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Shadow Cities

You think you know a place. There are the streets you drive down, the shops you buy your groceries from, the houses you walk past every day. But at the same time, there’s another place all around you as well: the abandoned places, the condemned buildings, the strange stuff you don’t notice unless you’re looking for it, often hiding in plain sight.

Today I went to see some wonderful fantasy authors talking about their writing, and Cassandra Clare was one of them. She mentioned a few things that particularly stuck with me: one was that most of us writers are "strange people interested in strange things", and the other was the idea of shadow cities.

Urban exploration is a source of inspiration for Clare. She talked about how she went out looking for the shadow sides of New York and London to research the Mortal Instruments and the Infernal Devices, seeking out the forgotten and mysterious, finding the places where each city’s shadow self lurked most strongly. (Apparently at one point she and Holly Black even got in trouble with the law for sneaking into an abandoned hospital.) She also talked about that game almost every kid plays, where you imagine all sorts of magical things only just outside the corner of your eye, and how, in creating the Shadowhunters and their world inside our real one, she recreated this game, of things that are there that you can’t quite see.

Inspiration for fantasy is all over the place. Even in what we think of as our mundane, everyday world, there are secret places waiting to be discovered. Now, I’m not encouraging you to go break into abandoned buildings, but still. Next time you’re out and about, keep an eye out for the shadow places. There might be spectacular stories lurking inside them.
Leila Austin

Leila lives in Middle Earth, also known as New Zealand, and writes YA fantasy.

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  1. Awesome post! I love the concept of cities within cities. is one of my favourite urban exploration websites.

  2. That photo alone is ripe with inspiration. This makes me want to go on a tour of my city (with my camera handy). I can already think of a number of places that I'd like to start.

  3. This post is why I'm obsessed with urban fantasy. I love the idea that there could be fantastic things in the real world that we're just not noticing. =D

    Also (fangirl moment) Neil Gaiman totally owns the hidden-city concept in NEVERWHERE. 'London Below' has all these great characters named after real places in London. Also, there're these other awesome details - for example, at the train station, the speaker says "Mind the Gap" because there's a terrible beast lurking in said gap. XD Talk about finding fantasy in the most everyday place.

  4. LOVE this post. Really has me playing with some new ideas.


  5. Warning: Do NOT start looking at urban exploring photos from Detroit. Do NOT. Because if you already have somewhat of an interest in abandoned places, Detroit will become an obsession.

    You've been warned!

    (Disclaimer: No disrespect meant to Detroit or her citizens; I know it's a very tragic city with people going through some very hard times. Still, though, it is Mecca for abandoned buildings.)

  6. @Anonymous: Detriot is basically urbex heaven, right? WHY MUST I LIVE SO FAR AWAY?!

    I'm saving the link for later. Thank you for sharing!

  7. Yay links!

    @Riley - Neverwhere is amazing!

    @Anon - True! I've been obsessed with Detroit for a while now. It has some of the most incredible abandoned places I've ever seen. I especially love these photos:

    And if anyone wants to check out a whole abandoned city, I recommend looking up Prypiat. (Although I wouldn't recommend going there, it's still full of radiation.)

  8. I love abandoned buildings. They are definitely inspirational. Whenever I drive through cities, I am always on the lookout not for the fancy buildings, but for the shabby, neglected ones. There's just something about them.

  9. Encouragement or not, I so want to go abandoned-building-scavenging now.

    Thanks, Leila! As always, a beautiful post.

  10. The image of Holly Black and Cassandra Clare getting in trouble with the law made me laugh.

  11. Oh, I so wish I was with Holly and Cassandra. I love all things derelict, including my husband. Seriously though, boarded up buildings have loads of stories in them! Walking down hallways, opening doors to empty rooms,boarded up windows with just enough of a crack to see out onto the world, and who once stood in the same spot. I get goosebumps!
    Next time there's any sneaking around, I'm in!!
    P.S. Great photo!

  12. beautiful post, as always. I am OBSESSED with abandoned places.

  13. ((Same anon from above... I should REALLY get a Blogger account... ;-) ))

    Just a disclaimer, from someone who has done SOME urban exploring and a bit of rural exploring (abandoned farmhouses), be super, super, SUPER careful if you ever decide to do this. Getting arrested is the least of your fears. (Seriously, a first time trespassing charge with no burglary or damage to property isn't that bad. Bigger penalties for driving on a suspended license, 'least where I'm from. And the one time we encountered the cops, we were just told to "go the $%#& home.") Rotten floors, dark areas with sudden drops, staircases with no railings... these are your real concerns. And, I don't mean to sound disrespectful to the homeless, but a lot of homeless men will identify these structures as THEIRS, and act as upset as they would if you were walking into an apartment that they legally owned. Abandoned structures are AWESOME, but they are also highly dangerous. Just a warning. My advice is to just enjoy the pictures. I am definitely on an extended hiatus from breaking and entering for a while.

    But funny story - I got into this when my first college apartment, a huge Victorian triplex, became an abandoned property. It is SURREAL to walk through an abandonment that you used to call home... but like steroids for a writer's brain. :-)

  14. There's an old abandoned mental hospital near where I live and I have always wanted to go exploring there but I'm too scared of getting caught and arrested! The place is called Norwich State Hospital, it's in CT, and it was featured last summer on one of those ghosts shows on TV. That place is DEFINITELY haunted!

  15. @ Meaghan

    If it was featured on a TV show and you call saying you're a freelance writer, there's a good chance that they may give you permission to go through and check it out. A lot of the urbex photography you see on websites didn't even involve any trespassing, they were legally given access.


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Item Reviewed: Shadow Cities Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Leila Austin