Inspired by April's Fools, the theme for this month's inspirational post will be about something that has brought many people both joy and dread. It is not many subjects that can inspire such diverse reactions from people, but after reading this article, I am sure you will understand why.
I am speaking of course of the time honored tradition that is the circus. The idea came to me at work, as I was clearing copyright for old school circus posters for an online exhibition project. I learned quite a bit of the history of circuses in North America since the late 1800’s, and thought this would be a great subject for April’s inspiration article.
Circus parade around tents, in lithograph by Gibson & Co., 1874
The circus has been entertaining spectators, young and old, for several generations now, with it’s attractions, games, performers and animals. With so many different features, it comes as no surprise that the circus can be a such great source of inspiration for writers. Let us take a look at some of the circuses most prominent aspects.
Common circus acts include acrobatics, gymnastics, aerial acts, juggling and a variety of other routines. These also include Daredevil stunts such as the human cannonball, fire eating/breathing/dancing, knife throwing, or sword swallowing. These routines are meant to be breathtaking and exciting, and describing them in narrative can be very useful for action oriented storytelling.
Speaking of circus performers, another mainstay to the big top are clowns. Clowns are common to most circuses and are typically skilled so that they can accompany any of the other performances. Clowns can be a great tool for someone trying to write a comedy.
Though they have been around for decades, these flamboyant comedians have a received mixed feeling from the public. Many will find their antics hilarious, while some find them creepy and off putting. For this reason, the fear of clowns, or coulrophobia, can be useful for authors writing horror or thriller stories.
Joseph Grimaldi as Clown
Ferenczy Clown 1910
1870 photo of British duo the Payne brothers as Clown and Harlequin
Polack Bros. Circus 1965 clowns
Animal acts have been part of the circus going as far back as the early eighteenth century. Many different types of animals have been used; from big cats, elephants, horses, birds, sea lions, bears, and even domestic animals such as cats and dogs. The earliest involvement of animals in the circus was just as a display of exotic creatures, but it eventually moved on to live performance such as equestrian acts or lion tamers. It should be noted that in the past few years, the inclusion of animals in circuses has been highly scrutinized, as cases of animals being mistreated or forced into poor living conditions had been reported.
Sideshows are also part of some circus activities, and may include chapeaugraphy, magic acts, the strongman or the infamous ‘’freak show’’. Below are some genuine color posters from the Coney Island Sideshow dating back to the 1930’s/40’s (Source: The Library of Congress). Though meant to entertain, it is obvious that some of these attractions were meant to shock or scare patrons. From a writer's perspective, some of these could be very useful for horror or paranormal mysteries.
The final element is mostly in regards to how a circus can help add color to the setting. Some circuses were known to be accompanied by carnival rides, such as ferris wheels, pendulum rides, drop towers or funny/haunted houses. A carnival can be a great setting for a romantic story, or an abandoned amusement park can be a great hiding place for a villainous character.
As you can see, a trip to the circus can be especially beneficial for a writer looking for inspiration. Maybe you need references for a character working as a full-time clown, various rides for a theme park setting or maybe ideas for a creepy urban story. Bottom line: go visit one, you'll be surprised at what you will find.
I hope you enjoyed this month's inspiration post and that I encouraged you to go out there and experience it for yourself.
Until next time.
**Please note that most of the photos below were taken from free stock images sites such as StockSnap.com, or were found doing a public domain search via Google.**