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Being There: The Writer Takes a Vacation

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First off, the writer should never take a vacation. At least not from writing. Always be writing, even when you’re out there. Over the next few months, writers will join millions of other Americans in sojourning forth on vacation, by road, rail, wing, and sail. Sipping fruity drinks. Snapping pictures. Living it up. Take advantage; trips provide marvelous opportunities for writing because they throw the new and unexpected right in your face.

Good writing lives in details, and there’s no substitute for getting the details right. You want to set a mystery novel in Paris, but you’ve never strolled through the City of Light, and never plan to? Where’s the fun in that? I recommend moving the setting to Epcot France Pavilion, because that’s how your rendition is apt to feel.

You can fake it, of course. You can peruse online photos of the Eiffel Tower and report with confidence that it’s tall and pretty and made of steel and juts into the sky. But pictures don’t do it justice. When you stand beneath the splayed, gargantuan legs that arc upward in a vast sweep as if in motion, you feel the combination of exquisite grace and stupefying power and mass. Still, you might fake your Eiffel Tower because we’ve all seen its image a thousand times. A shorthand version might suffice.

It’s much harder to fake the little things.

When you travel, pay as much attention to the details as to the post-card scenery. On a recent trip to Ireland, my wife and I prowled the thousand-year-old monastic ruins of Glendalough, the tumbled buildings of limestone that huddle together in a high green valley of the Wicklow Mountains. The monks had tended a cemetery over the centuries, and the clustered markers and headstones tilt and stoop like mourners before ancient roofless buildings, their chiseled messages nearly erased by time, their faces mottled in blacks and whites and browns and reds of lichens. The written guides tell their histories well enough, but fail to convey their spirits like seeing them.

Off the Atlantic coast, on Inis Mór of the Aran Islands, we hired a lean, gray-haired cabbie to take us on a spin. Nice guy, liked to tip the bottle a bit, as we could tell after a stop to let us hike up to the ancient fortress of Dun Aengus. As he showed us around the island, he pulled over and pointed to a small shabby ruin and said, “That’s the house me dad grew up in.” We nodded and smiled, and he got to his point. “Ye’ll want a picture o’ that.” So we took a picture. Then he paused, and pointed out his family’s gravesites, off by themselves, adorned with fresh flowers, for another picture. It was touching, and we got the local feel in the best way.

At another point, our cabbie stopped chatting us up in his thick countryside brogue to speak to a pal in Gaelic Irish. Completely different language, and a beautiful one too. He turned back to us and continued in English without missing a beat. All the Aran Islanders speak Irish as the native tongue.

We mostly drove ourselves around Ireland, not wanting to forego the white-knuckled, left-lane driving experience. After surviving the first nerve-tearing, death-gripping, sweaty half-hour after leaving Dublin Airport, I kind of settled in and got used to it, at least until venturing out onto the impossibly narrow and winding Irish country roads, so tight that roadside hedges often whip the car’s mirrors, and so tight that at times you edge off the path to let an approaching vehicle squeeze past.

The point of all this is not to bore you with slides of my summer vacation, but to illustrate how details bring a place to life. Find those details. Take notes. Understand them. Don’t fake them. I had already planned a short story set in Ireland, and had a notion of the outline before I visited. Upon our return I wrote the story, relying on my experiences there, and plan to write more.

A few years back I wrote a novel set in Guatemala. I had researched the heck out of the environment, history, government, social structure, and attitudes of Guatemalans. I think I got that more or less right. I finished the book and felt that it was pretty good, but something wasn’t right. I hadn’t been there. I hadn’t felt the earth beneath my bare feet. I faked it. So I tabled that novel and tackled a new one, set in Florida, a place I know inside and out. Then I visited Belize and Guatemala to get up close and personal. Drove across both countries. Ate the local food. Trekked through jungles. Climbed pyramids. Waded through rivers. Canoed into a dripping limestone cave that housed the bones of the Mayan dead. Sweated a nerve-wracking border crossing. I came away with a clearer picture and a boatload of details, and rewrote the earlier novel. And I was much happier with the results.

