Writing From the Road

I’m on the road now. For the most part, I don’t write from the road. I write a daily journal, and an occasional postcard, but I’m not a travel writer. Of course, that doesn’t keep me from having an opinion!


travel writing map
The best travel writing is full of vivid detail and focuses on things not in the tourist pamphlets. Think Jack Kerouac. Think John McPhee. Think Paul Theroux. And think about reading Italy in Mind. (Alice Leccese Powers, Ed.)


italy in mind alice leccese powers
This book includes essays, journal entries, letters, poetry, short stories, and excerpts from novels by everyone from Mary McCarthy to Edith Wharton, Gore Vidal to Susan Sontag. They give a great sense of place.


For a different type of travel writing that really goes beyond tourist pamphlets, you could also try Hidden Cities by Moses Gates.


hidden cities moses gates
[Photo credit: Amazon]
What does this have to do with writers? These are great examples of people who write travel well! Absolutely crucial if you want to write a travelogue, but important if your work includes travel scenes.

Fiction Abroad

I have a friend who prepares to travel abroad by reading fiction set there. Not that there’s anything wrong with that! Indeed, I’ve done it myself.


donna deon books
Of course I will start with Italy, given that I’m here. I highly recommend Donna Leon. She’s a NYT best-selling author of a the Commissario Guido Brunettii detective series, set in Venice. If you like to find a good author and then chow-down, start with her first mystery, Death at La Fenice, and go from there. Her list is somewhat longer than 15. Great on detail and atmosphere and the Italian way.


donna leon death at la fenice
[Photo credit: Amazon]
If you like blood, gore, and atmosphere, check out Tara French’s books, set in Dublin. Her early novels are unusual in that a secondary character in the first book becomes the main character in the second, a secondary character in the second novel becomes the lead in the third. Her descriptions  of everything from weather to location are gripping—which I like.


colin dexter book covers
[Photo credit: Pinterest]
As you may recall, my favorite British writer is Dorothy L. Sayers. But close behind is Colin Dexter. His books spawned the Inspector Morse series on Masterpiece, and its follow-ons with Inspector Lewis, etc. They include Oxford almost as a character.


prague paul wilson
If you like short stories and/or things other than mysteries, I recommend Prague: A Traveler’s Literary Companion.


But the options for fiction abroad are endless. Check them out online. Maigret in France for more mysteries. Gabriel García Márquez for magical realism. John Steinbeck (The Pearl) or D. H. Lawrence (Lady Chatterley’s Lover), or Joseph Conrad (Heart of Darkness) if you want literary fiction.


Whether you go other places or not, reading about them is great reading!

Food and Drink Can Poison Your Prose!

flavor sicily anna tasca lanza
I love food. For me, eating and drinking across cultures is one of the main reasons to go somewhere new! The last time I was in Italy, I bought this book. Indeed, wherever I go, I try to buy a cookbook (written in English!).


For me, the danger of writing about food and drink is going overboard. Describing every dish at Thanksgiving dinner, listing all the ingredients in Bacardi Minced Fruit Pie…


food italy waverley root
Unless you are Waverley Root, or your book is actually about food, remember that a little goes a long way. It’s like transportation in that way. 


cuisine hungary george lang
So, when people come together over food, keep the focus on advancing the plot: Who says what while passing the goulash? What is the significance of Mama making veal paprikas? What are people thinking and feeling as they dig into the smashed potatoes?


austrian cooking helga setz
Meals can be extremely important to your plot. They can be a platform for bringing people together to show alliances, competitions, insecurities, grudges, etc. But while the dinner table is the platform, keep the focus on the action.


