Road Trip Roundup

My recent travels to Bethany Beach rekindled my interest in road trips.

I wrote about road trips back in 2010, advising writers to note the names of roads, businesses, schools–whatever–as they traveled. Venture off the congested interstate to the byways and small towns where the names really get good. Sometimes a compelling name is enough to spark a story. Consider Bone Yard Road or Fresh Fire Church of God as possible settings.

barn on a scenic byway on my road trip home
A barn glimpsed from a scenic byway during my recent travels

Leave space in your itinerary and in your mindset to come upon the unexpected, e.g. an African/Mediterranean vegan cafe in Santa Fe or a salt mine in Warsaw, Poland, that’s been carved into a salt cathedral. Those locations might stimulate a scene or add a quirk to your story.

Wieliczka salt mine
Wieliczka salt mine (Photo: Cezary p [CC BY-SA 3.0])

While I’m on the road, I keep a daily journal to record the vivid details not found in a tourist pamphlet. Think Jack Kerouac. John McPhee. Paul Theroux.

How do you record your road trips? Let me know in the comments.

 

Thoughts on People, Places, and Travel

Peg Bracken But I Wouldn’t Have Missed It For The World The pleasures and perils of an unseasoned traveler
[Source: Goodreads]
My family of origin traveled to visit relatives in nearby states–and I loved it! Similar as some aspects were to home, I reveled in the new. I wanted to travel more even before I ever did! Today I received a travel catalog, and spent some time drooling. And then I decided to share with you some of the quotes on people, places, and travel that I found in that catalog.
odysseys unlimited 2019 2020
 
Each quote is short. Think about it.

 

zora neale hurston
paul coehlo
BOTTOM LINE: Consider what you—and your characters—think, feel, want, and remember about travel.

Effective Travel Writing

effective travel writing
 
In my humble opinion, effective travel writing starts with excellent writing—but it needs more!
effective travel writing
Taking the reader to places never visited, activities only dreamed of. The destination could be almost anywhere, foreign or domestic. The activities could be anything not experienced by the masses: eating insects, zip-lining, parasailing, petting dolphins, helping sandbag a levy.
effective travel writing
Taking the reader to a familiar place, seen from a different perspective. For example, airport security from behind the scenes, apple picking from the perspective of a child, a blind person white water rafting with a guide, walking across all the bridges in New York City.

 

Right now, I’m traveling, not writing about it! For more—and better?—advice, just search online for “effective travel writing.”
 
effective travel writing ideas

The “O” in OCD

the o in ocd
Strictly speaking, obsessive-compulsive disorder is a serious, often debilitating mental health problem. But for writers, acute or situational OCD is a valuable tool too, and more flexible in its application.
 
Consider weather as a trigger for an acute attack of OCD: September 2017 was the most active month on record for Atlantic hurricanes. Harvey, Irma, Maria, and Jose had millions obsessing about the weather and doing everything possible to ensure their own safety and/or connect with loved ones in the affected areas. In such situations, the focused thoughts and actions do not constitute mental health problems, though they might interfere with other aspects of a character’s daily life. Another acute trigger in your plot might be a murder, a terminal illness, huge financial loss, new love—virtually any discrete, one-off situation that consumes your character’s thoughts and affects actions.

 

the o in ocd dinner party
Situational OCD is when the same, repeated situation triggers obsessions and compulsions. Again, the situation could be almost anything that is a discrete event or situation that repeats. Throwing a party—or attending one. Hosting might well trigger obsessing about the menu, table decorations, house-cleaning, etc. Attending might trigger obsessing about what to wear, food allergies, or what topics of discussion to introduce—or avoid. It could be public speaking or doing performance evaluations.

 

Travel always triggers my own obsessiveness. For any trip I check weather, consider activities, and try to prepare for the unexpected. Women friends with whom I sometimes travel joke that if you need anything, just ask Vivian. Need a bandaid? Got you covered. Crochet hook? Not a problem!

 

As you know, in two days I am leaving for Portugal and Spain. Travel abroad is the worst trigger for me. I want to travel light, a carry-on and one checked bag for my husband and me. I can’t count on replacing something forgotten or lost. I want to be prepared for various activities but also keep it simple. So I spent weeks thinking about the trip and making mental lists. And then I got down to concrete actions. Three weeks ago, I started experimenting with hair styles that don’t require a curling iron.

 

the o in ocd vivian lawry
For this trip, I decided the basic color is black: pants, shoes, socks, jacket, hat, handbag, umbrella, and gloves. I went so far as to pack only black jewelry!

 

True to the meaning of my name, I like bright, vivid colors.

