25 Things Writers Should Know About Traveling

1. What They Mean When They Say, “Write What You Know”

Note the lack of the word only in the old writerly chestnut, write what you know. It is not meant to be a limitation. It’s not meant to be a restriction. It is meant to be an option. A way to bring ourselves to the work. This is why travel matters: we go places, we absorb new details, we have new experiences, we meet strange people, and then we bring all those funky little details back and screw them into the story-slots where they belong. They do not form the only layer within our stories, but real details — and real places — provide a crucial and compelling backbone.

2. Travel Pours New Stuff Into Our Heads

Writers make shit up. It’s part of our resume. We’re basically a gaggle of liars and daydreamers. We crack open our heads every day and all kinds of candy-floss nightmares and unicorn lies come tumbling out of the fissure. Still, though, we aren’t pulling things out of some imaginary asscrack; these things we invent aren’t delivered to us by huffing cave vapors or handed to us by the gods themselves. We make up things using the information we already have. We can imagine what a thing is like through context and comparison. Travel gives us new information. It hammers new details irretrievably into our fool heads. So when it comes time to write about, well, anything at all, our travel experiences offer us one more vein of story-gold to mine.

3. Sometimes You Just Had To Be There

It can be hard to write fairly and completely about some places if you just haven’t been there. Some experiences are fundamental that way. If you’ve never been to the beach or the desert, if you’ve never really seen or dealt with snow, anything you write about those things may ring a little hollow. It’s like writing about sex without ever having had sex — there’s likely going to be some part of the description or the storytelling that feels a little off. (“I don’t think the penis goes inside the belly button like that. And one most certainly does not ejaculate marshmallow and confetti.”) You can use as your basis other books, or film, or television, but it isn’t always the same thing. Sometimes, you just have to go to a place to get a place.

4. The Veneer Of Authority And Authenticity

Part of this is about the reader, part of this is about you-as-the-writer. For the reader, you’re giving them a sense of authenticity and authority, right? You’re making yourself sound credible and honest, even though what we do as writers is lie, cheat, steal. We’re magicians and con-artists but the power of the magic trick or the confidence game is, of course, seeming authentic. And in that term, “confidence game,” is the key for the writer, too — traveling to a place gives you the confidence to write about that place more easily and completely. You won’t slow your writing by trying to figure out how to write about something you’ve never seen — all the stuff will come pouring our of your fingertips. Ejaculating, if you will. Like marshmallow and confetti.

5. Interpreting The Real As The Unreal

Writing is not always an act of transcription. It is frequently one of translation. We take the colors we have on our palette and we mix them into new colors (“Blue and orange make BLORANGE!”). People always get hung up on write what you know when it applies to truly fantastical fiction: “Well, I’ve never made love to a randy satyr on the red sand beaches of Blood Island, so I guess that story is totally fucking dead.” We bring our current slate of experiences and translate them to fictional contexts, infusing even the most fantastical of tales with the breath of the real. Example: in my new novel The Blue Blazes, I write about the Sandhog tunnels beneath Manhattan. I’ve never been there. But I have been in silver mines and limestone caverns and I took those memories and translated them in part to another place and time. Just because you’ve never fornicated with a satyr doesn’t mean you haven’t banged a goat. … wait, forget I said that last part. Uhh. Totally don’t have sex with goats. *runs away*

6. Is This Place Very Similar To Another Place?

I would love to tell you that every place is a glittering snowflake demonstrating each its own unique fractal fingerprint, but yeah, no, not so much. If you’ve been to one Pennsylvania suburb, you’ve been to a lot of them. Hell, that means you’ve also been to a lot of suburbs in Ohio, New York, Maryland, and on and on. Specific suburbs might carry specific feelings or vibes — and the farther you physically go, the further apart those details grow, too. A suburb of Santa Fe is not the same as a suburb of Philadelphia. Still, we can’t always get to the places we want to go in terms of travel, so we do as best as we can. Maybe you can’t get to the Himalayas but you can get to the Rockies and, fuck it, it’s just gonna have to do.

7. Focus First On The Physical

Physical details matter: how sand feels between your toes, how the wind whistles through the trees, how that stretch of Interstate-80 always smells like someone rubbed chickenshit all over your face. You go to Hawaii, you notice how profoundly the air smells of flowers. You go to Philadelphia, you notice how profoundly the air smells of angry sewage and cheesesteaks.

