#lessons learned from #RayBradbury: #write #setting details that creep out #characters & #readers alike.

Autumn washes over Wisconsin with gold, crimson, orange, and steel. Rain keeps the farmland cold and wet, turning three pumpkin pickers into wet whiners.

Still, we manage to pick pumpkins without kicking them at the tractor like soccer balls (don’t ask about that year). Bo stocks our freezer with delicious apple pies. Time to settle in with some hot spiced cider and a spooky read.

Of course that book could be MY novel coming out on Halloween, but for now let’s study a classic, a book that makes my flesh crawl with every read. A book that won’t let you look at carousels the same way ever again.  A book whose language spellbinds and bewitches. A book whose film adaptation is…well, Jonathan Pryce and the music are amazing.

Oh, Ray Bradbury.

Oh, the magic you weave in Something Wicked This Way Comes.

Where does the magic begin?

The prologue, of course.

Something_wicked_this_way_comes_firstFirst 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 it 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.

But one strange wild dark long year, Halloween came early.

One year Halloween came on October 24, three hours after midnight.

The prologue goes on for just a little bit, but I want to focus on the setting here. The first paragraph establishes a unique focus: the autumn season through the eyes of a boy. Sure, we grown-ups might like the pretty colors. The little kids may be keen to jump into leaf piles. But we’re not talking about those age groups. We’re talking about boys, boys the age of 13, we learn. They’re not too old for pirate voices or costumes for Halloween, not too young for pranks about the town. Bradbury’s voice and choice in detail are going to reflect this “elder youth,” which come in a beautiful trio of sensory details in that second paragraph: “…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.” In a single sentence, Bradbury moves us from the boyish plans of Halloween to the smell, sight, and sound of late October. We are on the streets as child-ghosts float by in the dusk, adults sitting round their fire-pits in drive ways with chili and beer…

…oh wait. That’s Wisconsin now.

Timeless details, I tell you!

But it doesn’t end there. Let’s keep going a bit. I want to show you how just a few drops of sensory detail in the first chapters fill readers—and our protagonists—with foreboding before Cooger and Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show even arrives.

Take the opening of Chapter 1:

The seller of lightning rods arrived just ahead of the storm. He came along the street of Green Town, Illinois, in the late cloudy October day, sneaking glances over his shoulder. Somewhere not so far back, vast lightnings stomped the earth. Somewhere, a storm like a great beast with terrible teeth could not be denied.

Firstly, one doesn’t come across a traveling lightning rod salesman every day. Already, we have a touch of not-normal coming into a typical small town, the kind of town that builds on the railroad in the middle of farming country. That the man “sneaks glances over his shoulder” gives readers that sense of foreboding and intimidation. Were this man unafraid, he’d simply look back. But no—he’s “sneaking” the looks, just like Bash sneaks looks out of his bedroom door when the scary owl flies towards the television screen at the beginning of It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown.

9780553136951-usBradbury also instills a visual in readers of something not yet seen: the storm, a “great beast with terrible teeth.” A storm-sized monster “stomping” the earth surely cannot be stopped by mere mortals, can it?

By opening our first chapter with this storm, we already have a sense of “something wicked” coming—only the true wickedness is something else. Bradbury continues to use the storm, too, to crackle the setting and our senses: “Thunder sounded far off in the cloud-shadowed hills…The air smelled fresh and raw, on top of Jim Nightshade’s roof” (11, 12). Once more Bradbury touches our ears, eyes, and noses. The thunder may be “far off,” but the “cloud-shadowed hills” reveal its hiding place. We all love our “fresh” smells, so very pleasant and enjoyable, but “raw”? “Raw” immediately calls up bloody meat, yucky veg, skin cracked and bleeding beneath a dry cold.

These unsettling sensations follows protagonists Will and Jim to the library in Chapter 2. Now we’re in town, where something creeps along behind them, invisible yet…

Jim and Will grinned at each other. It was all so good, these blowing quiet October nights and the library waiting inside now with its green-shaded lamps and papyrus dust.

Jim listened. “What’s that?”

“What, the wind?”

“Like music…” Jim squinted at the horizon.

“Don’t hear no music.”

Jim shook his head. “Gone. Or it wasn’t even there. Come on!”(13)

Because only one ear catches it, both boys are quick to excuse this single-sense moment. But when the boys leave the library in Chapter 4, another single sense is touched again…

Mr. Crosetti, in front of his barber shop, his door key in his trembling fingers, did not see them stop.

What had stopped them?

A teardrop.

It moved shining down Mr. Crosetti’s left cheek. He breathed heavily. … “Don’t you smell it?”

Jim and Will sniffed.

“Licorice!”