That experience taught me the value of knowing the places and people I write about. Don’t fake it, I tell myself. Others will know, and even if they don’t, I will.

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Ken Pelham’s debut novel, Brigands Key, won the 2009 Royal Palm Literary Award and was published in hardcover in 2012. The prequel, Place of Fear, a 2012 first-place winner of the Royal Palm, was released in 2013. His nonfiction book, Out of Sight, Out of Mind: A Writer’s Guide to Mastering Viewpoint, was named the RPLA 2015 Published Book of the Year. Ken lives with his wife, Laura, in Maitland, Florida. He is a member of the International Thriller Writers. Visit him at kenpelham.com.

10 Responses

  1. alicia minor
    | Reply

    Beautifully written. I could feel your emotions and the sincerity in every word. We love vacations. Who dont? It’s in these vacations that we discover not just ourselves but other people and places as well. I agree that we have to experience what we write to give us a sense of its truthfulness. Thus, we provide readers beautiful stories that they deserve to read. As writers we are happy when our readers are happy. I wish you more blessings and lots of books to write. Thanks for sharing.

    • Ken Pelham
      | Reply

      Alicia, thank you so much for that kind response! Glad you liked the piece.

      To clarify my thoughts a bit, it’s not to say that I might never cheat and include a locale that I haven’t actually visited, but I’ll know it and the reader will likely know it as well. I like to think that such places will only figure into the story in a minor way, such as when changing planes. For the important settings, I’ll strive to stick with the places I’ve been.

  2. Lyn Hill
    | Reply

    Couldn’t agree with you more. This process also brings characters home for future roles.

    • Ken Pelham
      | Reply

      Lyn, thanks! I love the way you phrased it: “…brings characters home for future roles.”

  3. Vic DiGenti
    | Reply

    Ken,

    Another outstanding bit of craftsmanship. You had me at the Eiffel Tower, but swept me along to Ireland and Guatemala. Damn, I need to renew my passport.

    • Ken Pelham
      | Reply

      Thanks, Vic! I happen to know you did the literal legwork and visited all your Quint Mitchell mystery settings, and it really comes through in the writing. I have a shrine to you in my house.

  4. Elle Andrews Patt
    | Reply

    Great post 🙂 In her Outlander series, Diana Gabaldon wrote scenes set in Scotland and the Highlands of North Carolina without ever having visited. If you’ve never been to those places, it feels right, but I know NC well and know that while it’s good, it doesn’t quite translate. I set my novel in Charleston, WV, having visited it years ago in passing, but remembering Outlander, when I had the opportunity to go back last fall, I jumped on it. Wow, viewing it through my working writer eyes was completely different and I was able to polish the Google Earth details to much better effect having driven and walked over all the areas I used in the book- and cut a couple of things that WV readers definitely would have caught me out on later!

    • Ken Pelham
      | Reply

      Thanks, Elle! As I responded to Alicia, I won’t swear that I won’t cheat and write something in a place I haven’t been. But my guiding principle is to leave those scenes to minor story needs, such as getting off a bus in Akron and onto a train. Connective tissue, in other words, and not terribly important to the story.

  5. Nancy J. Cohen
    | Reply

    This certainly is true. You cannot describe the sensory details of a place unless you have been there. Being able to afford these trips is another matter, however. Like historians, you can always look for other people’s blogs and journals to enhance a scene. I rely on travel journals I wrote years ago for these sensory details today.

  6. Ken Pelham
    | Reply

    Thanks, Nancy!
    Yes, I rely sometimes on notes and photos I compiled years in the past. Photos, in particular, really jog the memory. I’m careful to go online to verify that things as I remember are still that way. Hard to do in Florida settings; where I live, in Orlando, it’s a lot different than it was when I moved here in the 80s.

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