On Ray Bradbury, Pat Conroy, Renaissance Fairs, and setting as a character in a story

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Fair
A setting, especially one like a Renaissance fair, can be more than just a stage where stuff happens. A setting can be, almost, a character in the story instory. I think it should be.

If you’re going to set a novel at a Renaissance fair, the fair itself needs to be … something special. It needs to be something that speaks to all those people who love Renaissance fairs enough to go to them year after year after year. It must invoke laughter, music, and memories. It must invoke story.

As I mentioned before, I think a large part of the magic of a Renaissance fair has to do with with the communities that seem to spring up there. There’s more, though. After all, those communities form and thrive at Ren fairs, not at, say, office buildings, coffee shops, or shopping malls.

Something about that setting, that specific place, calls us, or about five million of us, anyway. A story set at a Renaissance fair probably couldn’t, or shouldn’t, be set anywhere else — not even a similar event like, say, a science fiction/fantasy convention or an SCA event.

Can you imagine Charles de Lint’s Moonheart or his Newford stories set anywhere else? What about Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory? How much do the fog-shrouded streets of London add to the stories of Sherlock Holmes, or to the novels of Charles Dickens? What is Heathcliff without his moors? I don’t think the stories that take Tarzan away from his jungle ever really work.

Place is important.

A story’s setting can be more than just a stage, it can be more than just a place where stuff happens. It can be a deep part of the story’s fabric. More, I’ll argue it can be almost a character in the story. That’s a lesson I learned from two of my very favorite writers: Ray Bradbury and Pat Conroy.

Mr. Bradbury, who was a dear friend, and Mr. Conroy share a lot in common — both were absolute masters of elegant, lovely prose, both were heavily influenced by events in their childhood, and both wove stories that are absolutely drenched in a sense of place. I am thinking of Mr. Bradbury’s Greentown, his Mars, and his carnivals, and of Mr. Conroy’s coastal Carolina.

Place is so important to Mr. Conroy that he includes these lines near the beginning of The Prince of Tides:

“To describe our growing up in the Lowcountry of South Carolina, I would have to take you to the marsh on a spring day, flush the great blue heron from its silent occupation. Scatter marsh hens as we sink to our knees in mud, open you an oyster with a pocketknife and feed it to you from the shell and say, ‘There. That taste. That’s the taste of my childhood.’ I would say, ‘Breathe deeply,’ and you would breathe and remember that smell for the rest of your life, the bold, fecund aroma of the tidal marsh, exquisite and sensual, the smell of the South in heat, a smell like new milk, semen, and spilled wine, all perfumed with seawater.”

Those lines are gorgeous enough to be heartbreaking, but Mr. Conroy doesn’t write them just to fill his pages with pretty prose. No. They’re important. They bring to life a primal landscape that shaped the narrator as a character, as a person, as surely as any parent (another important factor in Mr. Conroy’s work). The Lowcountry is a character.

Ray Bradbury, too, will always be one of the great masters of place and season. Here, for example, are the opening lines of his novel Something Wicked This Way Comes:

“First of all, it was October, a rare month for boys. Not that all months aren’t rare. But there be bad and good, as the pirates say. Take September, a bad month: school begins. Consider August, a good month: school hasn’t begun yet. July, well, July’s really fine: there’s no chance in the world for school. June, no doubting it, June’s best of all, for the school doors spring wide and September’s a billion years away.

But you take October, now. School’s been on a month and you’re riding easier in the reins, jogging along. You got time to think of the garbage you’ll dump on old man Prickett’s porch, or the hairy-ape costume you’ll wear to the YMCA the last night of the month. And if it’s around October twentieth and everything smoky-smelling and the sky orange and ash gray at twilight, it seems Halloween will never come in a fall of broomsticks and a soft flap of bedsheets around corners.”

I talked to Mr. Bradbury about his experiences working on Disney’s film version of Something Wicked This Way Comes. He said he was always telling the director, “‘It’s autumn. We need more leaves.

