Have Plot, Will Travel

(This article was first published in Writers Digest, August 2005)

So you have become obsessed with the idea of writing a novel about a daring spy in Revolutionary Paris? Or maybe you have decided to plot the perfect murder by writing a cozy set in a crumbling old manor home located somewhere in the Scottish borders? No? Perhaps you are working on a time-travel romance wherein your modern-day heroine takes a hike, falls through a fairy hillock, and finds herself in medieval Ireland?

You have given birth to the characters and toiled over the plot, all that is missing now are setting details. The small particulars that make your story really come alive. Whatever the plot, wherever the setting, you will need those details to add authenticity to your story. How would your daring spy have moved about Paris undetected? What food would one find in the refrigerator of a crumbling Scottish manor home? Do the Irish still believe in the mystical powers of the fairy hillocks? Do fairy hillocks still exist?

You could consult travel books and the internet to find out the answers to these questions, but if you are a stickler for accuracy, or if you are the sort of writer who likes to experience it yourself before you write about it, it’s time to call your travel agent.

“Certainly it’s possible for some writers to write well about a place they’ve never seen, but I believe it a fair generalization to say that most writers need to see the place they are writing about. For me, seeing a place makes it real, makes what happened in that place imaginable,” says Sandra Gulland, best-selling author of The Many Lives and Secret Sorrows of Josephine B, Tales of Passion, Tales of Woe, and The Last Great Dance on Earth, a trilogy of historical novels on the life of Josephine Bonaparte.

Jane Porter is a double RITA finalist and energetic world traveler. Her romance novels have been set in exotic locations like Greece, Italy and Argentina. Although Porter has conducted research online or by pouring through travelogues and cookbooks, she believes, “nothing beats visiting a place first hand to pick up some attitude, energy, cultural idioms.”

Here is an example of a sentence written by an author before she had traveled:

Isabella sat in the park, munching on a croissant, and watching people walk by.
After visiting Paris, the author rewrote her sentence. This time she added just the right amount of sensory details to infuse life into the story.

Isabella kicked off her shoes and stuck her feet in the warm sand. She had found an oasis in the middle of bustling Paris, a small garden with charming wrought iron benches, a gurgling fountain, and a sandbox. She wiggled her toes in the sand, pulled a flaky croissant out of her backpack, tore off a piece, and let it melt on her tongue. The locals said Place des Vosges was the best place to people watch, and they were right.
Before You Go

Know where you want to go and what information you hope to gain. Contact curators, historians, collectors or professors beforehand. A letter of introduction, enthusiasm for your material, and a confident personality can open many doors.

“I was given a behind the scenes tour of the Chateau at Fontainebleau, going through secret panels into the dark and musty servants quarters,” says Gulland. “Meeting with experts on Josephine was one of the most enlightening parts of my research. It was through curators, collectors and historians that I learned that not all that was written in biographies could be trusted, for example. These meetings formed the basis of an on-going relationship. I was then able to email whenever I had a question (and I had many). People were very generous with their time and knowledge.”

Many authors like to conduct research before they take a trip. They read books, watch movies, or listen to music from the country they intend to visit. Before traveling to Scotland, award-winning paranormal romance author Virginia Farmer watched television. “I watched BBC almost exclusively to tune my ear in to the accents. In the process, I learned some of the slang, like spot on, crack on and higgelty-piggelty and while I couldn't understand the waitress in Falkirk when she asked if I wanted wine with dinner, it did make it just a bit easier to understand people.”

Marguerite Wintingue, who has written dozens of travel articles and historical short stories, watches The Count of Monte Cristo, Ridicule, Dangerous Liaisons, Madame Bovary, Man in the Iron Mask before heading to France. Sense and Sensibility, Emma, Nicholas Nickleby, Mrs. Miniver, and Restoration, are her favorites to watch before visiting England. 

You have purchased your tickets and confirmed your reservations to stay in a rustic villa in Tuscany, now all you need to do is pack.

Bestselling novelist Julia London recommends packing, “A camera. A map. A notebook. A pen or pencil is nice (I've definitely gotten caught without either and had to endure the cries of 'what sort of writer forgets her pencil?') And oh yes, very important: A bottle of water and a bag of chocolate in case I get lost.”

The Checklist:
• Notebooks of varying sizes. Reporter’s notebooks are the perfect size for sticking in pockets, backpacks, purses, or even fanny packs. Reporter’s notebooks can be purchased at most office supply stores or at http://www.viking.com/
• Pens and pencils. Some museums will not allow pens, so be sure to pack pencils. A small pencil, like the kind used to record putt-putt golf scores, is perfect for sticking in the binder of a reporter’s notebook.
• A camera. Many tourist sites require visitors to check their cumbersome camera bags, and even their cameras, in at a reception center. A small disposable flash camera with a wrist strap is a great alternative to toting around a large 35mm format camera.
 • A tape measure. You never know when you might want to measure the height of an ancient wooden door or the width of a rickshaw. A tailor’s tape measure takes up little space in your backpack. They also make business card tape measures that fit quite nicely into a pocket or pocketbook.
• A good travel guide. Eyewitness Travel Guides by Dorling Kindersley are filled with helpful tips, suggested itineraries, historical information, and gorgeous photographs. “I always bring a travel guide and post it notes. Then, when I want to remember something I have discovered, I write it on the post it note and stick it on the corresponding page in the travel guide. When I get home, I can easily recall the experience.”
• Laptop or word processing device. If you are not comfortable taking your expensive laptop to Panama or Portugal, you might want to invest in an AlphaSmart (www.alphasmart.com), a lightweight, easy to use portable computer that runs on batteries. With a sticker price under four hundred dollars, it is the perfect alternative to a laptop.
• A map. Besides taking a current road map, some authors take historical maps on trips with them. Historical maps help an author to visualize a place as it was, instead of as it is.
• A tape recorder. A tape recorder can come in handy when recording sessions with scholars or curators, but it can also be useful in taping ambient sounds or your impressions of certain locations.
• Business cards and letters of introduction. Business cards and letters of introduction help open doors, help make connections with officials. For my first trip to Paris, I asked the president of a Napoleonic Association to provide me with contacts and a letter of introduction. This helped enormously,” says Gulland.
• Proper attire. One does not tour the Louvre in bright white Nike’s and tattered jeans or Vatican City in cut-offs and a tank top. Wear comfortable shoes and clothes, but make sure you are following local customs.

