I’ve written about how wonderful travel is for writers before (here), but I’ve been wanting to address more specifically how I try to inform my fictional settings with the texture and wonder of real places I’ve been.
A big part of the reason I began teaching in Asia is because it enables me to travel. Living abroad makes the world feel simultaneously larger and smaller: larger because there is so much to see beyond the average American ‘bucket-list’ spots, and smaller because it all feels so much more reachable.
I am fortunate to have had the opportunity to travel. I wouldn’t trade my years in Korea for anything. But, in a sense, I take a trip every time I crack open a good book—we all do. That’s the magic of fiction: it transports. Some books manage to make their world, whether fantastical or real, seem so very tangible.
I’ve been thinking about authors who do this particularly well. One that comes immediately to mind is Susanna Kearsley. She writes romance novels that are full of history and magic and, usually, a dash of the gothic (If those sorts of books are up your alley, I would highly recommend checking her work out). They are usually set in real cities and she describes those places in such a way that I feel rather as if I’ve been there, even though I haven’t. She’s managed to write tiny paper-bound vacations. She doesn’t just paint broad strokes—she describes the details, the things that make those places unique, without lingering so long on setting as to bore.
That’s the trick, and it’s one I think that many authors overlook. Setting is so often painted loosely, without much attention to the little things. But it’s the little things that make one place different from another. I explored this idea in more detail when I blogged about Gerard Manley Hopkins’ theories on inscape. Basically it’s this: a thing’s beauty and value comes from it’s uniqueness. Which is why relying on generic backdrops for fiction, and especially fantasy, is such a sad missed-opportunity. Sure, we all know what a castle looks like. But how is this castle different? Paint me a word picture.
Traveling enables me to see varied and wonderful places. I make it my job to soak them up, save in my mind all of the particularities of look, smell, sound, and feel. I take photos, but the photos never seem to do it justice. At best, they capture a shadow—the sight, without the depth and none of the other senses. So, I also try to jot down short notes for myself as I go. And then I take these bits and pieces and I insert them into my books. I mush them together, I trim and alter as necessary, but I try to keep the heart of the place intact. I try to maintain the wonder.
“Why?” you might ask. I mean, I could wholly invent something from my imagination. I write fantasy novels after all.
Let me answer with an example:
It was February, Chinese New Year. Because of the holiday, the Great Wall at Badaling, which is normally aswarm with tourists, was nearly vacant. All was still; serene. My husband and I trekked for hours in near solitude, gulping in the cold air that, after the smog of Beijing, tasted blissfully fresh. The wall itself was a wonder: a train of brick and fortress weaving its serpentine way endlessly through mist-shrouded mountains. Everything seemed bathed in blues: deep navy, indigo, soft cerulean. It looked, felt, tasted blue. The endless ascents and descents were far steeper than I had envisioned; so sharp that the high, narrow steps were nearly imperceptible, appearing to blend into a seeming precipice as I looked down upon them. Atop the peaks, though, the vista was pure magic: stark azure mountains that faded into softer shades with distance, blending into the sky with gradual, hazy dilution, as if rendered in watercolors. It snowed, but only lightly, for brief intervals, so that the air was spotted with fat white flakes and my hair was ice-flecked, but the stairs never became slick.
It was easily one of the greatest days of my life. I remember thinking the entire time how important it was that I drink it up, that I commit it to memory, because it was so incredibly awe-inspiring and I knew I’d probably never see it again—certainly never see it just as it was on that day, at that time. That memory is precious, it’s something I will carry with me always, and pull out now and again to relive. Wordsworth has his daffodils, and I have those Chinese mountains, and that cold wind, and the numb feeling of my toes in my boots. And I have the river winding through Hoi An Vietnam, alight with paper lanterns in the gloaming as I sat on metal patio furniture drinking a mojito full of fresh mint leaves. And I have…well, you get the idea.
I love these memories dearly, and I know that my readers may never go to these places—and even should they go, or even if they’ve already been, they won’t see it just as I saw it, it won’t feel, for them, just as it felt for me. And so I want to give my readers that gift—if I can, if I’m up for the challenge. If I could manage to make them feel just a little bit of the wonder that I have felt seeing these places, then I’ve shared with them something I hold dear. Something far more meaningful to me than a place that would be purely the product of my own imagination.
So, writers, go out and take a good look at the world. Jot down the details. Put them in your books. I want to take a vacation into your memory. Great books have stories that engage and characters we love, but the thing (in my opinion) that lingers most is the feeling of being inside that world. So give it texture and heart, make it special. Make it a place your readers would want to visit again.Mantas Hesthaven