“The director would scowl at me and say, ‘I’m getting tired of hearing about your damn leaves!’

“I’d tell him, ‘I have to talk about them. They’re important. Now go down to central casting and hire me ten thousand leaves!'”

Mr. Bradbury understood the truth: autumn in a small town, and the coming of a carnival … those elements are as crucial to the story as any character, hero or villain. Place and time give the story mood and texture, sure, but they also, in some subtle way that defies analysis, shape and push the characters in ways that, usually, in the hands of lessor writers, only other characters can.

PirateShip2
Where else but a Renaissance Festival might one plausibly find a landlocked pirate ship selling swords? Well?

I’m trying to take those lessons to heart in my own writing, especially Blackthorne Faire, my novel that’s set at a Renaissance Festival, a place that’s so rich with scents of beer and frying meats, with sound — music, laughter, shouts — and colors, oh, so many, many colors. That’s easier said than done, especially when one is attempting to learn from masters like Mr. Conroy and Mr. Bradbury.

First, both men are very concrete with the details they provide … think of how Mr. Bradbury talks about season, something core to the very heart of his story. Think about how Mr. Conroy moves far, far beyond visual description to invoke scents, sensations, even tastes? All of those details combine to create a sense of place and time that does more than simply flavor a story. They are ingredients, not mere seasoning. Meat, not salt.

I started in a prologue set decades in the past by attempting to describe the place where the Blackthorne Faire Renaissance Festival will someday be built:

All Hallows Eve, 1936

In later years, the vast suburban sprawl of Atlanta will bleed outward like kudzu to cover the hills and hollows that surround the O’Brien farm with subdivisions and mini-malls. But not yet. Now the city is too much in the future to be a part of life here. It is distant, a dream, like New York or Paris, or the Pyramids in Egypt. The southern hills burn with rich color, fire and rust—a thousand million shades of orange, yellow, and apple red set against a deep and enduring background of evergreen beneath the brilliant, sapphire blue sky of an autumn long past. The old year has dressed in its finery for one last hurrah before the winter frosts come to soothe it away to memory. Breathe! Taste air crisp and heavy with the scents of pumpkin, sweet applewood smoke, dying leaves, and the last wild Georgia blackberries. Breathe, and autumn fills you like spiced wine.

Season is important in my novel, too.

Next, I introduce the fair from the point of view of the two main characters, Erin and Brian. Starting with Erin:

Cloaked in pre-dawn fog, the Blackthorne Faire Renaissance Festival waited quietly, an empty stage, curtain drawn and lights dim, a story waiting to be told. Empty pathways wound hither and yon around the plaster-stone façade of a castle and through faux half-timbered Tudor shop fronts with their sloping roofs of slate or thatch, hiding secrets and surprises the way a carnival does before the barker lets loose his first shout. Erin Winter loved it.

The hush would vanish soon; in a few hours it would melt away with morning’s gray mist. The cast, sleeping off the remnants of the past night’s revels in the employee campground behind the back gate, would whisper, giggling and moaning and sharing hangover cures as they washed the cottony thickness of bourbon’s sweet rot from yawning mouths and slipped into costume and character. And then, when the first guests passed the gates like tourists through a magic wardrobe, the air would ring with music, laughter, and carefully practiced (and more or less convincing) English accents. The guests would breathe deeply, tasting the wind of another time, heavy with the scents of beer and sun and roasting meat. The performance spaces would welcome jugglers, jesters, and musicians, and every stage would boast a marvel. Since this was the last weekend of the fair’s spring run, the crowds would be large and boisterous.

Soon, soon. But not yet.

