Exploring the written world: A guest post from Leah Bobet
By Lauren on May 21st, 2012
One of the most magical things about a story is the different places readers can be transported to through a book. Whether it’s exploring the hallowed halls of Hogwarts or surviving the arena of the Hunger Games, books can take us on all sorts of amazing journeys. But have you ever stopped to think about how an author creates the vivid world their characters inhabit? In her debut novel Above (April 2012), author Leah Bobet creates not one, but two settings. She stopped by OOM with a very special guest post discussing how she constructed two totally different environments.
Above takes place in two very different worlds: the underground community of Safe, where teenaged Matthew and the misfits and outcasts who raised him have hollowed out a natural cave deep below the subway lines and sewers, and in Above – their name for modern-day Toronto and everything around it. Building those worlds – one wholly imaginary, and one very real, but seen through the eyes of someone who’s never had to deal with it before – meant saying what if a lot, but it also meant going and then that would mean… a bunch, too:
1) Logic! Logic everywhere! The big key to building Safe was being ruthlessly logical about everything. I drew up a list of what you’d need to survive underground and not get sick: a dry spot with a clean air supply, power, light, water; some way to keep warm; food and medicine that wouldn’t spoil; vitamins to make up from what you get from the sun. And then I started looking at topographical maps of Toronto and talking to engineers about the idea, to figure out where in the city might be the best place to put that secret hideout – where there might be good access to all those things, and how a group of people with no special skills or resources might get them.
2) Remembering how people work. The next step was remembering that what people can’t do with technology, we usually solve with social behaviours: traditions, or warnings, or just ways you always do things. People are clever; we make do! So I looked again at my list of challenges for living underground, and thought, Okay, what would dealing with this every day mean for the people who live here? What rules would they make? What stories would they tell? What arguments would they have? And most importantly, what would it be like to grow up here?
3) Learning to see. There’s a difference between looking at things we see every day and really seeing them, and one of the most interesting things building Above made me do was really, really see the details of the city I live in. When Matthew goes Above he doesn’t know much about how a city works: what a playground’s for, or how to walk in crowds, or how to work that little coffee machine in the convenience store. He doesn’t have all the years of social information and experience you get from growing up around these things: he just sees them as what they are. Writing a city through his eyes, as something strange and new, a whole alien planet, made me think about what it was I knew about cities, made me break down how I knew it, and made me pay attention to everything I do in my day.
4) …and hear, and touch, and smell. Like any good explorer, Matthew’s not limited to what he sees when he comes up to Above: he’s experiencing whole new sounds, and smells, and objects too. A lot of attention went into making sure he was using every sense he had (short of licking things!) to show what it was like to be in this weird new place.
5) And remember, there’s no place like home. No matter what Matthew saw and touched and figured out when he was Above, it was important to remember that he still came from somewhere. Just like someone traveling is always comparing things they see, almost out of reflex, to what they’re used to at home, I had to remember that Matthew would compare the city I loved to his underground home in Safe, where he felt loved and like he belonged, and, well, safe. Perspective is everything when you’re experiencing something new, and even though I like sunlight and bright graffiti murals and busy crowds, he wouldn’t. He doesn’t. Because there’s no place, sometimes, like home.
So…a lot of work just to build the space in which a story would take place! But building Safe and Above was a lot of learning too, and made me see the place I live with all-new eyes and perspective – and that’s the most amazing feeling in the world.
Leah Bobet’s short fiction and poetry have appeared in Realms of Fantasy, Strange Horizons, The Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy for Teens, and nominated for the Pushcart Prize and the Rhysling Award. She received a 2008 emerging writers’ development grant from the Toronto Arts Council. She lives in Toronto, Ontario.
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