OMG! Who travels more than Pat Haggerty? Absolutely no one I know. And here’s why YOU should travel too!
In my day job, I work as a computer consultant and trainer, and I travel around 30 weeks out of every year. Mostly it’s East Coast U.S., but occasionally its someplace more exotic. Just now I’m pulling out the cold weather gear because on Saturday I start two days travel to get to Iqaluit (ee-KAL-oo-it), which is the capital of the newest province in Canada, Nunavut. If you started at the northern most tip of the state of Maine, and you flew north about 1300 miles, then you’d be in Iqaluit.
Yea, yea, interesting, but what does this all have to do with writing?
If you’re a writer, then anything you do, anywhere you go, and anything you see, influences and inspires what you write. We all have an inner well of creativity, and one of the challenges for writers is keeping that well stocked with a mash of new input which our brain can shape into stories. If you want to read more about that concept, check out “The Artist’s Way.” A hippy-dippy book with a lot of great information on how creativity works and how to encourage it.
Travel is a great way to chock your brain with new information, and I like to break that information down into four categories: people, places, things, and food. Ok, the food might just be me but hey, I like to eat.
Before you go
Before you leave on your trip, do a little research about wherever you’re headed. It doesn’t have to be extensive, but sometimes a little history, a little news, perhaps a look on TripAdvisor, or a quick Google search for “Top things to do in XXX,” and you’ll know more about what to expect once you hit town. Depending on your personality, your plan can be detailed, but it’s important to leave yourself time to breath. Filling your creative well works best when you let things soak in, rather than spraying them in with a hose. Oh, and take it from a traveler: everything related to travel takes longer than you might expect. And if your trip’s for work, pay better attention to the hours on sites you want to visit, since you might be visiting after work hours.
When I’m going someplace new, I like to come up with a list of things I want to do, which I prioritize, but I don’t schedule what I do when. Also, I’ve learned that it’s ok not to make it to all the sites on the list. Sometimes I just need a nap, or some time in the pool. This should be fun, people.
Bring your camera, your phone will be fine, and make sure you have something you can take notes with. I use my phone and iPad now, though for years I carried a moleskin notebook. You want something you can jot ideas with, but that’s not going to get in your way. I always evaluate if the iPad will be in the way before I head out. I’ve also gotten very good at shoving the iPad in the small of my back and my pants hold it there. Careful though, tablets and phones are targets for thieves depending on where you are.
One last note, don’t always plan outings because you think they will be good inspiration. The person sitting next to you in the restaurant waiting area might be way more inspiring than that castle you spent time at. Just be open and soak the experiences in.
Character creation and growth is one of the cornerstones in any great story. When you’re on a trip, pay attention to the people around you and see what you can learn. Listen to how people talk, what they look like, what they wear, and of course, how are they different from you.
Names can be fun. Create a file or a page in your notebook where you can record interesting, local, or just unusual names. If you happen across a cemetery, it can also be interesting to walk though and check the names and markers out.
Listen to how people you encounter talk. Do they say anything unusual? I was in New Orleans and heard someone talk about making groceries, when they meant going to get groceries. When I was in London I learned that left luggage is not the lost and found but baggage claim, and if you want to describe something as meaningless or unimportant, you might not want to call it fluff, since that’s slang for pubic hair.
Don’t be afraid to explore other cultures both as you encounter them, and online. You might not be a place long enough to truly understand a given group, but a realistic taste seasoned with online research can really make a character jump off a page.
Thanks to books, movies, tv, and the net, both you and your audience have probably encountered a lot more of the world than any other generation, but that doesn’t mean that travel can’t ramp up your ability to set scenes and tell stories. The internet is a great way to do research, but if you can inform what you research with real experience, it really makes things pop.
I recommended that you have a plan of places to go and things to see on your trip, but don’t just pay attention to land marks. How do people get around? What’s the traffic like? Is there anything unusual about your hotel? How’s the weather? Odd, good, or unusual smells? Using all the senses can really make scenes pop. Did anything happen that you didn’t expect? If so, your reader might not expect it either.
I walked across a few blocks of downtown Detroit every day on one trip and I’ll never forget the closed buildings, the broken glass on the cracked sidewalk, the huge court building I passed that was for rent, and the beautiful hotel at the beginning of my walk, and the spectacular General Motors headquarters building at the other.
Besides simple setting, places can also inspire whole stories. I’m thinking about a cold weather survival story just now, I couldn’t imagine why.
I did a trip a few years ago to Ft. Smith, Canada, and I got to go dog sledding. I leaned that the dog in the lead is usually the dumbest dog, the ones just behind him smart, and the dogs just in front of the sled are the strongest. I learned that dogs eat sometimes as much as 15,000cal a day to stay warm and they scoop up snow in their mouths while they run and that’s how they drink.
