#5OnFri: Five Things I Learned on the Amtrak Residency

by Tamara Lush
published in Community

I’m a fairly new fiction writer, but I’ve been a journalist for decades. You would think I’d have some sort of writing routine down, some alchemy that I draw upon from my non-fiction world when I slip into my fiction realm.

You would be wrong. I’m used to winging it, writing in my car and at coffee shops and in meetings. Somehow I thought I should do the exact opposite when I wrote fiction, that I should plant myself at a desk and never move. That hasn’t worked well. I’ve recently discovered that I’m not as creative when I’m sedentary.

This revelation came during my 15-day Amtrak Residency. I was one of 24 writers chosen to ride the rails and write. I traveled from Florida, to New York, then onto Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles and New Orleans, stopping at points in between.

For part of my time on the train, I worked on a reporting project for my day job as a correspondent with The Associated Press. The rest of the time, I wrote my novel. I’m a romance author and I discovered that true love happens when you listen to your inner creative desires.

Here are mine. I’d love to hear about your creative desires!

1) Find your best place

I thought that fiction writing meant being rooted to a chair and a computer in a really quiet room in one’s home. But because I’m used to writing in chaos, some of my best work is often done in a bustling, loud place. During my first few days of the Amtrak Residency, I holed up in my sleeper cabin with my computer. The words didn’t flow as well as I’d hoped — but when I took my laptop to the packed observation car, I was able to focus. Obviously, not everyone is like this and some folks need silence when they write. My point: try writing somewhere counterintuitive. You might surprise yourself with the results.

2) Look up from the computer screen more often

The best part of the Amtrak Residency was the stunning views. I’m from Florida, where it’s sunny all the time. Gazing out at the flat farmland of the Midwest, the snow-topped Sierra Nevadas and the barren deserts of Arizona was a visual treat. I spent long minutes looking at new landscapes, allowing my mind to go blank. Travel forces us to get out of our heads and out of our fictional worlds. Now, you don’t need to go on a trip around the country for this — try going to a new park in your city. Get out in nature and experience something other than a computer screen. Your characters will thank you for it.

3) Make time for friends

I wasn’t on the train the entire two weeks. I stopped in several cities along the way and met with friends and family. Many of them were people I’ve met online or at conferences during my writing journey. In New York, I had dinner with other romance writers and attended Indie Book Day at Digital Book World. In Chicago, I finally met my critique partner in person, and we shared high tea. In San Francisco, I had lunch with another romance writer and dinner with my father. In Los Angeles, I wandered through a Mexican market with a Facebook friend. All of those encounters left me feeling energized and creative. We talked about publishing trends, story ideas, plans for our careers and life in general. Writing can be solitary, but don’t forget that other writers are fun to hang out with. Most great writers attended literary salons and groups — create your own salon online, and then try to meet up in person. You’ll feel like you’re part of something big and magical.

4) Fill the well

I write about terrible things in my day job. Murders, natural disasters, politics.  At night I write romance. Sometimes life can seem like an endless parade of words, and not a particularly robust parade, either. More like an anemic, thin parade with out of tune instruments. Everyone has their own ways of recharging, and mine is to seek out art and beauty. I love museums and especially love street art. I find that looking at murals satisfies something quirky and rebellious inside me. While on the Amtrak Residency, I made a point of going to Balmy Alley in San Francisco’s Mission District. The area is known for its colorful and concentrated collection of murals. I wandered around, gawking and taking photos. Absorbing everything and writing nothing. Sometimes, we need a break from words, and art helps fill that well.

5) Unplug

For vast swaths of my train journey, there was no wi-fi or cell coverage. I’ll admit, I felt a little cagey when I first discovered this Internet blackout. But I got into the routine and worked without interruption. The experience has made me renew my subscription in Freedom, a website-blocking app. The best part: when I finally stopped and was able to log on to social media, I realized I hadn’t missed anything. You won’t, either, if you nix the internet for a few hours. I promise.


meTamara Lush was born in California and raised in Vermont. She graduated from Emerson College with a degree in broadcast journalism. For the last several years, she’s worked as a reporter and is currently a correspondent in Florida with The Associated Press. She lives with her Italian husband and two dogs on the Gulf Coast.

Published in September of 2015, her debut novel HOT SHADE received four stars from RT Book Reviews. Her most recent novel, a five episode serial called TELL ME A STORY, has “an engaging voice, sexy heroes and heroines and a wry sense of humor,” according to New York Times bestselling author Beth Kery.

Tamara is a fan of vintage pulp fiction book covers, Sinatra-era jazz, 1980s fashion, tropical chill, kombucha, gin, tonic, beaches, iPhones, Art Deco, telenovelas, coloring books, street art, coconut anything, strong coffee and newspapers. Find her at www.tamaralush.com.

  • MK

    This sounds awesome. On my writer bucket list for sure

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