Living in the Arctic, World Building and Point-Of-View
Greetings from 78°N and -16°C! I have been up here since the beginning of March when I arrived a few days before the celebration of the sun’s return… Longyearbyen is on the largest island of the Arctic Archipelago of Svalbard, approximately 1,200 kms north of the Arctic Circle. There are no trees, just mountains and glaciers and a relatively thin layer of snow. And not too many people either. Longyearbyen’s population is around 2,200 and the entire archipelago has less than 3,000 residents.
– um, OK… *sounds cold* but what does that have to do with world building?
Everything! Although it’s easy to see details of world building when you read about Middle Earth or Starships, a contemporary novel set in a real place also has a distinct world that the author has created – either by constructing a fictional setting or by choosing which parts of an existing setting to include or to omit.
The purpose of world building is to create a setting for your story. It is the structure in which your characters evolve and your story arc unfolds.
– But what does that have to do with point of view (POV)?
The world your characters inhabit shapes how they view the world and how they react. Whether done consciously or unconsciously, the world you create informs the story problem and its themes.
– And that connects to living in the Arctic… how?
A character’s POV and the world they inhabit are intricately inter-linked – and no place shows that better than here in Longyearbyen where some of the things we take for granted living below the Arctic Circle just don’t hold true anymore.
– Like what?
Like ‘day’ and ‘night’. Day is when the sun is up. Night when it is down. Right?
– Well, duh.
Nope. Not here. In Longyearbyen the sun dips below the horizon for the last time on October 15. And stays down until February 15 – although in Longyearbyen, because of the mountains, you don’t actually see the sun until March 8. And from April 20 to August 20 the sun stays up 24 hours a day – it circles around the sky going higher or lower, but never dipping below the horizon. Which means that when you go out with friends in the summer you stumble out of the pub into broad daylight at 2 in the morning. And when you meet a friend for lunch at noon in January, it looks like you are meeting them at midnight. Right now, the twilight goes on for hours giving a fabulous blue light.
– So daylight and darkness have more to do with the seasons than with day and night?
Absolutely! And a person/character who has grown up here (or in any other community north of the Arctic Circle) will have a different idea of what it means to walk home in the dark than those of us who grew up with dark meaning night – and as a girl growing up in Massachusetts I was brought up to understand that dark meant danger.
– Yeah, but being in a big city like NYC the night doesn’t feel the same either – there are always so many people out.
True. And that’s just another example of how the place you live affects the way you see the world – or even what makes sense to have happen in a story. Take for example the idea of having a character find a buried treasure, hidden by a pirate a hundred years ago, in their backyard. For a character growing up in Cambridge, MA that would make sense. But not if your character was in NYC or in Longyearbyen. In NYC there aren’t any backyards (so the treasure would have to have been buried in one of the city parks instead?) and in Longyearbyen the city is built on permafrost (so maybe it was hidden in a nearby glacier that is now slowly moving down the valley?).
– Wait. You live on permafrost? Isn’t that like really cold?
Yes and no. As with night and day, it’s relative. After graduating from high school my twin brothers and I took off for college. I headed up to Alaska, one brother went to California, and the other stayed close to home. By the time we gathered again at Christmas and went out to a local bar to catch up, we realized we were all dressed for different types of weather. I had on a light sweater. The brother from California had a double layer of jackets and scarves and was still cold while the one who had stayed at home looked like everyone else walking down the street with a ‘normal’ coat, a hat and gloves. So you adapt (and get the right clothes). Just the other day, when it was only -10°C out, everyone commented on how warm it was – and went out with a layer or two less. It’s all a question of what you are used to and that’s what I meant about how world building and point of view are connected: what you experience (the world around you) shapes the way you see the world (POV).
– So if it’s like winter all the time, does everyone drive a snowmobile or something?
Pretty much, actually! But that’s also because there aren’t many roads. In and around Longyearbyen there are only about 42 kilometers of roads after that it’s just open nature. The ‘two-vehicle’ family has a different twist up here since many have both a car and a snowmobile. Basically, if you want to get out of town in the winter/spring, you have to have a snowmobile. In the warmer months, when the sea ice has melted, you can also go places by boat.
It also means that teens, when they get their first permits, drive snowmobiles to school. Snowmobiles are a real source of freedom for teens – there really isn’t much you can do in a town of 2,200 people where everyone knows everyone. And believe me, they really do know how to drive them. I went for a drive with a teen the other day and he was hanging off the side and standing on the seat as if it was a BMX – whereas I felt adventurous just standing up!
– Have you seen any polar bears?
No, they aren’t often close to town even though the archipelago is home to several thousand polar bears. Which means you can’t leave town without a rifle and a flare. Since they are a protected species, the idea is to be able to scare them away. If you do shoot one, there will be a major investigation where you have to prove it was in self-defense.
But I have seen reindeer! One of the first mornings I looked out the kitchen window and saw one – and completely forgot about my coffee (which is saying a lot!). I took about a hundred pictures. A few days later I realized that reindeer are in and around Longyearbyen every day – much the way squirrels are in Massachusetts. But I still stop and take pictures of the reindeer when I see them, marking myself off as someone who isn’t from here.
So, when writing a book about a high school kid living in Longyearbyen, I’ll have to have them ignore the reindeer, drive a snowmobile to school, know how to tell a fox track from a husky track and to wear jeans around town even when it’s -18°C. And to have them find something long buried in the ice when they are out on a glacier…
Born in the US, Dina von Lowenkraft has lived on 4 continents, worked as a graphic
artist for television and as a consultant in the fashion industry. She
is the Regional Advisor for SCBWI Belgium, where she lives with her
husband, two children, three horses and a cat. Her debut YA Fantasy,
DRAGON FIRE, was a finalist in ForeWord Reviews’ 2013 Book of the Year
Award, in the 2014 Eric Hoffer Award and in the 2014 Readers’ Favorite