Is there anything we’re dreaming about more right now than travel? I’m lucky that my day job requires frequent international travel (or it did, before March 2020). I’ve been all over the world for work and for pleasure, from Senegal to Egypt to Vietnam, and it never fails to surprise me how much travel inspires my writing. I’m not only inspired to write something set in these places – although that’s certainly happened – being somewhere new jogs my creativity like nothing else. Obviously we can’t go on fantastic, world-spanning trips now, but think about the last few vacations you’ve taken and see if they can’t help with your current WIPs.
1) Use your senses
When creating a compelling setting, one piece of advice we hear over and over is to use all five senses to immerse the reader – don’t only describe what the main character sees, but also smells, feels on her skin, hears. Can you think of a time when you traveled and were surprised by the noise of a city, the humidity of a jungle, the smell of the pollution? Regardless of where your story is set, use that memory to think about your world and what your character would be experiencing. When I came back to Washington, D.C., after two weeks in Kinshasa, DRC, I rolled down the window on the way back from the airport and reveled in the clean air (and the stickiness of the humidity, because July in D.C.). I didn’t realize how much I took pollution-free air for granted until I started traveling to huge world cities that sit under a constant haze of smog. Now, no matter where I travel, I think about the air quality, what that says about my eventual setting, and how my character would react to it.
2) Pay attention in the car (or plane, or…)
Writers love airports. They’re perfect for people watching – you and hundreds of other people are stuck with nothing to do, you may as well get some character ideas while you’re waiting. But what about once you’re on the plane? What if, instead of watching whatever superhero movie comes up, you look out the window? Or, instead of getting lost in a book, you watch the scenery on a road trip? You might find that the sight of flying over the Grand Canyon takes your breath away and gives you an idea for the topography of a world in your latest sci-fi short story. I was once driving into rural Virginia and noticed that many farmhouses had their own small gravesites along the edge of their yards. I couldn’t get that detail out of my head – how many generations were buried there? What is a graveside service like when it’s in someone’s yard? How annoying would it be to be haunted by your own mother? An entire series of short stories grew from that one detail. Pay attention – you never know when inspiration is going to strike.
3) What’s different?
Have you ever happened upon a place or a sight and just stopped still with your mouth hanging open? What struck you? Was it the old women sitting in the park plucking each other’s white hairs (Hanoi, Vietnam)? Was it the way that the streets kept turning at right angles and the houses kept getting more brightly colored until you reached the top of a hill and were treated to the most gorgeous view of a city over the bay you’ve ever seen (Lisbon, Portugal)? Was it the way the sun hit the ocean in a way you’ve never quite seen or imagined, even though you’re from California and have seen an ocean or two in your life (Alexandria, Egypt)? Take a picture, make a note in your phone, and file it away for use later. Then get back to enjoying yourself.
4) What’s the same?
I believe that we as humans have more in common than we think. Everywhere I go, familiar sights make me smile. Teenagers on a big bridge crossing the Nile are still teenagers – they’re still goofing off for their friends and posing for pictures to post on social media. Bars in Ho Chi Minh City are full of men smoking cigarettes, drinking coffee, and decompressing after work. The vast majority of tourists visiting the iconic sites of India are locals – they want to see the Taj Mahal just as much as Americans do. Find those experiences that are universal, that span culture and language, use them in your story – and you’ll capture the imagination of everyone.
5) You don’t have to go far
We’re all dying to get out of our houses, our towns, our countries and go have some adventures. And we will be able to soon. In the meantime, sometimes all it takes to boost your creativity is to find something new. I began walking my dog further and further away from my house on Saturday mornings until one day I found a trail that took me down through Rock Creek Park, the national park that runs through Washington, D.C. I’d never been on that trail before – being suddenly immersed in forest after spending the last several months in the city was transformative, and the ideas flowed easily when I sat down in front of my computer later that afternoon. Can you walk through a neighborhood you’ve never been to before? Can you drive down a road for no reason other than to see something new? Can you light a new candle, listen to a totally different kind of music, buy a new outfit to spark your senses? You might be surprised what you find.
Marina is a West Coast native living in Washington, DC. She loves writing anything, from sci-fi to creative non-fiction to romance, often drawing inspiration from the frequent travel required by her day job. Her work has appeared in such literary magazines as DistrictLit and Corner Bar Magazine. When she’s not writing, you can find her hosting bar trivia, baking something involving peaches, or bothering her extremely patient dog, Daisy. You can read more of her work at marinabarakatt.com and find pictures of Daisy at twitter.com/marinabarakatt.