By Jenny Hor
During this Spring Break, I seized the opportunity to travel out of Guildford as much as possible. In fact, I love exploring underrated places as if they were treasure chests full of gold. Aside from taking a break from writing, travel is a way to get inspired and sharpen my storytelling skills. In every trip, I always bring my trustworthy pocket-sized notebook along to jot down the interesting views I have seen or things I have learned.
Let me share with you how I travel as a writer.
Observe & Describe
In a foreign town or country, the first thing that catches the travellers’ attention might be the local architecture—the design, layout, building material and colour. Then, the attention might move on to the traders who hawk at the wet marketplace, couples who sunbathe at the pebble beach, or children splashing each other at the park fountain. Travellers with sensitive noses could pick up the fragrant rose smell from the florist, or the pungent oil smell from restaurants.
Whatever the five senses have reacted to during the trip should be recorded, as they are the elements in creating strong imageries. This resonates with the golden rule of ‘show, don’t tell’ in description writing. The more sensory details I can recount, the livelier the setting of my story becomes.
Working on fiction involves an intensive research process, and sometimes reading papers and books can be exhausting. Why not change the research approach by visiting the places of interest instead?
If I were to write a historical fiction about the Roman settlement in Britain, the best places to visit would be Colchester, Chichester, Bath Spa, and Fishbourne. The exhibition galleries in museums and castles display archaeological objects such as pottery, kiln, and gladius, which give a glimpse into the lifestyle during the dawn of the first century. Talking to a curator can be extremely useful to acquire information on the differences in the design and quality of Roman mosaics. When walking along the Chichester Roman Wall, which is located further away from the town centre, I would let my mind run wild with imaginations on the past when the Roman troop entered through the gates, bringing in slaves from local Celtic tribes.
This engaging research method will enlighten the setting and add a layer of authenticity to your piece.
Who Are These People?
In older English travel writings, non-Caucasian demographics are viewed as groups of uncivilised, exotic, and inferior beings. Such descriptions are problematic and, as time progresses, newer travel writings are moving away from the negative stereotypical attributes.
I still remember the Air BnB host from my family trip to Budapest would yell ‘Look, look’ whenever he eagerly introduced a historical landmark. Although he could only speak simple English, he still tried his best to show and explain the best parts of his beloved city. During our stay, we also encountered young hooligans who would try to swindle our tram tickets by pretending to give a helping hand in purchasing tickets from the machine (even though the host had taught us earlier on). Hence, when writing about new people we meet during our trips, it is important to avoid generalisations that might cause misunderstandings or prejudice, and it is better to individualise each character trait.
Another example is befriending a group of London’s Imperial College students from China during a solo visit to Hatchlands Park. Their purpose of visit was to explore Alec Cobbe’s, a tenant of the park’s house, piano collection. Despite coming from different STEM faculties, music connected them. The students would ask the house curators in-depth questions regarding the collections and expressed their desire in playing the antique musical instruments. Little did they know, I was marvelled and endowed with the Imperial students’ musical knowledge.
The various travel experiences and encounters can help us creating compelling characters by fleshing out their voices, personality, history, and interests.
Authors and Their Life
Most writers yearn to follow the footsteps of their favourite authors, in either figurative or literal way. Navigating the places where writers once resided can help you understand more about their creative inspirations.
If you wish to learn more about Charles Dickens, then visit Rochester, the town where he spent his sweet childhood before his father fell into debt. I visited the Eastgate House, which is featured in Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers and The Mystery of Edwin Drood, although under different names. A wax statue of Dickens can be found in a room, with his eyes closed and an arm supporting his chin. I could not tell whether he was just napping or deep in thought!
For Shakespearean fans, the Globe near to London’s Thames is the best place to learn about the playwright’s career, even if it is a replica of the original 16th-century theatre. It was a creative hub for Shakespeare to generate his well-known plays, like Hamlet and Othello. The tour guide, Jeremy, revealed that Shakespeare often incorporated elements of the theatre in his play to pave the play’s setting. He then enthusiastically recited the opening lines from Henry V as he was a Shakespearean actor.
How true is the saying that environments affect our writings?
Chaos and Conflict
Just like conflict is inevitable in every narrative, there are times we will face tribulations during our travels.
In Prague, I met a ruthless ticket master who vowed to give a 100 Euro fine to my mother and I for not paying the tram ticket. He did not care if we had just boarded the tram, or that I had to find a seat for my mother who had a knee-injury before I could purchase the tickets. Our loud voices thundered across the small carriage, so he had to get us down at the next station. My mother and I had to hammer the truth repeatedly into his thick skull before he finally let us go. We ended up walking to our destination instead of catching the next tram.
Conflicts on trips can inspire in building stakes and payoff in fiction, which will satisfy the readers. All you need is a good trigger that causes the explosion to set off.
Travelling gives a personalised experience and insight which can be translated into your own work. They also create timeless and irreplaceable memories.
Does travelling boost your writing process? Do share your experience in the comment section.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Hailing from Malaysia, Jenny Hor is currently studying MA in Creative Writing at the University of Surrey. Her works reflect on her knowledge, observations, and reflections, especially when it comes to society’s flaws and human experiences. ‘Laksa Uncle’ marked her debut as a published writer in Asian Anthology: New Writings Vol. 1. She also runs the travel blog Jenny’s Binoculars, trying her best to update it as frequently as possible.