heritage spanish cooking
Another function food and drink can serve is to illustrate ethnic roots—either for the first time, or as a reinforcement. Sangria is clearly associated with Spain and Portugal in ways that beer just isn’t.
aztec way healthy living peruvian kitchen
Additionally, food and drink preferences can define your character. Does s/he drink beer or martinis? Craft beer? Single-malt scotch? Drink (and food) choices can say much about your character’s roots, socio-economic status, and self-concept.
classical turkish cooking ayla algar
So, one way food and drink can poison your prose is by focusing on the food and drink to the detriment of the plot, action, and character. But cliché food and drink is just as hazardous.
food singapore
You need to bring two people together to talk. You have them sit down with cups of coffee and cookies/pie/cake/donuts. Ho-hum. First of all, try to bring in food only when it’s relevant. So your first defense against this poison it to get them together over something less stereotyped. Oiling the teak on a boat, Setting up a museum exhibit… even gardening together!
peruvian cuisine
Your second line of defense is to add a few vivid sensory images. Consider the coffee and cookie option. Even if eating and drinking is background to the conversation, make your reader smell the coffee, feel the chew of the oatmeal, savor the sweetness, etc.


splendid table lynne rossetto kasper
Bottom line: Food and drink can be great or deadly—your choice!

Armchair Tourism

When I told a friend that I was leaving today for Italy, she said, “Oh, good for you! And thank goodness I don’t have to go. I hate traveling!” This immediately made me think about The Accidental Tourist.

anne tyler accidental tourist
[Photo credit: Amazon]

I loved that book, and the movie. The protagonist was—is?—a man whose job is writing travel guides for people who don’t really want to leave home. Such people read about distant places rather than going there—not that there’s anything wrong with that! But personally, I find it incomprehensible. And it’s my belief that most people are with me on this.

Among reading travelers, there are two distinct but overlapping categories: those who read before they go in order to be prepared, and those who read after they return as a way of consolidating and enriching their memories. Regardless of your style, let me mention a few good travel reads.

Of course I think first of Italy. There’s something for everyone. La Bella Figura is light and humorous. It relies on lots of stereotypes, and is a bit brittle (IMHO) but entertaining nonetheless. I especially enjoy in-depth views of places written by ex-pats who are excellent writers. I also put The City of Florence by R.W.B. Lewis and My Venice by Donna Leon into this category. Both are well-written, rich in detail, and quirky in perspective, taking the reader beyond the usual tourist paths.

bill bryson notes from a small island
Bill Bryson’s Notes From a Small Island does a similar service for Great Britain.

Not all tourism must happen abroad. A two-week float-and-paddle rafting trip down the Colorado River remains one of my greatest trips ever. And having read John McPhee, a trip to Alaska remains one of my (as yet) unfulfilled dreams.

My advice: wherever you’re going, wherever you’ve been, wherever you want to go—if only in the comfort of your recliner!—read about it!

Exposing Your Characters Through Travel

italy countryside
I’m going to Italy! (Yes, lucky me!) And unlike getting into the car for a day trip, I’m thinking of this as travel. That led me to think about how people travel, where, and why, and the myriad of ways travel exposes the traveler.


How people travel

Consider a character who chooses to drive cross-country rather than fly. Why? Flight phobia or sight-seeing? What about the woman who rides horseback from coast to coast, alone? The man who walked from Rockaway Beach in NY to Rockaway Beach in OR? What’s the difference between a bicycle tripper and a motorcycle tripper? Who chooses a bus tour vs. an ocean cruise?
Even within a mode, consider the differences between someone chauffeur-driven and someone driving a Toyota Corolla. What about someone flying first class vs. a tourist on a plane?


Why travel?

I won’t go into depth, but I’ll mention some possibilities: work, pleasure, a family gathering, attendance at a wedding or funeral or coronation…


Exotic or mundane? City or rural? A safe pace or one edged with danger of some sort? Revisiting a place or seeking something new? A place steeped in history or a modern resort setting?
beach dock at sunset
If you stop here, you will certainly have a much richer character than you would had he or she stayed put. You can have established interests, skills, socio-economic class, work status, maybe something on family status…