 

the o in ocd
So I selected numerous multi-colored scarves. Each scarf must go with at least 3 different shirts.
the o in ocd
I chose shirts in two basic styles and bright, solid colors. Shirts must be able to dry overnight in my hotel room. These choices were packed last week, along with nutritional supplements, prescription, and OTC drugs.

 

the o in ocd
With two days left, I am obsessing about quantities of toiletries, underwear, sleepwear, and miscellaneous items. Should I take a battery-powered toothbrush or just a manual one? Do I need a converter as well as an adaptor for my phone and Kindle? (Adaptor only.) Where did I put the soap flakes for hand laundry? And my passport? What must go into my roll-aboard to survive if checked luggage is lost?

 

the o in ocd
Why am I telling you all of this? Because it is a rich, detailed picture of situational OCD AND because it’s on my mind!

 

the o in ocd

Books, Travel, Life is Good!

spain book
In a few days I am leaving for Portugal and Spain. For the modern traveler setting off on such an excursion, the expected reading is likely to be a travel guide. In that type of book, I highly recommend the Lonely Planet guides. They are clear, accurate, and comprehensive.

 

virginia is for mysteries vivian lawry
But those are not the only books people turn to for travel guidance. At one point, Virginia Is For Mysteries was ranked #3 in the Amazon list of travel and tourism—presumably because each story was set in a different Virginia location. People at book signings have said they actually used the book to decide where to go on vacations. One woman said she and her friend were in the process of visiting all the places written about!

 

charlaine harris malice domestic mystery most historical
A similar volume is likely to appeal to the armchair traveler. My story in this volume is set in Civil War Richmond, but other authors chronicle death and destruction from Puritan Massachusetts to post-WWII settings, and from Buffalo to Wales.

 

bill bryson books
Although not always writing of travel, when he does, Bill Bryson is one of my favorites. He has a slanted view that appeals to me, along with rich detail, humor, and a fresh take on familiar places.
Perhaps you read Blue Highways when it first came out in 1981. It was a bestseller. And it has staying power, for it was reissued in 2012! William Least Heat Moon traveled what one might call secondary roads or scenic byways—the ones shown on road maps as blue lines. He has an amazing voice for taking one off the interstate!

 

Bottom line: Travel reading is good, and travel is made even better by reading!

Vicarious Adventure

My personal adventures have been relatively tame: parasailing in the Bahamas, zip-lining in Costa Rica, draping an anaconda around my shoulders in the Amazon rainforest. (FYI: Anaconda poop bleaches clothing.) But I’ve always enjoyed vicarious adventures—women’s adventures.

 

This started when I was in elementary school. I read the adventures of Ruth Fielding in a series of books owned by my paternal aunt.

 

ruth fielding
Although the settings of these thirty books seemed like ancient history (published 1913-1934), I loved kind-hearted, curious, brave, adventuresome Ruth.

 

When I was somewhat older, I discovered Cherry Ames: Student Nurse.

 

cherry ames books
The medical aspects of this series (27 books) fascinated me. But more important was the heroine, whose kind heart led her into dangerous situations that her sharp wits got her out of. I gave my Cherry Ames books to my older granddaughter a few years ago, but alas, her interests are more in the fantasy/horror genre. Oh, well.

 

As you may have gathered by now, for me, there is no expiration date on adventure.

 

west with the night
Beryl Markham’s incredible book is set in the earliest years of flight, and being a bush pilot in Africa. The writing is lyrical, the scenes compelling.

 

When I was involved in a vicarious love affair with Alaska (I’ve never been there), I read book after book set there, and through a rather circuitous route, came across Woodswoman.
 
woodswoman anne lebastille
When one thinks New York, the first thing to come to mind is not wilderness. And yet the North Country has winters suitable for training military for the Arctic, and parts of the Adirondacks truly are isolated—and virtually inaccessible in winter. Anne LaBastille living alone, frozen in for the winter, with a jerry-rigged outdoor shower, is plenty adventurous.

 

My longest term adventure was a two-week float-and-paddle rafting trip down the Colorado River. I mostly floated. Side-canyon hikes were strenuous and attending to one’s bodily needs was a challenge. But the most exciting part was the white-water rapids. I went bow-riding over thirty-foot drops! (Bow-riding is sitting on the front of the raft, holding onto a rope.)
writing down the river
So it’s no wonder I love Writing Down the River. Over one summer, fifteen talented women writers rafted down the Colorado. Their contributions to this book reflect their successes and failures, joys and fears. They take you there! (And, BTW, the photographs are gorgeous.)

 

Bottom line: Find your adventure—personal or vicarious—and pursue it.

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?
plane
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…

Where?

 
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.
cocktail
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.