I try not to talk about my day job too much. Granted you could probably figure it out if you dug, but generally I try to keep the writing half of my life somewhat separate from my other pursuits. But I’m going to talk about it a little today, because I have some thoughts I want to share about the worlds that are often right next to us.
One of my weaknesses as a writer is my world-building. I get caught up in the characters and the action and forget to think about the world it is set in, or at least forget to tell you about it. This is likely a symptom of my own way of moving through the world. I live in my head a lot, and places can be somewhat fuzzy for me. One of my tasks in my day job is to make maps, and I like to joke that it’s regrettable because my spatial awareness is not the kind that fits neatly into a grid of latitude and longitude. Luckily in this day and age we have computer systems that plot that for you. Making a map can be an eye opening experience. Things I thought of as linear are suddenly curved. Things which I didn’t realize were connected are of a piece. It changes the way I think about my city and my valley, almost on a daily basis.
One of the other things I do is ride the bus.
Okay, you’re wondering about that. I’ll give you a brief overview. My job, sometimes, includes riding a bus to count how many people are on it. The time and route are generated randomly. The counts are used to help argue for better bus services. It’s good work, and it has taught me a lot.
When I first moved to this city, I wouldn’t go near the bus station. Most relatively privileged people don’t here. The station is located downtown, and often there are a lot of “rough” looking people hanging around it. Rough is in this case code for poor POC. I’ve grown a lot since then. But I still had only ridden the commuter bus – a high end coach that takes one to a neighboring city – before I started this new job. I rode it when I was in graduate school and didn’t have a lot of options. That seems to be when most people ride buses. They do, after all, cost one extra time. Time is an even more precious commodity than money for many.
Anyway, this job changed that. I have now been all over the city by bus. I am riding the bus as a relative outsider – it’s my job to observe – and let me tell you. It is very different from what I had observed as a passerby.
Before my first bus ride, I had this idea about how buses worked. The bus stop is, as mentioned, downtown. It takes up the whole first floor of a building owned by the bus company. There is a small lobby. I remembered the lobby as being sort of dark and dingy and crowded. I remembered the actual station as a broad, concrete space. Both of these are…sort of right. The lobby is small, but the walls are white. There are metal benches throughout. It’s not in the best repair, but you can tell they try to keep it clean. There are usually a handful of people inside, and right before the buses go out – they leave every hour – there can be a lot of people waiting, especially in the winter. But most of the time it is relatively quiet. Those “rough” folks hanging out on the street always say good morning to me, or good afternoon as the case may be. The bus station itself is poorly located, and floods after a hard rain sometimes, stalling the bus service. The buses pull up into their relative lanes, all of which are marked with brightly colored signs indicating the route number and general destination. People from all over the city and all walks of life rub elbows here. It is colorful and vibrant and alive – not a dreary industrial space, as I had thought, but a space made living by the people who use it.
Is it always a comfortable space? No. I am still, after all, an outsider. Someday I might take the plunge and use the bus system as a rider, but for now I’m still the paid observer, dipping into this world and leaving. Being around other people is messy, too. A bus station is a type of urban commons, and there is no method to deny others entry. Being faced so abjectly with my privilege every time I go can be disheartening.
But back to writing, since that’s why you’re here.
Setting is a thing made of details. Each character might perceive their setting differently. I certainly perceive my time on the bus differently now than I would have two or three years ago, and even differently than I did just a month ago. As we know a place better, it changes. As a writer, to make a setting live, I need to bring that into my writing. There are whole parallel worlds within my kingdom or town that another character might never perceive. I should, however, know what those are. My perception of the setting should not be myopic, as my characters’ might be, but should encompass it in its complexity. Communicating that complexity to readers is a challenge, but if done well the world breathes and fidgets and generally feels real.
It’s something I’m still working on, but I think I understand it better every day.