Write what you know
To write a lot, read a lot
Observe people and how they speak
There is a lot of ‘age-old’ writing advice, little nuggets that in reality are entirely dependent upon the writer’s personality, the kind of stories they want to tell, and probably also the weather. One of these pieces of advice writers are often given is to travel. While I think that’s a great (though costly) suggestion, and I’ve certainly enriched my stories by traveling to places that have then been featured in them, I would like to mention some possible addenda to this advice.
When people think of travel, they are prone to think of a vacation, a brief trip to a new place. Often this includes highlights: famous monuments, buildings etc., popular shopping locations maybe, and of course the very best (touristy-oriented) local foods. While these kinds of trips may give you some interesting places to describe, and some much-needed relaxation to recharge the creative batteries, I don’t believe they are the kind of travelling that enriches a writer’s imagination.
The advice to travel is closely related to the advice to observe people. The kind of travel that gives writers new insights, that really can make a huge difference (and has, if you look at some famous writers’ biographies), is the kind that allows you to observe local people in their everyday lives. Not just the way they speak, which might be entirely foreign, but the little things that you never realise could be done differently until you view them from an outside perspective, as an anthropologist of sorts. Just try to explain your Christmas traditions to someone from a different country; even Americans and Brits, cultures thought to be so close together, will need to do some ‘translating’. People from different states/provinces might even give different answers. From an outside perspective, you can see and write down things that you would otherwise have thought needed no comment. This works even if your stories take place on a different planet.
The other benefit of traveling is to get to know yourself better. By staying to the safe, popular options, you are less likely to gain new insights. Learning about local differences, talking to new people, maybe overcoming some social anxiety (or that could just be me), can teach you a lot about yourself, and help you grow as a person. There’s a reason why so many European students/18-year-olds take a ‘gap year’ after school to travel around.
Not everyone (hardly anyone, in fact) can afford to move to a different continent and live there for a year, soaking in the atmosphere, the local ways of doing things, the realities of what it means to be a local in an entirely foreign culture. Sure, it worked for Elizabeth Gilbert on a small budget, but she still had a budget and didn’t have to worry much about what she was leaving behind. But that doesn’t mean there is no hope for more settled people. All it takes is to go sit in a pub or cafe frequented by locals, instead of visiting the Louvre. Sit all day, chat to people, really soak up the foreign-ness of where you are. You may not need to even leave the country to do this, just going a few towns past your ‘known world’ can be enough to expose yourself to different ways of speaking, doing, and seeing the world.
For the best results, you’d need to spend a substantial amount of time in a place, to ‘go native’ as anthropologists say. What also may work is to go some place outside your comfort/home zone frequently, to spend your weekends discovering new local watering holes in places all around you. But you won’t know what kind of inspiration you’re looking for, what kind of insights you might find, until you try.
So this holiday season, when/if you have some time off, why not try an experiment? Take your notebook, go somewhere you’ve never been before, find a place that a lot of locals hang out in, and just observe. You could even take your laptop and profit from your instant imagination-boost. As the age-old advice says, it can only make your writing better.
In a way, everything you do can make you a better writer, as long as you are observant enough to notice what, why and how you are doing it.