Monday, March 7, 2011

The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamlined House Tour

Mrs Patrick
Last week, I spent a great deal of time on the road, a not unusual occurence,  and in the early morning, I'm always happy to hear Garrison Keillor come through my car radio with the Writers' Almanac.
On March 2 it was Dr. Suess's birthday--but it was also Tom Wolfe's birthday and Keillor shared a bit of Wolfe's essay on journalism, in which he suggested that reporters needed to employ four technical devices more commonly used in fiction to get at the emotional core of any story.   As the story continued, I realized that Wolfe's four rules were exactly in line with what makes a great guided tour (something I've been pondering lately for a couple different organizations, including the Thomas Cole National Historic Site in Catskill, NY).
So, what did Wolfe, the author of both fiction and non-fiction classics such as Bonfire of the Vanities, The Right Stuff and The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby think journalists (and by my extension, historic site tour developers) do to engage their audiences?  It's pretty simple.
  1. Construct scenes
  2. Dialogue, lots of it
  3. Carefully noting social status details everything from dress and furniture to the infinite status clues of one's speech.
  4. Point of view in the Henry James' sense of putting the reader inside the mind of someone other than the writer (or tour developer).
Those, said Wolfe, are the devices that give fiction its absorbing, gripping quality, making the reader feel present in the scene described or even inside the skin of a particular character.   I suspect that Wolfe, when he wants a writer to note details such as dress and furniture doesn't mean to imply that those details are the most important part of the narrative, but rather that those details support the larger emotional connection.
On the platform, reading
Think about the last tour you took and compare it to the last novel you read.  A novel requires a significantly greater investment of time but we stick with it, because the rewards, those emotional connections, may be far greater.  I'd love to hear from readers about tours that made those strong emotional connections--where have you been?

Photos from Flickr
Top by Lachlan Hardy; bottom by Mo Riza

1 comment:

Jeanne said...

Linda- this is a great post. I have worked in and managed historic homes and museums for many years and I always think that the tour guide can make or break the experience for the patron.

On my last two summer vacations I had radically different experiences: the first was the Seward House in Auburn NY and the other was the Adena Mansion in Chillicothe OH. I knew almost nothing about either the houses or the owners. At the Seward House, I had an amazing docent who had obviously researched William Seward extensively and was able to speak knowledgeably about his life. The house itself was moderately interesting, fairly typical and the grounds were pleasant. The tour, however, was superb, even more impressive because I was not feeling very well that day.

In contrast, the Adena Mansion has undergone major renovations to restore the home to it original appearance, all of which has been very well researched. My experience there was awful, starting at the front desk. A great deal of money had been spent on a visitor center and landscaped grounds. However, the front desk staff was rude and conducted personal phone calls the entire time I toured the visitor center. The house tour was even worse, the guide was dressed is period clothing and spent the entire tour text messaging (let me stress here that this was not a young person, about 30-ish)and seemed very bored with our group. She was not welcoming of questions and was unable to answer anything related the extensive renovations that had taken place recently. And if I'm not mistaken, I paid considerably more for my admission to the Adena Mansion and they did not honor any museum association memberships.

So, two very memorable experiences for very different reasons. House tours are a very mixed bag and I was pleasantly surprised by my trip to Auburn, which was a spur of the moment day trip and I was completely underwhelmed and irritated by my visit to Chillicothe, which was a planned visit.