Monday, January 21, 2013

Karen Chance: Postcards from Fantasyland

People always ask me what my favorite thing about writing is, and I never know what to tell them. The truth is, I love all of it: the plotting, the character design, the name it, and I enjoy it. But if I absolutely had to pick one thing that I like better than all the rest, I'd have to say world-building.

After all, what could be more satisfying than getting to design an entire world for your characters to play in? It's like the SIMS on steroids! And it's also hugely important, since the world of any fantasy series serves as a foundation for everything else. Get it wrong and, like a house of cards, the story that depends on it will likely fall apart, too. So, how do you get it right?

The old adage is to write what you know. But that wouldn't seem to apply to fantasy, since none of us have experienced hunting with a werewolf or partying with the Fey or riding a dragon (more's the pity). But experience doesn't have to be exact to be useful, and mine certainly played a large part in crafting my world. Of course, it helped that those experiences were partly in fantasyland. Literally.

Like a lot of people in Orlando, Florida, I worked my way through college at Walt Disney World. I was also part of the crew selected to help open Disneyland, Paris, mainly because of my appalling, lousy, no good, very bad French, which amazingly enough was still better than what the average Disney employee possessed--AKA none. French is not a language spoken frequently in Central Florida. Anyway, that gave me a chance to experience a theme park being built from the ground up. And while there are no theme parks in my novels, my experiences with Disney probably had a lot to do with why there is a magical casino named Dante's.

Dante's is a glowering heap on the Vegas Strip designed to look like a haunted house on the outside and various ideas of the underworld on the inside. It's a functioning hotel and casino, but it is also a way for the supernatural community of Vegas to gamble, drink and hide in plain sight, since the humans they encounter take them to be merely part of the ambiance. And since the eruption of a war in the magical community, it also serves as the headquarters of one of the factions in the fight.

It may seem like a stretch from Disney, the squeaky clean family vacation capital of the world, to Dante's, a den of supernatural vice, villainy and intrigue. But in fact, they have a lot in common. And I don't mean just the basic day-to-day workings of a massive entertainment complex, although knowledge of that sort of thing does help from time to time. But mostly I mean in its air of barely restrained chaos.

What, you say? Disney chaotic? But it always looks so organized. So calm. So perfect. And in many ways, it is. The fact that that tens of thousands of people are fed, entertained and subtly but effectively herded where Disney wants them to go each and every day is little short of miraculous. But behind the scenes, at least when I worked there, things were a lot less polished. Not to mention frequently more than a little...surreal.

Things like walking into a break room in Epcot Center and seeing Michael Jackson in the back, playing Ms. Packman. It took me a second to recognize him, since he was in normal clothes and sans bodyguards, entourage or anybody at all. Disney just kind of let him...wander around. I had to ask him to move so I could get into the ladies' room.

Or the time the parking attendants at Walt Disney World had a scheduling snafu that resulted in too many showing up for work on the same day. And that then resulted in them getting bored. Which they alleviated by parking all of the incoming cars in the huge Disney color. It worked great until the park closed and thousands of tourists who only knew that they had rented a white Buick--or a tan Honda or a blue Accord--emerged from the trams to discover themselves faced with row upon row of the exact same car. The old timer who told me that story said it took into the wee hours of the morning to sort it all out, since, of course, many of the tourists hadn't memorized their rental car's license number.

Or the time a bunch of drunk frat boys decided to celebrate graduation by dumping Pooh Bear into the moat around Cinderella's castle. Which, let's face it, would have been pretty damn funny. If Pooh wasn't wearing a giant and very heavy Pooh head that acted like an anchor. And if he'd known how to swim. (Don't worry, security fished him out before he went to the great theme park in the sky. And seriously, you haven't lived until you've seen Pooh bear soaking wet and cussing up a storm).

Or the time at Disneyland Paris, when another disgruntled character actor decided he'd had enough. And let Disney know about it by taking off everything but his giant Mickey head and then streaking down Main Street. At noon.

Ah, fun times.

So when people ask me how I come up with the talking shrunken heads at Dante's tiki bar, or the cocktail waitresses who get pinched by the animated, severed limbs that make up their skirts, or the famous but very dead performers in the lounge (zombie Hendricks or Elvis anyone?) I just smile. And say that it really doesn't take that much imagination at all.



Pat Cochran said...

I'm glad I was never in any of the parks when those surreal happenings occurred!

Pat Cochran

Mary Preston said...

I'm certain that thee are many incidents that the general public are not aware of. Fodder for the imagination.

erin said...

What a fun post! Thanks for sharing! I can see why Disney would be a great inspiration for Dante's ;)