It was a glorious time, made of L trains and freezing winters and odd smells emoting from the alleyways. But then I moved away, and was a Chicagoan no more.
Recently, I was able to return to Chicago and walk amongst the living as the one thing Chicagoans hate more than ketchup on hot dogs: a tourist.
Now most of us in the Midwest have made the sojourn to the lovely little Windy City to taste the deep dish and partake in the Navy Pier gift shop. But not all of us have lived there. Coming from my personal experience of being an outsider, then being a resident, then once again being an outsider, I can tell you there is a definite difference between visiting the city and living in the city.
My first memory of Chicago came in the third grade, when my parents took us on a whirlwind vacation. I remember driving down Ohio Street in our rental van, looking up through the tip of the window and realizing that the Woodmen Tower in Omaha was very small compared to the rest of the world. I remember the street artists with the trash can drums blazing my ears as we turned the corner into the parking garage for DisneyQuest.
I remember the Field Museum and taking the trolley to the Museum of Science and Industry. I remember all of the cool things inside those museums. I remember parking our car near Grant Park and me looking up to the skyline and thinking, “K.A. Applegate lives there. Important people live there.” But most of all, I remember Navy Pier with all of its shops and yummy restaurants and brilliant view of the city.
Ten years later, I lived there.
My memories of Chicago as a Chicagoan do not match up with my tourist recollections. I went to the Field Museum on a whopping two occasions. Navy Pier, which was always a staple of any family vacation to the Second City, was a bane of existence for most people actually living in the Second City. It was out of the way, it was crowded with slow walking people, and all of the restaurants (even the McDonald’s) was overpriced. The only reason why any of us would ever go to Navy Pier was to partake in the amazing IMAX movie theater for such premieres as The Watchmen, 300, and Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.
No, the infamous Bean and Millennium Park barely came into play. And there’s a reason for this disconnect between visiting and living.
Chicago is really divided into four portions: North Side, West Side, South Side, and in the middle of it all the Loop. People visiting never usually go past the Loop. And if they go past the Loop, it’s because they know someone who lives on the North Side and can take them to that swank concert in that swank coffee shop near Southport.
But usually tourists’ view of Chicago is limited by the park downtown, the big fancy buildings, and the pretty Christmas lights on Michigan Avenue and State.
But my memories are speckled with another city.
For me as a resident, Chicago was not big buildings. It was sitting in a living room and playing Cranium with some lifelong friends I’d only just met. It was being late to class because I’d overslept. It was losing forty pounds at the gym over the course of a season. It was my first heartbreak with a guy I shouldn’t have been dating. It was eating Domino’s Pizza and watching The Office and Parks and Rec with the neighbor upstairs who picked me up and put me back together every time I fell. It was paying back a ticket to a comedy show with providing meals at the crappy McD’s down the street. It was discovering graphic novels, attending my first play reading, freaking out when my grandmother had to go into heart surgery, sitting in the park with my high school best friend and talking about him wanting to go to medical school. It was Starbucks cookies I shouldn’t have eaten, and that Greek restaurant I should have gotten around to trying. It was working on the South Side every Wednesday and being there one Halloween and watching the adorable costumes parade by.
But most of all, it was my best friend. Someone who spent hours talking about book plots and dissecting Harry Potter, and the closest thing I ever had to a sister.
When I returned to Chicago last summer for a quick visit, a lot of those people were still there. I stayed with my lifelong friends and we had a rousing time at Giordano’s eating unhealthy deep dish. And it was great. But when I stepped away from them on the last day and took my bags down to Union Station, I stopped in Millennium Park and I was no different than the people with cameras snapping silly photos of themselves in the Bean. I looked up to the skyline and I couldn’t imagine that three years ago, this was my home.
My apartment with the movie posters and the dirty kitchen was gone. Most of my friends had moved away to bigger and better things. My neighbor lived in Milwaukee. The boy who had broken my heart had disappeared to God knows where. My high school best friend was nothing more than a forgotten phone number. And the closest thing I had to a sister was hundreds of miles away from this place.
It was back to being a postcard.
So why do I tell you about where I lived? Because I read an amazing article today that talked about the difference between good world creation and awful world creation. When you create a world, you cannot be a tourist. I assure you, there was not a day I lived in Chicago and thought about the Chicago Fire or the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright. You’ll hear that crap on the tours, but when you step off the double-decker bus and put your fancy camera down, you’ll start to see ordinary life.
