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.
“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.”
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.