The Writing Life: Travel as Inspiration

For a long time I did not travel. My memories of flight were fuzzy – laying my jacket down on the floor and sleeping between the seats on a flight across the Atlantic in 1974. The weird sensation of the ground I walked on not being solid, the vague bounce I had never previously experienced in my short life.

I did not fly internationally again until I was 29. I went to Egypt. Climate, Culture, Cuisine and Architecture were all so very different. (I could say Construction, as a stretch to keep it all C’s.) When I travel now, those are my touchstones, the points of comparison and contrast.

The incredible thing was total immersion into an environment utterly different from the only one I had ever known. The heat I had never met before in Scotland. The sounds of worship filling the air. The smell of sweet flavoured tobaccos. Making my way solo across Cairo in various taxis that looked like demolition derby entrants, on roads that had no discernible rules, where traffic lights (those that functioned) were merely for show, the real rule being to hit the gap before the other guy. All in all I was amazed at how few collisions there were. Cars shared the road with camels, sheep, or goats being herded hither and yon. I learned enough Arabic to direct my cab the last few streets home to the house where I was staying. It being expected that I could do that!

And of course, flowing through it all, the massive weight of history. The pyramids, the temples at Luxor, which I reached at the other end of a long and interesting train journey, with some toilets that horrified the French ladies I shared a carriage with. The first class toilets, mind you. The dutch lads who talked books with me for hours. The Valley of the Kings, the Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut, the constant calls for baksheesh, a felucca ride on the Nile where the two gents taking me out onto the waters extolled the virtues of various nations’ women, after having a very loaded conversation with me in which I wondered if I could risk swimming to shore if things went south. The irony of visiting my friends in a 5 star hotel in Luxor as Pink Floyd’s “Money” played over the sound system. (I stayed in a pension across town). The hospitality of another family that was wonderful, playing soccer in a dusty field with Egyptian children who laughed at Scottish football as “kick and run!” The cryptospiridium I suffered for the last week, probably as a result of eating their food. And then for another two weeks after I got back home – that gave me time to read all the existing Wheel of Time books I’d taken, but not touched when on my travels, as there had simply been too much to take in.

I adore and absorb as much as I can from travel and history shows on TV. I read articles and do research on different cultures, now and in the past, and these activities provide a great deal of inspiration, and fire my imagination, as well as making me somewhat jealous of Anthony Bourdain (except when he is eating unmentionables); but actually going to places, experiencing their food as far as you dare, and seeing ancient sites in person, feeling the human scale of them, envisioning how people once lived in those environments when they were new, is irreplaceable. Everywhere I go I seek out inspiration, I look for locations or traces of lives that can feed my imagination, and can be transformed into realms fantastical. Churches, castles, graveyards and catacombs are catnip to me. Ruined towns or temple complexes are heaven. Egypt is so old it has roman graffiti at its ancient sites, which made me daydream of roman tourists (or a couple of bored legionnaires who always seem to have London accents), being equally impressed by ancient statues of Rameses II, and sharing the same instinct we still see today to leave their name on structures far older than they. (Black pen marks on stairwells in Parisian churches spring to mind). These things tie us together, despite distance and time, the human experience has some universal aspects, and travel has helped me feel those connections, just as it has illuminated how differently we can lead our lives, right now across our world, and even more so as we drill back through time. All of that is incredible grist to the writing fantasy fiction mill.

So if you can, travel. If you can’t travel: read, and watch, and try to put yourself in the shoes of those strangers living in strange lands. It is amazing how often story ideas grow from that single activity. Keep feeding your imagination, and hopefully those vivid ideas that become great stories will arise.

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