As of this past week, I’ve been living in South Korea for one year. In light of my Koreaversary, I’ve been thinking about the impact living abroad has had on me as a writer. There is such a beautiful symbiosis between writing and travel.
At its most basic, storytelling consists of two parts:
1.) Introduce a character
2.) Make that character uncomfortable
Discomfort is the heart of fiction. In a macro sense, it provides plot. If your character spends an entire book resting cozily in his or her comfort zone…well, you don’t have a story. Bilbo has to be hustled out of his hole. Elizabeth Bennet’s prejudice needs to be challenged. Jonathan Harker simply must go to Transylvania. The trouble can be physical, emotional, social, or moral, but it needs to be there.
People love to say “write what you know.” Content wise, this isn’t advice I follow. What I know is boring. I’d rather write about butt-kicking geniuses than someone like myself. But when it comes to emotion, I believe that tired mantra is spot on. I will likely never find myself in a situation as dire as those my characters face, but I have experienced fear. I’ve felt insecure. I’ve been desperate and unsure and trepidatious. And so have readers. We might never have the weight of the world on our shoulders, but we can tap into that experience through the link of familiar emotions.
So how does travel relate? Well, leaving your home and venturing to some distant locale is, by its nature, full of comfort-zone-busting goodness. I’ve done things, seen places, and consumed foods that I never would have imagined.
I’ve traipsed about a Japanese Castle. I’ve hiked through bamboo fields. I now know that skewered chicken hearts make a satisfying bar snack and pig anus is unsettlingly chewy in texture. I’ve gotten sloshed on soju on a ferry with a bunch of old Korean men. I—for some utterly insane reason—willingly jumped into ice cold water, outside, in February, just south of the North Korean border. I’ve been made acutely aware of my own mortality—every time I slide into a taxi. I had a cocktail on the 89th floor of the 2nd tallest building in the world—a bar so high up it made my ears pop. I deal with the constant struggles of a language barrier and culture shock. And I’ve met a slew of interesting people. Every single day of my life since moving to Korea has been abundant with fascinating experiences.
Aside from excellent fodder (one of the nations in my book is based on Korea), my time abroad has informed my character’s reactions—their sense of wonder, alienation, excitement, and anxiety. Of course you don’t have to experience a thing to write about it, but it certainly doesn’t hurt. I can more easily climb into my character’s shoes now. I know what it feels like to be an other—to be stared at, pointed at, even photographed on the street by strangers. And in fantasy, otherness is a pretty pervasive theme. I’m also familiar with the unique sense of camaraderie that comes from befriending a person so unlike yourself, and discovering just how the same they really are.
One of my favorite elements of fantasy has always been the “wow, this world is so much bigger and more diverse than I expected” And that is exactly what traveling abroad does for a person.
I would highly recommend travel to anyone—but especially to any writer. The value of such experiences really cannot be measured. But even if going to the other side of the world isn’t a realistic option for you, there are other ways to have new and interesting adventures. Take a road trip. Eat a kind of food you’ve never eaten before. Have a conversation with a person unlike yourself. Get uncomfortable—that’s when the magic happens.Simon Migaj