Friday, January 29, 2016

Travel Makes Your Writing Better

by Deborah Nielsen

William Least Heat Moon has written about his travels along the blue highways, those two-lane highways, back roads and byways, in his book of the same name. He’s also written about his travels across the country by boat retracing some of the routes used by early explorers in “River Horse.” I consider him to be one of the best travel writers ever and he’s not left the country. Another travel writer I like is also a history professor, James Whiteside, who’s traveled around the western US on a motorcycle and written about his trips in a book called, “Old Blue’s Road: A Historian’s Motorcycle Journeys in the American West.”  If you look up the definition of travel writer, it frequently includes “travel to foreign places” so many of us have the idea that to be a travel writer you have to have a well-used passport. Not so. Travel writing is as much about the history, culture and people you meet as it is about the geographical place.

Travel also helps us write better novels. It’s hard to write a scene when you haven’t been there. James Lee Burke, in his Dave Robicheaux series, sets them in Louisiana and Montana, places he knows intimately through living and traveling in both states. Louis L’Amour traveled extensively in the American West and set his books mainly in Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico. He settled in the Los Angeles area and wrote many of his westerns there.

I can’t convincingly write “beach” books like Mary Kay Andrews does because I’ve never lived in Florida or Georgia or spent much time anywhere near a beach, unless you count Sandy Beach at Glendo Reservoir as a beach.

I’ve taken a couple of cross-country trips to the southeast US, one by motorcycle, the other by car, both along the blue highways. Had I not traveled those roads, I would probably not know there is so much forest which seems to go on forever. Now I know where that expression, “You can’t see the forest for the trees,” comes from. And then there’s sweet tea. I’d never had to specify “unsweet” tea before. This is a big country with its own regional customs and tastes. If you haven’t been there, you have no idea that iced tea comes sweet. And I found out all about those little no-see-em bugs when I photographed the coastal marshes around Apalachicola, Florida. I was itching like crazy by the time I got back to my hotel room and I couldn’t figure out why. You don’t find out this stuff by surfing the internet.

If L. Frank Baum had spent any time in Kansas, I wonder if he would have had Dorothy pining to go home. I’ve been across the length of it more than once. Between the monotony of the landscape and the wind I can’t get across it quickly enough. At least in Wyoming the landscape changes.

Travel expands your horizons and enables you to write knowledgeably about a place. Do you travel to make your writing more interesting?


April Moore said...

Great advice, Deborah! My work-in-progress takes place in Wyoming and while I've been there many times, I've never gone with my "writer brain" turned on. You see things much differently that way. Needless to say, I'll be taking a field trip up there very soon!

Patricia Stoltey said...

Thanks so much for mentioning James Whiteside's book, Deborah -- I just ordered through the library link to Prospector for research. It may be just the book I need. A little serendipity, perhaps?

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