The Big Idea: Margaret Ronald

When thinking about “urban fantasy,” we’re aware that the word “urban” sets the fantasy in a particular type of setting — but does that setting (and those stories) require a specific place? For the purposes of the genre, and our conversation, is one “urban” as good as another?

Not for author Margaret Ronald, and in this Big Idea, she explains why the city of Boston is in itself essential as the setting of her acclaimed fantasy series, of which Wild Hunt is the latest installment. Take your places, please.

MARGARET RONALD:

I am not a city girl by nature.  I was born in a small Indiana town, lived there for close to two decades, and went to college in an even smaller Massachusetts town.  When I’m on vacation, I retreat to lakes and cabins well away from civilization; when I think about what got me started writing, I remember biking down flat roads with fields on either side, watching storms approach for miles.

So when I describe Wild Hunt and Spiral Hunt as “urban fantasy,” there’s always part of me that wonders how on earth I ended up writing anything remotely urban.

Some of it is probably part of how my muse operates, since a strong sense of place is something that really sparks my imagination.  After all, the first story I ever sold — “Christmas Apples,” in Realms of Fantasy, also an Evie story — was inspired by a place. I’d visited a friend’s house several times, always in winter, at the turning point of the year. The house was hard to find, difficult to reach even when you knew where it was, and at the times I’d seen it, always a place of revelry and rejoicing, a golden haven against the cold.

A better description of an Otherworld feasting-hall I could not conjure.   And when I started playing with the idea of a story set at that time of year, that house and the feel of it were central to the result.

But with Boston — and with any city, I think — the scale is entirely different.  I think a lot of it has to do with being entranced by the city.  There’s so much here that I want to show to other people.  Doing so in writing is like having a friend over and taking them to all the cool places you’ve discovered over the last couple of years.  You have to see this, hear about this, try this!  Sharing the joy I found in that first discovery is one of the best things about writing a story set in Boston.

And in doing so, I keep discovering more about the city, more than I could ever write about.  There is so much here — and so much of it is hidden to the casual glance.

As an example, take the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.  It’s not one of the big tourist draws, nor is it one of the first things that come to mind when most people think about Boston. But if you’ve been there, you have some idea what I mean about hidden magic within a city.

If you haven’t been there, go, preferably sometime in winter or very early spring, when the world has been repainted in shades of blue and gray, warmth is a memory, and green is a cruel joke. Inside what appears to be a dull brick building is as great a wonderland as any hollow hill: a lush garden under an atrium, tiles and columns and sculpture from dozens of cultures jammed together in an arrangement that at first seems chaotic and only slowly reveals itself as part of Mrs. Gardner’s plan. There is mystery here as well: why choose these artifacts, why place them like this, why set the sublime beside the mundane? Why put an ushabti next to an ostrich egg in silver fittings and both below a Titian? (And then there are the empty frames that still hang in the Dutch Room . . .)

Entering this place can be like stepping from one world to the next. Yet it’s still very much part of Boston — in fact, I’d argue that the culture of Boston of the time was one of the major reasons Mrs. Gardner chose to build the museum and fill it to her specifications.

By writing about these places, setting my characters to run around them or discover their secrets or fight their way through the magic that surrounds them, I hope to introduce them to readers — not by showing a realistic portrait of the place, but by pointing out some of their wondrous elements.  It’s like a quick set of introductions at a party: here are some interesting things, now go see what’s true, what’s exaggerated, and what hasn’t even been mentioned.  Or the ways that I introduce characters to the reader.  Here is the Gardner, a place of beauty no matter the season. Here is Genevieve Scelan, in over her head and trying to wrangle what’s left of Boston’s undercurrent together. Here is the tower of Mount Auburn Cemetery, from which you can see the whole city and beyond. Here is Abigail Huston, named for her great-grandmother, a woman with one too many secrets.

Here is the real Boston, deep with history and a thousand hidden sources of beauty or strangeness, a thousand doors to other worlds that are all the more wondrous for being part of our world. Here is Evie’s Boston, reflecting the original and itself reflected in its own fragmented, chaotic undercurrent, in which every deal has the possibility of betrayal . . . and in which more than one Hound is hunting.

Welcome.

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Wild Hunt: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Powell’s

Read an excerpt of the novel. Visit the author’s blog. Read the Big Idea for Spiral Hunt, the first book in this series.

12 thoughts on “The Big Idea: Margaret Ronald

  1. I love Boston. It’s such a contrast from where I live in NYC. I think I’ll be picking this one up. It seems like the perfect thing to read on the way to Boskone next month. And Boskone’s schedule tells me that Margaret will be there as well! Awesome.

    And she was at Arisia, so who knows, perhaps we met in the green room.

  2. I hope to introduce them to readers — not by showing a realistic portrait of the place, but by pointing out some of their wondrous elements

    This sounds to me like a partial inversion of G K Chesterton’s trademark – the highlighting of the faerie and fantastic in apparently mundane scenes; and so re-creating them for the reader, fresh and lovely and dangerous. Tolkien appreciated this technique full well, and first introduced me to it and Chesterton as a child, via his essay On Fairy-Stories. I wasn’t ready for Chesterton at the time, but since then I’ve discovered him and gotten to appreciate what he was doing.

    I think that, on another level, it’s also the prime way in which well-crafted fantasy in any setting quietly enchants our own world.

    A very neat crystallization of an artistic approach near to my own heart. Consider me officially Tempted!

  3. I absolutely adore these books–and I would have thought that Margaret Ronald was a Boston native, because she gets the city so right. I am not a native, but my mother was and I’ve spent a lot of time there over the years–it is my favorite city. And the Gardner is my favorite art museum–the empty frames are certainly mysterious, but they’re also tragic.

  4. I just finished the second one a few days ago – very well done! It kind of reminds me of Laura Anne Gilman’s Retrievers novels. *grasping hand* More, please!

    I’d love to see a mashup of these with Robert B. Parker’s Spenser series. I wonder what the Hound would think of Hawk. :)

  5. I love The Big Idea, the insight it gives is amazing. It certainly helps remove the mystery that people place into writing, and simply show that it’s just effort mixed with creativity and you end with something great.

  6. If you like the Gardner Museum because it’s individual and eccentric, then when in London be sure to visit Sir John Soane’s Museum, which if anything is even more so.

  7. I kinda burnt out on urban fantasy a while back, after a spate of reading nearly every damn Charles de Lint I could find. But I’m going to have to pick up these two.

    A couple of years ago I moved out of the Boston area after having lived there for over twenty years, which is roughly ten times as long as I could have lived in any other urban area I’ve ever been in. (With the possible exception of Halifax.)

    I’m a sucker for stories set in Boston.

    (Mystery buffs: Check out Linda Barnes’ Carlotta Carlyle series.)

  8. I picked up both books at Arisia, based solely on the author’s appearance on a panel. Now I’m really looking forward to reading them! (Among other things, as a newcomer to Boston I recently visited the Gardner Museum for the first time.)

  9. Wild Hunt is just plain knock-out wonderful. It’s filled with boundless imagination and it has a taut plot that grips you and never lets you go.

    Just read it! Well, if you haven’t read Spiral Hunt yet, read that first. (Then also read everything else she’s written. For example, she currently has a steampunk story up right now at Beneath Ceaseless Skies.)

  10. I couldn’t get into the first one and so will skip this too. Can’t wait for the next big idea, though.

  11. Hatred for urban fantasy warring with adoration for Margaret Ronald.

    The latter will almost certainly win out. *marks book for purchase once book budget has recovered from the dozen books purchased this week*

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