We get asked for advice several times a year by students, writers, or people just interested in the work we do. This is from a larger chapter on Ambient Literature, but is posted here in the hope that it might be useful in some way:
It’s useful to think of the writing process here as a set of tools. There are more than we’re proposing, and those additions are going to be very specific to where your reader is, but here’s a set of starting points:
Moving through a space requires we be aware of the nature of that environment. It demands that the walker be conscious of hazards, of the difference between an alleyway at dusk and an open square in the middle of the day. Most of these are subconscious knowledges; we don’t think about them in our day-to-day experience until they impact on our experience. For a writer, they’re the difference between a long and a short chapter. They’re tension and reflection, pace and flow. Walk routes, listen and watch. Make notes and record the noise around you as you travel. Your reflections, your thoughts and the things you feel as you travel. While your readers might not make the same observations, they’ll be aware of the shifts in their surroundings, in the way the space makes them tense, or draw breath. They will be you, in due course, and you need to be them now.
Look up. Look at every facade, and each piece of decoration, each tiny detail. Now ignore them. Instead, focus on the shapes of the buildings in front of you, behind and around you. What are they made of? Why are they built the way they are? What’s their history, their purpose. How do you get inside? Is there a single door, or a double. Revolving? Security? What does that tell you about what’s inside. What about the doorway; does anyone sleep in it? If so, is there a trace of them the next day? What is the pavement made of? The road?
Stanley Kubrick had his nephew, Manuel Harlan, document an entire road for pre-production on Eyes Wide Shut, stitching photographs together into a 6-meter-long recreation of space in order that his uncle could decide on camera movements. You don’t need to be quite that obsessive, but you do need to look.
A map is not a plan of city streets, with markers for churches, post offices and traffic signals. It can be that, of course, but your map is a space is personal. It’s a collection of smells and sights and sounds that’s triggered every time you re-enter that space, or go somewhere like it. Each one of your readers has their own map, their own shorthand for streets, plazas, rivers, and they have gps maps to find their way there in the first place. What the relationship between their map, yours and the journey they’re going to make is we can’t tell you, but we’d suggest it’ll be more trigger-led than co-ordinates.
What can distract
Nothing, and everything, on a spectral scale. It really depends on how closely you mask the world (also see audio, below). There’s nothing wrong in designing something that operates as a heritage tour - directing the reader’s attention to things, explaining them and focusing them exactly where you want them to be, but it’s like being inside an Occulus Rift - suffocating, with an absence of peripheral vision, and no awareness of the real stuff around you. And if you want to write VR, then write VR. The value in digital’s relationship to reality is that it can abstract it away as needed. It can draw the eye (or the ear, or the hand) in as required, and bring everything down to the detail of a chalk mark on a wall, and it can zoom back out to the whole panorama. Weather is going to distract, but since that’s a given, we’d suggest you ignore it. The time of day is your friend though - the same piece experienced in daylight and at dusk might as well be in two completely different locales.
Almost finally; sound. The simplest form of immersion, and potentially the most effective. Sound - delivered through headphones or played by speakers that interrupt the wild track of the city - directs the attention like no other medium in this field. Video is invasive, and obscures with an obvious frame (we’ll amend this chapter when GoogleGlassII is available, and works, and doesn’t make you look like a dork), and sound operates in 360 degrees, not a 20/20 field. Binaural sound spatially transcends stereo, allowing a writer/designer the opportunity to create a genuinely immersed experience. Circumstance write with sound - we begin sketching our pieces with short fragments of audio that establish a mood, amending and amended by the impact of space and the journey (even as bare, non-specific points to cross through), that then provide a scaffold to rebuild the audio for the final piece. We return to those sketches for new works, or reinvent them with fresh arrangements that better suit the genre and tone we’re aiming for, but it’s sound that starts and ends a process.
The ubiquity of digital media shouldn’t be taken to mean that always-on is a problem, or that your job is to shut out the world around the reader in order that they only focus on the thing you’re showing them. Since the world is there, isn’t it more productive to focus the reader’s attention out - to the city around them in all it’s complexity, but mediated by the story you’re taking them through? You cannot shut the world out; it won’t let you.