But taking it farther is an even greater opportunity. Don’t hesitate to go for personal and quirky! There are issues of style to consider in revealing your characters.
Peg Bracken mentioned a friend in one of her books who traveled with her own martinis: the bottom of her suitcase was lined with individual martinis in vacuum-sealed bags, prepared by her own hand.
What people feel is essential reveals a lot. Consider the woman who travels with ten books, the woman who packed thirteen pairs of shoes. What if it’s the same woman?
I know a woman who prepared for a two-week trip to Europe by planning what she would wear, in what combinations, every day she was gone in order to avoid repeating an outfit. Everything was laid out in the spare room a week before departure. I also know a couple who packed for four months in Singapore at midnight before their morning departure, in two small carry-ons and one big hard-sided suitcase.


travel camera bag
Some people pack everything they can think of that they might possibly want or need, from Scotch Tape to crochet hooks, night lights to batteries, and fifteen OTC drugs. Others pack their toothbrushes and razors, and don’t even stress over remembering those—the philosophy being “I can borrow or buy anything I need when I get there.”


Is your traveler relaxed or drinking to relax? Tolerant of the crying infant or calling the flight attendant every thirty minutes?


BOTTOM LINE: If it’s relevant to your story, bring travel into your character’s life! Even anticipating travel can reveal character traits that just lose their punch when told. And BTW: you can get a mini-version of this by revealing what’s in a woman’s purse/handbag/shoulder bag or a man’s pockets.


Great Non-Fiction Reads

top ten tuesday
Top Ten Tuesday is an original feature created by The Broke and the Bookish. Each week, they provide a prompt for bloggers. Today’s prompt is “Top Ten ALL TIME Favorite Books Of X Genre.”
Yes, great non-fiction is a broad topic. Everything falls in there, from memoir to cookbooks to investigative reporting! I loved West With the Night, The Glass Castle, and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.
But I’m not going to deal with that sort of non-fiction. I don’t know how to classify my sub-genre, so I’ll just put the exemplars out there!


mary roach books
Mary Roach makes science reader-friendly. She writes about everything from sex research (Bonk) to human cadavers (Stiff). Without Roach, I’d never have stopped to wonder how crash dummies are calibrated—etc., etc., etc. Pick up any of her books.
charles panati books
Charles Panati is a master of what I call “grouped trivia.” His titles say it all. Choose any one and you’ll get what you expect—except that you’ll likely enjoy it more! I consider Panati’s books reference works—for, as you may know, I often write weird stories (cf. Different Drummer: a collection of off-beat fiction).


bruce felton mark fowler best worst most unusual
In the same category, I treasure The Best, Worst, and Most Unusual. How else would I know that in Hong Kong, cricket fighting (although illegal) is very popular, inspires heavy betting, and has much in common with cockfighting. Or that if you eat bananas, your skin will exude an odor that attracts mosquitoes?


bill bryson books
I’m also a fan of Bill Bryson. I became hooked on Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way. His tracing of language evolution actually made me more tolerant of “prioritize” as a replacement for “set priorities”—though I still don’t like it!
Last but far from least, I recommend John McPhee. The first book I read was Coming Into The Country, which left me with a dream of traveling to Alaska—a dream as yet unfulfilled, but hope springs eternal. This man can make anything interesting. As a result of his writing, even I know how Bill Bradley was able to make baskets while facing the opposite end of the court: you just have to have a sense of where you are.


I recommend these non-fiction books and authors to readers for pleasure and to writers for enlightenment!

Beware Head-Hopping

We all know about Point of View. It’s the narrator’s position in relation to the story being told.


With the objective POV, the writer tells the story entirely with action and dialogue. S/he never discloses anything about thoughts or feelings, leaving it for the reader to infer these from the dialogue and action.
In my experience, writers more often choose to get inside the head and heart of one or more characters.


The closest POV is when the narrator is “I.” I struggled to speak around the lump in my throat. My heart thundered painfully in my chest. I planned the meal carefully, including all of Dad’s favorite dishes.


A step more distant is the third person POV—he, she, or it felt, thought, planned, reacted…


And then there are stories with multiple POVs—not that there’s anything wrong with that! But it is risky. Authors who do it well clearly lead the reader from one head to the next. One good exemplar is Diana Gabaldon. When she’s writing from Claire’s POV, it is first person. Everyone else is third person, and these shifts are typically by chapter.


