I’m travelling this weekend, 2,000 miles south from where I now live. It’s not what I would call a happy trip although I’ll be seeing people who will make me happy just by seeing them–my sister, a girlfriend from times past, and my aunt who I feel is like a second mother to me. We grew up with her sons who were like the brothers my parents didn’t have. I remember these times with fondness and ennui. One of my “brothers” died years ago and my aunt is ill and this may be the last time I see her. So it goes…
But this post isn’t about why I’m travelling, it’s about how to travel… as an author.
I cannot impress to you enough, and above all else over clothing, food, or funds, take something handy to write on. Whether your writing equipment is your peripheral (smartphone, iPad, or other) or simply a memo pad and that old-fashioned thing we used to call a pen, always make sure to bring something handy with you to write on. You will inevitably find yourself waiting in lines or sitting at a terminal. Whenever you can, take plenty of notes. Doing so will help you with the following elements in a future story.
Characterization–Watching people interact and how they do so is key to characterization. I once saw a man in front of me yell at the security person checking people through. He asked her why she couldn’t hurry up and chastised her for her job, that it was a ridiculous job and worthless. He was demeaning and nasty. I think he might’ve been an author! I’m making that up. I have no idea what he did for work but I can feel sorry for those people he had to work with. I added my two cents about him and felt sorry for the gal he was giving it to. Now, here’s the thing: I have no idea what he was going through personally. All I saw was his treatment of other people. As an author (and a human being), I should ask questions of my characters, of what they might be going through that the reader isn’t aware of presently. Questions like these can add great subtext to your story.
Scene-setting–Airports are great for scene-setting because they are usually so utilitarian. Airport settings make it difficult to use words other than loud, sterile, harsh. But these words are general terms. What if we used words and phrases like echo-chamber, surgical, bitter as descriptors? These are words that make readers sink their teeth into your writing. Sol Stein goes into great detail about word choice and scene-setting in his book “Stein on Writing.” Grow your scene-setting and you can build great, new worlds for your reader.
Tension–Tension is the thing that makes our heads turn and causes our skin to prickle. Tension makes our hearts beat faster and our palms become sweaty. Tension is a reaction to something that may or may not erupt in seconds–whether an actual bomb, a fight, or a sudden sorrow. Tension can lead to conflict but doesn’t necessarily have to. Sometimes tension is deflated. Sometimes it’s aggravated. Either way, tension makes us react physically to a situation that may become bad fast.
Taxis and airports are great for observing tense moments. In the taxi, and I don’t care how many times I use one, the taxi driver never fails my expectations of him–to drive like he’s the stunt man in the final scene of Thelma & Louise. Swerving the cab, back and forth, to the each side of the white lines as he tries to shimmy in-between two buses–both flying at sixty mph and so close to each other that they could be one bus. Or… the child on the airplane in the seat just behind you who will not stop chattering, crying and kicking your seat. Or… the man who has fallen asleep and is listing toward your soft shoulder as he breathes out last night’s garlic dinner into your air space.
The taxi ride becomes heart palpitations. The child becomes clenched fists. The man becomes nausea. Write that. Let things happen to you and write them down.
Conflict–Conflict is the thing that happens (and usually swiftly) after initial feelings of tension. Although sometimes conflict can happen quite suddenly and without forewarning. I remember reading CLAN OF THE CAVE BEAR by Jean Auel. After the first page of scene-setting comes, in an instance, sudden, unexpected conflict. It’s awesome. If you have read this story, you know what I’m talking about. Auel leads the unsuspecting reader along by the nose and then, Boom! she drops the bomb. I love this story and use it often as an example in my writing workshops. For one, it’s a perfect way to start a story and two, her conflict is utter disaster. Utter. Disaster. The reader has no other choice but to continue reading to find out what happens.
Conflict is the thing that makes a character choose either the right path or the wrong one. In novel-writing, we must make the character fail at least two times until the final conflict choice is set–always against our hero’s foe–and one our character has no other choice to do but to choose–to end all of the trouble, whether to live–think of my latest story The Deer Effect. Or, to die–think of Thelma & Louise.
Voice–Voice is one of my favorite elements of writing. It distinguishes authors. It creates sound and sets theme and can even be metaphorical if used correctly. Voice will separate your writing like nothing else. Ernest Hemingway was what I call a “voice-y” author. But his voice was found in authorial voice, not necessarily in character voice although he employed character voice as well. No, his voice can be found in his writing style, his word choice, his sentence structure, his poetics. I love the first line in his great novel A Moveable Feast. It goes like this: Then there was the bad weather.
He begins the story as though the reader has just walked in on his conversation with someone else. The phrase doesn’t particularly make you want to know what’s going to happen. Not really. What this sentence does do is make you want to know what you missed! Brilliant. You feel like saying to Hemingway, “What were you talking about?” But you’ve already missed that part of the story so you have to sit down and hear the rest. That’s genius.
Hemingway’s authorial voice distinguished him from other lesser authors of the time. How do you distinguish yourself in your writing?
Anyway, writing while you’re travelling will also give you something to do during the down times. And, life, as we know, can be filled with dull moments between the conflicts and tension. And, aren’t we blessed for those dull times. They are what allow us for introspection and meditation, for prayers.
But also writing while travelling is a means for you, you lovely authors, to get away from your usual writing spot. Writing while travelling will focus your writing, in ways your usual environment will not. You won’t have the cat wanting in or the dogs barking. You won’t have to stop to prepare the kids’ lunches and you won’t have to clean up the kitchen. What you will have is free time. Time to observe your new environment and all the new bodies taking up space in that environment. An airport, a train, a taxi ride are author’s smorgasbords. So, enjoy the variety. Taste how good these new sights can be. When you do, your travel will fly by and, hey, you will be writing. Go figure.
I write books. ~Susan.