Sparked by Words

We travel for business, new experiences, pleasure, education, thrills, or health. We search for our ancestors, scout a possible new homeland, try out a language we’ve studied, embrace cultural diversity, gain historical perspective, collect artifacts and souvenirs, photograph everything in sight. Myriad reasons fuel our expectations and desires for travel. They color our impressions when we return home. Whether road trip through the United States or journey across borders, the lure of travel causes us to pack our bags and board the dog. We lust for adventure as we voyage. We write (and read, but this post addresses writing) for the same reasons.  We want to know what’s over there in the mystery, or literary, or science fiction genre, so we begin with a dead body, a poetic remark, or an alien invader. We jot down vicarious experiences of new or ancient cultures, even ones that are purely imaginary. We explore distant constellations, the depths of a cavern, or the Paleolithic era, all the while describing snapshots of the images in our brains.  We have an adventure in our writing.

If you’ve been to another country, one of your observations likely had to do with traffic and driving conditions. You may even have been brave enough to drive yourself on the roads of this foreign place. The roads felt odd, not banked the same as in the U.S., or the street surface was paved with cobbles, lava rock, broken seashells, or not paved at all. They were steeper, narrower, curvier, smoother, more rutted, or the speed limit was beyond anything you’ve experienced except on a roller coaster where screaming for two minutes is expected. Writing is another road to travel, one that takes us through our imagination. It’s sometimes uncomfortable as we explore emotions and behavior we thought we’d never personally encounter. We didn’t realize we’d have to research this medical condition, that forensic skill, another historical period, or specific technological constructs. What we found made us scream with delight, anger, frustration, or awe, and we write our discoveries into our story.

Nearly always, a road trip requires a vehicle and a map, even if we are in our own country, our own state. Stray a little down a back road and we stretch our adventure. Stray too far and we are lost. Maps are useful tools, a guide to locations, their compass roses showing directions, our destination, and eventually the way back. Writing requires other vehicles that allow us to travel through places and times we create, and a different kind of map. The vehicle is a pad of paper or a computer, something on which we organize and construct the story.  The map is guide of standards about how to develop story arc, character, dialogue, plot, conclusion.  Stray a little off the common formulae and we are called creative. Stray too far and we are lost.

Folks in foreign lands may drive on the right hand side of the street, the cars built so the driver sits on the right as well. The vehicles may be mechanically peculiar with only three wheels, cramped interiors, or strange arrangements of brakes, pedals, gear shifts, and steering wheels. Vehicles patched together of discarded buses, ancient trucks, or auto wrecks depend on unreliable brakes and cobbled mechanical systems. In other places, people drive futuristic vehicles somewhere between rocket ship and prototype, the drivers nearly lying supine on the floor while whizzing past on sleek highways without speed limits. The hero of our story must befriend manipulative egotists or suspect lifelong friends, patching together an unlikely quilt of allies and adversaries. Following clues, unsure to trust strangers or acquaintances or reveal his own identity, he enters enemy territory and feels the thrill of the quest. All this transit from our pen or our keyboard, really from our driven mind.

Local driving habits tempt catastrophe as lanes and lights are ignored if indicated at all, and cars mingle with bicyclists, pedestrians, buses, military transports, rickshaws, and animal drawn carts. Each bizarre encounter pits another obstacle to overcome as we navigate to world renowned landmarks or obscure local wonders. Still we travel. Our stories are filled with moments of suspense and conflict and incite us to write more and more outrageous obstacles for our hero to overcome. Our hero encounters a drop in a pit, a gun to the head, a turn for the worse, a false clue. He endures despair, tempts love, is granted mercy, meets betrayal. Still he seeks insight and resolution.

The wording on foreign street signs appears in that country’s language, perhaps in an alphabet unfamiliar to American travelers. Even the stop sign, an icon we might expect to be ubiquitously eight-sided and red, in another country might resemble a yield or caution sign, painted red, yellow, white, or black. A driver takes his life in his hands, unable to decipher the driving codes, unsure what to make of vehicles following a different set of rules. Praying for safe arrival is as effective as adhering to traffic laws and accurately interpreting the road signs, because the other, not completing our journey, is unthinkable. Our writing may stop unexpectedly. Writer’s block, revision malaise, everyday living hazards – whatever we call it, sometimes we can’t read the signs. We can’t go forward, don’t want to return, and can’t find the end we thought was just around the corner. We pray for resolution because the other, not completing our story, is unthinkable.