I’ve Gotta Remember This
So you took one taxi, two airplanes, and a boat to get to the Greecian Island of Mykinos. You found your charming rooftop hotel room and unpacked. Now what do you do? Absorb the atmosphere. Can you hear the strains of a familiar song coming from the piano bar down the street? Can you smell the salt-tinged breeze coming off the ocean? How does the souvlaki you eat for dinner taste? Does the lamb meat melt in your mouth? Does the aroma of garlic linger long after the meal is over?

Some writers, like Julia London, keep detailed travel journals recording all they experience. “I write down everything I see – the flora, the fauna, and the weather. I make note of any regional nomenclature, like odd road names, for example. I also make notes of people I see, like the guy in Los Angeles who was shopping on Rodeo Drive wearing orange tennis shoes and purple Capri pants. You don’t see a lot of orange tennis shoes and purple Capri pants on guys in Austin. When I walk, I write down what it’s like to walk – are there rocks, is it steep, are animals and trees around? But I don’t write the standard journal entry, ‘today I ate a peach’ thing, because a) when I’m on vacation, I eat decadently, and peaches aren’t decadent, and b) who cares what I eat?’”

“I also fill notebooks, menus, cocktail napkins--whatever paper that's available-- with endless notes. I've sat in hotel lobbies, swanky restaurants, airport terminals and watched people, recorded bits of interesting conversation, even taken time to describe the visual beauty or mood and energy,” says Porter.

Do not be afraid to rub elbows with the locals - talk to the pub owner, the bus driver, the museum docent, the hotel concierge. Ask questions, chat. Listen to their accents, inflections, slang. If you are in a smaller museum or manor home, ask to speak to the curator. Ask them for good reference books and if they would give out their email address. Get their business card if they are not available. Keep all of the information in your notebooks and transfer them to your laptop at the end of each day.

Other things you might want to add to your notebook:
• Fliers, brochures and visitors guides.
• Business cards from shops, services, and professionals.
• Newspaper clippings.
• Maps. Visitors and welcome centers sometimes offer free maps. Trail maps, walking maps, driving maps. Gather them all.
• Receipts.
• Menus.
• Overheard conversations, including slang. In Spain, “bali, bali” means “good, good.” In London, they call a pregnant woman’s belly her “bump.” And in Ireland, “Jaysus” is an exclamation, not a blasphemy.

The Best Part of the Trip: Shopping
You’ve toured the manor homes and museums, sampled the chocolates and wines, and scribbled enough notes to write a dozen new blockbusters, what is there left to do?

Shop. Purchase a few souvenirs that will spark your memory and engage your senses, that will make you feel like you are back in Venice or Vienna.

“I comb the museum shops for replicas of objects of my period: a quill, for example, or a candle snuffer,” says Gulland.

Where as Sandra Gulland is a tactile writer, Julia London is a visual writer, using books and pictures to engage her senses. “I always bring home books, books, and more books. And lots of pictures. If I don't double expose them, which I did twice in Europe before the dawn of a digital camera age (and may I note that digital cameras have not resolved my dorkiness with cameras). But I take lots of pictures and I buy all those really odd history books in the museum gift shop or the estate I am touring. And I always make a trip to the local bookstore to pick up books on local culture. So with the pictures I take that actually come out, and the notes I've made, and the books I buy, I can bring it all back to life when I am home again.”

The Final Word on Travel
So, do you plop down in your ergonomically correct computer desk chair and pour through dusty books or do you pack your suitcases and hit the road? The decision is yours, but in the words of Jane Porter, “I don't think a writer has to go anywhere [to conduct research]...but I do know, I wrote my first 2 books for the Argentina series before I'd visited the country, and when I sat down to write the final 2 books after being in Argentina, my impression was very different, and the novels took on a different tone and feel than they would have otherwise.”

Books by authors mentioned in this article:


Sara Louise said…
This is such a helpful post! Thanks for the tips, it will definitely help me get over some blocks I've been having :-)
Stephanie said…
I am not a writer, but if I were, I am quite certain those great tips would help me in many ways.
Sara Louise! Unfortunately, I am intimately acquainted with blocks. I am pleased to know my article helped you and hope you pay me a visit again soon.

All the best.
Foxglove said…
A wonderful post, thank you for the treasure of information.
Anonymous said…
Hello there,

I have a question for the webmaster/admin here at www.blogger.com.

Can I use part of the information from your blog post right above if I provide a backlink back to your website?


Can you provide a link to the site in which you plan on referencing my piece? Thank you.

Popular posts from this blog

Cheri Herouard ~ La Vie Parisienne

Creepy Château de Chaumont & Catherine's Shady Squad