8. But Really, It’s Made Of People

People and culture are what really matter about a place. Who they are. What they do. The stories they tell. Part of the reason I’m even writing this list is that I recently traveled to the Florida Keys to do some research for the third Miriam Black book (The Cormorant) and lemme tell you, the people of the Keys are their own breed. The Keys seceded from the United States for like, ten minutes in 1982, calling themselves the Conch Republic, and this independent fuck you vibe still goes on there. (You can tell it when a cashier at a Publix grocery store starts yammering at you unbidden about the unfairness of “mainland taxes.”) And again, the farther you go, the further you get from known cultural traditions — while we’re all pink on the inside, Afghani warlords and New Jersey housewives are going to have different attitudes and traditions. (Though I’m sure they’ll have shared traits, too, because, hey, that’s how humanity rolls.)

9. That Means You Do Need To Talk To Some Other Humans

If you live in a place, you’ll eventually absorb stuff by dint of being there. If you’re traveling — particularly as an act of research — you’re going to have to hit the ground and ask some questions. Even though we’re scaredy-cat writers who’d prefer to talk to perfectly made-up imaginary motherfuckers (or our cats), we gotta put boots on asphalt and open our mouths and talk to bartenders or bankers or hookers or whoever it is we dare to meet.

10. Stories Live Inside Other Stories

Little stories slot into bigger stories. The stories that people will tell you? Use them. The stories that you experience while traveling? Use them. These personal — and real — accounts will turn a rote plot into a complicated and potentially nuanced story.

11. Avoid The Tourist Shit

Er, I don’t mean the places the tourists pooped, though one supposes you should avoid those spots, too. No, I mean, the standard, “All the tourists go to this spot to watch the harbor seals ride the trolley and then right after buy sticky caramel-covered chocolate lighthouses because the lighthouse is where Abraham Lincoln first invented the credit card. Everybody does it.” Sometimes as a writer you gotta say, well, if everybody does it, I gotta do different.

12. Hop The Guardrails

Escape the gravity of the highway. Flee the known ways. Find the narrow paths, the hidden roads. AND THERE YOU WILL BE SWEPT AWAY ON A FANTASY ADVENTURE WITH ELVES. Okay, maybe that one just happened to me? Whatever. You’ll find compelling things, places and people away from and off of the standard paths. Dive bars. Restaurants where only locals eat. A part of the island where nobody really goes. Long as it’s safe to you (“They don’t go to that part of the island because of the feral man-eating pandas”), look for stories in stranger places.

13. It’s The Little Things

They say the Devil is in the details, but that sounds terrible. It’s like, every time you start writing down the little things, the Devil pops out and eats your face or tempts you into gulping down a fistful of synthetic heroin and going on a kitten-punching spree. Hell with that. The details are what matter when you travel for writing: the big, sweeping facts you can get from a book, a website, a buddy. But it’s the little details, the ones that speak to the place you traveled, that matter. Be observant. Note the way the wind moves through the trees or the fact they eat some food here you’ve never even heard of or how once a year they capture a traveling writer and trap him inside a giant wicker typewriter and burn him alive to appease “the Muse.”

14. Hey, Whatever, At Least It’s Blog Fodder, Man

Worse comes to worse, traveling somewhere can always make for good blog fodder while you wait to see how you’re going to use it in your fiction. Case in point, this is a blog post about traveling. THIS IS METABLOG. Which is also the Lithuanian god of horse meat. Mmm. Horse meat.

15. Travel Ain’t Cheap

The downside of traveling for writing is that it isn’t cheap. I mean, writing for travel tends to be cheaper than vacation travel — on a vacation you’re trying to stay at the nicest places you can afford, you’re eating out every night, you’re buying snowglobe souvenirs, you’re securing the finest sea-salt-sprinkled liquor-filled chocolate-covered prostitutes… I mean, desserts that you can find. A writer likely travels on a shoestring budget: staying at hotels where the carpets are marred with Macbeth-style bloodstains, eating at roadside taco stands (or worse, stoning local crows to eat them over a barrel fire with the other hobos).  Just the same, flying can be pricy. Renting a car can be a killer. Expect it to not be nearly as cheap as you’d prefer.

