Epistolary novels gain an air of reality through their use of letters, diaries, and other documents. Shifting voices and jumps in time put the reader in the position of an investigator or a voyeur. Of course, a novel doesn’t have to be entirely made up of documents to achieve a similar sense of reality. At Ooligan, we recently worked with an author to pepper the pages of his book with some physical traces of the world he had created. This process helped bring the book’s fictional town to life.
Odsburg (which launched October 29) shares the flyers, letters, menus, and other ephemera of a colorful community (all of which was allegedly gathered by illicit means). As a reader and fan of the book, I find that these “found documents” make it easy for me to forget that the town of Odsburg is a fictional place. The Ooligan team supplemented the endearing, believable, and varied voices of Matt Tompkins’s characters with documents that are mentioned in the text. Many of these documents were physical objects before we digitized them. Here are some notes on our process, which might be helpful to anyone who’s publishing or authoring a work of fiction that would benefit from found documents.
First, we stuck to the text. Creating a wealth of documents is fun, but only for those already familiar with the content of the book. As with any aspect of designing a book, it’s important to take on the perspective of a new (or potential) reader. Each document’s connection to the text should be clear. Maybe the connection comes later in the text, which can add some mystery; but the document will be a troubling distraction if readers are left scratching their heads for too long. For Odsburg, we only created objects that were explicitly mentioned in the text, and we placed them in the book near the places where they were mentioned. This ensured that there would be little to no gap between the reader’s encounter with the document and the point where they learned its place in the story.
We made a list of all the objects mentioned in the text, and then we narrowed the list down to a size that would ensure readers could engage with every document. We didn’t want to overload the text or keep the reader’s attention away from the writing for too long. When choosing which documents to create, we sought visual variety. We didn’t want to end up with too many letters, as this would have made the non-letters seem out of place. We chose objects that would be immediately recognizable if one read about them first and that would still be memorable if one read about them later.
We also had a different person create each document. This gave each piece its own identity and meant that none of the handwriting was the same. This process is easier to pull off if you’re working with a large, multitalented team like the one at Ooligan, but it’s still replicable if you’re doing most of the work alone. Stretching your design skills by pretending each piece is a commission with different goals, asking friends to contribute their handwriting, or crafting documents in different mediums can keep the collection from feeling repetitive and artificial.
Because Odsburg is presented as one man’s collection of documents and thoughts, we treated all the physical objects the same way after they were created. Some crumpling suggested they were kept in haphazard folders before publication, despite how delicately we handled them in reality. All documents that were originally digital were printed so they could go through the same scanning process as the objects that were originally physical. The result is a variety of objects that still feel united by a common journey.
This part of publishing Odsburg has proven to me how much design can contribute to the content of a text. The process of creating these documents can lend another dimension to a piece of fiction. If your goal is to make your fictional world feel real, consider creating “found documents” and ephemera to bring it to life.