What I learned about writing by traveling the world

What I learned about writing by traveling the world

I was sitting in the back of a minibus in Istanbul recently and started thinking about how too often a tourist only sees the shiny facade presented to them. I love to travel and have not only done so extensively, but have also lived in five countries. These experiences have changed my perspective on life and how I look at things, including my writing. But as much as I love traveling and meeting people, when I started my first novel, I was missing the intricate details and layers that bring a novel’s characters to life.

And I never even knew it.

I remember showing up at my first critique group with my best-seller in hand. Or so I was convinced. It didn’t take long for me to be told to go home and totally rewrite my cardboard characters. I was shocked at the time, but that moment was the beginning of a journey that taught me the importance of digging beneath the surface as I build a story world and try to learn how to create a three-dimensional character that jumps off the page. And travel has been a large part of that journey.

Just like visiting other places had helped me learn how to look at other cultures beyond the typical tourist traps, I quickly discovered the importance of learning to include not just the five senses in my writing, which are important, but also to dig deeper and understand motivation. When I visit another country, I want to understand people, what’s important to them, what triggers them, and how those things play into their emotions, speech, and actions. I want to do the same thing in my writing. It’s easy to write about how the roses in the garden smell or how the wind feels, but I need to know more than that. I need to know what baggage my characters are holding onto, and why they do what they do. What may make a smell, situation, or location evoke emotions or reactions within them.

Forget the tour bus

On most tours you end up spending a good chunk of your time in a bus with other tourists. I spoke to a man on a plane one time who had just finished two weeks of touring cathedrals in Europe. I enjoyed looking through his stunning photos, but he told me he was frustrated because they were ushered in and out with no time to really stop and enjoy the beauty of the architecture and stained glass. There was no chance to sit on one of the worn wooden pews and simply take in the moment. Tours are great, but in our writing, we need to find ways to go beyond the surface of the tourist trap. In travel, it means taking local transportation, eating local food, and even sitting across the table from someone while sharing a meal and asking questions. In writing it might mean learning why your hero is afraid of water, or why your heroine has never felt like she fits in. Why he hadn’t called home in months, or why she’s willing to risk her life for someone she doesn’t know.

Step out of your comfort zone

It’s always easy to fall back on the familiar, both in real life and with our characters. All over the world I can find a Coke and a McDonalds, but I always want to try what the locals are eating. In West Africa we ate fried egg sandwiches on the side of the road and fufu and sauce inside compounds. In Turkey, we ducked into a tiny shop for a doner kebab and tasted Salep, this delicious warm, milky drink made from orchid tubers. I’ve drank chai in Kenya cooked over a fire, and shared a communal plate of Ethiopian food with injera covered in spicy meats and vegetables with my hands. In return, I’ve learned more about people and cultures. Not just what I see and smell, but why they say or believe certain things. What they are afraid of and what is important to them.

Discover what’s lurking beneath the surface

When our family was in Barcelona, we stayed in a local’s tiny apartment on the third floor. We pulled our suitcases up the steep, narrow steps, settled in, then explored the neighborhood, from the small grocery stores and restaurants, to the nearby park. It was a wonderful glimpse into how people live. In Africa, I’ve slept in a mud hut, and showered with a bucket of cold water in a small enclosure outside. I’ve sat around a fire and chatted with people while trying to learn more about their life. Searching for connections to bridge cultures, going deeper than a just what a tourist can see by driving by. It takes time and effort, but it’s worth it.

As writers, we also strive to make our villains stand out, but like every other person, he or she isn’t all bad. We all have layers, and on top of that, what motivates one person won’t always motivate the next person. The same is true for characters in our novels. Everyone has different triggers that set them off or motivate them. Secrets from the past that affect the present. In our writing we need to dig beneath the surface, beneath the obvious, or we will be left with cookie cutter characters.

In the end, traveling has helped to expose me to things outside my comfort zone, encouraging me to look at life from the other person’s point of view. Think of how you can add layers to your own characters. How does your heroine see herself when she looks in the mirror? What is she afraid of? What is your hero’s secret vice? What is holding him back from moving forward in a relationship? What from his past now motivates your villain?

The good thing is that you don’t have to travel the world to write in-depth characters that create a page-turning book. Start looking around you, beyond the obvious sights and smells. Ask questions, and dig a little until you can translate what you learn into your characters. While interviewing your hero and heroine  before starting a book is a great way of getting to know them, personally, I like to get to know them while I’m writing and then add my layers as I go. I watch their actions and dig to uncover their motivations. Traveling has opened my eyes to a whole new world, and it can do the same for you. You never know what you might discover!


LISA HARRIS is a Christy Award finalist for Blood Ransom and Vendetta, Christy Award winner for Dangerous Passage, and the winner of the Best Inspirational Suspense Novel for 2011 (Blood Covenant) and 2015 (Vendetta) from Romantic Times. She has over thirty novels and novella collections in print. She and her family have spent sixteen years working as missionaries in Africa. When she’s not working she loves hanging out with her family, cooking different ethnic dishes, photography, and heading into the African bush on safari. For more information about her books and life in Africa visit her website at www.lisaharriswrites.com

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