I love to travel. When I was a kid, my parents drove us from coast to coast in a motorhome. When I was eighteen, I went to Europe with a traveling choir. I’ve studied art in Italy, snorkeled the Great Barrier Reef, and just this week hiked to a glacier on the south coast of Iceland.
Travel has taught me a lot about life (how to communicate, adapt, and solve problems), but lately I’ve realized about how much travel has taught me about writing…
1: Planning ahead. Before going on a trip, you have to plan: buy plane tickets, book hotel rooms, or at least do enough research to know you want to go where you’re going. Same with writing: before you start, plan your main characters and big plot points, research your location or time period; I often do a big outline on the floor — sort of like a map of my story — to guide my way…
2. But then go with the flow. But if you plan too much of a trip (pick every restaurant and schedule every moment) you suck out the spontaneity and joy. The best trips often come when you plan the big things, but leave the details to chance. Same with writing: know the big things in advance, but let the details come as you journey through your story.
3. Have fun. I hate those trips that feel like a chore: wake up early, rush through museums to make sure you see all those “must see” things, listen to a droning tour guide… No. I insist on one thing when I travel: having fun. What’s the point in going if you’re not enjoying yourself? Same with writing: if it’s a chore to sit down and write something, why do it? If writing isn’t fun for you, how can it possibly be fun for your reader?
4. Getting lost, being rescued, and making stupid mistakes are great stories. When I come home from a trip, do I talk about how I walked around town and everything turned out fine? No. But I relish telling the story about the time I arrived in Venice too late to get a hotel room and adventure ensued. When I’m traveling and something goes wrong, I think, “Well, at least I’ll have a great story.” Remember that when you’re writing: put your characters into trouble. That’s story.
5: Noticing specific details. When I travel, I don’t just notice, “Hey, Iceland is strange.” I notice why Iceland is odd: they eat fermented shark that smells like ammonia; daylight in winter isn’t full sunlight, but a low, peachy light; and instead of one Santa Claus, they have 13 Yule Lads who come down from the hills to slam doors in the middle of the night (Door Slammer) or steal your skyr (Skyr-Gobbler). Those kinds of specific details bring travel to life — they’ll do the same for your writing.
6. Highlights look better next to lowlights. When you can’t find your hotel, are stuck out in the rain and haven’t eaten in twelve hours, that bad ham and cheese sandwich outside of that tiny church is suddenly the greatest thing you’ve ever eaten outside of the most beautiful cathedral you’ve ever seen. Don’t forget that when writing: drag your reader through the mud and they will celebrate the slightest glimpse of sunshine.
7. You remember doing long after you remember being told. Which do I remember more, an audio guide telling me about one snowy Paris Christmas or trekking around snow-covered Versailles? The second memory, of course, is much more vivid. This is an easy way to remind yourself of that old “show, don’t tell” rule. Are you characters doing something on their trip or just talking about it?
8. Avoid Tourist Traps (i.e., Cliches). What’s better, eating at the tourist trap or making your way down to the neighborhood hangout with regional food? The local joint, of course. Don’t do the lazy thing and settle for the tourist trap — the predictable stop on the corner that was easy to find, but bad. Go for something down the street — something no tourist (or reader) has ever seen before.
9. Empathy for Others. As writers, it’s our job to see the world the way our characters do. That requires a deep well of empathy. Traveling makes us more empathetic: we meet new people and begin to see the world as they do. By broadening our perspective — by seeing new corners of the world, meeting new people, experiencing new customs — we open our eyes and our hearts to our characters, too.
10. Inspiration. This final one may seem obvious, but it’s probably the most important. Traveling inspires me — it gives me the drive and passion to write. It also feeds my imagination with new images, new people, new places. So anytime you have the chance, travel. It will expose you to new places and inspire you to create your own new worlds.
I could write about this for days, but it’s your turn.
What has travel taught you about writing?