I'm a travel junkie and if you've read any of my thrillers, you'll know how much of my experience is woven into my books.
You will experience sights, smells and tastes that you may never encounter at home. And traveling could change your life – as it has done for me.
In today's article, J. Thorn discusses how travel can enrich your writing.
How do you come up with ideas for novels? This is the most common question I’m asked by readers and inexperienced writers. My inspiration comes from two radically different sources: daily life and travel.
This conversation will focus on how changing your environment, even minimally, can manifest an unlimited reserve of creative energy.
1. Travel is unpredictable
When Joanna, Lindsay, Zach and I arrived in Chicago in March of 2017, we had no idea how we were going to begin our collaborative story that would become American Demon Hunters: Sacrifice.
Joanna visited the International Museum of Surgical Science and found an incredible relic that became the object of desire for the characters in our story.
Writing begins with observation. The world is full of fascinating people and places that can become inspiration for stories. When traveling, I often turn off the GPS and put my phone in my pocket. I resist the urge to Instagram my experience and simply let it unfold.
And yes, I do sometimes make a wrong turn, or I end up somewhere I hadn’t planned on going, and that is when inspiration can strike. Because you’ve put your brain on high mental alert in an unfamiliar surrounding without a guide, it is hypersensitive to perceived threats. This is the place where your powers of observation will discover creative gems.
2. Travel fosters empathy, a critical element of the craft
Seattle is a beautiful jewel of a city nestled between the Pacific Ocean and the Cascades. However, it wasn’t until I was forced to walk through the city that I realized it was also a haven for many homeless and disenfranchised people, like many other American cities.
As writers, we often become siloed in our own worlds, whether those worlds are real or virtual. But exploring and interacting with other people can deepen empathy. And the connection created between the protagonist and the reader is the most effective way to draw him or her into a story.
Instead of shuffling through the line at your fast-casual chain of choice, head for the quirky, independently owned establishment. Talk to the person cooking or serving your meal. Ask him about the neighborhood, how business is going. Then listen. Don’t machine-gun questions or start blabbering on about yourself. Just listen.
In doing so, you’ll empathize with the person behind the counter. You’ll see the city through his eyes, his experience, and that revelation will enrich your writing in ways you won’t even recognize until much later when the words hit the page.
As Shawn Coyne likes to say, “Specificity creates universality.” When you can bring empathetic specifics to Story, readers will find themselves in it.
3. Travel is fun and fosters reflection
The writers who joined us for “Authors on a Train” in New Orleans last year remarked about the opportunity to disconnect from daily life and focus on writing and collaboration. Although we cannot walk away from our daily responsibilities permanently or for long stretches, the occasional immersion experience is exhilarating and will often create new neural pathways which foster reflection.
It is in these reflective moments when new opportunities tend to appear. Traveling can be stressful, but it can also be incredibly fun with insights that could seed new ventures for months or years to come.
You don’t have to write anything down or keep a travel journal to be reflective, although many writers find this to be beneficial. Sometimes, I’ll grab my phone and use the built-in voice-recorder app (or a free one) to spend a few minutes talking about my day. I rarely go back and listen to those recordings, but the process of doing it helps me think about my experiences of the day and mentally prepares me for the next.
And reflection doesn’t always have to be about the “ah-ha” moments we all expect when traveling. Struggling to figure out how to open the doors of a subway car in Paris is one of my most memorable moments of a trip to France.
4. Travel creates authenticity in story
For our anthology, Dark Shadows: Vampires and Ghosts of New Orleans (An “Authors on a Train” Short Story Collection) Volume I, we could have Googled images of the train that runs from Chicago to New Orleans. We could have used Google Maps to tour the French Quarter.
However, riding the train and walking the streets of the Crescent City brought an authenticity to the short stories that we couldn’t otherwise achieve. The feel of the cobblestones under your feet, the smell of chicory coffee at Café du Monde, the patter of horse-drawn carriages near Jackson Square — all these experiences become infused in your psyche, and those highly specific details bring universality to Story.
These moments, which cannot be reproduced online, enhance and enrich your story, connecting with readers in powerful ways that they cannot even articulate. You can create a setting for your story without visiting the physical location, but doing so will add a layer of realism that is impossible to develop any other way.
You don’t have to travel far or to an exotic location to find inspiration. Even a trip to the other side of town can infuse your writing with new and exciting energy.
Travel should be an important tool in the writer’s arsenal, and even bad experiences can yield tremendous story opportunities. The next time you walk to the corner store or drive to the office, take the road less traveled, and you’ll be surprised at what you find.
Has your writing been enriched or inspired by a travel experience? Please leave your thoughts below and join the conversation.
J. Thorn has published two million words including Risen Gods and American Demon Hunters: Sacrifice with J.F. Penn. He is an official member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, the Horror Writers Association, and co-owner of Molten Universe Media.
Joanna and J. Thorn also co-wrote Co-Writing a Book: Collaboration and Co-creation for Writers.
Find J's services at www.TheAuthorCoPilot.com