“Heck, no. Cotton candy! … Now, my nose tells me, breathe! And I’m crying. Why? Because I remember how a long time ago, boys ate that stuff. Why haven’t I stopped to think and smell the last thirty years?”

…And they left him behind in a wind that very faintly smelled of licorice and cotton candy. (21-22)

Now we know that the boys aren’t the only ones catching a whiff, as it were, of something peculiar in the wind. Not only is this adult moved to concentrate on a single smell, but he’s moved to tears. This speaks to a longing inside the character, a want for what was.

For what’s coming.

With lightning and licorice, Bradbury tangles our senses with intrigue. We need to see what lightnings stomp in the hills. We need to see what brings the cotton candy so sweet the very scent of it makes a grown man cry.  As you write the first few chapters of your story, take a moment to drop setting details for a few senses, just enough to put the heroes–and readers–on edge.

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~And now, a brief excerpt from Fallen Princeborn: Stolen, coming this Halloween~

Don’t go. Stay here.

Charlotte’s hand presses the pendant into her sternum as if to cover
whatever’s cracked open inside her. It’s all she can touch—Anna’s out of reach,
she and every other passenger, their bodies floating about behind dimmed
windows. Does no one else smell the old oil and neglect, like meat burned down
to nothing? The way Jamie stands by the door, hands clasped behind him,
grinning like a choir boy, all pleased with himself, Charlotte knows, freakin’
knows, someone’s pulled an Ed Gein and made the bus seats out of bodies.

“Sweetheart, you’ve got to board, okay?” Maisy calls from the coach. “You
can’t stay here with me. It’ll take days to get the bus fixed.”

And you know you’re oversmelling it, Charlie, just like earlier with the
bears and shit. It’s just an old bus, is all. But Charlotte continues to hesitate.

“Hurry up, Charlie, let’s go!” her sister calls from a window. “They’ve got
food in here. And it’s all posh, come on!”

Jamie’s grin grows.

It’s just a bus. Charlotte decides, and tucks the necklace away.

DON’T GO.

Copy of We have all of us had our bloody days, Charlotte. For many it is easier to remain in them than to change. To change requires to face a past stained by screams.

~STILL SHOUTING FOR SHOUT OUTS!~

I can still take on a couple more plugs for my monthly newsletter From the Wilds of Jean Lee’s World. It’s a separate set of updates from that of WordPress.  If you have a book coming out, a book to sell, music, art–any creative endeavor’s worth shouting about! Just email me at jeanleesworld@gmail.com to snag a slot in a future edition.

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

 

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When Fiction Lives Down the Street

My town…

Hang on.

I can’t really call it that yet.

The thing about being a preacher’s kid is that we often moved where Dad felt God needed him most. This meant my family never really planted roots in any one town for very long. The concept of a “hometown” is still a bit lost on me, but I think Bo and I have found a place where our kids can grow, safe and happy.

There’s just one major street through our town, a farmer’s highway that connects several farming communities like ours to the capital.  We’re a very rare Wisconsin town: for having over 3,000 people, we can’t seem to keep our two bars open. Disgraceful!

Now, I called you here to this bland, wet street for a reason.

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Take a look at that big building with the peeling white paint.

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No name but “Mercantile.”

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We moved to this town two weeks before the boys were born (lesson learned: NEVER move while pregnant with twins), and in all that time I’ve never seen this store keep actual hours. It’ll go months without opening, and then suddenly early one Saturday morning its door will be open with stuff on the stairs. Weeks closed up. Monday night: open. Days closed up. Wednesday midday open, but Wednesday afternoon, closed. No pattern, no time. It’s gotten to the point where Bo and I will text each other every time it’s open, which of course only happens when we’re on the way to or from something with kids in tow.

One time I came home after grocery shopping with the kids to give Bo an hour’s quiet. “It’s open!” I say first thing. There’s no question what “It” is. “If you wanna go, I’ll stay with these guys.”

“No way,” he says while marking yet another historical inaccuracy in his umpteenth book about the Three Stooges. “I’m not losing my soul to Max Von Sydow. You go in.”

Max Von Sydow?”

“The movie Needful ThingsRemember?”

“Ooooh.” We’d watched the film based on the Stephen King book some time ago. The story was meh, but Von Sydow was wicked fun as LeLand Gaunt, demonic proprietor of a store selling only one’s most desperate desires. Somehow this conversation led to a wager about Stephen King books and films: We’d both read a King book with a film version and compare stories. I chose Needful Things while Bo chose The Shining (which I’d read and will NEVER read again.)

The films won, but that’s not the point here. As I read Needful Things, I started getting the heebie jeebies anytime I drove past the “Mercantile” of our town. Fiction’s supposed to be set in an Elsewhere, a source of escape. It’s not supposed to creep into my reality and stake a claim. Is it?

