I’ve never been to Chernobyl, Ukraine. I’ve never even been to Europe. Did that stop me from setting a story there? Hell no.
I know that the intent of this blog, as originally stated, is to show off Philadelphia as a prime setting for urban fantasy, but my secondary intention has always been to discuss the craft of writing. To that end, this post is about going from researching a place to capturing it on the page.
Chernobyl; Pripyat, the adjoining city that housed the Chernobyl workers; and the 30 kilometer Zone of Alienation that surrounds them are the ultimate abandoned places. You can’t just not go there, staying there too long can kill you, albeit slowly. I thought that these locations would make the perfect setting for a short story.
The following is an excerpt from the story “Steel Yard,” which I wrote after being inspired by pictures I found of Pripyat and Chernobyl.
The streets of Pripyat were completely quiet, quieter than the streets of a small town in the dead of night. The sun shone down onto the cracked asphalt, nourishing the trees that sprouted here and there that created great rifts in the middle of the road. The stillness among those broken gray Soviet apartment blocks was unnatural. Although I knew that nobody could live here anymore, I imagined that I was being watched through the broken windows of any number of identical concrete buildings.
In the distance, the bright yellow gondolas of the ferris wheel in the city’s center looked incongruous against the trees that had grown undisturbed for almost twenty years. I turned, taking my thoughts from the sort of carefree summer’s day for which the ferris wheel begged. Beyond the endless rows of concrete buildings, the faded red and white cooling tower of Reactor 4 loomed, casting its shadow out in all directions for thirty kilometers.
I didn’t use everything I saw in pictures, and I didn’t see everything that I wrote about in the pictures that I could find. This is important. Without artistic license, you and I could only write about the things we knew everything about. We would only write memoir, and that would be boring (not to say that memoirs are inherently boring, but that it would be boring if that were all that anyone could write).
Place, though, is not sufficient catalyst to write a story. Place is setting, you need characters to populate your setting, and their interactions should drive your story. For “Steel Yard,” the catalyst was the Russian Woodpecker, an installation known as Duga-3 by the Soviets, given the NATO code-name Steel Yard. Duga-3 is an enormous over-the-horizon radar array that was in place to detect U. S. missile launches for a time before it was overtaken by satellite technology and eventually the end of the Cold War.
I won’t give away any of the plot, that would ruin the fun (and I’m still waiting to hear back from a certain prestigious market about “Steel Yard”), but I will give you a few more pictures and another excerpt.
I wondered who would be crazy enough to spend more time in the Zone than they had to. I had only been beyond the fence for half a day, and I already felt uneasy. I remembered seeing wisps of smoke rising through the trees once or twice during my drive, and once I had seen a rutted gravel road going off through the trees; there were still some people living in the area. Although I knew better, images of mutated freaks with five eyes and glowing green skin sprang to mind; I pushed those thoughts aside quickly, and tried to concentrate on where I was going.
The corridors in the bunker all looked the same, only occasionally differentiated from one another by indecipherable strings of Cyrillic characters that I tried to keep straight in my head in preparation for my eventual exit. For every time that I had been thankful for the simple uniformity of Soviet design in the outside world, I now cursed the confusion that it was causing within the confines of the dingy bunker. Every time that I thought I was making some progress, I found myself at another dead end.
So what did I actually do for this story? Much of the plot planted itself in my mind at the very start, brought on when I first learned about the Russian Woodpecker. From there, I spent a lot of time reading everything that I could find about the array, looking at lots of pictures, researching related subjects (Wikipedia may not be the best for academic research papers, but it’s more than good enough for me as a writer, and points me in the right direction for the information I can’t find with my own simple searches), and watching TV shows about the area, all the time keeping an open notebook at hand so that I could jot down any ideas that came to me during my research. I kept a lot of pictures on hand while I was writing so that I could best capture an area I have never been to, and I often spent as much time looking at pictures as I did writing a particular scene.