16. But, It Is Tax Deductible

If you’re a professional writer, hey, you can deduct the trip from your taxes. It’s a small but potent boon, so you might as well enjoy it. If it’s research or in the service to research, you can deduct food, gasoline, coffee, liquor, tacos, jet ski rentals, trips to BDSM clubs, trapeze classes, gladiator monkey fighting, chapstick, whatever.

17. Even Short Trips Outside Your Smelly Writer Cave Can Help

A whole world awaits those willing to take a short day trip. Caverns and canyons and mountains and beaches and little towns and big cities and gladiator monkey arenas. These can be affordable and time-sensitive and can still grant you narrative mileage in terms of research.

18. The Purposeful Penmonkey Versus The Wandering Word-Hurler

You can take a trip with focus: meaning, you can say, “I’m going to set this story in the bowels of a blue whale and so I will endeavor to be ingested by a blue whale in the name of narrative authenticity,” but you can get just as much value out of a trip that has no specific focus at the outset. You may say, “A hundred miles north of here is an abandoned tuberculosis hospital haunted by the noisily coughing specters of the consumptive dead and so I’m going to drive there in the hopes of maybe being inspired today or even five years from now.”

19. It Can Protect You From Rookie Move Amateur Hour Karaoke

You’re writing a book about Seattle but you’ve never been to Seattle and so you’re forced to make up some details here or there and next thing you know, all your Seattle readers are saying, “The space needle is not an actual needle in space, and people in Seattle do not all have humpbacks, nor is ‘grilled parrot’ the  city’s favorite dish. I HAVE CAUGHT YOU AND EXPOSED YOUR FOOLISHNESS, SILLY WRITER.” Nobody wants that. Do your research. Take a trip there if you can, or set the story in another location. Or at least use a disclaimer at the fore of the book: “I have never been to Seattle and I’m just inventing fresh shit so SHUT UPPA YOU FACE.”

20. Travel Writing > Guidebooks

Most guidebooks suck. Or, rather, they suck for this purpose. Finding Zagat-rated restaurants or well-rated burro-rides is not really useful for your purposes. However, many interesting locations are described in books of travel writing, where the authors tend to interject non-fiction content (essays, even) focusing on the location at hand. Traveling to the Keys recently I found a great book that seems like a guidebook — “The Florida Keys, A History And Guide,” by Joy Williams — that is anything but. Funny, wise, with lots of commentary and quirky wisdom on where to really go and see, these types of books are essentialy to understanding a place. Frankly, they’re useful even if you can’t travel somewhere.

21. Take Notes Or Die

If you’re anything like me (may the gods help you), you have a brain like a spaghetti strainer. Which means you’d better, whilst traveling, take copious notes or you’ll return and two weeks later wonder where you even went or how you got those bloodstains in your wetsuit. Notes will help you transmogrify the travel experience to the wordsmithy desired.

22. Ask: “How Would I Write This?”

Here’s a tip that works when traveling but also applies to your day-to-day existence: when you see something, particularly something new or as-yet-unexperienced, imagine how you’d write it out. How would you describe it? What value does it have in a story, to a character, as a motif, or bound up with a theme? Imaginary exercise can be quite fruitful.

23. Sometimes You Can’t Travel

Even when you want to. Costs too much. Time won’t allow it. They won’t let you back into Myanmar after you got that tiger addicted to high-test trucker meth. So many reasons. You do have other options for when travel isn’t an option: Google Street View, local blogs, local newspapers, travel writing, guidebooks (in a pinch), social media (poll the hive-mind).

24. Travel With A Mission In Mind

Go with a goal. It pays to travel with some sense of what you hope to accomplish. It’s fine to wander amok, but if you can travel and know what you’re looking for, you can plan accordingly and hit all the right spots and talk to all the right people and seduce all the right goats I MEAN WHAT NOTHING ABOUT GOATS YOU STOP PUTTING WORDS IN MY MOUTH.

