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.