I’ve just gotten back from a magical three weeks in Europe on the cusp of winter, and as soon as I finish this blog post and all my photos finish downloading off my phone, I’m switching off all other applications and opening my book draft. Sorry in advance for the short post.
I want to talk a little about the ways, both positive and negative, that travelling affects and influences my writing practices. While there are uncountable ways in which seeing the world opens my eyes to new experiences, other ways of doing things, exotic places and unexpected points of view for me to explore in my stories, it is also a simple fact that three weeks wandering the world is three weeks not working directly on the book. Some writers can write anywhere. They use beautiful notebooks, curl up in cafes and parks in stunning cities and let their pens flow. As much as I romanticise this idea and collect notebooks for this exact purpose, it doesn’t happen, because in flow-state I write too long, too fast and too intensively for my hand to keep up with my mind. I need a PC. I need a desk and my own space. I need my music and my drafting documents, which are on my PC, which is on my desk, in my own space.
So a holiday from my life is also a holiday from my hobby. I think in a couple of ways this is a good thing. In one respect, I can’t feel guilty about wasting time not working on my book, because I physically can’t work on it. It’s out of my hands. All I can do is be in the moment of where I am, enjoying my holiday all the more, and spend my dull times – in transit or in lines, so many lines… – with my stories in my imagination, where I can’t write through my ideas but have to let them ruminate and reshape. This gives me more time to consider alternatives and how this could impact the storyline and my characters before I get home to write it down.
As mentioned above, a big way in which travelling affects my writing is indirectly through me. Travel changes a person. You see other ways of living, you see poverty, you see extravagant wealth, you see beauty in art and horror in battle-scarred churches. You fall in love with languages you’d not heard before and feel desperately vulnerable in cities where you thought you’d feel safe. You learn about historic poor choices and how these have echoed through time and been commemorated in monuments and rituals. You wonder how the world could ever have let these things happen and realise they’re not so different from what goes on today. Travel shows you patterns of human experience, similarities and difference all at once, and as a result you grow. It comes through in your writing as you mature and increasingly desire to explore these complicated elements of humanity. In my Elm Stone Saga, readers will have noticed the shift of focus from schoolgirl concerns in the first book to more political and ethical matters as the series progresses. This isn’t something I set out to do; just the natural process of a maturing author using my story world as a medium to explore the issues I’m exposed to in my own experience.
Travel also provides new settings. I fell hard for Prague the first time I visited the Czech Republic three years ago, and it found its way into the final scene of Unbidden. Years earlier, the first city I visited outside of Australia and New Zealand was Paris, and though I was sick and jetlagged and sixteen, I was enamoured of the tall narrow apartment we stayed in, with its tiny retrofitted one-person elevator and antique iron staircase railing and the uneven flooring and the narrow, cobbled street it was on. When I started writing Chosen just a couple of months later, it was this picture that came to mind when writing Emmanuelle’s Parisian home. Her scenes were later cut out or trimmed to make way for Aristea and Renatus’s storyline, but it was the place that provided the authentic details to that flash of inspiration.
The human brain is incredible but flawed, and it can’t keep all the data it processes in its repositories. It has to cull, and specifics of place and experience are lost. How the buildings don’t quite line up, all built at different times with no standardisation, and the bicycle chained up out front has a twisted front wheel from being run over and still isn’t claimed after three days. How the rain drips through the hop on/hop off bus’s canvas roof for so long that a wave pool is generated at your feet by the movement of the vehicle and the headphone jack sparks a little so you opt to go without audio guide this time. How the wintry sun reflects off distant snow-capped hills or how the first view of Rome from the Palatine Hill took your breath away.
Because I can’t not write at all, and because I have all those notebooks I can’t write my stories in, I keep a travel journal for all those little details of place and experience. What I saw, heard, smelt, felt; my impressions, my associations, what I expected and what I learned. I keep the habit of diary-writing while I’m away to help organise my thoughts but also to give myself something to read later that isn’t Wikipedia or TripAdvisor. It’s hard to flesh out a place you’ve never visited – a challenge I accidentally gave myself when I first cast all my original Elm Stone settings. In future I want the descriptions to come from my own experience, to mirror what I saw and knew there, and I have several times pulled my journal off the shelf (it lives next to my home copy of Unbidden) to revisit my words from Prague. You can’t get that personal research from staying at home and working on the book, unfortunately, so while three weeks wandering the world is three weeks not working directly on the book, it is certainly not three weeks lost.
Shayla is the author of the Elm Stone Saga
Visit Shayla’s bio here