25. Travel Is Good For The Soul

At the end of the day, travel opens us up. It reveals the world to us (and one might argue, helps reveal us to the world through our fiction). One of the many jobs of The Writer is to reveal what we know to the rest of the world, to transport people to the places inside our head and out of it, too. Travel is good for us. Seeing other places and people and cultures makes us more complete as human beings. The fact that it is useful to our word-herding is almost secondary to how useful it is to us as people, not just as people who sling stories for a living. So go! Get up! Move your sluggardly nether-cheeks. Escape the chair. Flee the desk. Get out into the world. See things. Explore. Talk. Absorb. And for fuck’s sake, report back. Because you are still a writer, after all.


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30 comments

  • If you don’t mind another suggestion, I’ve taken several vicarious tours by watching YouTube videos. Machu Picchu, the Harbin Ice Festival, hiking the Appalacian trail, the pre-restoration El Caminito Del Rey. It doesn’t capture the essence of being there, and it often focuses on the unusual instead of the usual, but you can often get a decent sense of colors, topography, surroundings, flora and sometimes fauna, etc.

  • I traveled to the UK to take a holiday for 7 weeks that was a big, big disguise as a research holiday. You see, i was writing a sci-fi fantasy book and ran out of research here in Australia…. we just weren’t old enough to have enough history to run around in – like castles that were built in the 1200′s… places where battles had taken place and Gretna Green! Here in Australia, we are just a baby of a nation at just a little over 250 years old… and compared to the UK and Europe, that’s tiny! So, in 1997, I toddled off to the UK and had an absolute blast! I took notes like you wouldn’t believe, at the food from every area of the place – yes I ingested Haggis but I had to be absolutely off-my-face pissed on 21 year old scotch to do it! And no, I don’t really remember what happened that night, only that I got back to the right hotel because I woke up in the right room on my own (thank god!) and with a pounding headache. But no memory how I got there!

    I’m currently saving up money over the next 6 years to go traveling throughout the USA to gather more information. This is going to be the ultimate road trip – kinda like the ‘Supernatural’ one… yep, travel the backroads, stay at 3-star hotels with corny decore and enjoy the little towns with the unusual customs. But get my butt outa there just before anyone gets to know me. I want to see the weird stuff – like the biggest ball of string and any strange sculptures that happen to be on my way across the landscape. But I’m hoping to write a road trip book on how it all is from my point of view. There’s great places I want to visit too, like Boston, Chicago and San Fran just because they’re there.

    Oh… yes… in 1997, I was there when Lady Diana and Dodi died. I was also there for their funeral. It was an amazing time in history to be in the country this happened. But on the same token, I also feel so very rejected I didn’t want to be there. I took the opportunity and photographed shrines, artist’s drawings and watched the whole funeral service on tv – as London was closed down 3 days before it was held due to the place being over-full. And once it was over, the BBC, channel 4 and ABC went back over it with a fine tooth comb and picked it to bits. This was another reason why I hated being there… I still hate it when Diana’s case is brought up all this time later… I wish they’d just leave her alone.

  • Excellent advice. Although I would recommend against employing 22 WHILE having sex with a satyr. They’re sensitive little horned beasties and they might take it amiss. Then things could get ugly.

    And btw, I am now convinced I can never set a story in Philly as I have never quite understood the concept of a cheesesteak.

  • Just wrote a novel that takes place in San Diego. I moved a pier about ten miles, and made Tijuana edge up a little closer, so there may be mass protests. I did visit there (not as a writer, as a dad of two children who wanted to go to the zoo and sea world) and I had a San Diego-en beta read to give me some local flavor. I’ve also been to the dark bowels of Tijuana. Strange parasites still eat at my insides.

  • I’m glad the penmonkey gig has afforded you the ability to be all like, “Hell yeah, I’m going to the Florida Keys to do some research for The Cormorant!” I have no doubt you would have caught the feeling of the place, but I look forward to the book just a little bit more, now.

    Oh yeah, mighty fine list!

  • 100% with you on travel. Been lucky enough to do a bit of it, living on three continents, growing up in a ‘developing’ nation and all that. I’ve used that knowledge on more than one occasion to go “Oh really, I don’t know what I’m talking about do I?” in some blog post where a dude insists I have no idea what it’s really like to (insert hot topic here). And boy did I learn a lot about people! And how many different ways there are to flush a toilet, and all that one took was a bus tour through Europe.