Places beckon. That’s the reason we go, of course. A strange land, so we rent a car, consult a map of the locale, and hope we end up someplace good. Writing is the same. Story beckons. A strange idea until we investigate thoroughly, consult a map of writing standards, and hope we end up someplace good.

Let me know how you travel in your writing. What makes you get up and go to someplace foreign?

This article was written by Sharon Bonin-Pratt and was originally posted on Today’s Author and is reposted on this site with slight revisions.

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Comments on: "Road Trip, a Writer’s Guide to Communication" (11)

  1. Such a good analogy. And your words about not realising the research you’d need to do are ringing in my ears at the moment. Who knew that making one of my characters a botanical artist would require so much googling? Thank heavens for search engines – perhaps they constitute the sat-nav of the research experience!

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    • The Internet has made it possible to “travel the world” in a whole new way. I’ve done much of my own research for my books via road trips on the computer. Would love to actually visit some of the places I’ve written about.
      How are you doing your research? Have you found the sites you need?

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      • Yes, my research has been almost entirely online, facilitated by the wonder of Google. I was just reflecting today how much more difficult it would have been to write a book without that resource.

        Having said that, I’ve set my novel in a part of Britain that I don’t know too well, whilst having a clear picture of the my imaginary village from somewhere else I visited. I’ve satisfied myself – with the aid of some online property agents – that the kinds of houses I’m writing about do exist in that part of the country; but I’d feel happier with a better sense of the place itself. The town I’ve placed my village near is big enough that some readers, at least, can be expected to be familiar with it (always supposing, of course, that this book ever sees the light of day and garners some actual readers!). So I think a weekend visit is going to be in order some time in the not too distant future. Anyway, it’s a good excuse for a couple of days away!

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      • I Travel mostly in my dreams and hope someday to turn the virtual landscape into a real one. Have done the research for 2 of the three books I’ve written so far the same way you have. You might also try one more idea: I’ve interviewed people who have traveled the places I’ve written about. First hand knowledge is fantastic, and people are generous in sharing their experiences and travels. At least that’s been my experience so far.
        The Internet has certainly changed the landscape, hasn’t it?
        I am also in much the same place with my stories as you are. Best wishes with your book. May we both be published!

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      • Hadn’t thought of interviewing – that’s such a good idea.

        So impressed that you’ve completed three books – just a brilliant achievement. I’ll be keeping my fingers crossed for both of us and hope to see your work on a bookshelf near me soon!

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      • Thank you, I appreciate your support. Publication may be a way off, however. I wish you well in your own writing endeavors.

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      • I’ve had very good luck with interviews. People who travel have been generous with sharing their experiences, and I’ve been able to “travel” on a very tiny budget this way. My best interview was just plain serendipity. I knew someone who’d lived through a frightening fire that is a significant part of one of my stories. Though I already knew a great deal about the fire, she had a perspective and some first hand knowledge I would never have learned any other way.
        Of course the trick is finding that perfect person who has lived through the event you’re writing about and who is willing to share in an interview.

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  2. It sure is safer to travel via pen than car. I love these virtual trips, not so much the horror of the modern airport.

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    • I would love to travel more but the expense and other reasons keep me at home. But I really prefer to be a passenger and leave the driving to Hertz, to Hugo, or to Henry – anyone but me! Well, my hubby usually drives and I manage the back seat instructions more than he likes.

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      • I’ve had a great time on my road trips with my kids. Sean and I just went to NoCal–what a blast we had. I think we’re perfectly suited for driving together.

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      • So glad you had a great time. Isn’t it fun to have that adult relationship with your grown up kid? I love that!

        I like road trips as long as someone else does the actual car driving. Actually, would love to travel much more than I do.

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