Walking alone, Erin could almost taste a hint of magic in the chilly mist, some witchery that carried her away from the field north of Atlanta and deposited her in the bright watercolor pages of a favorite book. To Erin’s eye, shadows ringing knotted oak trees hid mysteries, and rings of toadstools marked the places where fae creatures danced in wild circles washed in the light of the full moon. The morning brought a breeze, enough to stir dust from the dirt pathway had seasons after seasons of foot traffic not packed it nearly as hard as the cobblestones that paved the main paths. She found a penny, but it was face down so she didn’t pick it up. Instead, she turned it over to let someone else find it and have the luck. She found herself wishing, suddenly, that she had more time to twirl and wander through the still morning looking for hidden luck. But she didn’t. Her friend Caitlin McGregor waited in the makeshift fair-site apartment above the shop she shared with her husband, Carter.

A sorceress with cloth and bric-a-brac, Caitlin stitched colorful frocks and doublets that delighted fair patrons and cast members alike. When Erin had spilled red wine down the front of her usual garb while making a little too merry at the cast revels, Caitlin had promised a new dress. “Oh, I’ve got something that’ll do, dear. It’ll just want a little touch or two here and there.” Erin hummed a bit of an old Celtic morning tune mingled with a snatch of classic REM and hurried along.

The shop was tucked neatly into the village square just before the paths rose toward the rocky bluffs behind the festival’s back gate, and just inside the rushing stream that bordered the western edge of the site. Caitlin and Carter were already up and about; Erin heard their laughter and light morning conversation, and her belly rumbled as she drank the scents of fresh coffee and sizzling bacon.

Brian’s first impression is different. To him, the fair seems loud, crowded, and tawdry. His opinion changes, though, as he himself grows as a character:

Brian didn’t answer; he simply listened, and in the notes and chords he heard more than melody. He heard the sounds of the fair, not as it was, but as Erin knew it. He listened, and suddenly the costumes around him seemed no longer puerile or gaudy, but bright and merry, spun from rainbows. Erin played, and Brian heard the music of earth and wood and hidden cities forgotten by time and the march of years, of wild toadstools growing in rings beneath the shadows of the deepest heart of a forest. Shop façades and stage flats vanished like canvas hidden by an artist’s brush, replaced by tall castles and welcoming village squares, alive with people and stories. Brian gasped and turned, taking it all in with eyes and mouth wide open. The music shook him, gently, tenderly, like a caress, a touch as soft and full of promise as a first kiss. The tune changed, and Brian heard the sounds of May and the birth of spring, of robins and blue jays, of butterflies and newborns and damp earth. He heard wind and whispers and the buzzing of bumblebees so fat with nectar they could barely flit from flower to blazing flower. He heard the song of streams swelled by melting ice flowing down, down, ever down to join silver rivers leaping over smooth stones.

What makes people change? What makes characters in stories grow? Experiences, certainly. But I think interactions with others, friends, family, lovers, even enemies, change us even more.

Place, though, place defines us. It shapes us from birth. Pat Conroy showed us that. We are never so lonely again after when find a place to truly call home, because we always have, somewhere, a place to belong. I think place can change us, too. It’s no coincidence that quests and pilgrimages involve a journey.

One of my characters in The Widening Gyre, another of my stories, learns that very lesson:

Seeing a new region changes you, I think, because it makes the world you know that much bigger. And it adds to the store of beauty you keep secreted away in your heart and your attics of memory.

In that sense, settings, at least in the hands of masters like Mr. Bradbury and Mr. Conroy, are characters. That’s a lesson I’m still struggling to learn. Blackthorne Faire needs to be a character as fully realized, in its way, as Erin and Brian.

I’d love to know what y’all think.

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On Renaissance Fairs and the Feeling of Being Lost in a Story

On Renaissance Fairs and the Feeling of Being Lost in a Story

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Why do I love Renaissance fairs so much? Why do I love them enough to have written a book about one? One answer, I think, is because when I step through the gates, I feel like I’ve fallen into the pages of a story.

