Visiting new places, travelling around the world or venturing into areas near where you live for the first time can all spark your imagination and help you write more compelling, vivid descriptions of settings, characters and dialogue.
I’ve been very fortunate to travel around the world for long periods at a time, as well as live in the Middle East, and all of these new peoples, cultures and landscapes have filtered into my fiction.
I like to press pause on the sightseeing to take a moment to think about all my five senses and what each is experiencing. I keep a journal handy and jot down notes to remind myself later what I discovered.
Here are some suggestions on how to draw inspiration from the world around you whilst you are on holiday.
Look first, then take a photo
Rather than seeing an unfamiliar destination from behind the screen of your camera or phone, resist the temptation and keep it in your bag.
Instead, look closely at the landscape in front of you. What colour is the sky, what do the buildings look like, what is it, specifically, about this incredible view that makes it so incredible? Hone in on certain aspects to imprint that scene in your mind, such as the shape of the trees or how the sunlight glistens on a slow-flowing river.
Pull out your notebook and write the first words that pop into your head when studying the scene. And, if you have time, scribble a paragraph or two about the place.
Once you’ve immersed yourself in your unique surroundings, committed it to memory or notebook, then take a photo or video to help you remember it.
Pick a bench, a bus stop on a bustling street corner, a coffee shop or a spot to lounge in a park – anywhere really! – and observe the people around you.
Watching what humans actually do is a brilliant way to heighten your skills in writing about body language, unspoken tension between characters and reactions that speak volumes about the emotions of your protagonist’s relationship with others.
Perhaps next to you in the park is a big family having a picnic. You sense that the grandfather doesn’t like his son-in-law. Why is that? What about each other’s countenance and posture tells you this? When you look closer they are sat as far away from each other as the picnic blanket allows, and both avoid eye contact. Maybe the grandfather ignores the son-in-law when he offers him the sandwiches, or the son-in-law takes every opportunity to run after the kids and get away from the group.
Carefully noting facial expressions, precise movements of the body and the bearing of a range of different people from varied backgrounds and cultures helps you to imagine your characters with more depth and write them realistically.
Immerse yourself in the atmosphere of a place
Recognising how different locations make you feel, and then how your body reacts to that feeling, is an excellent tool to improve your writing.
For example, you’re in a heaving marketplace in an overseas city and all the pushing and shoving is making you feel nervous. Zoom in on your body’s natural feedback to this feeling. Your heart is racing, your palms start to feel damp, you attempt to make your body smaller by crossing your arms and squeezing your elbows tight against your sides, your eyes dart around attempting to see when people might bump into you so you can avoid it.
Recording these responses will help you to write a persuasive depiction of one of your character’s nervousness.
Often when globetrotting you will feel a myriad of emotions: elated, calm, frustrated, frightened or disgusted. Identify your reactions, and try to pinpoint why you feel that way.
Take note of everything that is completely different to anything you’ve ever seen before, or that shocks you. That is the joy of appreciating new cultures. They wrench you out of your comfort zone and encourage you to consider different ways of doing things.
[Side note. The heaving marketplace thing happened to me in Sao Paulo, Brazil. When I went it was a dangerous city, and I was freaked out by all the people bumping into me thinking I was going to get robbed. I didn't, all was fine. But I remembered the feeling!]
Vary how you get around
It’s very tempting to get around using the fastest means available, especially if you’re on a tight itinerary. However, varying your transport opens you up to all kinds of new encounters that you can use in your writing.
If safe, try to use the local public transport. Is it packed, empty, dirty, pristinely clean. Do you feel comfortable using it? What kind of people are fellow passengers, are they polite to one another – this is likely an indication of a wider cultural aspect of the place. Or are you sharing your seat with a live chicken (this has happened to me!). What is the view from the window? All these sensations and observations are perfect to include in your fiction to boost the realism of a place or a scene, bringing it to life for your reader.
Another recommended method of getting around is on foot. Walking brings you closer to the ambience of the place. You can utilise all your five senses, not only what you can see, but the smells, the taste of local street food and drinks, the feel of the brick walls or spongy ground beneath your feet, the sounds around you.
Pay close attention to the local people. What are they wearing, they might dress in vibrant, colourful outfits. What are they eating and how are they spending their time. There might be a dice game that you notice them all playing that is, at first glance, baffling to you.
Eat the food
It’s very easy to get used to what you know when it comes to eating. But trying out new foods, weird and wonderful dishes or if you’re a bit squeamish, just learning about them can help you when you’re writing about a new fantasy world, or a character with unusual tastes or background.
If you are brave enough to sample some exotic foodstuffs, then take note of what the food looks like on your plate, what it smells like before you take a bite. Concentrate on the texture in your mouth, is it slimy, gritty, smooth, and how it feels when you swallow and it hits your belly. Does the tang of citrus make your eyes water or is it so spicy that your cheeks flush, or does it have a consistency that melts in your mouth?
Also watch how others are eating the food, responding to it, enjoying it.
Many fictional scenes are played out in cafes or restaurants, or when the character is eating. The reactions to the food served is telling about your character, their emotions and personality. Trying out new foods and watching others eating helps you paint a vivid picture when relaying this rich detail to your reader.
[Side note. One of the weirdest things I’ve ever eaten was guinea pig in Peru. It’s a Peruvian delicacy.]
Listen to the chatter, and the music
When writing dialogue, you want to make it true to life. People talk to one another with words, but also with grunts, snorts, huffs or hmmms. Many people also finish the sentence that another is saying to show they’ve understood. In speech, we also use abbreviations, slang and strong dialects. The tone that someone is speaking in is also telling of their emotion or purpose.
Listen in to snippets of conversations around you and note down anything you think is interesting. It could be a child who only speaks when spoken to or a couple arguing.
And be aware of the sounds of a foreign language that you don’t understand. Does it roll off the tongue or is it jerky with hard guttural sounds. Try to work out what they might be talking about based on the tone.
Bringing a scene alive in a reader’s imagination aids their enjoyment of your writing. One of the ways to do this is by describing what they are hearing. Whether it is the local music, heavy traffic or children laughing, keep your ears pinned when you are travelling and write down what you hear. Practicing whilst you are on your travels is a great exercise to sharpen your descriptive skills.
Take a deep breath
There’s no quicker way to set the scene than by conveying what a place smells like. Take a deep breath and determine the aromas. Maybe the place stinks, but what of? Old fish and the sea? Or the combined body odour of thousands cramped together. Or you could find yourself in a rose garden and the scent is overwhelmingly sweet.
Focusing on the smells around you is also great to let your creativity run wild. Does a man pass you smelling strongly of cologne? Perhaps he’s on his way to meet his partner, or is coming from a terrible date, or he’s off to a job interview, or he was out all night and didn’t have time to wash before work so doused himself at a perfume counter with the first bottle he could find. Jot down all the reasons you can imagine – one of these could be perfect for a character you are envisioning, and will help you to comprehensively illustrate him.
I believe that inspiration is all around us, and venturing to new places and experiencing a new way of life is brilliant to spark ideas for your writing. Often, it is the evocative descriptions that help bring your writing to life.
Many of the reviews of my debut novel Melokai note the vivid, descriptive language and I’m bringing that same attention to detail to my second novel, V, which I’m currently writing.
Have you brought any of your travel experiences to life in your writing? Let me know in the comments!
>>My debut novel, an epic fantasy called MELOKAI, is out now! Available from Amazon, Kobo, iBooks, Google Play Books, Barnes & Noble and Smashwords. Read more about my books here.<<
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