Storyville: How Travel Can Inform Your Writing
You’ve all heard the saying, “Write what you know.” And in some ways, yes, I agree with it. If you have an expertise such as a certain job, skill, or trait, you definitely have the authority to talk about it. Or maybe you’ve seen something horrible or weird—a ghost, a violent car accident, or rare lunar event. Those things can certainly fall under the heading of “writing what you know.” But if we were limited to what we’ve seen and what we know, I think our fiction would be quite limited. I’ve never killed anyone, that underground sex club was made up, and I certainly have not been to Mars. Today I want to talk about how you can expand that idea of “write what you know” and use your travels to inform your writing. Let’s go.
One way you can use your travels to give depth to your fiction is to treat it as research. Purposefully go someplace in order to get more knowledge for your story or novel. If you need to find out more about the earthquakes in southern California, and you want to study fault lines, and hike down into the valleys and canyons to see what you might find—good, get out there and check it out. I know that when I was writing both Disintegration and Breaker I went BACK to my old stomping grounds and just walked around—taking as many notes and pictures as I could. From Wicker Park to Logan Square, riding the El train and taking the bus, walking down alleys and entering the Flat Iron Building, it all showed me little details, and filled me with larger emotions. So seek out the specifics for your project, the one you’re working on right now.
I drove my family cross country from Chicago to Los Angeles. Along the way we saw a great many things. When we ran up to the Grand Canyon, as the sun was setting, I actually gasped when I finally saw it. I was shocked at how strong my reaction was to this amazing sight. I could not imagine what it must have been like to stumble across this magnificent spectacle in a covered wagon, or on horseback. It was stunning.
Likewise, when we walked down into the painted desert, I had a moment where I realized it was absolutely silent. I told my family to stop for a second, to listen, to be absolutely quiet. There was nothing. Not an airplane, or a hum, or a buzz, no AC unit, or highway—absolute silence. And it was weird. Three things happened—I felt touched, blessed, almost spiritual in the wake of this silence, it was holy; and then, I thought for a moment that I might be dead, it was that unsettling. I also wondered if my existence was even true, some sort of Matrix or false reality. Very strange. Whether you are going to Disney World or Silver Dollar City, Paris or New York, a tropical island or sprawling desert—pay attention, and see what the world reveals to you.
You can learn a lot when paying attention to your job, and where it takes you. It’s everything from climbing a telephone pole, to descending into the sewers, to hopping on a plane to some new city, state, or country. I wrote a short story entitled, “Chasing Ghosts,” and it’s the only bit of fiction I’ve ever written about working in the wonderful world of advertising. I not only used my office, the people, the building, and the atmosphere to tell this paranoid thriller, but also tapped into my process as a graphic designer and art director—the Pantone swatches echoing the color of her eyes, the red of her lips, the sheen of her glossy skin. I was also lucky enough to go to Transylvania to teach a horror workshop and there was so much to write down—the glowing red eyes on the hill at night, the face that appeared in the shadows of a door, the presence outside my room every night at 3:11 am, the sounds of dogs barking up and down the valley, and the scream of a peacock, like a woman in distress. You can tap into an exotic location just as much as you can pay attention to the crappy hotel, with the sordid neighbors, banging on the walls, out of pain or pleasure—or maybe both. Just pay attention, and see what those places and people reveal to you.
Sometimes it’s the littlest details that really give your story authority. Was there a strange needlepoint message in the bathroom, when you drove down to the Ozarks? Was there an interesting catch phrase or mannerism by the employee at the resort, hotel, or restaurant? Do people say things differently, react differently, or eat food in strange ways based on the part of the United States you’re in? Pop, soda, or soft drink? Ketchup, mustard, or mayonnaise? French fries, onion rings, or tater tots? Keep an eye out for little differences and see where that might take you. One of my favorite novels is The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami. There are so many little details in Toru Okada's life, his boring daily rituals, that really just make him more endearing. It’s the way he makes his ramen, the things he buys at the store down the street, the way he interacts with neighbors, the quiet between the supernatural and historic.
If you ever do get outside the United States, pay attention to the similarities and differences. I can remember a strip club I went to in college up in Toronto—the prices, the size of the drinks, the environment, and the “shower show.” I can remember how I felt in the German airport, where I had such a hard time understanding signs, prices, and even customs—buying a drink and having no idea what I paid, or if the change was right; so paranoid I’d miss my flight, my gate down a hallway, stairs, and then on a bus out onto the tarmac. I remember freaking out in the airport since my phone didn’t work, when I landed in Romania, finding my luggage, seeing the one set of double doors, unsure if it was where I had to go—finally seeing my host when they parted, and then slammed shut. Not to mention how close to the side of the road the carts, children, and kittens were as we flew by at 80 miles per hour. Death was everywhere, so I turned my head away.
You can go out into the world seeking answers, depth, and character—and you will certainly find it. So do that research, and add it to your writing. You can also keep your eyes open and see what lurks around you—the mundane as well as the supernatural—at work, and while at play. You can find different ways of living as you travel across America, or leave our borders to investigate foreign countries. Whatever you do, pay attention, and open your eyes, mind, and heart. You never know what you might discover. Or bring home to roost.
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