Passions. I have many of them.
Two of them actually come together when I’m writing my mystery, suspense novels.
Traveling, one passion, has always been a part of my life. Fortunate that Dad wanted my brother and me to see all of the United States and most of Canada by the time we graduated from high school is how it all started.
Today, I travel whenever I can. That can be anything from two weeks in Paris to a Saturday in San Francisco.
Writing, another passion, seemed to fit naturally during those seemingly endless trips across Wyoming and during an hour long discussion with a blueberry farmer about the correct size of the berry.
Today, my writing is much more than something I should do. It’s as much a part of me as traveling is.
I started out writing in my journals just to keep myself busy. Everything made it into those journals; from the color of dirt in Oklahoma, to seeing my first alligator, to life in the South in the 1960s, to making snowballs in July in Glacier National Park, to visiting Disneyland in the 1950s, to walking the Civil War battlefields, to how much money we spent on food and gas.
Those writings turned to stories we heard, side trips we took, and evolved into something more as we learned about each destination. That sense of a place became my way of writing. I wanted to know more about the streets, farms, cities, and people.
Fast forward to actual travel writing and all that time spent writing in journals apparently stayed with me. When I write travel articles I weave much more into that article than just talking about the museum, city, or local hangout. I want to make the places, people, and events come alive for my readers.
Same is true for my novels. I want the places, people, and events in the novels to come alive for my readers as well. How do I do that? How do I bring traveling to life in a mystery novel? I like to think of traveling as inspiration…in many ways.
For me, it’s best to pick environments I’m familiar with.
I love San Francisco and take day trips to the city often. Wandering around a neighborhood with my camera and a journal gives me a different perspective every time I’m there. Sure, I look at the typical tourist sites. Those are important to my novels.
Just as important, though, are the people. Tourists and locals…everyone. How do they look? Where do they live? What language is being spoken? Are they in a hurry?
People-watching is certainly an interesting pastime. I don’t invade anyone’s privacy. But, I do watch how they relate to each other, how they cross the street, and how they eat, shop, and live.
That’s part of the sense of the place.
Then, there is the physical environment. What are the buildings like? How many floors do homes have in a certain area? What are the smells? What’s the weather like? It’s all important.
Do I figure out everything about everyone and every place each time I go? Certainly not. Do I ever sit back and enjoy myself. Of course. It’s a wonderful combination of a work in progress and just having fun.
So, how do those notes work their way into my novels?
Each and every time I go, I add those notes to the previous ones. This creates that sense of place for me about San Francisco that is fairly accurate. And, that sense finds its way into my novels.
When I’m setting a novel in San Francisco, I refer to my notes about the North Beach area, for instance. What does it look like? Would someone from Italy feel at home here? Is Italian spoken at all; fluently; occasionally? Moving on to a different part of the city…would a wealthy homeowner have a home in this area or that area? It makes a difference. It matters to me. And, I want it to ring true for my readers.
The same thing goes for other cities I visit often. Venice is another favorite city; Italy a favorite country. And, I do the very same things when traveling there. My camera and my journal are constantly with me.
Nothing is too insignificant to make note of when wandering a back street, watching a gondola being made, crossing a small canal, checking out the locals checking out the catch of the day at the fish market, and sipping wine at a sidewalk café. In the countryside, it’s no different. I try to make notes of as much as I can. It may seem like a small item at the time, but somehow it finds its way into a novel. Do the Dolomites have snow all year? Why is the soil in their foothills great for growing grapes? How are those grapes harvested and what kinds of wine are they used for in this area?
It’s all important. For me, everything I see, hear, and experience provides inspiration in some form. Again, much of it finds its way into my novels.
One more thing…I ask questions. Lots of questions. I never know when one of those answers will trigger something for me. It may be an inspiration for a character; or his name; or his mannerisms. Maybe the answer will get me thinking about other questions. I might learn something about the history I didn’t know. Perhaps someone I meet sticks in my mind. Maybe, just maybe, some phrase or some person will be that one inspiration to start me thinking about my next novel.
I’ve been known to develop an entire plot based on one conversation I overheard at a wine bar in Venice.
You just never know what you might discover when you travel. And write.
Thanks Wendy! Like many writers, I have a novel kicking its way around my head that I hope someday to put down on paper – so I found your advice to be very helpful…..the difference between the ends of the quality spectrum when it comes to writing is, IMHO, in the details. Thanks for sharing this valuable advice! :-)