Guest Post: Ellen Booraem on World Building: Undertaking an Underworld

By Ellen Booraem

Texting the Underworld (Dial, 2013), my latest middle-grade fantasy, is set partly in South Boston, Massachusetts, and partly in (you guessed it) the Underworld.

Psychologically, Southie is an island, separated from the rest of the world by Fort Point Channel and Boston Harbor. It’s famed as a traditionally Irish bastion. Today, though, its public schools look like the United Nations.

If Southie can achieve diversity, surely the afterlife can follow suit?

Texting the Underworld is about a banshee—my lighthearted version of the Irish ancestral spirit who wails when a family member is on the way out. Ashling, a young banshee, visits 12-year-old Conor O’Neill to say that someone in his family is going to die, and he sets out to prevent the death.

I was in a solidly Celtic state of mind when I started the book. As I researched, though, it became obvious that the traditional Irish afterlife was not going to meet my needs. I wanted everyone to be reincarnated, and by most accounts the ancient Irish awarded new lives only to heroes. Anyway, stories of the Irish Otherworld make it sound so pleasant—blue skies, gentle breezes, music, feasting—that you can’t imagine anyone wanting to leave.

Most important, logic dictated that the afterlife would have to serve everybody, not just the Irish. And so, singing happy research songs to myself, I set out to build a multicultural hereafter.

I liked the Celtic idea of an “otherworld” that exists alongside ours, although my Irish characters call it “the Other Land” because it sounds better. The traditional Celtic Otherworld is accessible either by traveling to an island or delving underground. Most cultures do like their dead to be firmly underfoot, so I decided Conor and friends would first travel to an island, then make their way down a tunnel into a network of caverns. The non-Celts they meet call the place the Underworld.

I had several useful books on Celtic traditions and world beliefs, but I have to say Google was my friend. There’s a lovely list of “death deities” on Wikipedia—that’s where I found my favorite Underworld character: Nergal, the Babylonian Lord of the Dead who’s often depicted as half lion.

(I hasten to add that I use Wikipedia as a first stop in research but never the last. As an old journalist, I always shoot for three sources.)

The Egyptians contributed Anubis, although my version no longer weighs the souls of the dead for judgment. Charon came from the Greeks, except he’s a portal guard rather than a boatman, and Oya represents the Yoruba tradition. Another of my portal guards, the Cailleach, is named for a Scottish/Irish winter goddess but is heavily influenced by Dickens’s Ghost of Christmas Future, J.K. Rowling’s dementors, and every irritable old lady I’ve ever known. (I won’t name any of them, thanks for asking.)

Mara of the Latvians and Kisin of the Maya get a passing mention. I wish I’d been able to include the fact that Kisin’s name means “flatulence” because he smells so bad, but I’m trying to use him in another book so maybe it’s not too late.

The Lady who runs things is my own invention. So are her three ravens with the power of life and death, although black birds and the number three appear in a lot of death legends.

My most thrilling moment, however, was when I realized that this Other Land was going to be a bureaucracy rather than a place of judgment. It’s the Ellis Island of the afterlife, ushering the Dear Departed from death to rebirth, recording name, ancestry, and other essential facts as they go. I got to channel my past lives as an office-worker—usually in newsrooms, but an office is an office—with all the attendant irritation, fatigue, and camaraderie.

I probably was influenced here by a favorite book from my childhood, the undeservedly obscure The Daughters of the Stars by Mary Crary. Written by an American but published in England in 1939, it supposes that the natural world—stars, moon, sun, sea, rain, you name it—is a bureaucracy headed by petty aristocrats but run by a host of capable flunkies.

Fascinatingly for 1939, the real power is in the hands of women. The protagonists are young Perdita and her mother Astrella, the crisp, efficient Younger Daughter of the Stars and Luminary of Two Continents. It’s a great book—give it a try sometime.

As is often the case, I discovered in revision that some part of my brain had been cleverer than I realized, and the Underworld shared a theme with my depiction of South Boston. Conor’s grandfather, the all-Irish Grump, takes great pains to assure everyone that he’s fine with his old neighborhood’s modern diversity, including his grandson Conor having a Puerto Rican best friend. Then he, Conor, and Conor’s sister Glennie visit the Underworld, which he still expects to be entirely Irish. Ashling the banshee introduces them to Charon.

“Charon?” Grump burst out. “He’s a Greek myth, for cripes’ sake. First some African lady, now this. What the heck is going on around here?”

“One person’s myth is another’s religion,” Glennie said, prim under her raccoon-faced hat.

“If I want your opinion I’ll ask for it.” Grump leaned back against the wall to catch his breath.
Poor Grump. Sharing the neighborhood is one thing—a shared afterlife takes a bit of getting used to.

Cynsational Notes

Ellen Booraem’s Texting the Underworld, is a middle-grade fantasy about a scaredy-cat South Boston boy and a determined young banshee.

Her earlier middle-grade fantasies are Small Persons with Wings (Penguin/DBYR, 2011) and The Unnameables (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2008).

She lives in coastal Maine with an artist, a dog, and a cat, one of whom is a practicing curmudgeon. She blogs at The Enchanted Inkpot.

10 thoughts on “Guest Post: Ellen Booraem on World Building: Undertaking an Underworld

  1. You know, I always think that us authors are like basking sharks. We drift around with our mouths gaping open letting all this stuff drift in, but it gets filtered and stored until, hopefully, out of the back end we occasionally squeeze out a little pearl (nugget of insight). Message to budding authors—read. Everything.

  2. Love it when authors make their supernatural world multicultural. I remember doing research for my Runes series and finding similarities in the mother goddess and had my MC's trainer mention at least one in each continent or civilization.

  3. Thanks for the lovely comments, everyone! I sometimes wish I didn't enjoy research so much–I have to remind myself that I am supposed to, er, write something.

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