Since age 20, traveling has always been a major part of my life. I’m not someone who is content with an annual vacation to Cape Cod. Rather, I like to experience something new (although some places, like Hawaii and Paris, will always draw me back—but with new discoveries, I hope). Even though my days of many-bedded hostel rooms and shared cold water showers are over, I still relish the challenges that accompany exploration of less familiar places.
I wonder if that need for the unknown is what draws me to writing novels. Writing longer length fiction is truly a journey that requires some of the same approaches to maximizing the experience as does traveling. Having just returned from an enjoyable trip to Portugal, I found myself reflecting on some of the commonalities between the two.
1. Figuring out the general shape of the trip. A little planning goes a long way whether traveling or writing. We (my husband John and I) pick an overall destination based on a long-term desire to see that place, recommendations from friends and articles we’ve read, our mood, and the season. Then we arrange transportation and reserve rooms or apartments. We chose Portugal because neither of us had ever been there before. Likewise, with my writing, I get an idea for a major character and overall story, think about the appropriate voice for that story, and then let it simmer, jotting down ideas as they come to me.
2. Filling in the details along the way. On the trip there, we begin to read more seriously about our destination, noting points of interest. We decide on a general itinerary. This part seems akin to writing a very loose outline and doing character sketches. Of course, some writers prefer detailed outlines (as some travelers like to chart out every day, every restaurant ahead of time), and others are more organic in their approach.
3. Getting a bird’s eye view. The best way to understand the landscape is to seek out the highest vantage point—the castle ramparts, the top of a hill. How do the buildings relate to one another, what are in people’s gardens, how many churches are there, what colors predominate, what stands out? What is the essence of the visual scene? John and I play a game when we travel—we try to liken this new, sometimes exotic place to our hometown of Somerville. For example, Lisbon is like Somerville, but with steps. (It’s a city on many levels.) It’s a joke, of course, but like many jokes, it holds a kernel of truth. In writing, I see the bird’s eye view as identifying the novel’s signature or spine, or formulating a one or two sentence log line. This exercise helps one identify the overall shape of one’s story. In addition, a one page synopsis, which many of my writer friends loathe writing, helps one to see the coherence of the overall plot.
4. Staying open to new possibilities/changes in plans. We prefer to take advantage of new information and alter plans as needed. Sometimes it means not doing something that one of us was previously committed to. Our goal is to create a satisfying experience for ourselves. Likewise, in both first drafts and revisions, self-critique and the critique of others encourage the writer to alter her outline, maybe veering off into some previously unknown territory or killing a few darlings, for a stronger and more interesting narrative.
5. Learning about the history and culture. As mentioned, we don’t do much advance reading before a trip, but once there we delve into a place, learning from books, from people, from labels and literature at the sights we visit. Portugal’s Moorish history was something we’d known little about, and it shapes both the culture and the architecture. Not all novels require extensive research, but unless your story is just thinly disguised autobiography or total fantasy, you will probably need to do some research to flesh out characters and to describe places.
6. Pace yourself appropriately. When we try to cram too much into a trip, we end up shortchanging our experience. Sometimes we need to stop and look more closely at our surroundings, staying longer than we planned. The time we spent watching the parade celebrating senior citizens in Tavira kept us from visiting the fishing port some kilometers away but gave us another glimpse into Portuguese life. In contrast, the Western most point of Portugal (and of continental Europe) was lovely, but an hour was sufficient. Getting the pacing right in story-telling is crucial to keeping readers involved—knowing when to slow down and stay immersed and when to speed up and summarize.
7. Fully engaging all your senses. Traveling is a sensory experience—a feast for the eyes, of course, including art and architecture, natural wonders, and flora and fauna, not to mention the activities of people—but also sounds, smells, tastes and textures. In Portugal, we saw castles, smelled the fish in the market place, tasted the delectable flaky pastries, listened to the whistles and shouts of the matadors in the bull ring (they didn’t kill the bulls!), and touched the porous coastal rocks. In writing, we tend to focus initially on what we can see, but rich writing involves this total engagement.
8. Communicating clearly. We’ve been to places where we knew little of the language, but we’ve still managed to get what we need. My husband had studied a little Portuguese prior to our trip, but at our first restaurant in Lisbon, the waiter knew no English at all. He took us outside to look at the chalkboard menu, crossing out items no longer available; he brought out three dessert choices so we could point to the one we wanted; my husband consulted his phrase book for our beverage choices. Sometimes it was just a matter of a few well chosen gestures and words, just like in writing.
9. Using landmarks to help guide the way. Sometimes we get off the trail or take a detour to follow a sound. (Music led us to a folk dance performance just off the winding streets of Lisbon.) Then we have to find our way back. Landmarks—a statue, a notable piece of graffiti, tram tracks, laundry hanging from a balcony—all helped to keep us from getting lost. But they also served as roots to our routes! In fiction, the use of recurring motifs can help ground a complicated story and provide insight into characters’ journeys.
10. Expect the unexpected. One thing we’ve learned from all our travels is that things don’t always work out the way we planned or hoped for—sometimes they are worse, sometimes better, sometimes just different from our expectations. And that is all part of the rich fabric of travel. The elaborate buffet breakfast spread at our hotel in Lisbon was a complete surprise as was the courteousness of the drivers. The sudden rain storm as we climbed a steep, slick, and narrow sidewalk (up to that birds’ eye view)—not so much fun. If we wanted predictability, we could stay home with our routines or go to a place we’ve been to many times before. Like me, I believe that many writers enjoy the adventure of writing. We pride ourselves in overcoming roadblocks, soldiering on.
And as with the intrepid traveler, it’s not just about the destination (the finished book) but about the journey itself and the figurative castles, parades, and magnificent views we might discover along the way.