The danger is changing POV within scenes. For example, a couple argues intensely and the writer tells the reader what each is thinking and feeling. Why is this a problem?


The challenge is to be consistent when two POV characters are in the same scene. It’s incredibly easy to accidentally give the non-POV character fleeting thoughts or feelings.


Head-hopping is jumping from one POV to another quickly, with no warning to the reader. It makes the story feel choppy and can be confusing.


Doing it right means signaling the changes to the reader by chapter breaks or the ubiquitous *** that signals something is changing. The writer sticks with  any given POV for the duration of the chapter or scene.


And one last consideration: Readers typically identify with the POV character—whether “I” or a third person “s/he.”  With multiple points of view, the reader may have difficulty deciding who to root for. And the more POVs included, the greater the difficulty.


Bottom line: handling multiple POVs effectively is a challenge, and avoid head-hopping, always!

Without Books, TV Would Be Barren

top ten tuesday
Top Ten Tuesday is an original feature created by The Broke and the Bookish. Each week, they provide a prompt for bloggers. Today’s prompt is TV-themed.


We tend to think of TV as something totally separate from literature. Not so! If you’ve enjoyed any of the following on TV, consider reading the books they are based on.



[Photo credit: Goodreads]
Poldarkbased on the Poldark Saga books of Winston Graham


boardwalk empire
[Photo credit: Goodreads]
Outlander, based on the Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon


diana gabaldon outlander
[Photo credit: Tripping Over Books]
Pride and Prejudice and other series based on novels of Jane Austen


masters of sex
[Photo credit: Amazon]
Sherlock and Elementary based on the Sherlock Holmes books and stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Bones based on Deja Dead and others in the Temperance Brennan series by Kathy Reichs


kathy reichs deja dead
[Photo credit: Goodreads]
Game of Thrones based on A Song of Ice and Fire series by George R. R. Martin.



Here’s a thought: Whatever your TV passion, check it online for possible roots in books. You might find an author you love!

Writing Transportation

Whoever said, “Getting there is half the fun” wasn’t a writer. For the written word, getting from point A to point B (writing transportation) can be deadly.


cars on road
Driving holds three potholes for writers.

One is the temptation to “make it real” by including (boring and unnecessary) details about a route driven. Does anyone really care that your character took Three Chopt to Gaskins and merged onto I-64 west, exited onto I-295 to pick up I-95? Ditto with such details as taking Horsepen to Boulevard, taking a right onto Malvern, and a left on Cary St. Local readers might think, “Yeah, s/he knows the territory.” But if these specific turns and streets aren’t central to the plot, find a more dynamic way to establish your credibility!

birds eye view highway

The other pitfall is to have fallen in love with the Pacific Coast Highway, the Blueridge Parkway, the winding roads through Colorado mountains, or some other scenic road and putting one’s character in a car along the way, rhapsodizing at the beauty.


And then there is the typical road trip. We’ve all been there. People cut you off. Road construction slows you down. But unless the trucker who seems to be jockeying you off the road is going to turn up later, don’t mention it!


highway at sunset
Planes are equally tempting.
airplane interior
If your character is flying from Dulles to Frankfurt, you might again be tempted to make it real by describing the drink spilled in his/her lap, the noise, the fatigue. But unless the obnoxious seatmate or the mother with the cute baby will show up later in the plot, don’t mention them. Unless something plot-related happens en route, skip the travel! Put your character on the plan in Dulles (never mind the frustrations of security screening) and get him/her off in Frankfurt, fatigued if it’s relevant.


The same is true of any mode of transportation.
Unless you are writing a travelogue, something like “Walking from Rockaway Beach, NY to Rockaway Beach, Oregon, and all my interesting experiences along the way,” launch your character on their way and skip to the arrival. Anything else just slows the plot line and risks losing the reader.


Bottom line: Unless something or someone important to the plot is encountered along the way, when it comes to writing transportation, don’t!