Hi all! I’m Augusta Li, or Gus to my friends, and I’m happy to be here chatting today. I have an eclectic post for you today about writing, art, costumes, and translating personal experiences into scenes in books.
Until recently, all of my published work had been in the fantasy, paranormal, or steampunk genre. While I love writing speculative fiction and the potential for action and adventure it offers, it never let me draw on many of my real life experiences. To an extent, all fiction, and all characters share certain common ground. I believe people, regardless of the historical period or their situation, share some common goals and motives. They want to feel safe, feel accepted and worthwhile, protect and provide for the people they love, and live a satisfying life. When these things are threatened or taken away, all characters will struggle to rectify the situation and return the balance to their lives. No matter what the setting, characters feel fear, pain, loss, and uncertainty in very similar ways. But beyond that, much of my fantasy and steampunk work has drawn on either research or imagination. I have had to research Victorian London, medieval weapons, period clothing, and even the foods and cultures of various times and places. I have never been on a pirate ship during a storm on the open ocean or rappelled down the side of a tower using a clockwork grapple gun. I can close my eyes and picture what it would be like, and hopefully translate the visions in my imagination to a satisfying experience for my readers, full of sensory detail, but I have never personally lived it.
Recently I wrote my first contemporary novel, and finally, I was able to use some of the things I have done to bring it a level of realism. I have always wanted to be an artist in one form or another, and I’ve never liked being on a structured schedule or being told what to do. This desire for freedom and the satisfaction of creating led me to try a great many different things to support myself over the years. I have worked at Renaissance Faires, living in a tent, cooking over a fire, and taking outdoor showers. Of course, I loved the fantasy aspect of these types of events, and also the sort of nerd solidarity they inspire. They’re places where people who are often rejected by the rest of the world can find a sense of belonging and kindred spirits to support them. I know how these things function behind the scenes, and that is one reason much of On Tinsel Wings takes place at a faire. It was also a good setting for my character, Patrick, to find acceptance and begin to see that there’s no one right way to live life, and that sometimes happiness is more important than money.
I have created with many mediums. At one time, I really wanted to be a blacksmith. I found it a fascinating art form (also I love knives and swords), and while I didn’t ultimately pursue it, I learned enough to bring my experiences to my apprentice blacksmith, Yu Elion. I took a greater interest in costuming. Of course, I couldn’t afford to buy the beautiful period clothing I wanted, but necessity is the mother of invention, so I found some patterns and learned to make what I wanted. There is a magic to costumes. I’m not a shallow person and certainly don’t think clothes say much about a person’s character, but an elaborate costume can have a transformative effect. Anyone who cosplays knows the outward trappings can really help you slip into another persona. You can leave behind the parts of yourself you don’t like and become someone else, maybe someone more confident, for a while. My character Patrick finds this out, and it helps him start to come out of his shell. He carries some of the confidence he finds while portraying other characters into his own life. I know how to sew, and also how to find things at thrift stores, which might seem ugly and worthless, and make them into something beautiful. This is something my character learns to do, and it echoes his growth throughout the book.
The transition from childhood to adulthood is a tough time for anyone, but it can be even more brutal for kids who are weird, artistic, and sensitive, kids who don’t really fit in anywhere and don’t know if they ever will. This is the conflict my characters face in On Tinsel Wings, and it’s one I suspect many of us have faced, myself included. Not everyone understands the need to create that some people feel, a need that can be much more powerful than a desire for money. Luckily there are like-minded people out there, and hopefully we find each other. At least I can make that happen for my characters.
Do you have a need to create? What unusual jobs or experiences have you had that would make a great story? If you’re an artist, what’s your medium and why do you love it? Where have you found kindred spirits?
Here’s an excerpt from On Tinsel Wings. Please enjoy.
Patrick Harford sees hope as magical and beautiful, too delicate to hold—and everything in his life has proved him right. An unhealthy home leaves him hiding in the shadows as he tries to come to terms with his sexuality.
Patrick finds solace among the performers at the Allegheny Mountains Renaissance Faire, where he discovers a love of performing and costumes. As he starts to come out of his shell, he meets Yu Elion, an apprentice blacksmith. Yu gives Patrick a glimpse of fairy-tale love.
But just when hope starts to blossom, it withers. Cynical after a past filled with failed relationships, Yu keeps Patrick at a distance. Working two jobs has disastrous consequences. And an obsessed fan takes things a step too far. After seeing all he’s built start to crumble, Patrick doesn’t know if he has what it takes to try again on his own, and Yu might not have the strength to be the one Patrick needs.
