The car of the Amtrak shook as it was gliding against the rails, the grinding sounds made my palms sweat as I made my way from the dining cart to my seat in coach. As the car wobbled, I wobbled worse, bumping into the sea of elbows hanging off leather arms. The clicking sound of laptop keys and conversations that carried through the carts drowned out the traveling rumble but only for a moment.
“Ugh, I don’t like this train,” I texted my fiance who always finds some calming words.
A smiley face following.
The dark of the night blanketed the Rhode Island skies as I awaited the long trip back to Boston from New York to come to an end.
This was my first Amtrak ride, but third trip to New York. First by Bus, second by small plane. This trip in particular was for business but outside those hours I was able to do the impossible: See things that are not in my everyday life.
For a writer, this an excellent tool for character building, gathering details and honing in on the what you haven’t seen before or up close in your everyday life. As a townie (because I only consider cities to be the major ones like Boston, NYC etc), there were a lot of opportunities to take mental pictures and notes.
Architecture: If you’ve never been to a city and are writing about one, you will miss the small details.
Yes, buildings are tall. I have witnessed this in novels and short stories that talk about the tallness of a building and not much more. But what is significant about height?
While in the city, the height of some buildings blocked out the moon and with each passing block just a glimpse of the rounded rock shone before being forced to hide behind a billboard.
You can ask yourself what the buildings look like, how they interact with the environment to build an extra layer of authenticity. Instead of just that building, what view does it overlook? And don’t choose the most obvious buildings either. Experience the area. You’ll find plenty to discuss.
We descended into the subway, then up a flight of stairs, down an escalator that seemed to reach the opening of a steel purgatory, pockets of darkness where subway carts should be. Too far down, we walked up another flight, resting onto the hard wood benches, looking to the face of the locals for guidance. They are just as confused as we are.
I will never complain about being confused with the MBTA (Boston) ever again. The complexity of NY’s subway system was difficult to comprehend, and getting around wasn’t divided by colors as it is here, but letters, numbers and local vs. express rides. The irony was many of the riders, true New Yorkers, voiced their own annoyance of the system.
Small Differences: Don’t miss the small differences. My parents live on a main street so growing up and sometimes even now, I can hear the church bells echo through the streets. It’s not that small of a town but we lived in close proximity of several churches. In the hotel room in NY, I awoke to the sound of traffic and even more overwhelmingly was the buzz of construction. An added melody was that of other hotel guests leaving their rooms, doors slamming and feet shuffling past my door. Outside, the streets were busy with people, inhaling the same nicotine smoke, street smog and cooking smoke of the street vendors. In and out, through one person to another until a hundred mouths breath in the same mixed pocket of air. That’s a deep realization there.
So you are in this new place, what do you see?
- What are the people like?
- What is the language like?
- Gestures you’ve yet to come across?
- Items you are constantly seeing?
- The general vibe of the area?
On some time off, I took two of my colleagues to Times Square. Neither have been there before and I had twice during the day, but never at night. If you have been there, especially at night, you know the scene is nothing short of magical. The look on their faces was priceless. Here were some creative observations:
- Even though the sky was black and it was nearly 10 p.m., the lights from Times Square were bright enough to create a kind of artificial daylight
- The streets were flooded with people from every culture, some roaming in packs while others moved around them like a stream moving around rocks
Coming from lower Manhattan, the temperature was harsh when we arrived, so much that my bones began to ache, proving that the thin Old Navy fleece sweater wasn’t entirely winter proof.
We looked exactly what tourists looked like, minus the cameras – our necks perched up like everyone else, admiring the view as if it was the first time seeing it. For some it was. It was like a theme park for the eyes. So many roller coasters as the ads changed, the food filled the street and just branches of streets connecting, some nearly empty as they piled to the center, waiting for traffic to stop to cross. Sometimes not waiting at all.
You can also do this in list form if you are just gathering ideas.
People: The people, or future characters are an important aspect of travel and overcoming writer’s block. You can see the way people live-talk-move-how they dress-the fine details of their face-how they interact with others-expressions-in ways that are specific and can help you better build a character. Utilize this experience.
- Keep your eyes open and listen
- Have a small notebook with a pen with you just in case inspiration strikes
- Look everywhere–down the crevice of a dark alleyway, up towards the tower buildings, do you see into someone’s apartment or office? (in a non creepy way) if so, what’s going on? Build on that.
- Listen to your surroundings–everything has noise and none are the same and you may found a lot bunched together makes its own strange hymn. For instance, in Manhattan there were a lot of sounds like: Construction – the ground being penetrated, the sound of heels and work shoes clicking against the asphalt, the impatient beeping of cars and taxis, the echo of conversations and voices, the sound of doors opening and closing- some forceful while others not, loose change in pockets, the slurp of a hot coffee.
So much is going on around you if you’re open to listening and looking, especially in a new place. Have your own writing exercises while traveling? Share it with us!