FairEntrance3
It’s not exactly a magic wardrobe, true, but I can’t help feeling like it’s a gateway into a story. By the way, the woman in the hat and the white shirt (walking away from the camera) is my lovely wife, Carol.

I was the kid who grew up spending way, way too much time reading under the covers with a flashlight, and standing in line to see The Empire Strikes Back on opening night. My love for story  has been a part of the very core of my being since … well, as long as I can remember.

I don’t think I’m alone in that.

There is something intrinsic in our collective identity as human beings that makes us strive to find narrative in anything and everything, including, perhaps most of all, the chaotic happenstance of our daily lives. There is something in us that recognizes (or creates … toe-MAY -toe/toe-MAH-toe) patterns, and weaves them into meaning.

We recognize, somehow, that our lives are more than just episodes and coincidences. We respond to stories because we recognize in them the way we’re meant to live, something that we’re supposed to be. We are, all of us, the makers of stories. I am fond of something Alan Kay of the Walt Disney Company said:

“Why was Solomon recognized as the wisest man in the world? Because he knew more stories than anyone else. Scratch the surface in a typical boardroom and we’re all just cavemen with briefcases, hungry for a wise person to tell us stories.”

For me, for that kid reading under the covers way past bedtime, it wasn’t enough just to read a story. For reasons I couldn’t begin to articulate at the time, I longed to be in a story. I wanted to visit Narnia, to climb the hills of Prydain, to brave the forests of the Commonwealth, or sip a pint at the Prancing Pony in Bree.

When I visit a Renaissance festival … something I try to do single year, even if I seldom succeed … I’m that kid again. I’m turning a tattered cover and finding myself lost in another place, another time. I’be broken through the page and found myself, just for that fleeting moment, in a story.

KidsPlaying
I don’t know what their story is … but there’s a part of me that envies them for it. By the way, the little girl on the left was laughing, not crying. My picture was not well timed.

I’ve noticed something else about Renaissance fairs and stories. There is something in both of them that inspires communities.

Recently, my business partners and I incubated our own publishing company, Gramarye Media (the world’s first cross-media story incubator) through Georgia Tech’s Flashpoint program.

As a part of our research, we spent a lot of time talking to readers. One of the things we learned (it didn’t really come as a surprise, I confess) was that many readers long for community … to be with people like them. Many equate their best and dearest friends with people who love the same stories. When you find those rare someones (it’s a lot easier now in the days of Internet communities), there’s an instant connection.

C.S. Lewis put it like this in The Four Loves:

“Friendship … is born at the moment when one man says to another “What! You too? I thought that no one but myself . . .”

There is, in my experience at least, an instant assumption of kinship when you meet someone who loves the stories you do … a feeling that this person is like me in a way that other people aren’t. The other person has to do something dastardly indeed to break that assumption of immediate friendship.

In doing our research for Flashpoint, we saw that some people had communities that they counted among their very dearest friends … even though they’d never met in person.

I found those same communities, or ones very much like them, at Renaissance fairs … among people who attend them and among people who perform there. These people have stories, all of them. The casts at Ren fairs always seemed especially close, and, deep in the heart, I always wanted to be a part of those fellowships. I never was — I had neither the time nor (alas) the talent. That’s one of the sadnesses of my life.

IK
His Majesty, Ik, King of the Trolls

When I first started researching my own Renaissance Fair novel, Blackthorne Faire, I asked Mr. Bryan Thompson (AKA Ik, King of the Trolls)* for help. He very kindly invited me to a gathering of the cast of the Georgia Renaissance Festival after the fair had ended on a Sunday night. We met at a long table at a nearby Mexican restaurant, and we ate and drank and laughed late into the night. I listened, and they told stories.

There was a community there, dear and close, made more so by the fact that (as with so many of the best theatre companies) they knew their fellowship was a temporary one, bright and gone like the flash of a falling star.

I found that I envied them.

