Although many authors travel abroad for the intention of research, I wanted to explore the ways we can expand our writing horizons when it’s not our main intention.
Whether it’s a family holiday or a weekend getaway, there’s always an opportunity to collect information that can be used later, whether it’s for a character, setting or plot. After all, place and people are powerful enough to immortalise an author even if they’re not a native.
Think of Ernest Hemingway. His writings are largely set in the hispanic world and this is the image ‘Hemingway’ conjures for me, despite the writer being born and raised in Oak Park, Illinois. He also demonstrates how we don’t have to limit ourselves to the place we’re from, something that gives me enormous confidence.
Why? Because I’m not a writer who always wants to stay at home in my stories. So are you ready to follow me into the emerald depths of the Valle Verzasca, the ‘Pink City’ of Jaipur or the spice-coloured markets of Hanoi? Don’t forget your pen (and your family). By the end of this article you will:
- Know how to fine-tune your people-watching skills in order to develop character.
- Improve your ability to notice and remember the five senses in a foreign environment.
- Know how to interpret a place in order to use it as a setting in your fiction.
- Learn how to be a writing detective.
Half the Fun
International travelling is unique in the way we find ourselves with people from all over the world in a weirdly concentrated way. It can also be a very intimate thing if we spend a long time sitting next to someone and start to get a sense of what they’re about, their habits and ticks.
This time, pay some extra attention. Where do you think they’re going and why? Could you make it up?
Then list five things about them that interest you. Maybe it’s their medieval reenactment-style clothing, or the way they chew their gum too loudly. It could be a mysterious conversation over the phone or their smell: a combination of sweat and sandalwood.
Travelling Is a Brutality (Hey I Didn’t Say It)
So you’re off whatever hot breath, tin-can of death form of transport you’ve been crammed into for eight hours. You’re stressed, sweaty and possibly have a small child dangling from your arm. I understand. This is not, I repeat, not the time for romanticism and writer’s notebooks.
But do try to register your first impressions of the place to jot down later. It doesn’t matter how many and you can do this with every ‘first impression’ you have, whether it’s a hotel room or a new street you haven’t explored yet. First impressions are really key.
Even after a day we start to get used to a place and the essential aspects that define it start to blur. Maybe it’s the air that feels drier than what you’re used to, the floral notes; or the strange bird calls that stir you in your half-sleep.
One of the things I love to do when travelling is find out about local authors and artists. Even if I don’t read/buy any of their work, getting a sense of their inspiration either in a bookshop or a museum can be a good reference point in understanding our new setting; especially if we intend to write about it one day.
But an author or artist, is just that: one person’s interpretation. To get an even fuller picture, try exposing yourself to multiple creatives of different time periods. When you have a sense of this, ask yourself these questions:
- What influences upon this person’s work do you think is time-specific/unique only to this person’s experience? E.g. what was happening in the place at this period? Which authors/artists may have influenced them?
- What aspects of their work do they have in common, the things you many consider ‘timeless’ and essential to the place? E.g. if you were to walk out onto the street today what would be the same?
It might be difficult to believe, but much remains the same over the course of history. It could be something tangible such as a monument or something more subtle, such as the quality of light.
I’ll give you a personal example. Last summer I spent the week in the French seaside town of Étretat. Although there’d been modernisations in town planning, new buildings and technology; a quick glance at the wall of postcards in a tourist’s shop revealed how much had remained the same.
There was a picture of Coco Chanel as a young woman, positioned exactly where I’d been sitting a few moments earlier, with the same church on the hill behind her, the same tourists mounting it like a waterfall of ants moving up a tree. I imagined her shielding her eyes from the July sun just like I had and the same sound of grey pebbles crunching in her ears as people walked by.
We might have been wearing different clothes, with different people in a different time; and yet our experience of the place may have been very similar. Our creative interpretation of a place and its people is the most important thing. It doesn’t hurt however to inform our impressions with what others have already noticed.
The Rest Is History
If you’ve been on holiday for a few days and haven’t yet looked up the history of the place you’re visiting, make an effort to do so now. Note the things you find most significant or interesting to you, then the next time you go out, it’s time to be a detective:
- What physical evidence can you find from your readings? Is there anything that contradicts this?
We can do the same when visiting places of interest or going on guided tours, being more discerning than usual and keeping our eyes open for anything significant.
We may never use any of the information we collect, nor should we. It does however provide context and give us more room for choice as writers. I’m always happy to add an extra history string to my bow.
Take Leave of One’s Senses: Not in That Sense
If you only do one thing on this list, this is it. We can always do extra factual research when we get home. We can’t however, recapture our raw, sensual experience, the magic stuff when conveying ‘place’ to a reader. How can we expect them to feel transported, if we haven’t felt it ourselves? So let’s push the five senses to the max, as far as they’ll go:
Jot down your reaction to the smell of fresh cardamom buns when walking past the local bakery or the taste of sea air in your evening meal. Otherwise, I promise you’ll forget.
Power to the People
People make a place. It doesn’t matter how many world heritage sites or covered markets there are; the biggest insight we have (especially when it comes to language and culture) is through the people that live there.
In a passive sense we could go to a local café, whose view gives us a good range of all walks of life. These are good opportunities for quick character sketches, and when I do this (respectfully), I try to be as varied as possible.
I might write a few sentences about a middle-aged newsagent smoking in the doorway of his business, then a child at a bus stop; then a woman in a suit rushing to get her morning coffee and pastry. If we have more time we can try to imagine a life for these people as characters.
We can also take an ‘active’ approach, interacting with locals and asking them any questions we have. Most people are happy to share facts about their stomping grounds, customs and practices. In other words, humans like to talk about themselves!
As a highly intelligent reader, I don’t need to tell you to exercise caution in taking such exchanges further. If you feel comfortable however, allowing someone to be your tour guide or join a communal activity can be more beneficial than just watching people from a distance.
There’s No Place Like Home
So now we’re home again, hopefully not drowning in the post-holiday blues. On the plus side, we’ve collected a lot of useful stuff and have widened the net of ‘what we know.’
We may decide to transform it into our next piece of fiction. If not, we’ve still practised useful techniques to assist us in noticing the world around us, wherever we are.
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I invite you to jot any of your wonderful findings in the comments section below. If you’re not going anywhere anytime soon, why not apply the same principles to the place you live and be a tourist in your hometown for a day? Either way, let me know how it goes!
Until next time,