I can vividly picture Times Square in 2018. It's a cesspool of lights and people, truly hideous advertising, and architectural crimes.
But I'm not writing Times Square in 2018. I'm writing it in 1923, and I know it's still a cesspool but damn me if I don't need a little more detail than that, and that is why I spent a solid hour spiraling over the location of the enormous Wrigley's sign.
Here's the story:
One of my characters is visiting a friend. The friend is staying in the Hotel Astor, which existed on the west side of Broadway between 44th and 45th.
Okay! Let's take a look at my first stab at this, which I wrote during NaNoWriMo this year.
Max had nearly choked on his drink. "Ev, what are you doing here?"
"Came to see you, darling. Can we go, please?" The bartender was starting to notice him with narrowed eyes. The Astor crowd was more restrained, and next to the black-suited men that crowded around the bar Ev stood out like a cheap necklace. What he needed was to speak to Max in private.
Five floors up, Max's room overlooked Times Square and was bright with the light of streetlamps and flashing neon signs. Ev circled in front of the windows while Max poured them a drink.
So this lacks flavor, doesn't it? The interaction with the bartender was driven by the HISTORY FACT ALERT that the Astor bar was a famous meeting place for gay men as long ago as the 1910s, but gay men were expected to congregate at one end of the bar, and straight men at the other, so that nobody got freaky.
My character, Ev, is very visibly queer, and wouldn't be terribly welcome at the Astor bar.
After NaNo I did an edit pass on this part of the book that was largely focused on simplifying the language, and streamlining events.
He walked slowly back towards Times Square and the Astor Hotel. Ev stood out here like a cheap necklace, but he found Max's room all right. It overlooked Times Square from five floors up, and it was bright with the light of street lamps and flashing neon signs. Max was surprised to see him, but let him in and poured him a drink anyways.
I dropped the bartender interaction because it derailed the scene. Instead, we've got a little more focus on the area. But neon and street lamps and blah. It's all so generic. What we need. What we really need.
Is some flavor.
Enter the Wrigley's sign.
This horrible sign came to my attention when I was desperately googling "TIMES SQUARE 1920s" over and over as if I could take the temperature of a place via Google search. Well, you can take the temperature of a place via the New York Public Library, which offered this article. The Changing Face of Times Square is a compressed history full of delicious photos:
The Wrigley’s sign seen above was in place from 1917-1924 and was a full block long. Crowds would come just to stare at this sign, and during World War I, it helped to promote war bond sales.
Now that is flavor. My story needed this ENORMOUS WRIGLEY'S SIGN.
A cursory Google search revealed a postcard for a TEN-STORY TALL WRIGLEY'S SPEARMINT GUM ELECTRIC SPECTACULAR SIGN. And where was it?
Why, it extended a full block from 44th to 45th streets on the east side of Broadway.
Okay, but this Wrigley's sign was supposed to be from 1936 and my Wrigley's sign was in 1923. I needed photographic proof of the Wrigley's sign co-existing with the Astor, and I wanted it to be on the east side of Broadway, so help me God.
At this point a reasonable person, seeing that they were mere pages from finishing an edit pass, may have decided to leave the precise historical placement of the Enormous Wrigley's Sign for a time that wasn't 10 p.m the night before a work trip. Not so! I needed the GUM SIGN, BABY.
Of course there's a crucial piece of information missing here, and it's that I already knew where the freaking Wrigley's sign was.
It's at this point that I'd like to emphasize that I don't get all my historical info from late-night Google searches, but when I do, I fixate on ephemera for no reason.
So the sign wasn't, as far as I know, perfectly across Broadway from the Astor. But like, good enough, so let's count this as a victory.
Give me the flavor
Here's how the scene turned out after my emotional spiral was over, and I had internalized hundreds of photos of the hotel:
The Astor was right on Broadway; a French-looking building in bright red brick with stripes of white, and a green roof. It used to be the finest thing in the Square. Now it squatted over the cars and trolleys packed nose-to-tail, and the flashing signs for department stores starched collar shirts, cigarettes, gum, and the latest revue.
Inside, it was still the Astor. Ev stood out here like a cheap necklace.
Max was surprised to see him, but let him in and poured him a drink anyways. It wasn't so noisy up here, but the huge Wrigley's sign across the street washed the room in waves of green light.
"You're closer to your editors here," Ev commented. "But then I suppose you've gotten to enjoy them battering on your door, isn't that right?"
As you can see, almost everything changed from my NaNo draft to my current one, except I'm super attached to the description of Ev as a cheap necklace.
What I like about where it ended up is that — hopefully — it says all we need to know about interior of the hotel in two sentences, while also describing my character. This was a rich-ass hotel, with multiple themed ballrooms and fancy restaurants. It had a rooftop garden, because New York is New York and we fucking love rooftops. Presidents partied there.
(And now it's a high-rise! Never forget!!)
Anyway, thanks for joining me on my hell-journey into Google. Don't look up "WRIGLEY'S SIGN TIMES SQUARE 1920s," it's deeply unhelpful and wrong.