WITH his arms overflowing with freshly laundered velvet, satin, linen, and brocade, Patrick Harford pushed the door open with his knee and flipped the light switch with his elbow. The stack of gowns, skirts, pantaloons, and bodices reached past his nose, making it difficult for him to see. From memory, he navigated the women’s dressing room and deposited his burden on a long wooden table at the center. Patrick slid a box of wooden hangers from underneath and started to hang the garments. While his job at the Allegheny Mountains Renaissance Faire entailed everything from emptying trash bins, cleaning privies, mucking out the stables, and basically anything else that needed doing, caring for the actresses’ costumes had always been his favorite task. He turned on a small radio nestled between pots of powder, canisters of rouge, and tubes of lipstick on one of the makeup tables, then adjusted the dial away from the hip-hop to the local college station that played an eclectic mix of classical opera, German cabaret, jazz, ragtime, and even show tunes.
When he finished arranging the clothes on their hangers, he took them to their assigned racks and hung them up. After working here for the past three summers, he knew which article of clothing belonged to which character: Mistress Hattie, the amorous haberdasher; Folie au Deux, the crazy French jester; Grace O’Malley, the Irish pirate queen, and her companion Mary Killigrew; Sayyida the Moor; Fair Bianca the Minstrel; the naughty Sisters of Merciful Ministrations, and the even naughtier wenches of the Saucy Stew Tavern. Of course, the best costumes belonged to Jennifer, the Faire’s resident Queen Elizabeth. She had a different gown for every Faire day from the end of May until the operation closed for the year at Halloween, and they were all exquisite.
Patrick dragged the portable steamer into the adjoining restroom and filled its reservoir from the sink. A fog formed on the many mirrors as he steamed the wrinkles out of the garments that required it. A scratchy version of Patti Page’s “You Belong to Me” played as he moved through the mist until he came to the queen’s gowns. He ran his fingers along the neckline of the pale pink dress he’d just washed, marveling at the rows of elaborate lace, fine embroidery, and intricate beading. Looking down at his own simple shirt, brown trousers, and worn, green doublet, he wondered how it would feel to wear something so incredible. How beautiful Jennifer must have felt when she’d welcomed her subjects at the Faire’s opening ceremony! Patrick had never once felt beautiful; most of the time, at school and even here at work, he just felt invisible and ignored.
He reached down and turned off the steamer, his hands trembling at just the thought of what he wished he could do. And why couldn’t he? No one would know. All of the customers had gone home hours ago, and any of the remaining actors or staff would be well on their way to drunkenness up at the Stew. The idea of feeling that sinfully smooth satin against his skin made the risks seem worthwhile. Patrick looked over his shoulder in an irrational assurance that he was still alone, and then he bent and tugged off his dusty, battered leather boots. The rest of his clothes quickly followed, and he left them in a sloppy pile as he slipped the dress from the hanger.
First, he tied what they called a bum roll—a padded crescent of fabric like a knee sock stuffed with cotton—around his slim hips, above his Batman boxer briefs. Then he slid on an undershift made of fine, thin linen, thinking maybe he’d made an error and the bum roll should have gone over top. Still, his silhouette in the full-length mirror on the wall fascinated him. He actually looked like he had hips, and they made his waist appear tiny in contrast. He barely recognized the person looking back at him in the gathered layers of lacy ivory. Patrick put the gown on above it all, then struggled to reach behind himself to zip up the back. Luckily Jennifer was almost as tall as he was, and the costume fit well, if a little short in the arms. This dress was one of the simpler ones; Jennifer needed the assistance of at least two other women to get into the heavy, embellished white ensemble she’d wear at the Faire’s closing ceremony, along with Elizabeth’s signature white makeup.
Patrick put the matching bodice on above the gown and closed the busk, wishing he had someone to lace him up. He couldn’t imagine how tiny his waist would look beneath the steel boning, but who in the world could he ever trust with such a request? He’d probably get his ass kicked, so he satisfied himself with adjusting the puffy sleeves, tying on the beaded bracers, and stringing some rosy pearls around his neck. He turned to look at himself again, and his breath hitched at what he saw.
He looked beautiful. The awkward, scrawny boy had disappeared, and in his place… a queen, holding her head high, her back straight, radiating a confidence Patrick had never dreamed of feeling. Excited, he hurried to augment the effect, choosing one of Jennifer’s wigs from the row of Styrofoam heads on a shelf. He raked his shaggy layers of red-gold hair off his forehead and put the wig on. A similar color to his natural locks, it cascaded over his shoulders in masses of loose ringlets, transporting him even further from the plain, forgettable person he’d been a quarter of an hour ago. He placed a pearl tiara above the bright curls and adjusted the combs so it would stay in place. Almost giddy at what he witnessed, he lifted his skirts and crossed the room to one of the makeup tables.
