Writing on the Road

RoadIn my naïve notes that I wrote up for this blog post before starting off on an insanely long road trip, I wrote “Writing on the Road- About all the tricks and stuff I used to help myself write while traveling”.  Ha.  So cute.

As mentioned in earlier posts, I didn’t get much writing done.  Really, it was all I could do to keep up with blog posts, since I burned through the buffer before the first month was out, and even then I failed on the home stretch when I somehow improperly scheduled a post and it- shocking- didn’t post.  (I’m calling this another technofail.  They never end.)

Despite the startling lack of bonanza write-a-thons, I don’t feel like the summer was a total waste, as far as writing goes or otherwise.  True, there was very little drafting, and very little editing, and not even all that much outlining or active brainstorming.  But there was a lot of experiencing going on, and experience is the foundation on which believable fiction rests.

Write what you know is one of the sacred commandments of writing, and there’s good reason for it.  Obviously nobody writing today really knows what riding a dragon feels like, or living on a colony embedded deep in an asteroid, or working as an astrologer in the court of Tutankhamen.  We make a lot of inferences about the details in our fiction.  Riding a dragon probably feels kind of like a cross between riding a horse and a hang glider.  Living on an asteroidal colony probably feels similar to living in the Princess Elizabeth Research Station, or the International Space Station, or a fancy underground bunker from the Cold War.  As writers, we get as close as we can, and then we make an educated guess.

But there are some things that can’t be fudged.  These are the things that will bother a reader like an itch they can’t quite reach.  A child whose voice isn’t quite what it should be.  A victim shouldering his abuse in a way that feels off somehow.  An emotional outburst that’s somehow wrong.  These things are much harder to quantify and, in many ways, much harder to peg.  But they’re things that, once we’ve experienced them, we can smell a fake from a mile away.  And nothing snaps a reader out of a story faster than a fake.

(And then there are the mistakes that just drive the experts crazy, like having your Western hero shoot a Peacemaker three years before the thing was developed.  But just because the demographic is small does not mean it’s quiet.  Don’t irritate your experts.)

Experiences keep us from making those mistakes.  Experience helps us to know precisely what places ache after nine hours in the saddle.  But more importantly, experience helps us to transcend the particular setting and to find the truths that are just as relevant to a thirty-year-old woman writing in a closet as they are to a twelve-year-old boy in the second century staving off starvation, or a forty-year-old xenologist encountering their first alien, or a dwarf girl who wants to be a florist when she grows up.  And when we have the experiences that give us that insight into human nature, and then we couple it with a mind open to tangents, we give ourselves a powerful recipe for creativity.

When it became clear that I wouldn’t be penning my opus magnus on the road, I instead tried to focus on keeping this recipe for creativity stewing as much as possible.  Although I don’t have the write-no-matter-what pearls of wisdom that I hoped to have, I did get some sense of the sorts of things that fostered a creative mindset (and kept me open to new experiences), and the things that killed it.  Maybe better people than I can build on merely thinking creatively and actually create creatively.

What hampered creativity

High expectations– Being disappointed in myself was the quickest way to squash my ability to think clearly, let alone creatively.  Just like your body needs time to rest after a program of intense dieting or exercise, your brain needs a break too.  All my attempts to power through and keep up on my home routine were total failures.

Stress–  I know, I know, stress can be hard to avoid when you’re hurdling down the highway for hours upon hours at a time, day after day, and the kids are so over this.  But avoid it when you can.  If you’re stressing about missing deadlines or flubbing wordcount goals or whatever, your focus is on the failures instead of the opportunities.

An excessive I-got-this attitude– I learned this at the birth of my first child- ask for help.  Trying to do everything myself- the cooking, the childcare, the everything all the time- absolutely depleted me, mind and body, leaving no energy for creativity or adventures.

What promoted creativity

Taking care of myself– When I was sick or tired or hungry or desperately iron deprived, creativity did not happen.  Mostly tears and anger and hiding under blankets happened instead.  Things were just better for the world in general when I made sure the basic needs were met first.

Time for reflection– As weird as it sounds, time was kind of a hot commodity during this vacation.  But I found it was very important for my brains to just have sit-and-chill time.  I didn’t go into it with the active intent to brainstorm, but it happened naturally, and those are always the best of storms.

Paper at the ready– I know I’ve mentioned this on the blog before, but always, always keep something handy on which to jot notes.  There’s just something about having blank paper begging to be filled that gets the juices flowing.  This is especially needful when you have other things going on (like funerals, reunions, weddings, and a million visits).  My little pocket notebook has tons of little ideas and snippets that I would have forgotten completely if I hadn’t written them down.  The paper helps you think creatively, and then it helps you hang on to the things you do come up with.

I had some great ideas while on the road, ideas that I can hardly wait to flesh out and write up.  So maybe I only had the time and presence of mind to jot down some don’t-forget-this sort of notes.  I’ll count the fact that I was having ideas at all- despite the oppressive heat and despite living out of a car and despite months of nausea- as a victory.

