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Guest Blog by Ryan Graudin: Creating A Sense of Danger

Kowloon_Walled_City_StatueThe setting of my YA novel THE WALLED CITY is based on a real place called the Kowloon Walled City, a neighborhood that existed in 1980s Hong Kong. It was only 6.5 acres in area and housed over 33,000 people at its height in 1987. The reason so many people flocked to this small space, was because it was a no-man’s land in terms of the law (due to conflicts between Britain and China). Illegal activities went unhindered by police, so anyone who wanted to partake of them moved to the Walled City. Thus the neighborhood—full of unlicensed dentists, noodle-makers and other manufacturers who wanted to avoid taxation, and Triad members—was a strange mixture of crime and community.

At fourteen stories high, with Jenga-stacked apartment buildings and sunless streets that resembled tunnels, the Walled City seemed like a perfect setting for magic. When I started writing the earliest drafts of THE WALLED CITY, I tried very hard to fit fantastical elements into the story, but the placement never felt right. I’ve long considered myself to be solely a fantasy writer, and so to work on a story that rejected any magical elements outright was very strange.

ce88e51fe429d5dd697745017801ec75Nonetheless, I knew I wanted the novel to have a distinctly fantastical feel. I strove to put a veil of separation between its world and ours, so that when readers reached the end of the story and discovered that the Walled City was, in fact, a real neighborhood that existed in Hong Kong, they would be that much more astonished. I implemented this separation on a surface level by changing names of places and organizations. Hong Kong became Seng Ngoi. The Kowloon Walled City became the Hak Nam Walled City. Victoria Peak became Tai Ping Hill. The Triad also took on a more poetic name, becoming the Brotherhood of the Red Dragon.

But I also strove to maintain a fantastical atmosphere by heightening the stakes of the city. From page one readers find themselves plunged into a world rife with danger. Jin Ling, a girl who lives on the streets and disguises herself as a boy to stay safe, starts off the first chapter in a full blown sprint, running from a street gang. While hiding in an alleyway, she encounters a girl who has clearly run away from a brothel. A girl who is soon captured and dragged away by ruthless members of the Brotherhood of the Red Dragon. As the pages progress, so does the sense of danger. Jin Ling is constantly on guard, following her own three rules of survival: Run fast. Trust no one. Always carry your knife.

Danger lurks around all of the Walled City’s sunless corners. This tension helps readers separate this world from their own, since most of us thankfully do not have to entertain this adrenaline-heightened state in our own lives. Along with this sense of danger, comes another natural atmosphere builder: despair.

All three of my characters in THE WALLED CITY are, either emotionally or physically, trapped in the city. All three of them dream of escaping its oppressive darkness, and all three have seemingly insurmountable odds in their way. I used many of the Walled City’s physical traits—its barred windows, its perpetual darkness—to heighten this sense of desperation for each of my characters. Mei Yee, who is physically trapped inside the brothel, spends hours staring out of her grated window. Dai, who is trapped emotionally, has the same bars over his apartment veranda. “They’re supposed to keep thieves out,” he tells the reader, “but on my darker days all I see is the cage that’s keeping me in.”

imagesDanger and despair keep the reader riveted, but in the end it is hope that keep us turning the pages. The true challenge was balancing the Walled City’s dismal, surreal surroundings with the right amount of hope. One of my favorite scenes in THE WALLED CITY is when Jin Ling and Dai, who are both involved in running drugs for the Brotherhood of the Red Dragon for various reasons, climb up to the rooftops together to share a bag of stuffed buns and watch the sunrise. Without a few of these lighter hearted scenes, I believe the darkness of the Walled City would be too much to bear.

The setting of THE WALLED CITY is not quite fantasy or reality. It is a place of danger, where characters are stretched to their utmost limits and forced to embrace the two most universal of emotions: despair and hop

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One Comment

  1. Atmosphere is the single most important element to any story, most especially fantasy and SciFi.

    It has to have that right “feel” to it, or it doesn’t work. At once be alien and familiar enough for readers to make an emotional connection. (In this case, that emotion is FEAR).

    The Walled City setting sounds like it fits the bill perfectly. Imbuing a setting with an innate sense of danger is a powerful thing. The setting itself sets the pace and tone for the entire story. In a way, it’s a character in and of itself.

    This setting (both the real Kowloon and the fictional Hak Nam) remind me of Nar Shaddaa from the Star Wars Expanded Universe. My ALL TIME FAVORITE backdrop for roleplaying games! There’s all manner of danger, illicit activity, back-alley dealing, and just plain cool and fun and weird stuff going on.

    I look forward to reading “The Walled City.” It’s my kind of thing. 😉

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