PSST! Kerri wants everyone to know that Diana’s 3rd YA travel mystery is coming out October 13 (but you can pre-order it now)!! Blue Voyage: It’s full of intrigue, set in Istanbul (one of the sexiest cities on the globe, let me tell you), with a whip-smart heroine. What more could you want to ease yourself into fall?
A Writing Vacation
I’ve just returned from my first trip overseas since before my son was born. Until recently, trips have centered around family on the West Coast, or kid-friendly hotels with pools and reliable supplies of mac and cheese. But lately I’d been feeling the itch to spread my wings, to really travel again. Mostly I wanted to refill my creative well. My three YA novels are all mysteries set in far-flung locales (Japan, Ecuador, Turkey) – places where I’ve traveled or lived in the past. I often get seeds for books when I step outside my comfort zone, and nothing does that like travel.
My family was up for it. We decided on London. It would be a gentle start to travel abroad for our young son, with enough urban delights—castles, weaponry, transportation—to hold his attention. We also had an opportunity to stay in someone’s flat in Notting Hill for ten days. We were excited to stay in a real neighborhood, to live like locals, instead of in an anonymous hotel.
The first thing I packed was a blank journal. I was determined to record every impression of my trip in meticulous detail. I pictured myself scribbling away in the community garden attached to our flat at the end of each adventure-packed day. I envisioned myself flipping it open while on public transportation or in restaurants and recording sensory details. In the past, when I’ve traveled, I’ve kept such journals and lists, and they’ve served me well in my fiction when I’ve needed to mine them for details that pictures or guidebooks cannot capture.
Ten days in London, with side trips to other towns.
Do you know what I wrote in that journal?
Not one word.
It was not for lack of time. There was ample time to scribble away in the community garden at the end of each day. But instead of writing in the lingering light, I took solo walks. I listened to people’s dinnertime conversations that leaked out the windows. I glanced into their yards as I passed, glimpsing fragments of lives, wondered what their stories were. But I did not write them down.
It was not for lack of inspiring material. On top of the requisite tourist attractions, we spent hours ambling along nearby Portobello Road, poking around the market stalls, exclaiming over intriguing objects such as antique dental tools and vintage curios. We stumbled across bizarre museums just crying out for novels, like the Foundling Museum (at the site where mothers would abandon their babies at a gate, now the entrance to a playground), or the Pollocks Toy Museum crammed with old toys, shadow puppet theaters, and pop-up paper constructions dating back to Victorian times. We struck up conversations with people everywhere—fellow travelers on long-distance busses, friendly taxi drivers, restaurant waiters. Every person we spoke with handed me story seeds on little platters. Everyone was interesting. This is the magic of travel: awakening that curiosity of how people’s paths have come to intersect with yours, and what kind of journey they’re on.
But did I get any of it in writing?
I posted pictures on Facebook. Every picture I took seemed steeped in intrigue, like some kind of exercise for a creative writing class. Retro-style food trucks parked by the Tower of London, with their bright hanging lanterns and beer taps, made a bizarre contrast to the setting’s grisly history of imprisonments, tortures and beheadings. A stowaway duck on a boat we paddled along the river in Oxford looked like the cover of a picture book adventure. Buskers in Covent Garden posed dramatically, singing opera or dancing with violins. Friends asked me if I was doing research for my next book.
I’m not yet sure if I was. I do know I wasn’t writing, despite my best intentions.
But what I was doing was equally important. Living. Soaking up experiences. Connecting with other people—including my own family. Being fully present, in the moment, as much as possible. And not looking at this place with a particular agenda, but being open to anything England might have to offer.
We writers can so easily get stuck in our heads, our pages, our computer screens. We can so easily guilt ourselves into thinking we have to record every moment, or turn every experience and thought into art, or produce pages in all our spare time. And sometime when we’re so stuck in our pages, we forget there’s a world out there – and that’s where our raw material is.
I had planned to take a long-overdue writing vacation and come back with that journal filled. I’d hoped to bring back the seeds of a new story or novel, and maybe even a skeleton. To my surprise, and relief, a writing vacation on this trip meant a vacation from writing. I’ve returned with an empty journal, but a head full of thoughts, some new ideas sparking, a handful of potential characters to use somewhere, a wide range of emotional insights, and a lot more energy.
As summer winds down, I encourage you to take your own writing vacation. You don’t have to travel far. Go to a different neighborhood or town. Visit some place you’ve never been – or visit a place you frequent, but see it through the curious eyes of a tourist. Talk to a stranger. Try a new activity. Eat a food you can’t pronounce. Jump on a bus without a timetable or a map. Strike out in any direction and take a long walk. Get yourself lost. Get yourself found. Whatever you do, don’t write a word. Not while you’re there, anyway.
Then go home. Open that notebook or turn on the computer. Start typing something about your journey. It could be a memory, an image, a person you noticed, a line of conversation you overheard, anything. Begin, and see where your words might take you.