I was a welcome guest, but I wasn’t a part of their community, of their story, and I never really could be. But I loved it all the same. Like a reader glimpsing Narnia or Middle-earth distantly, through the dark glass of the page, I was only a visitor, and my time among them was short.

Funny though … all those years later, I still think about that night. I am probably the only one who does; it was one of many for them, and I doubt anyone was wise enough to recognize how precious it was, how soon they would scatter without ever recognizing that one night that was their last together. But in me, though, that night is preserved, in all its giddy glory. I will always be the outsider in that family, the traveler passing, but I remember. Maybe an outsider is the only one who can.

And maybe that’s my role in this story. I remember, and I tell. I can’t be a part of that story. But I can remember it, I reshape it into new patterns, and I can tell it. Hence, Blackthorne Faire.

*By the way, his Highness King Ik has a cameo or two in Blackthorne Faire.

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Welcome to Blackthorne Faire!

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Cloaked in pre-dawn fog, the Blackthorne Faire Renaissance Festival waited quietly, an empty stage, curtain drawn and lights dim, a story waiting to be told. Empty pathways wound hither and yon around the plaster-stone façade of a castle and through faux half-timbered Tudor shop fronts with their sloping roofs of slate or thatch, hiding secrets and surprises the way a carnival does before the barker lets loose his first shout. Erin Winter loved it.

The hush would vanish soon; in a few hours it would melt away with morning’s gray mist. The cast, sleeping off the remnants of the past night’s revels in the employee campground behind the back gate, would whisper, giggling and moaning and sharing hangover cures as they washed the cottony thickness of bourbon’s sweet rot from yawning mouths and slipped into costume and character. And then, when the first guests passed the gates like tourists through a magic wardrobe, the air would ring with music, laughter, and carefully practiced (and more or less convincing) English accents. The guests would breathe deeply, tasting the wind of another time, heavy with the scents of beer and sun and roasting meat. The performance spaces would welcome jugglers, jesters, and musicians, and every stage would boast a marvel. Since this was the last weekend of the fair’s spring run, the crowds would be large and boisterous.

Soon, soon. But not yet.

 

Those paragraphs are from Blackthorne Faire, a novel I’ve completed recently. My literary manager, Mr. Peter Miller, the Literary Lion (believe me, he’s earned that title) of Global Lion Intellectual Property Management, is presently helping me shepherd it from manuscript to bookstores. It’s a new adult fantasy adventure with elements of paranormal romance, and it’s all set at a contemporary Renaissance festival.

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I didn’t dress up when I went to the fair to take these pictures, but so help me … I would have.

I have a confession to make. I love Renaissance festivals. I attend the Georgia Renaissance festival just about every year. And do you know what? I’d probably go more often if I could. Turns out, I’m not alone. Here are some fun facts about Renaissance festivals that you might not know:

  • More than five million people attended a Renaissance Festival in 2008 … twice.
  • There are at least 57 Renaissance Fairs in the United States.
  • There are many more Celtic, Old English, Medieval, and other closely related events.
  • Approximately 13,680,000 people attended a Renaissance Fair in the United States in 2013.
  • More than 65% of those people had previously attended a fair within 5 years and more than 37% plan to attend every year.
  • Celia Pearce, a professor at Northeastern (formerly at Georgia Tech) likes to say that Renaissance fairs are the biggest business in America that’s not on anybody’s radar.

So it turns out … I’m not alone. My wife Carol and I attended the last weekend of the Georgia Renaissance Festival. As we were leaving, she smiled and asked if I was having a good time. I could only grin and say … “these are my people.”

More importantly, I think the community of people who love Renaissance festivals — English and history majors, fantasy fans, music and drama lovers, costume aficionados, and all the rest — have stories to tell. 

In this blog, I’m going to tell some of those stories, and talk about the book, Blackthorne Faire, and its journey. To be honest, this is new to me. I’ve never blogged about a specific book before. I hope you’ll join me, and let me know what you think.

 

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