Teenagers with backpacks on the platform waiting to get to school. Women trying not to cry on their way to work because some stupid jerk just shattered their world. Little girls and boys with nannies or their parents rushing to get to the Lincoln Park Zoo. Stuffy college kids walking around in scarves and ironic glasses with their frappes talking about the latest philosophy. Businessmen who walk too fast. Friends going out for a pizza run.
And I assure you, not a one of them is reflecting on the fact that they live in Chicago, which is the third largest city in the United States and was founded by fur traders. Not a one of them thinks it’s weird to get on an L train and go to work. They do not sit there and narrate to themselves, “We are on the Elevated Train and how odd we do not take cars! But back in the 1900′s, someone had this brilliant idea to put an electrical system on a —” no. They take the L. There’s construction on the rails. They’re already running behind, and now they’re going to miss their meeting. I assure you, all they’re thinking about is how much this sucks.
So when you step into your created world, do not have the characters think about the Loop. Do not have them go to the fancy hubs and talk about how fancy they all are. They are not original in their minds. They are just people in a place that are doing life-y things.
Let’s take an example.
A group of humans escape earth right before an asteroid hits. They get on a clunker of a space ship and zoom off to find another world. Years pass, and another world is not found. Three generations in, these people are still living on this clunker and that’s just the world.
A girl around the age of twelve is your protagonist. She has never known Earth, and neither has her grandmother. She lives on the clunker.
Let’s look at two examples of how to go about introducing the world.
Willow looked out of the Persephone’s small, rusted window to space. It had been one hundred and fifty years since Earth, and still nothing had come but more space. Sometimes a planet here and there, but nothing more than that. She sighed and pushed the buttons on the wall’s Inner-Communication panel, which would connect her to the kitchen below.
On the Persephone, the kitchen was conducted by Chef Maggie, who tried her hardest to fulfill the orders of all twenty-thousand on board. Of course she wasn’t by herself in this endeavor, but still Willow guessed it was difficult to feed twenty-thousand people a day, even with a kitchen staff and a new IronChef-3000, which was the newest contraption Maggie could get before the Persephone left the planet.
Willow put her order in and went to getting dressed in her military-issued tunic. It looked like everyone else’s tunic. But the President said it would make things simpler for them, and what else could they really ask for? It had been over a century.
Now looking at this example, we have a lot of information about the world, but what do we know about Willow? Is this what a twelve-year-old would think getting out of bed in the morning? We are acting as a tourist on this ship, not actually living there and making it real.
Let’s try again.
Willow did not feel hungry when she woke. The InnerCom kept beeping at her to put in the breakfast order, but she ignored its incessant whining as she stared out the black window stuck in a nervous anxiety. Her brain liked to zoom around in circles when she got stuck. Her mother had instructed her to breathe the last time an attack had come, but this was worse than any attack she’d had before. She didn’t deserve to breathe.
Willow saw Bryan’s face, frozen in time, staring at her with those big eyes and that forlorn look of betrayal. And there was Zacharia and Weston and the rest of the boys, laughing at Bryan and throwing scrap metal at him. She saw it over and over again. There had never been any difference between Bryan and the other boys before yesterday. They dressed in the same tunic, they liked the same music, they sat at the same table in the mess hall. But now, because of Willow and her big mouth, Bryan was different.
“You promised,” he’d said as she helped him to his feet. The boys were gone now, but scrap metal had gouged Bryan’s cheek and he was bleeding. “You promised you wouldn’t say anything!”
Willow took him to the closest infirmary she could find, which was all the way on Deck Two. It was a long walk, made even longer by their silence.
“Enter breakfast choice!” the InnerCom now screeched at her.
But Willow just stuffed her face and ears into her pillow and tried to go back to sleep.
What’s the real difference between these two scenes? In one, we figure out what Willow’s deal is. We meet the characters and get inside the head of a twelve-year-old girl as she would be. Us living in America do not get up every morning and think, “Our descendants moved here from somewhere else. There was a grand revolution! We are under King George no more!” That was 250 years ago. We care more about what we’re going to eat for dinner and whether or not the people we love are doing okay. And we also don’t call things by their full, formal names. We do not say, “Get on your cellular device and telephone him!” We say, “Call him” or “Can I borrow your phone?” or “Where’s your cell?” Because we’re real people.
Don’t just visit your world. Live there. Don’t just give us Millennium Park and the history of Mrs. O’Leary’s cow. Give us that night where you were heart-broken because of some stupid guy, and your upstairs neighbor invited you over for pizza and introduced you to Leslie Knope.
That’s where the real story lies.