Location Inspiration: Creamy Dreamy

Blog: What's the Big Idea?

Location Inspiration: Creamy Dreamy

When readers speak of the creative process, it seems they look for the origins of fictional locations, characters and events in one of two places: research or inspiration. Research for these purposes mostly means the writer immersing himself in a topic that goes on to form the non-fiction framework for fictional events. Inspiration, on the other hand, is viewed as something that materializes out of thin air.

But creativity often comes from needing something for storytelling purposes and reaching back into one’s memory to get it. That’s how it was for the store downstairs from Phu’s office.

Phu is an outsider and, as such, wasn’t going to work in a sleek office building unless there was a twist. I decided early on to put him on a commercial strip in a structure that once served as a house, and with a store downstairs. Having the proprietors be his landlords gave me the opportunity for banter and plot assistance. It also helps with character development, as I pretty quickly decided to contrast his sour posturing with the purpose of that store by making it a chocolate shop.

But the fictional shop didn’t come out of nowhere. When I pictured it, I saw in my mind a real-life bakery in Mt. Kisco, NY, near where I used to live. The store, called La Tulipe, occupies the ground floor of a small house in a neighborhood that has gone partly commercial. The outside is unimpressive, but when you go inside it glistens like the crystals within a geode.

I discovered La Tulipe shortly after it opened back in 1999. The owners, Maarten and Frances Steenman, are perfectionists (Maarten is the chef), and every bit of food in the shop bears out their attention to detail. The stuff almost looks too pretty to eat, but once you decide to violate its artistic integrity, you know that the taste will bring you back for more.

The store has become a great success — one of the best purveyors of high-end pastries in Westchester County, if not THE best — and I understand that they even provided desserts for Chelsea Clinton’s wedding.

I doubt he’d remember me, but I came to know Maarten a little bit through casual chats across the counter. Though trained mostly in Holland and Belgium, he makes a particular French dessert called a canellé, which gives you the experience of eating a creme brûlée impregnated in a miniature sponge cake. It requires a special copper mold, and he told me with great pride that many French people have never even seen one. As for me, I found it to be the apotheosis of cake: sweet, moist, a touch burnt sugar, simple yet complex.

Anyway, though Creamy Dreamy is a chocolate store — not a bakery exactly — it has echoes of this very real place. They’re physically similar, as I mentioned above. Also, at both Creamy Dreamy and La Tulipe, the men are the chefs and the women run the front of the store. And, finally, both Brad of Creamy Dreamy and Maarten of La Tulipe have a physical challenge that does not hold them back.

I never asked Maarten about his deformed hand (who would?), so I don’t know whether it’s the result of Thalidomide or some other birth defect. What’s most important is the fact that he overcame it, not only having a warm personality (he was always smiling when I saw him), but creating a productive business based upon — of all things — a tactile trade. It’s almost as if he saw the cards that life dealt him, doubled down, and won the whole pot.

From the perspective of fiction, these traits make for great possibilities in nuanced characterization. But that’s a subject for another day. The point today is that Creamy Dreamy neither came from research nor got conjured out of thin air. It was inspired by real people in a real place.

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