the lights, creep to the front door, and slowly flip the mail slot up and down to try and scare the tour participants.

While my children have overcome their fear of living in the house and have come to talk of “the lady who lives in the walls” as calmly as they would of any neighbor, I remain in awe of the history of this house. The most famous American writer of all time waited in my living room one Sunday morning upon his return to Richmond after a long absence. As Elmira readied herself to attend a service at St. John’s Church across the street, she was told that there was a gentleman caller in the parlor. Imagine her shock when she saw that it was Edgar. They had not laid eyes on each other since a chance meeting twelve years before at a party when she was with her husband and he with his wife. That he may have stared into the fireplace with his brooding, dark eyes as he waited for her and paced the very floorboards on which I now walk would move anyone—not only a writer who named her youngest child Annabel.

Poe’s famous poem, Tamerlane, is widely thought of as an ode to the loss of Elmira in his youth.

“We grew in age-and love-together,

Roaming the forest, and the wild;

My breast her shield in wintry weather-

And when the friendly sunshine smil’d,

And she would mark the opening skies,

I saw no Heaven-but in her eyes.”

I wonder if Poe believed that he would rekindle his love with the girl in whose eyes he saw heaven when he wrote that poem in 1827? And when Elmira was married to Mr. Shelton, did she read these words in secret with a blush on her cheeks? I like to think of her in her widowhood, locking herself in her bedroom—in my house—and reading these words with a sense of nostalgia for the happiness she had felt with Edgar as a young girl, a nostalgia for her lost love, her lost youth, and for what might have been had her father not intercepted their letters all those years ago.

Making the jump from fiction writing to copywriting

After four novels, two children’s picture books, a play and a growing collection of short stories I have begun a parallel career in copywriting. Everything in publishing takes a long time, from waiting for a response to submissions to receiving royalty checks. Copywriting seems like a sensible choice for writers with bills to pay.

How do I make this jump, though, without betraying the craft of fiction writing that I have studied, practiced and revered? Do I forsake the showing rather than telling? Do I not climb the ladder of abstraction from the bottom, where its feet rest in the specifics of damp, granular earth, to the top, where it emerges in swirling clouds of lofty themes—never for a minute pausing at the bureaucratic, woolly speech of the middle? Do I leave behind the building of characters through muscled details—the steel tipped boots, the shaved head, the tattoo of a pair of dice—never using flabby words such as tough, mean and intimidating? Do I forget I ever learned to make things represent other things? Will that circling peregrine falcon that stands in for the character’s fear of death forever be left floating on thermal currents?

As it turns out, there are similarities between fiction and copywriting. Important ones. For ad copy, nothing sells like a good story with an emotional hook. The mother with a terrible cold who takes NyQuil so that she can drag herself out of bed to attend her daughter’s dance recital. The father who gets behind the wheel of his all-wheel-drive station wagon in a blizzard to drive his wife to the maternity ward on time. Make people feel the message and they are more likely to buy the product. Make readers feel what your characters are experiencing and they are more likely to read to the end and buy your second book.

The most effective copywriting uses a conversational tone—as if the reader is a friend sitting across the table from us in a coffee shop. It sounds like chatting but without superfluous words. It sounds like…dialogue. Perhaps copywriting will help me write snappier dialogue in my short stories.

I have discovered that the ladder of abstraction is just as relevant in copywriting. People want to experience the grit—the boys playing soccer in the dirt next to an informal settlement in Africa—just as much as they want to connect with the overarching theme of global oneness. Nobody wants to hear the pedagogic speak of the middle of the ladder, unless it’s to convey instructions in an infomercial. Themes have to reveal themselves in far less time than they do in fiction, which could help me to coral the elements of my short stories under their themes right from the first page. With diligence there might be less revision in my future.

It seems that I should have to betray my craft to write copy. After all, I am selling something. But like it or not, when we write fiction we are selling. We have to make our readers believe that we have transported them to the Caribbean coast of Colombia in the late nineteenth century or to small rural towns in Ontario, Canada, in the 1950’s. That is selling. We have to sell our characters as strong women or victims—or a little of both. Perhaps this will be a two-way street; copywriting will help me create more vivid characters in my fiction, ones whom readers will buy into with less persuasion.

It’s a jump from writing fiction to writing copy, but their skill sets are complementary and, with any luck, might just be enhanced by each other.