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Finding Inspiration to Write About Far Off Places

Some of us have the good fortune of living in the place we love most in the world…

… So that when it comes to writing about that place, all we have to do is look out the window for inspiration.

Every time I’m in Italy, my cup runneth over with ideas for articles that I may never have time to write – but when I’m sitting back in my home office in Portland, Oregon, staring at a map of Italy rather than Italy itself, inspiration can be a little harder to come by.

With a country as packed with history, beauty, and world-famous tourist attractions as Italy is, it’s hard to picture a time when I’ll feel like I’ve covered the country in its entirety.

When I’m at home, then, the challenge isn’t necessarily coming up with topics to write about – it’s making sure I sound as infatuated with a place that’s far away as I do when I’m there.

These are a few things that help when I’m feeling too much Portland and not enough Italy.

Stop Writing, Start Reading

I keep track of how many words I’m writing, so any time I spend not writing sometimes makes me anxious – but there’s often no better way to transport myself back to what I did, saw, and felt when I was in Italy than by reading about other peoples’ experiences in Italy.

Reading is a good habit to get into no matter what kind of writing you’re doing

That means browsing through the blogs in my RSS reader, checking out what my Italy-centric friends are posting on Twitter [1], and picking up an actual old-school book (or an e-book reader, I’m not picky) to curl up with.

Reading good writing is a good habit to get into no matter what kind of writing you’re doing, and if you throw in the added pressure of having to conjure up “it’s just like I’m there” imagery when you’re far away from the place you’re writing about it can be even more critical.

Keep an arsenal of blogs, books, and essays at the ready for just such an inspiration breakdown and you might be surprised how quickly you’re transported to another place.

Get Nostalgic

This topic also involves reading, but to me it’s important enough to warrant its own entry. I’m an avid note-taker when I travel – I carry a small notebook and pen in my bag at all times, and since I’m often traveling alone I’m more apt to jot down thoughts and observations than if I were in constant conversations with travel partners. My notebook is a companion at solo mealtime, where I can expand on whatever random thoughts have been going through my head in addition to the various museum hours, street names, and visitor tips I scribbled down while out walking.

Sometimes all I have to do is leaf through a notebook from one of my trips and the screen goes all wavy, like on TV when they cut to a flashback. Before I know it, I’ve spent an hour reading my own ramblings, and I remember all the great article ideas I had when I was sitting at that corner table by myself in Venice, sipping the house red and getting more-than-average attention from the waiter who felt badly that I was dining alone. See? Just like that, I’m not in Portland anymore.

A Picture’s Worth a Thousand Words

Perhaps you’re a more visual person, and you have trouble calling up the proper inspiration unless you’re staring at whatever you’re trying to write about. Which means you’ll have trouble writing unless you can get all your work done in situ – and as any travel writer knows, getting lots of writing done while you’re on a trip can be an enormous challenge, if not completely impossible.

If you take your own photos when you travel, browsing through them is a great start to reminding yourself what it feels like to look at what you want to write about. You don’t have to be a great photographer – if the picture brings up a memory that’s vivid and personal, that’s sometimes all it takes.

If, on the other hand, you’re not someone who’s always snapping photos wherever you go, there’s a wealth of photography online and in books to use for inspiration. It can be fun to plug the name of a city or a monument into Flickr [2] to see how many people take a photograph of the same thing in the same exact way, or to see what different perspectives people have of the same view.

If you, like me, write consistently about one place, it can also be helpful to decorate the space you write in most in a way that helps you visualize the place you’re writing about. Find photos or images of the place you love, get them framed (you can find cheap frames at Target or IKEA – these don’t have to be expensive projects), and hang them within direct sight of where you work. It’s like having an open window over your favorite vista.

Map it Out

Being visual isn’t just about looking at photographs or artwork, so if you’re one of the many for whom maps of any kind get the mind racing with the potential for travel, then there’s an even easier way to decorate your writing space.

The walls of my home office are lined with maps simply tacked to the wall. I’ve got a big world map right above my computer, two maps of Europe next to that, country maps of Italy, France, India, and Costa Rica, city maps of Milan, Bologna, Portland, and New York… Most of the time, the point isn’t to use the maps as reference points for something I’m writing, but to get my brain back into that heady state I experience when I’ve got a trip ahead of me rather than behind me. At that point, it’s all about possibility, and I find that to be a pretty intoxicating drug.

Turn Up the Volume

This may not work for everyone, but since I’ve been trying to learn the Italian language on and off for the past decade, I collect language learning tools and tips – and one of my favorites is music. There’s a radio station in Italy called Radio Italia [3] that plays only Italian-language music (so many of the pop stations play English songs), and I listen to it both when I’m in Italy and when I’m at home (via the internet).

I return from every Italy trip with another CD or two that I first heard on Radio Italia, and I love listening to Italian music when I’m writing about Italy. Because I’m not fluent in Italian and it’s not my native language anyway, it’s easy to tune out the words when I write. I’m not even sure I’m conscious of how the music is impacting me all the time, except that it feels good to have the language in my ears when I’m trying to imagine myself back in Italy.

~ Jessica

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