Greetings and Salutations Internet!
Writing off the Beaten Path: Fictionalizing Travel Experiences
Confession: I’m a travel guide junkie.
Any time I’m in a bookstore, I head for the travel section, even if I only have time to pass by. It’s like a gravitational pull. Of course, now that I’m a parent, the travel books I actually pull off the shelf these days tend to have titles like Kiddie Pools Around the World, or 1,000 Not Entirely Mind-Numbing Things to Do With a Bored Kid on a Road Trip. But still my eye wanders to the books organized by region. I remember places I went to when I felt freer. I lament my trips not taken and dream of trips to come.
I’m an equal fan of advice-filled guides and more interpretative travel essays. I’ll flip to random pages and inhale the words and photos. I might even come away with an odd fact to hang onto, like how to hail a cab in Bolivia, or the best islands to visit in Greece. (Are there kiddie pools in Greece, I wonder?)
My husband is a guidebook-junkie too. He’ll actually buy guidebooks for places we’ve considered going, even though all that information is readily available online. We have several books about China and Norway, for example, though we haven’t quite made it to either country. When we traveled through Japan for our honeymoon, we were armed with four – four – thick guidebooks, which we regularly thumbed through and cross-referenced while shooting through the landscape on the shinkansen.
Probably because I’m such a fan of travel writing, my novels draw on my previous travels, even though I never went to these places with the intention of writing these novels; the novels emerged months, even years later. Tokyo Heist is largely set in Japan, where my husband and I traveled for nearly three weeks. Latitude Zero is half set in Ecuador, where I used to live and work, and where I did quite a bit of traveling. And Blue Voyage (coming in 2015) is set entirely in Turkey, where I had the trip of a lifetime a few years ago.
The excitement of writing about places I’ve traveled to comes in reliving those travel experiences. I love poring through the journals I kept, looking back at worn receipts and ticket stubs that rain out of the travel guides I lugged around. My novels are love letters to these places, as I try to recapture the excitement I felt there.
There is an inherent risk in this endeavor, though. I have to remind myself that I’m writing novels, not Frommer’s guides. And my characters need not share my itineraries—in fact, they really should not. I can scour my journals and guidebook notes for key details to bring the setting to life. The taste and texture of higos con queso, figs with cheese, that my host mother made me in Ecuador. Or what it felt like to inhale exhaust fumes and folk music while hanging on a pole for dear life on a local bus rattling down Avenida de Amazonas in a crowded neighborhood in Quito. Or the language store vendors used in Istanbul street markets to urge me to buy things I didn’t need. Or the lace doilies on the head rests in Japanese taxis. Any details I can record on the road are potentially useful, and these are the impressionistic details that I generally won’t find in guidebooks. I pounce on them, gratefully, when I need them in fiction.
But it’s taken me numerous discarded drafts to learn that novels are different kinds of journeys. Plot lines aren’t train lines. The trajectory of a character’s arc does not map neatly to the reality of a person’s day-by-day itinerary.
When I look at my Turkey journal, for example, there are peaks and valleys, but not one continuous arc toward a climactic scene and a quick denouement. There are long stretches of boredom and waiting when connections are missed. Occasional fatigued squabbles with my husband; an ice cream cone flung out a car window at high speed. Moments of wonder at a sunset gilding a river, or a baby owl flapping out of an alcove in a cave hotel. Awe at a church façade or a tower. But my husband and I didn’t embark on that journey with an eye toward a theme, or a plot quest, or our character growth; we had two weeks off and wanted to see Turkey.
There’s also the risk of wanting to include every amazing sight and experience in a novel, which can force the plot into blind alleys and dead ends and even a road to nowhere. When I was drafting Tokyo Heist, I spent months agonizing over how to get Violet to this amazing cluster of thatch-roof houses in the mountains where silkworms were farmed long ago. This effort resulted in a forty-page detour and flagging pace and threatened to derail the whole book. I eventually ditched the section, the whole venue. There was no need to have Violet go there just because I loved that place; everything she needed to accomplish, narratively, she could do in Tokyo and Kyoto. And believe me, we didn’t need a five page digression on the history of silkworm farms. In another scene, I even routed her to another area of Japan where I’d never been in real life because that made more sense for the story.
Similarly, in Latitude Zero, I couldn’t wait to write some jungle scenes. I wanted my heroine, Tessa, to eat cacao from a pod freshly hacked off a tree with a machete, as I had. I wanted her to hear the monkeys chatter and find a gorgeous blue butterfly. Then I wanted her to go to the Galapagos and swim with seals, because everyone should have that experience, right?
Tessa never makes it to the jungle. By the time the book takes her to Ecuador, she’s on a mission, and running for her life, and there’s no time for leisurely sightseeing. Everything she needs to accomplish can happen, and does happen, in the capital city of Quito, high in the Andes mountains. I’ll have to save the jungle, the cacao pods, the seals, for another book.
So if you love to travel and love to write fiction, by all means take good notes. Save all the little scraps from your voyage. You never know what will become the seed of a larger project. Review your annotated guidebooks and notes and journals and relive your trip. Then toss everything aside and go off the beaten path. Let your characters and your storyline guide you. Trust me, it’s a lot more fun, and you never know where you’ll end up.