If you love to travel and love to write, you can simply weave together these two urges to create the ideal occupation, right? It makes perfect sense… or so I thought when I first landed in Thailand. My writing implements were at hand and my senses were primed. I would absorb it all, craft pages of sparkling prose, and my imagined career as a travel writer would be underway.
By day two, however, I’d yet to write a single useable paragraph. And by the next afternoon, I’d utterly succumbed to the sweet seductions of the tropics. The eye-popping scenery, the extraordinary food, the lovely people, and the fascinating temples made any sort of work seem preposterous. I’d worked hard for this vacation. Why spoil it?
Some may scoff at my laziness, but others will nod their heads, thinking, “Been there.”
The truth is that travel writing isn’t as easy—or as lucrative—as we might like to believe. Plenty of travel bloggers do the work for free. And only a talented few can hope to sell articles to publishers such as Travel + Leisure or airline magazines. (Photographers, you know what I’m talking about.)
Regardless of the market, the skills of observation and the craft of writing go hand-in-hand. And writers will always find a shady corner to jot down notes on the sounds and smells of a foreign land. Call it journaling, call it research, but it’s a natural compulsion. Sometimes, we’re simply trying to capture a few fleeting, golden moments so that we can relive the experience later. And with a little luck, a few of those threads might later get stitched into a novel.
So here let’s segue to the idea of “setting.” For some reason, that word sounds much less interesting than “travel,” but as Henry David Thoreau said, “It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.”
The trick, of course, is to convey the essence of a place to readers who are picturing a venue for the first time. Some novelists are quite particular about describing precise locations to their readers. Personally, I get bored with long passages of turning right here and left there, regardless of accuracy. Save it for the travel guides, I say. But many readers love to identify the exact spot where a fictional character dines, fights, or dies, so I may be in the minority.
Choice details let the reader inhabit the narrative, breathe the air, and taste the wine. For help in this regard, I suggest studying historical fiction. These writers have mastered techniques for describing not just directions, not just monuments and iconic sites, but the smells, the tastes, and the small sensory details of a particular time and place. No one does this better, in my opinion, than Pulitzer Prize winner Anthony Doerr. In All the Light We Cannot See, Doerr masterfully transports the reader to WWII France using a blind girl’s point of view.
All of this is on my mind as I pack my bag and ready my passport for a special trip to Japan. I lived for four years in Tokyo, and I’m thrilled by the prospect of again immersing myself in that culture. Those of you who have lived abroad in a place you loved know exactly what I’m feeling. It’s a weird combination of wanderlust and nostalgia that is oddly akin to homesickness.
Most of us have gazed at a map, picturing a destination, wanting to jet off on a whim. It’s not always possible. But if there’s a certain place you long to visit—whether a Texas cattle ranch, the heart of 17th Century Stockholm, or the top of Mt. Everest—you can find a writer to take you there. In the words of Albert Einstein: “The only thing you absolutely have to know is the location of the library.”
Carla Norton is a novelist, journalist, and true crime writer. Her debut fiction, The Edge of Normal, was a Thriller Award finalist and a Royal Palm Literary Award winner. The sequel, What Doesn’t Kill Her (titled Hunted overseas), was released last summer. Her true crime books include Disturbed Ground, about a notorious female serial killer, and Perfect Victim, about an extraordinary case of prolonged captivity. For more, visit CarlaNorton.com and find her on Facebook, Goodreads, and Twitter.