In just a few days, I will be headed off to Italy, Austria and Switzerland for a summer vacation! The last time I was in Europe was ten years ago, and it was that time in Salzburg, Austria that gave me my initial desire to finish, revise, edit, polish, and publish my novel.
I know, I’m still on the revise/edit/polish stage of my book. I haven’t published a book yet. But that doesn’t change the fact that the experiences that I had in Europe helped me define who I am as a writer.
My hope is that upon getting some more readers, that many of you reading this are young writers yourselves! During high school, college, and your 20s are among the best times in your life to travel. Even for me now, even though I’m already 30, I put a priority on traveling over owning a house or getting a shiny new car. While a house and car are great things to own (especially if you live in the States), they don’t help you learn something new about the world and the amazing variety of humans that are living on this tiny planet.
I want to know all about all kinds of people from all walks of life and cultures. Being someplace new and different can be an amazing and eye-opening experience. So here are some ways that traveling can help your writing.
Unless you are writing a memoir, chances are you will have a character in your novel that comes from somewhere different than you. Even writer Stephanie Meyers (for whom I have very little respect as a “writer”) chooses settings for her novels that she has lived in at one point during her life or somewhere she has spent a lot of time.
Doing first hand research on what it is like to be somewhere, even if it is a different city within the same country automatically validates your writing and gives the readers a sense of authenticity.
There was an early episode of “Criminal Minds” that was set in my hometown. Between the palm trees that were very out of place and the use of minority groups in roles that were highly unlikely in that culture, I felt that the episode was not very authentic. People tend to be protective of their hometowns, and getting information wrong can ostracize an entire group of people from being readers.
You can do all the research you want on the internet–nothing beats going there and experiencing it first-hand. Perhaps you notice the particular color of the hydrangeas, or how humid the air is. Maybe you take note of how the street lights are on poles instead of hanging from wires.
All of these tiny details are valid, and better, you can’t learn them from a book!
So I’ll say it again: Nothing beats first-hand experience when writing.
When you go outside of your main culture altogether, like to a different country, you widen your perspective on human cultures. If you are writing a science fiction or fantasy novel, this can be particularly helpful as the basis for your imagined world has roots in real cultures and therefore your readers can connect easily.
Maybe to you, this one is a small detail that can be overlooked. If that is you and your writing project, skip and go on to the next one. But if you’re like me, food is an incredibly important aspect of my life, and how a person (or character) eats, prepares their food, and what they eat, is tantamount to who they are as a person. This is one of my favorite parts of going somewhere new. Even if the food seems strange (or even disgusting) to our own culture, trying something new will open your mind to possibilities.
Have you ever gone camping without cooking equipment? Where do you get your food? If you aren’t able to keep your food cold, what do you eat? Have you ever lived with a local somewhere other than at home?
The act of traveling forces you outside of your bubble of habits and tendencies. Think I’m wrong? I urge you to watch any of the following on Netflix:
An Idiot Abroad
When your typical chicken fingers and bud-light aren’t available at a restaurant overseas, what do you do? How do these questions of culture translate to your character? Is their culture the same as yours, or different?
And most importantly….
This one is the most important, by far. I am attracted to books with authentic characters that reflect real life and are character-driven rather than plot driven. (Lesson’s from My Ex-Boyfriend’s Novels.)
The people in your book and how they interact drive the heart of your novel. Even one flat character can detract from the authenticity of a novel. Think of the Harry Potter books. Harry was surrounded by hundreds of characters, each with their own backstories and motivations. Think about Seamus, denying Harry’s being the “chosen one.” Remus’s character, or even the Malfoy family. The characters were all vastly different, due to their cultures, their upbrings, and their priorities.
So how can we use travel to infuse our stories with lively and exciting characters?
I cannot stress this enough: when you are traveling, talk to locals.
It is one thing to see the culture, setting or food of a new place, but the people are what make that setting come to life. Getting a chance to stay in dorms abroad for a semester, or even just using Airbnb to ensure that you have the chance to speak with someone much different from yourself can widen your perspective. Their mannerisms, their speech patterns… their quirks or their habits can be incorporated into your book or short story.
I bet you’ll find someone to write into your novel!