Pen and Suitcase: Travel as a Writer

The books we publish center around culture. In order to experience the culture, our characters travel. This blog mainly shares my thoughts on writing and about our completed (or nearly complete) projects. It makes sense to share a little about travel, particularly because of the slow realization that it plays a big role in my writing and an even bigger role in my life.

A Writing Experience

We’ll stick to traveling as a writer. Since we published Molly Goes to Rome, our family has been on two vacations. It was during one of these (in Florida) that I finished the first draft of The Shield of Horatius, the chapter book mystery that also takes place in Rome. It was a working vacation for me, but also for Amy and my parents as they all watched the kids when I went off somewhere to write. The beach was just yards away.

My first working vacation, though I didn't know it until years after. Temple of Castor and Pollux, Rome, Italy.
My first working vacation, though I didn’t know it until years after. Temple of Castor and Pollux, Rome, Italy.

Writing on vacation was not completely voluntary. I was and usually am of the mind that there can be work or there can be vacation, but mixing the two is tough. Both Amy and my parents were a little mystified why I wasn’t writing, but it’s tough to look after two small children in an unfamiliar place. My mind was wholly occupied with it because I didn’t want the responsibility to fall completely on Amy’s shoulders. We were on vacation!

They asked why I wasn’t writing and it was frustrating. “If you want me to write, I have to go somewhere. I can’t be on vacation and work, my mind has to focus on one of those things, it can’t be both.” The laptop and I arrived at a coffee shop about an hour later.

It was good work. Maybe it was the warmer weather or the setting, it’s hard to say, but the work went well and there were no creative blocks. In some way I was still on vacation and my mind was a bit more relaxed. The writing sessions were much longer than the typical efforts at home. That is probably why the last part of the book came together so quick and easy. I missed out on some fun with my family, but they were all supportive and the writing felt less solitary.

A Writer’s (Not Writing) Vacation

Travel is an opportunity to get to know new places and experience new things. The experiential aspect of travel has always been the main attraction. This includes eating local food, seeing unique and unfamiliar places, and trying activities you don’t have access to at home.

One of my previous jobs provided the opportunity to travel to California. Over a two-year period the company sent me four times in support of our products. Each time I took a couple extra days and did my best to take advantage: I drove the Pacific Coast Highway, mountain biked in Marin County, and stayed on in San Diego for a couple of days with old friends. Of all the experiences, the one most remembered is an early evening on an outdoor restaurant patio in Ocean Beach.

This was a moment the “California vibe” was all too plain and obvious. It was the moment that allowed me to understand why people are so attracted to the place and the lifestyle. It is something you can read about in an academic sense, but the experience is something fuller or more complete.

This is why we interview people for our books. Some things about a place are difficult to know without being there, or, more particularly, being from there. No amount of research can give a sense of how mangoes taste in Thailand, but to hear someone describe a tantalizing dessert and see and hear the experience played out through their body language and words…it’s the next best thing to being there. Some of the words our “host” characters use are direct quotes from our interviewees because you can’t duplicate their experience.

These are the little things that shape personalities and local cultures. A writer who travels is smart to seek these experiences. They help a character become three-dimensional and lend an air of authenticity to your settings.

Off the Path

The Colosseum circa 1990, early morning.
The Colosseum circa 1990, early morning.

This goes back a way, I think, and the benefits cannot be overstated. At age sixteen I was not into taking risks, yet I remember two moments that shaped future travel experiences. I was in Rome with a tour group from high school. We were in the city for three days and had some free time.

Perhaps it was the age, but I recall the confidence gained from using the city bus system. It’s silly, but this was a long way from home and a long way from any sort of comfort zone.

The second formative moment was setting out on my own to explore. The Colosseum was visible from our hotel so there was an excellent landmark to find my way back. I found an out-of-the-way restaurant, essentially in a back alley, and ate a meal hearing no English. The first time this happens to you it is frightening and, only later, empowering. It was a great opportunity to observe modern day Romans, but I wasn’t any sort of a writer then and had no inkling such a thing was possible. Still, it was an adventure and since then it has always been a goal to find places only locals frequent.

One such place I’m aware of, but haven’t seen (yet!), is a bar in the middle of the Nevada desert. This bar has a particular clientele, as related to me by someone who had been there many times: cowboys and soldiers. The latter were part of an Air Force facility that flew drones. The drones didn’t circle the surrounding desert, but another one halfway around the world. The cowboys were cowboys, tipping a few back after a hot day handling cattle. Many of them, I was told, were armed, pistols in holsters at their side. Ah, the story possibilities…

Red Rock Canyon, Nevada Chris Oler authorStories to Discover

There is much more in the Nevada desert just outside of Las Vegas. Excepting family vacations when I was young, Las Vegas has been my most frequent vacation destination. My wife and I have been there three times together and her total visits outnumber mine six to five. On three of those occasions, including my honeymoon, I visited the Valley of Fire.

Many movies have been filmed there. You can see why in the accompanying photo of Amy in nearby Red Rock Canyon. The vistas are incredible, vast, and in a mid-westerner’s mind, somewhat like being on another planet. It can and has inspired stories, nevermind the factual sagas that once took place, or perhaps still do.

To say such stories are embedded in the rocks is not metaphor. In the Valley of Fire there are petroglyphs and one

Petroglyphs and landscape of the Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada.
Petroglyphs and landscape of the Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada. The two photos were taken from the same spot.

set records the story of a young boy. The boy was eager to prove his manhood and set out to hunt on his own, but it was too soon. In danger, the boy was rescued by his father and a lesson learned. How much literature has been created showing the dangers of pride? Or folk tales demonstrating the virtue of patience? One such story is written in the rocks of the Nevada desert and it is a place to inspire any writer.

No Right Way

There is no right or wrong way to travel. The point of this piece is just to say when you do, be open to your new surroundings. There is always something to learn. Stories are everywhere and as many know, one doesn’t have to travel to find them, but it sure is fun.