Keepin’ It Real


My son, champion Questioner and unparalleled Stater of Silliness

As most of you probably gleaned from my complete disappearance from the internet, I am on vacation. (Unless those automated updates had fooled you. Muahaha!)

One of my favorite and most despised things about vacationing is that it gets me out of my routine. This is an absolute nightmare as far as parenting goes. But when it comes to recharging my writing batteries, getting body checked out of a rut is just what the doctor ordered.

As I write this post, I am sitting in the Rocky Mountains, enjoying one of the wettest summers this area has ever seen. I am also enjoying my parents’ indoor pool, a dearth of dirty dishes, and an abundance of cheap watermelon, as well as all kinds of other delights I am unused to. A far cry from my day-to-day in Alaska.

I’m pretty bad about writing when I’m on vacation. I think I’ve written just a couple times in the nearly three weeks I’ve been away. But I still think these few weeks have been fantastic for my writing. I hiked a mountain, toured a candy factory, and wandered semi-lost between jutting crags of red stone. I watched Native American music and dance, wandered around chatting up the reenactors at an 1830s fort, and was nearly drowned by three small children swarming up my spine in the swimming pool. And in the few days I spent in California before coming to Colorado, I scampered in the ocean, nearly got eaten by not one but two giant scary dogs, had the opportunity to buy a medical marijuana license for the scant cost of $25, and went to a massive white-and-gold building that looks for all the world like a fairy tale castle. I watched my baby brother get married!

I have been busy.  Too busy to write, maybe, but not too busy to be inspired. These experiences will still be in my mind when I get back to Fairbanks in just a few more days, and back into my routine of kids and cooking and cleaning. I’ll think about the bull pine and the thin air and the snakes and the hot sun while I walk with my kids through the blueberry bogs, the air thick with mosquitoes and the weak sunlight splintered through the spruce. I’ll draw on how hard it was to breathe when I write my characters hiking through the mountains. I’ll remember what it feels like to have clamoring skinny bodies pushing me underwater when I get to the scene where my MC goes for a desperate swim through mer infested waters.

Our surroundings and experiences help us to fill our stories with reality. No, I can’t travel to Paleithois, and no, unicorns don’t wander the forests ready to help a maiden out. But I can grant my writings believability when I fill my written worlds with realistic details, when I make the characters and situations relatable on a smaller, human scale. If Paleithois was real, what might their customs be and why? If unicorns did kick around the woods, what might matter to them? What might their benevolence cost them? And if I suddenly found myself transported to the peak of a mountain, how would it feel? How would I stay alive? What does it feel like to be drowned?

I come from a long line of people who talk at the theater. We’re horrible, horrible people who you would never want to watch a movie with. We will shamelessly demolish your favorite show while we eat all your gummy bears and take up too much room on your couch. My father is the worst of the clan, especially when it comes to war movies. He doesn’t care if the characters are made up. He doesn’t even really care if the battles are made up, or the towns, or the situations. But if you ever watch a movie with him, prepare to hear all about how they got the firearms wrong, the uniforms wrong, the terrain wrong, the tactics wrong, everything wrong, wrong, wrong. And that’s just on the movies he likes.

People do the same thing when reading books. They are willing to accept that there is magic. They are willing to accept that there are flying cars. They are willing to accept that Queen Victoria was actually an alien robot sent to enslave the human race with imperialism and corsets.

But their acceptance will only go so far. Those fat, lying whoppers are only okay if the details are all in order. If the magic makes sense for the world. If the flying cars mesh with the rest of the world’s technology and setting. If… uh… yeah, anyway, you get the point. We sell our stories when we underpin the lies with truth. When readers can sympathize with the characters, even if they’re a different gender or a different background or a different species. When readers can absorb a section, nod their heads, and say, “Yes. That is exactly right.”

I’ve never drowned. I’ve never fought a bear. I’ve never held my infant daughter. I’ve never gone to Brazil and I’ve never picked poppies in Afghanistan. I’ve never been shot with an arrow or made marzipan or lived in a convent or ridden a dragon. Some of those, I might do some day. Others, less likely. Others still, never. But I can write about those things. I can fill my fake worlds with experiences, some my own, some read about in books, some carefully researched, and some just made up and meticulously thought out.

So never stop wondering about the world around you, and never stop absorbing every experience you can get your hands on (safely, ethically, and legally, of course). Ask questions. Let your nephews dive tackle your ankles. Go for a hike. Do something hard. Learn to cook something new. The more you know and feel and experience, the more reality you can lend your writing. And you can only be better for it. (Again, assuming safety, ethics, and legality are observed. Seriously, please don’t go become a dangerous criminal in the name of compelling writing.)

So when was the last time a real life experience came out in your writing? What can you do to make an improbable situation ring with reality? Tell me about it in the comments!