When I was a kid, my brothers and I snuck out and rode our bikes down the road to explore a house that sat in a bramble of bushes and trees. It had sat empty for a decade or so. I remember getting goosebumps but also being curious. Our neighbors had a couple cars sitting in tall grass, rusting out by their barn. A decaying grain silo and barn stood across the road, and we had to explore those, too. We also visited an empty farmhouse and schoolhouse.
My elementary school stood next to the boarded-up former school, and I would spend recess peeking in the windows and looking at hallways once full of students just like me, then empty and dusty. There was playground equipment behind it, metal horses on springs with flaking paint. And one day, while we were out walking down a nearby creek bed during a drought, we came across the remains of railroad tracks, long gone, the rusty metal and bits of wood still stretching across the creek. In high school, I volunteered to document graffiti left on the cell walls of our past local prison, and spent hours photographing the flaking paint and deciphering the peeling words before it all disappeared.
All these things awoke my imagination. I pictured the ghosts of students in the old schoolhouse, riding on the playground horses, laughing. I imagined the family that used to live in the vacant house, sitting down to dinner, playing with the remains of the toys that were still left on the floor. Farmers long gone, working the land. The haunting sound of the horn as the phantom train steamed off to nowhere. The prisoner from another time, scratching his message in the wall.
When I write stories about decayed places, I often think of all the places I've visited. Now, I also add to the collection in my memories by looking at similar pictures online. For scene-setting inspiration, I do image searches to get an idea of what my characters might be facing in their dystopian world. One of the saddest modern examples of a decaying place is Pripyat, the abandoned city in Ukraine. After the Chernobyl disaster, the city of nearly 50,000 people had to be evacuated due to radiation. Now, decades later, the buildings still stand, untouched. The roofs leak. There's vandalism. A Ferris wheel stands still, no one to ride it. If you haven't looked at the haunting photos of Pripyat, you can find some here, here and here -- or through a general search.
There are plenty of other photos online of decaying places and things. Here are a few from Wikimedia Commons that might give you chills and stir your imagination:
|on Wikimedia Commons here, Author: Marduk|
|on Wikimedia Commons here, Author: Jim.henderson|
|On Wikimedia Commons here, Author: Unknown|
|Rusty steam locomotive in Tua train station, Author: Rosino||Some rights reserved.|
Story starter: If your character is wandering across a ruined landscape, what does she think when she sees this train?
I hope these images and links inspire your writing. Next week, I'll do the opposite and post inspiration for utopian worlds.