Writers are sponges. Travel – for vacation or work – is a ready made research trip filled with opportunities to eavesdrop on conversations and pick up on cadence and word choice, notebook at the ready to note interesting hair and clothing styles. What do young people wear today? Don’t make it up, look around!
Right now, I’m soaking in the sights and sounds and tastes of the United Kingdom. Traveling outside my day-to-day routine means more chances to observe and to be inspired.
With that on my mind, here are a few tips to travel like a writer.
Write everything down
Keep a notebook handy every moment. A crazy line of local dialogue, a weird (to me) food, a unique door tucked into an uneven frame that makes you think of your own brand of hobbit houses . . . even the most exciting idea will fade, and the specificity will be watered down unless it is recorded immediately. Think about how fast you forget a dream. Take notes!
Watch the locals
What do the locals look like? How do they hold themselves? Do they walk close together or keep distance between strangers? What are they wearing? Do they walk and eat at the same time (a bit of an American give away) or stop and take a quick bite at a stand-up counter (Italy), or crowd around an open oven enjoying street food (India)?
Listen to the locals
How do they speak? Unique dialogue (do they order a Coke, or a cola, or a pop? This is telling.) Do most of the words end with a vowel? Welcome to parts of the American South where I spent my childhood summers. What are people talking about? The weather? Perhaps you are in farming community. Politics? Are you in a major capital city? Cows, chocolate or cheese? Welcome to Switzerland. Do they gesture when speaking?
How do people get around?
Train, bus, automobile, trolly? Electric or gasoline? Do they call gasoline petrol as they do here in the UK? Or maybe the locals are riding up a steep hill on donkeys (then I suspect you are in Santorini!) Do they take taxis (London) or Ubers (San Francisco)?
How do things smell?
I still remember the Thursday market in Zurich with the scent of amazing garlic break. The heavy scent of magnolias reminds me of summers at my grandparents. The flower triggers the memory which includes extreme heat.
Macro and Micro
What is on the horizon? Where I live in southwest Virginia, there are always trees and the hint of hills and mountains on the horizon. There is no such thing as a long view across flatlands. Whisk me to the place of my birth in southeast Missouri and flat doesn’t even begin to convey the landscape. The irrigation ditches are the only disruption to the horizon, along with the occasional stand of trees around a farmhouse.
Details lay the groundwork for authenticity in a story. Details can also be inspiration for a new story. “What ifs” often begin with taking the norm and switching it on its head, or perhaps it is the unwitting traveler who makes an error in speech which lands them in the proverbial soup.
Use all five senses
What does a character see, taste, smell, feel, and hear? Think about these when you travel and some day you may thank yourself for taking notes, after all, you never know what will end up in a story.