The display window of Needful Things had been cleansed of soap, and a dozen or so items had been set out there–clocks, a silver setting, a painting, a lovely triptch just waiting for someone to fill it with well-loved photographs. (43)

Suddenly Hugh looked like a tired little boy up long past his bedtime, a little boy who has just seen what he wants for Christmas–what he must have for Christmas, because all at once nothing else on God’s green earth would do. (77)

Here [Keeton’s] thoughts ceased. He was standing in front of the new store, Needful Things, and what he saw in the window drove everything else slap out of his mind for a moment or two. (212)

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There was a lot more merchandise in Needful Things on Friday; that was the important thing.

There was a music box, old and ornately carve–Mr. Gaunt said he was sure it played something unusual when it was opened, but he couldn’t remember just what…Mr. Gaunt did a fine business that day. Most of the items he sold were nice but in no way unique. He did, however, make a number of “special” deals, and all of these sales took place during those lulls when there was only a single customer in the store. (166-7)

Were we to enter that store, what would be waiting for Bo? For me? I remember posing that question to Bo once, and receiving a shrug in return. I think I know why, though. Despite Bo’s Amazon wish list being 14 pages long (at least shopping for him’s pretty easy) (and for the record, mine’s TWO pages, so, yeah), we’re both rather clear about what we miss most of all: our folks. That seems to be protagonist Alan’s immunity to Gaunt: still in mourning after the loss of his wife and son, Alan has no desire for any thing.

Alan stood looking into the display window for a long time. He found himself wondering what, exactly, all the shouting was about…Rosalie had made Needful Things sound like northern New England’s answer to Tiffany’s, but the china in the window…was rummage-sale quality at best…He cupped his hands to the glass in order to see beyond the display, but there was nothing to look at–the lights were off and the place was deserted. (223)

Still, I don’t think I’ll be taking any chances with my soul for a box of Diana Wynne Jones’ old story notes any time soon.

As if having such a store like “Mercantile” wasn’t eerie enough, we have our own carnival stationed year round. During the summer, it’s a nice place to take the kids for the afternoon. The rides are mostly geared for their size, being a collection of old drive-in theater cast-offs.

Once summer’s done, though, the place is stripped down to bones for winter. The pavement grips its quiet abandon. An old home with older memories, and neighbored by, of all dramatic places, a cemetery.

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A carnival should be all growls, roars like timberlands stacked, bundled, rolled and crashed, great explosions of lion dust, men ablaze with working anger, pop bottles jangling, horse buckles shivering, engines and elephants in full stampede through rains of sweat while zebras neighed and trembled like cage trapped in cage.

But this was like old movies, the silent theater haunted with black-and-white ghosts, silvery mouths opening to let moonlight smoke out, gestures made in silence so hushed you could hear the wind fizz the hair on your cheeks. (51-2)

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How does this NOT make one think of Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes? I knew the movie as a child, and read the book in college. The book wins for better imagery, character, plot, and everything else in spades (though Jonathan Pryce was brilliant for Mr. Dark, and as I listen now to the score by James Horner, I will concede that Disney managed to get a couple things right).

In-season, though, it’s easy to forget these things. Even in the book, Will and Jim see an ordinary carnival come daylight:

And the deeper they went, the more obvious it became they would find no night men cat-treading balloon shadow while strange tents plumed like thunder clouds. Instead, close up, the carnival was mildewed rope, moth-eaten canvas, rain-worn, sun-bleached tinsel. The side show paintings, hung, like sad albatrosses on their poles, flapped and let fall flakes of ancient paint, shivering and at the same time revealing the unwondrous wonders of a thin man, fat man, needle-head, tattooed man, hula dancer… The train? Pulled off on a spur in the warming grass… (61)

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They peered in at the merry-go-round which lay under a dry rattle and roar of wind-tumbled oak trees. Its horses, goats, antelopes, zebras, speared through their spines with brass javelins, hung contorted as in a death rictus, asking mercy with their fright-colored eyes, seeking revenge with their panic-colored teeth. (72)

But with the coming of the cold months, I wonder if this place truly sleeps. I wonder if there is a night, when this small town turns off the porch lights, when the autumn fire pits burn the last bad beer on the embers, when the moon’s face hides because it knows what’s coming, when the stars aren’t quite aligned for rightness…I wonder.

With a pop, a bang, a jangle of reins, a lift and downfall, a rise and descent of brass, the carousel moved….It was running backward.

The small calliope inside the carousel machinery rattle-snapped its nervous-stallion shivering drums, clashed its harvest-moon cymbals, toothed its castanets, and throatily choked and sobbed its reeds, whistles, and baroque flutes. The music, Will thought, it’s backwards, too!…Then the calliope gave a particularly violent cry of foul murder which made dogs howl in far countries…(77)

I wonder.