We were out, the dogs pulling us through all this glorious, snowy wilderness. I was in the sled and the guy I was with was standing out on the back of the runners. At one point he says, “How you doing?”
I said, “My feet are freezing!” Because they were. My snow boots weren’t near heavy enough.
“But you can still feel them, right?”
“Oh yea, they’re just cold.”
“Good, if you get to where you can’t feel them, let me know an we’ll pull over and put your toes in my mouth until they thaw out.”
I’m very happy to report that my toes went nowhere near that guys mouth, but it was funny as hell and I’m totally working it into a story someday.
This is something else that can make scenes pop and story ideas fly. What do you encounter on your trip that’s different from your norm?
If I’d kept my iPhone in the outer pocket of my coat my dog sled guy told me it would freeze solid and die. Who knew? Did you know that to run a gas grill in the extreme cold you might have to use something like an electric blanket to preheat the gas so it doesn’t come out as a liquid? And if it’s really cold you need to keep your gloves on when you open doors or your hand can freeze to the door handle?
Are you in another country? What do electrical plugs look like, and are they the same voltage? I plugged a computer and a set of speakers into an outlet in London once. The computer was fine, because the brick auto converted to the 220v they use there. The speakers on the other hand started buzzing and smoking in seconds. They didn’t survive the trip.
Does the place have abandoned buildings and broken glass? Are the exit signs green instead of red? Do traffic lights work like they do at home? Are doors in buildings heavier? Do they have his and her bathrooms, or are they unisex?
Pay attention and again, all this stuff will soak into your creative well and help drive those stories.
In Nashville there’s hot chicken. In Charlotte the BBQ’s vinegar based. In Dallas the TexMex is to die for. In Lagos there’s suya. You can get elk in some restaurants in Stockholm.
Maybe it’s just me, but one of the things I enjoy about visiting different places is food. Use Google maps or TripAdvisor or Yelp and find good places to eat that aren’t big chains. Yes, the chains will have reliable food that’s always the same, but the local restaurants will really show you what’s different.
I was in Lagos, Nigeria a little over a year ago for two months. When got to my hotel on the first day I was exhausted. I’d spent close to 20hrs traveling, been scammed by a taxi driver (I used Uber from then on), and had been required to bribe my way through customs. Just so you know, “Do you have something for me?” is code for “I want a bribe” in Nigeria. Just saying. The hotel lobby had a restaurant in it so I put my bags in my room and hit the restaurant. I opened the menu…. It was a TexMex place. I’m from Dallas, TX originally and here I was in Lagos sitting down to TexMex. Who knew? And it was damn good!
My local contacts on the same trip told me that I had to try a local cooked meat dish called suya. They sent me to a dead end street where they prepared and cooked the suya on metal grills over open coals. People packed the street and the food was fantastic, once I figured out how to order 😊
I find that Google maps is one of the best ways to find places to eat. Open the map, it centers on you, and just type in “restaurants.” If you want something a little more organized, like a best restaurants in Lagos list, use TripAdvisor.
A final note on food and why it made my list here. Food is just such a central part in our lives and there are so many stories that revolve around it. We have business meetings, dates, family dinners, etc. all around the table. Going out to eat at local restaurants gives you the opportunity to really combine people, places, things, and food all in one place. Nothing inspires like that.
Travel doesn’t have to be international to be interesting or inspirational. Most of my trips are to a hand full of cities in the US and I guarantee you that I’ve received more inspiration from the people, places, things, and food on those trips than all the international travel I’ve done combined.
Lastly, never underestimate the power of the internet. I was in a meet and greet one time with Nora Roberts. Someone asked how she came up with such wonderful story settings. Nora has this kind of throaty, smokers voice and she said, “The Internet.”
“But don’t you just love the experience of actually being there?”
Nora said, “Look honey, you don’t seem to understand. To travel, I have to leave my house. And I don’t like to leave my house.”
Hey, if Nora can do it, so can you 😊
Ok Ru Crew..tell us where you’ve been!
Join us on Friday for Laurie Schnebly Campbell!
Bio: After four years in the USMC, Patrick Haggerty studied Actuarial Science and Computers at Georgia State University. He has spent the past 15+ years developing and delivering technical training courses for Learning Tree International. On the side he has a successful consulting practice doing web application development for clients ranging from the United State Marines to Delta Airlines.
Seven years ago, stuck reading a mediocre book in yet another hotel, Patrick decided to try his hand at fiction. He may not be published, but these days you are much more likely to find him spending his evenings writing romance, than code. Patrick is an active member of RWA, RWAustralia, RW New Zealand, and is VP of Membership for Gulf Coast Romance Writers of America, and VP of OIRWA.