  • Just back from Miami, researching book #15, and every word you say is true. (I once hid in an empty giant copper beer vat in a brewery-turned-musuem in Amsterdam because I realized a character could do the same during a shootout in a scene set in an abandoned brewery. Fortunately the tour guides did not notice.) The point you made about travel writing as background reading instead of travel guides is key.

  • And while visiting a place that’s important to your story, you’ve also gotta find someone in charge and ask to see behind the scenes. (Did you mention this above? I hope not.)

    I did this at a Chicago hotel and was treated to a private tour. The manager fed me some great stuff, like, see this little wooden seat in the closet of this suite? That’s a hole that leads to an underground tunnel Al Capone used to escape when the cops were outside waiting for him. Whether it’s true or not, it’s gold. It’s the kind of thing that makes a place come alive.

    And to think I just needed to see the view from that suite’s windows to validate my description of the lake (which was dead wrong until then).

    People like writers. They think we’re cool. I think they also pity us. They’ll drop things to help us. Take advantage.

    Someone above mentioned YouTube. Does anyone use Google Maps Street View? I clicked myself down a Montana highway so I could see through my character’s eyes when she drove into town. Not as good as going there, but a pretty darn good substitute.

    • April 24, 2013 at 7:22 PM // Reply

      And while visiting a place that’s important to your story, you’ve also gotta find someone in charge and ask to see behind the scenes.

      This may be absolutely necessary when, as I often am, you have a language barrier.

      The most interesting stuff I saw in China was when I left the tour and wandered off on my own. However, I know about enough Chinese to fill a snail shell with the snail still in it, so language was a difficulty. If you don’t speak the language and don’t have a handy family member (my brother does speak Chinese quite well) you may have to borrow someone’s time or even hire them to help explain things to you.

  • Chuck, I rarely leave comments… but I would like to say thank you. Thank you for sharing wisdom and being funny as fuck. You always make me laugh and think. When I am too busy to read other blogs, I always make time to read yours.

  • April 24, 2013 at 11:19 AM // Reply

    Number 9 stuck me where it hurts. We travel a lot, and almost all of it with the goal of going where there are no people. Not just no tourists, but no people. I’ll head to the wilderness any time, and the trouble is, there are fewer stories there.

    I’ll probably just have to tough it, though. I’m not giving up my backpacking addiction, not even for my writing addiction.

  • Excellent, excellent, excellent…can’t wait to turn an upcoming planned getaway into a creative workweek! (minus the goats…I’m still a wee bit uptight…)

  • LOL. A friend of mine’s first book was set in Namibia, Africa. After hemming and hawing over the cost of traveling there, he went. Much to his surprise, he discovered that they drive on the left there. He would have been very embarrassed about location details if he hadn’t made the trip.

  • All good advice, although it should be kept in mind that #16 (tax deductions) depend a lot on the tax laws in your jurisdiction.

    For instance, here in Denmark, the tax authorities barely allow deductions of strictly business-related travel. If I tried to deduct as much as a ticket to a local museum for general research, they’d… I don’t know, probably come and burn my house down or something (or at least make me pay it back).

  • On a serious note, I have been fortunate in that my military service has given me a plethora of travelling experience. I’ve been stationed in Japan, Hawaii, Rhode Island, Mississippi, and Virginia. I have been on seven deployments and traveled to six continents and more countries than I have time to list. I didn’t take notes and am also afflicted with the colander memory. I hope that with practice the details can be coaxed from the recesses of my gray matter onto a page every now and then.

  • I’m going to de-lurk for a second here to note that those really horrible travel experiences can help with a story too. If you go as a tourist, your character ends up eating delicacies from a tiny fork in a restaurant with mustachioed waiters with sticks up their bums. If you really visit a country, your characters can have the singularly entertaining experience of trying to think of the word for “stop” in Turkish so that the leathered old lady letting her chicken peck at your arm on the train might give you a break. Not that that’s ever happened of course…

    Also, I believe Apple bought Google Smell, so it’s now called iSmell.

  • #23 happens ALL the time. Not my fault tigers are so susceptible to high-test trucker meth.

    Thanks for this. It was humour, relevance and entertainment rolled into one big list and I enjoyed every minute of reading it!

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