Traveling into Writing

Katherine Longshore 6 Tuesday, October 08, 2013
I am increasingly amazed and awestruck by the posts the New Muses are composing.  Heartfelt, informative, inspirational.  Beautifully composed and crafted, they strike just the right emotional note while offering sage advice.  More than once, one of us old-timers has said, "We really need to step up our game because these new kids are putting us to shame."

You guys are sooooo good.

Am I right?

Talia and I got together for dinner with Beth and Kristen the other day, so we had the opportunity to tell them this in person.

"Yeah," Kristen joked, "But I think I need to go to Borneo before I can write my next post."

"We should all go," I told her. "Gather some material."

"You've traveled," they told me. "Write about that."

At the age of 25, I wanted to be a travel writer.  The next Paul Theroux or Dervla Murphy.  So I packed everything I needed (and a few things I didn't) into a backpack and set out to see the world.  I didn't publish much about my travels, but my adventures brought me to the point I am now.

As with any life experience, my travels inform my writing.  Of course, my trips to Hever Castle and Hampton Court Palace add depth and detail to the descriptions in my novels.  My years in England can be recreated in the scent of the gorse or the texture of the rain or colors of the ash trees in autumn.

But I can see how all of my travels affect my writing and can spy their influence in all different aspects of my work.

The sense of adventure that first got me traveling also set me on the path to publication.  Entering the unknown--the terra incognita--requires courage.  We all have it, or we wouldn't be here.  eleanor Roosevelt said, "Do one thing every day that scares you."  Travel and writing fill that requirement effortlessly.

Sensory details.  Trips to England definitely help, but modern-day Britain is vastly different from the one my characters experienced.  I called up on the memory of the darkness of an underground cave in Lava Beds National Monument to describe Kitty's terror locked in a stairwell in Lincoln Castle.  And the stench of the River Fleet (and even the Thames) comes from an open sewer I encountered in Malawi.

Fear.  As Lia said, fear can be a great inspiration and motivator.  Not just for us, as writers, but for our characters, too.  A few misadventures in the South Pacific on a three-hundred-foot research vessel and the terror I felt setting off on a year traveling alone help me conjure the physical qualities of fear on the page.  But I don't even have to step off my front walk to feel it--I had a different (but still very visceral) sense of fear the day I watched my youngest set off on his bike to school alone.

People.  You don't have to travel far to find faces and characters to populate your pages.  Though the appearance of some of my characters are based on people I encountered on my travels (Harry in Manor of Secrets and Joan in Gilt.) some are from travels much closer to home (the barista at my local Starbucks inspired Thomas Wyatt's eyes in Tarnish.)
Delight in beauty.  It's everywhere.  From the Sossusvlei sand dunes of Namibia to the scrub jays in my back yard.  I try to put that beauty on the page--those bright details that Veronica loves to tell us about. 

even just the act of traveling can affect my writing.  I get some of my greatest ideas in the car--I carry a little notebook in the glove compartment, sometimes shoving it at the nearest passenger and saying, "Write this down." 

You don't have to go to Africa or England to find adventure or inspiration.  Every step we take makes us who we are and sets our writing on the thousand-mile journey--wherever it may take us.  I haven't shouldered my tattered old pack in years, but I still find the same sense of adventure taking my kids down the river for the first time.  

But I still want to go to Borneo.  Who's with me?


I love this post! It's true for me as well – some of my neighborhood adventures have informed my writing just as much as the international ones, as there's beauty in each experiences. Love that, "Delight in beauty. It's everywhere." Truth.

Laughed at the Borneo comment. Let's all go!!! YES!!

But seriously, as a newbie, it means a lot that the original muses are happy with what we're writing ;) I admit it's very intimidating to post last after everyone's brilliant insights, trying to figure out if I have anything meaningful to add to the conversation ;)

P.S. also I'm jealous that you gals can get together.

You're our anchor, Jodi! Always adding something meaningful--and thoroughly unique--to the conversation.

We're very lucky to live so near to each other. I wish you all lived closer!

Travel has seriously halted for me since having kids, & this is a great encouragement for me to search for those elements of beauty, whether they come from exotic destinations or short expeditions close to home.

A wonderful post, Katherine. I love travel, too. I was fortunate enough to go to school for my junior year in Paris, and to travel with a friend for trips to England, Wales and Scotland. You cannot help but be inspired by the history you see all around you. A wi-fi cafe can be housed in a building that is 400 years old. The weather in England one summer I visited was described as the "hottest in 350 years." In the US we don't have anything that compares to that sense of history - or story. But I think the best take-away I got from my travels was a sense of who I was. Meeting people in foreign lands involves answering the question - where are you from? It requires different story-telling skills. And that always helps when writing - another angle to explore.

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