image – Ryan Zasso (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
When I thought about worldbuilding in fantasy, I thought about things like Tolkien’s Middle Earth or George R. R. Martin’s Westeros or maybe something that resembled a Dungeons and Dragons quest. But the truth is, as both an author and a reader, this really didn’t interest me much. I preferred my fantasies more like Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Yes, it had vampires and demons, but it was firmly set in the real world. If there is, in fact, a well-to-do southern California high school built on a portal to hell, I imagine it looks a lot like Buffy.
And then I read Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman.
I was captivated. On the surface, it was a story about a businessman living in London who befriends and helps a woman who has the magical ability to open doors and portals. But what really got to me about the book was Gaiman’s ability to create the idea of another world existing right next to our own. Door (the not-so-creatively-named door opener) and her cohorts live in London Below, a magical realm located in the tunnels and crevices beneath the city. In this world, Old Bailey is a wizened old man who hangs out with pigeons and lives on a rooftop. The Angel, Islington is an actual angel who guards London Below, guilt-ridden after failing to protect his previous city: Atlantis. And the inhabitants of London Below are basically invisible to the residents of London Above, because the Below-dwellers look like indigents to everyone in the city Above. (This book will, at the very least, make you look at homeless people differently.)
After I finished the book, I was left with this incredible feeling that any door or window I opened might lead me to a whole new world parallel to (or right underneath) our own. But as I started reading more and more contemporary and urban fantasies, and watching more movies and TV shows, I realized that all of the best creators did this in their own ways: took a real-world setting and turned it upside down.
We could start with the literal Upside Down in Stranger Things, a world that looks like Guillemero del Toro’s brain exploded all over the Rust Belt in the early 80s. But there’s also the omnipresent creepy government types, with their chain smoking and flashing lights and reel-to-reel tapes. It’s the kind of thing that makes you question whether the real enemy is in the Upside Down at all.
Another great example is Edward Scissorhands. On the surface, it looks like any other WASP-y suburban neighborhood in the early 1990s—assuming every WASP-y suburban neighborhood had a Gothic castle close enough for the Avon lady to come soliciting. But then you realize that the colors are just a little too bright, just a little too saturated, and it all adds to the sense of unreality the movie has. This is a world that feels very familiar while at the same time totally foreign—and that dissonance is at the heart of the film.
But one of my personal favorites is kind of an odd one—at least, considering the type of stuff I usually write: the old 1980s television series Beauty and the Beast with Linda Hamilton and Ron Perlman. Hamilton plays Catherine Chandler, an assistant district attorney who falls in love with Vincent—a lion-like “beast” who may not be entirely human. Vincent—along with other societal outcasts—live in the World Below, a network of tunnels running beneath Manhattan. They’ve formed a complex, benevolent society, led by a doctor all the people call “Father.” Everyone in the society has a job to do, and they use a communication system that involves tapping the underground pipes. Select helpers from the World Above protect them and give them things they need, all while keeping their existence secret. To be honest, this show is probably the reason so many of my stories have scenes that take place in tunnels.
(The 2012 remake completely eliminated this aspect of the series, and the new Vincent—who wasn’t so much inhuman as just “sexily scarred”—lived in a posh loft apartment with his best friend. Because nothing screams “urban fantasy” like brick accent walls and Ikea furniture.)
So when my editor encouraged me to create a more unique, vivid world for the Dale Highland series, I knew what I was striving toward. Since demons and angels are, in my world, hidden from the human race, I imagined that they would do a lot of their dealings in places that humans have largely forgotten. And so the long-abandoned City Hall Subway Station became the angels’ clandestine meeting spot, and the Cow Tunnels that have long been rumored to run underneath the Meatpacking District became an underground hospital for dying supernaturals. Empty hospitals and shopping malls function as safe houses, and a fictional amusement park—with an underground utilidor system reminiscent of the one at Walt Disney World—serves as the hiding place of one exiled angel in the first book. In doing my research for these books, I was amazed at how many places humans have just abandoned. Those forgotten spaces became the realm of demons and angels.
But it wasn’t just angels and demons I had to worry about. When I imagined the headquarters of the Zeta Coalition, a paramilitary, government-affiliated organization, I thought about my own experiences as a resident of DC. Newer government buildings tend to be, by and large, very boxy and sterile. But an organization dedicated to the extermination of creatures most people don’t even believe in might do things a little…differently. And so Habitat 67—a Montreal apartment complex built in the late 60s—was my starting point for the Zetas’ HQ. The blah tan coloring and brutalist architecture reminds you of something you might see in the Northern Virginia exurbs, but the aesthetic is so weird that you can imagine a group of (maybe crazy) supernatural hunters there.
One of the great things about researching contemporary fantasy is learning that the real world is weirder than you knew. One of the great things about writing contemporary fantasy is being able to take that weirdness, expand it, and create something even stranger and—hopefully—more compelling.
Beth Woodward is the author of the Dale Highland series of urban fantasy novels. The second book, Embracing the Demon, releases on June 19. (Purchase from Amazon or Barnes & Noble.) She lives in the Washington, DC, area with her husband and the three cats who own them.