Diana Renn

Mysteries that Matter


I’ve always loved writing about adventures abroad. I spent my 20’s and early 30’s with a suitcase constantly packed, and brought home more words about the places I went to than photos or souvenirs. But what’s a travel writer to do when she’s grounded? When she has a family and can’t fly so far?

I’ve been wrestling with this issue because my current work in progress is partially set in another country. Wondering if my journals and photos were enough to jog my memories and provide the details to bring scenes to life, I thought about returning. It might be good to check some facts. Update my information. Smell the diesel fumes again, eat the local food. Record the sights and sounds anew. Then I remembered I had a three-year-old. And not the most adaptable sort of three-year-old either. The kind who loves to curl up on the couch with his beloved Pixar movies, and who won’t eat unless his particular brands of mac n cheese and sliced cheese squares and cheesey chicken nuggets are available. (Hmm . . . is Wisconsin in our future?) Well, in other words, I have a very typical three-year-old. I hear mythic, romantic tales of people who travel the world with their toddlers, strapping cheerful babes to their backs and setting off for a lengthy hike, or zipping around Europe with them babbling contentedly in a bicycle trailer. Right. Not happening here.

                                          Source: www.freedigitalphotos.net

And leaving my family to jet off on a research trip? At this stage, it’s unimaginable. I’ve never left my son for more than one night, and the one time I had to board a plane without him — for a one-day business trip to Washington, D.C. — I was consumed with visions of a plane crash leaving him motherless. 

Yes, I’m grounded for the time being. It’s a temporary state; I know I’ll travel again, both solo and with my family. Just not in the next six months. This has left me with decisions to make about how to update my information about the setting of my work-in-progress.

Fortunately, so much is available online now. Travelers post photos and videos daily. Travelers write blogs. Local news stations broadcast online around the world. Webcams show the weather as it’s actually happening. And guidebooks, both hard copies and online, can provide a lot of the basic information I need to stay current.

What I was craving, I realized, was a sense of the mood of this region these days, since the political and economic climate has altered. I also wanted to get a sense of the pulse of life for young people there now. Where they hang out, where they avoid. Where they meet locals, where they meet expats. How their perceptions of the country have been challenged or changed. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that even if I dragged my family there for a week, I wouldn’t necessarily get that information. Not sealed up in an air-conditioned Marriott drinking our bottled water. I had a sense of youth culture and the pulse and pace of life by actually living and working in that country, years ago. If I went there now, it would be a different trip altogether.

It occurred to me that an avatar would be useful. Some ability to send a version of myself to walk those streets and absorb the culture there today, without leaving home. But wait — couldn’t technology make that possible? I got to work.

I designed a three-page questionnaire for people under 30, living and working in that country. I got in touch with schools I had worked with in the past and organizations that cater to young expats. I offered Amazon gift certificates in exchange for thoughtful answers to my questions about life there today. I got a fair number of respondents, and the surveys are flying back to me now, with useful and insightful information — exactly the kind of word-on-the-street stuff I wanted to absorb. Collectively, the responses are giving me a picture of the place right now; they also jog more memories of my own experiences there. Everyone so far has offered to be available to answer further questions. At some point in the story I’m writing I’ll need to figure out a certain type of travel route, and I hope one of my avatars, or ground troops there, will be willing to test it out for me.

I’d love to hear from others who set their works in distant places: how do you jog your memories or take virtual trips? How important do you feel it is to actually visit the places you write about?

Lately I’ve been diving into old journals I kept while traveling and living in another country. I’m setting a good portion of my novel-in-progress in that locale, so I am grateful for the detailed records I kept. While I experienced a number of exciting, dramatic events there (including being in city bus that drove into a bank window, and hitchhiking to the ocean with friends on the back of a Coca-Cola delivery truck), it is the most mundane details that now grab my attention. What I ate for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Where I shopped for groceries. What the mornings smelled like. The wild pointsetta trees that burst into red blooms in plazas, like little explosions of Christmas. And the interesting characters who made cameo appearances in my day-to-day life: a peace-loving military official whom I used to tutor, and a business executive who studied jujitsu and farmed ostriches. These are the kinds of details I can comb through now to help bring a story to life.

Surprisingly less useful to me now: profound insights I had about Life at the time. Whining about culture shock, bureaucracy, and general frustrations. Sights and experiences that blew me away, described in glowing abstractions. Actually, the whole narrative of my journeys to this country — two visits and a nine-month stint working there — are almost completely useless to me as a fiction writer.

I write a lot of fiction based on my travel experiences, perhaps as homages to the countries I’ve loved. The end result is always quite different from what I actually experienced. It’s tempting to mine my travel journals for the story itself. I often think, reaching for an old journal: Hey, this trip had a beginning, a middle, and an end! Lots of stuff happened! I can write about it!  The story’s practically already written!

But that’s dangerous thinking. Most of us, when we travel, do not have a neat narrative arc to our journeys. The travel journal typically records highs and lows, twists and turns, that are not necessarily compelling as a story or novel. For example, browsing through a journal of a 12-day trip to Turkey, I see that I experienced the following high and low points: a tumble down a flight of marble stairs, a deeply spiritual experience in a mosque, a persistent foot infection, the most heavenly breakfast, three nights in a cave, a brief spat with my husband (which involved an ice cream cone being flung out a car window at high speed, for reasons that now elude me), a breathtaking trek through village ruins led by an eight-year-old boy (and goat), and thugs attempting to break into our car and lure us into a jewelry store. All fascinating stuff that still makes my heart beat faster when I read it. Yet using the travelogue as the basis for a story or a book requires a lot of work. The material must be sifted through and reshaped, and much of it rejected altogether.

Another danger of relying too heavily on travel journals is the temptation to bend the story to follow events from the journal, or to let geography dictate the plot. In my forthcoming novel The Frame Game, I spent years, and about fifty pages, agonizing over how to get my heroines to a remote Japanese mountain village where they could stay in an ancient thatch-roof house where silkworms were once farmed. Cool place, right? I thought so. Simply because I had traveled there, and been blown away by the village and these houses, and devoted pages and pages of my journal to this place.

It was a huge revelation when one day I realized: there is no earthly reason for these girls to go to this village or to the silkworm houses! My traveler’s memory had been insisting on this destination, but the story resisted it. Everything they needed to accomplish could be done right were they already were.

In revisiting my old travel journals, then, it helps to try to read them through my main character’s lens. What would my character — not me — notice or take away from these experiences? What would my character  be interested in? Do the places, events, and details I recorded for posterity actually serve the story? If I want to include some events, what happens if I present them in a different order? Can I imagine a totally different premise or outcome than what I journaled? What if they happened to a person who is very different from myself?