Real Documents from a Fictional Town

Darc Majik Chocolate

Darc Majik Chocolate

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.

Greetings from Odsburg

Greetings from Odsburg

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.

Housesitting Instructions

Housesitting Instructions

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.

Actualize!

Actualize!

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.

Elite Male Modeling

Elite Male Modeling

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.

Puzzling Together a Book’s Interior

When I tell non-industry people that I’m designing the interior of a book, they look at me funny. I can see the confusion on their faces and the question in their eyes: “What does design have to do with the inside of a book?” I thought this very same thing before taking design classes in the program. It also sounded a little boring to me. Really, how much fun can lining up a bunch of text be? But as I learned more about design and the InDesign program, I’ve come to really enjoy the process. As a former Ooligan student says, it’s “like putting together a fun little puzzle.

The first step was to pick a font; this was not an easy task as there are literally millions of fonts out there. Luckily I was restricted to choosing from the hundreds that Ooligan already has the rights to. So I browsed through hundreds of fonts, tried out a couple dozen, printed out eight, then finally sent in five.

The next step was to figure out the margins and spacing, which oddly involves quite a bit of math. After drawing boxes, counting lines on the screen and frequently referring to a calculator, we finally figured it out. I say “we” because this was a crash lesson in margin spacing from the design department lead (I had absolutely no idea what I was doing at the time). But I could punch numbers into a calculator if it helped.

Once the base was created with these decisions, it was time to import the XML document. By this point, the editorial department has worked long and hard to tag the manuscript, delineating which passages should look different or be set apart from the rest. It was my job to get the book to match the manuscript without adding any errors. So don’t add things—sounds simple right? For those who don’t work with InDesign, the w key is the shortcut key to toggle between print view and layout view. As a designer, you need to toggle this frequently, but sometimes you are in the text, with a cursor and everything. So if you hit that w key and the view doesn’t toggle, it’s likely you’ve added the letter w somewhere in the text, which is terrifying since books are upwards of 200 pages long, and the one I was working on is 320. So be careful!

There are some technical aspects to interior book design that need to be handled properly, but once those are taken care of, it’s time to design. The book I was working on has more section breaks than chapters, and it’s important to the clarity of the story that they are obvious. I really wanted to add a glyph to these breaks—something that would be similar in style to the cover image. After searching through dozens of fonts and finding things I liked but couldn’t get the license to use, I finally found the best glyph in the standard glyphs font. I suppose this is par for the course: to search everywhere for the thing right in front of you.

As I put this puzzle together, I also had to figure out things like the placement of the folios. With all of the section headers, it’s important that the folios and section headers don’t clash awkwardly. Then there is all of the front and back matter to include. And everything has to fit into a specific number of pages. This was something I’d learned in class but forgotten. Because of print sheets—which are dependant on the trim size of the book—the total number of pages needs to be a multiple of a certain number. This number was sixteen in my case, so at one point I had to find a way to either delete two pages or fill an additional fourteen more. The last piece of the puzzle is the word spacing. The designer looks at each page and makes adjustments to the spacing to correct widows, orphans, and any other eyesores.

Once everything is done and lined up and in its place, the only thing to do is wait for the printed version. Before Ooligan, my design background was primarily digital, and there is something much more satisfying seeing your designs in physical, tangible, printed out formI still have work to do on this book, but I’m excited to see the final published version.