When he’d finished experimenting with the cosmetics, he looked a lot more like one of the tavern wenches than the queen, with bright red lips, hard pink lines across his cheekbones, and heavy black eyeliner and mascara. He should have used the pink lipstick, and maybe a softer brown instead of the harsh black on his eyes, but he still liked seeing himself, as the cosmetics had enhanced his large blue eyes and full lips.
As Patrick stood from the stool at the makeup station, careful not to trip over the layers of his skirts, “I Feel Pretty” from West Side Story began to play on the radio. He smiled as he twirled, the gown billowing out around him beautifully. He did feel pretty. He felt like a princess, or… a queen.
Facing the mirror on the wall, he looked at himself from various angles, holding the dress out in a curtsey, then turning to the side to glance seductively over his shoulder. He got a little excited with what he saw, and an erection tented the shimmering fabric. It was such a novel thrill to imagine he could be so alluring. Neither men nor women had ever shown any interest in him. They found him neither ugly nor beautiful and just dismissed him. Patrick wondered what they would say if they could see him now. Many of the Faire’s female patrons only wished they looked as good.
Patrick fluffed his hair and ran his fingers down the beaded bodice, grazing his cock and shivering at the jolt of sensation. Just then, the slam of a door wilted his excitement. He looked around frantically for a place to hide. He couldn’t let anyone see him like this. How would he explain it? Terrified, he backed into the restroom, crouched down in one of the stalls, and closed the wooden door as quietly as he could. Who would be in the women’s dressing room at this hour? Patrick’s pulse echoed in his head as he just prayed whoever it was would leave. Otherwise, the best he could hope for was losing a job he truly loved, and it would probably be worse. He inched his way into the corner between the toilet and the plywood partition, hoping for a miracle.
Shiny black boots appeared outside the stall, and someone knocked softly. “Is everything okay in there?” asked a voice Patrick recognized. God knew he’d spent enough nights fantasizing about the man who spoke, the hottest man at the Faire: Eric, who portrayed the privateer Sir Francis Drake. He was tall and lanky, with just the perfect amount of bulk on his frame, warm but devious brown eyes, long dark hair, and the ideal sprinkling of stubble across his angular jaw.
Patrick didn’t know quite how to respond. “I’m taking a leak in here,” he said pitifully.
“Patrick? No problem. I’ll wait. I need you to help me look for Tracy’s phone. She thinks she might have left it in here.”
He had to get Eric to go away. “Actually, I’m not feeling very well.”
Patrick realized too late he’d forgotten to latch the stall door, and Eric pushed it open. “Jesus, what’s wrong? Are you—Holy shit. Patrick?”
“I’m sorry,” Patrick muttered feebly, hiding his painted face in his elbow. “Please… please don’t kick my ass. I-I didn’t mean any harm. I just wondered how I’d look. I love this place. It’s all I have. Please don’t tell anyone. It would kill me if I lost my job. I’ll never do it again. I’m sorry… I just….”
To Patrick’s surprise, Eric extended his hand to help him up, and Patrick grasped it, slipping on the tiles in nothing but his striped knee socks. Eric led him from the restroom to the dressing room, where he held Patrick at arm’s length and looked him up and down. “Have you done this before?” Eric demanded.
“No. No, I swear. I just… I don’t know why I—”
“You look beautiful,” Eric said softly. “Look.” He grasped Patrick’s waist and spun him toward the mirror. Eric stood behind Patrick with his dark hair pulled back and that devastating line of stubble over his jaw. He looked perfect in his T-shirt with the faded Jolly Roger and tight, dark jeans, but Patrick looked heavenly in the pink dress.
“I love the Faire,” he said again. “I belong here. Please, I just don’t want to lose my job.”
Eric pressed his chest against Patrick’s back and bent his neck to whisper in Patrick’s ear. “Jesus, you look fierce. I can’t believe this is your first time.”
“I’m sorry,” Patrick whimpered.
“For what, baby?” Eric asked.
“I… I just thought….”
“Christ. Get yourself cleaned up, princess.” Eric let go of Patrick’s waist and stepped away.
