Friday, 23 September 2016

Getting Writing Ideas From Travelling

Note: I'm saying fantasy novel as that's my main focus for reading and writing, but these could easily apply to any genre.

Peru was a magnificent country to visit, with such a huge variety of cultures, climates, landscapes, foods, etc. And it got me thinking. While I'd love to see an Incan fantasy series (like what Aliette de Bodard did with the Aztecs), there are so many aspects of travel that can be used to inspire writing that don't require tons of research or transporting a particular culture wholesale into a book.

Food. So often in fantasy books people will travel across countries and continents and yet never comment on the food they're eating. And yet, food differences can be huge. Consider what your character ate at home and then question whether they foods they encounter on their travels will be spicier or blander, use ingredients unavailable at home, look strange even though it's a familiar dish (for example I had stew in France that used only medieval ingredients, so the carrots were white instead of today's common orange and tasted different as a result). Different countries tend to focus on different grains - depending on growing conditions. The rice in Peru, for example, tasted to me like a cross between white rice and Japanese sticky rice (so, a little sticky but without a distinct flavour of its own, as with bismati and jasmine).

Language. I know 'common' has become short hand in fantasy novels for having peoples of different backgrounds talk, and when there is no common tongue somehow the protagonist understands 7+ languages. But wouldn't it be fun to watch a protagonist enter a city and try to bargain for something only to realize they can't understand what's being said? You can get a lot of information across using gestures or by drawing pictures and it might be fun reading about the difficulties of communication in a fantasy novel.

Transportation. I come from a country where most people have cars. Unless your city has good public transportation or you live downtown in a major city, it can be difficult getting around without one. But other countries have numerous forms of transport. Peru had buses, combini (like buses only privately run and departing only when full or nearly full), taxis, motortaxis, etc. And traffic was insane. There were stop signs that I'm sure only 1 in 20 cars paid attention to. Traffic police were constantly blowing their whistles to keep people moving...

Noise. This is something one of my professors in University pointed out, that the noises were hear every day - and learn to tune out - would have been completely different in the past. And travelling somewhere with different noises can remind you of that. I stayed one night on an island where a donkey braying woke me up, and in the jungle howler monkeys were my alarm clock. But even the lack of traffic can bring forward other noises you forget about. Insects are LOUD. And pervasive. Bird song. Running water from a stream. Frogs around ponds and lakes. Medieval societies would have had mills grinding grain and creating a racket that likely went on day and night. Think of what's in a town/city and what sounds those things make. Does your city have room for wagons to go down cobbled streets? That's a racket, not including whatever animal is pulling it.

Then there are things you might not think about that people in the past did that you only learn because you researched or travelled to a place. The city of Cusco was built in the shape of a Puma. The head was a hilltop defensive bastion, the heart was the location of the temples and worship. Other Incan cities were also based on animals, which is a pretty interesting method of city planning that I'd never heard of before.

Sometimes it's good to get out of your comfort zone and go to a place that's very different from what you know. You'll discover you have some habits that are hard to kick, and notice things you've never considered before. And if you can't afford to travel, libraries have books and videos on different places. I learned a lot about Peru before I went there. And that learning made my experience - and my ability to notice little things - greater.

Now, you don't want to bog down your narrative with thousands of little details about food and travelling and language and culture, but the occasional aside about how something is different from home gives a touch of verisimilitude that can elevate your novel from good to great.

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