“You won’t tell?” Patrick asked desperately. “My job here—”
Eric shook his head and held up a hand. “You’ve done nothing to offend me, but other people might not agree, so clean up. If you want, I’d like to take you for a drink tomorrow after the Faire. We can talk then. Patrick, it’s okay.”
“You know you look gorgeous,” Eric said, crossing his arms over his chest. “Maybe a little bit rough, but wow. Seriously, man. Damn.”
“Really?” Patrick asked, clutching at his skirts. “You’re not angry?”
“Why the hell would I be angry? Listen to me: it’s okay, and I’m not going to say anything. I promise. Clean up, and I’ll see you tomorrow when we close.” Eric found the iPhone in the pink case he’d been looking for on one of the makeup tables, then turned and pushed the dressing room door open before disappearing.
Patrick stripped the gown off, hung it up carefully, smoothed the wrinkles away, and washed his face. His hands shook as he turned off the lights and locked the dressing room with one of the keys he wore on a ring on his belt. As he walked past the still and silent Tudor-style buildings, all decked out in seasonal flowers, he kept looking over his shoulder, half expecting Eric to appear with a group of men to taunt him and beat him up. He just couldn’t believe the man who made all the women at the Faire swoon with a wink had no problem with finding him in a pink dress. More likely, he just waited to surprise Patrick when he could impress a few of his friends in the process.
The huge field serving as the Faire’s parking lot stood practically empty. Last year, they’d installed lampposts at regular intervals for the safety of the patrons, and they cast golden pools of light on the trampled grass. Patrick jogged through them until he reached his 1989 Plymouth Horizon and unlocked the door. He took the highway and drove for about forty-five minutes, until he reached the small town between the fairgrounds and the outskirts of Pittsburgh where he lived with his father.
Careful to park beneath a streetlight, because he didn’t live in the greatest neighborhood and cars were often broken into, Patrick killed his engine and locked up. He walked up the cracked sidewalk, spattered with clumps of grass breaking through the cement, to the dilapidated blue ranch house with dirty vinyl siding, sagging roof, and lawn in need of mowing. His father hadn’t bothered to lock the door, and after he crossed the tiny kitchen with its sink full of dishes, Patrick found him in his recliner in front of the television, drinking a beer.
“How was the nerd circus?” Patrick’s father asked without bothering to look away from the baseball game he was watching.
“Okay. We have a lot of new staff this year, and they’re still adjusting, but it’s going pretty smoothly, and the turnout has been up from last year.” Patrick didn’t know why he bothered; his father had only asked so he could work in the jab about the nerd circus.
The old man swiveled in his chair and looked at his son with bleary eyes. “What the fuck is all over your face?”
Stunned, Patrick reached up and touched his cheek, terrified he’d missed a trace of rouge somehow. “Nothing! Why?” he managed.
His father laughed. “I thought I saw a streak of horseshit.” Then he turned his attention back to the game and chuckled.
Patrick clenched his fists. “It’s a good job, Dad.” He resisted the urge to add, “At least I have one.” Someday he’d work up the stones to shoot back when his dad insulted him for no reason, but not tonight. He hurried down the hall to his bedroom, deposited his clothes in the hamper, and stepped into the shower. Though he hadn’t worked with the horses today, he’d worked up a sweat and knew he needed to wash. Afterward, he slipped on a pair of sweats and a worn T-shirt emblazoned with the Triforce. He climbed into bed and turned on his TV and Xbox with the controller, then picked up where he’d left off on Final Fantasy XIII. About ten hours into the game, he’d decided the storyline was unfathomable and the grinding terribly repetitive, but the monotony helped him get to sleep, and tonight, with his nerves still crackling and his mind working at double speed, he needed an escape. Besides, the graphics were beautiful. He’d often wished he had baby-pink hair like Lightning, that he could be as strong as she was. Patrick’s game console, car, and everything else he possessed of value had come as a result of his job at the Faire. He hoped Eric was sincere in his promise not to tell anyone about what he’d seen. Thinking about it made Patrick remember how he’d felt in that beautiful gown, how he’d felt when he looked at himself in the mirror. For the first time in his life, he’d felt like maybe there was something special about him, and then Eric had called him beautiful….
Patrick paused his game on the inventory screen. He set the controller aside and ran his hand down his chest, recalling the sensation of that decadent satin beneath his fingers. As he imagined Eric’s face, he let his fingers wander to the growing bulge in his sweats, and then beneath the waistband. He began to move his hand, picturing both himself in the dress and makeup and the way Eric had looked at him. There’d been something behind his dark gaze that Patrick had always hoped to see from a man looking at him, and just the memory of it drove him crazy.
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