Travel Like a Writer: Using Local Color to Enhance the Setting of Your Novel or Nonfiction Book

We weren’t even 15 minutes down the road from Austin to San Diego when we smelled gas fumes filling her green Mazda coupe. I twisted in the passenger seat so that I could sniff toward the backseat. Sure enough the odor was coming from the propane tank we’d crammed back there. I turned around and cracked the window, but we didn’t stop. We just laughed and kept on driving.

At least that’s the story I tell now. After I hit the highway this summer to recreate that August 1995 trip, the memories will probably change. At the very least, I hope they’ll become textured with the sights, sounds, touches, feelings, scents, tastes, and tears of what my friend Kathy and I called our Thelma & Louise road trip.

I’m reliving our journey because my next book is a memoir about our complicated friendship. It wasn’t until I determined to recreate our 1995 trip that I realized we’d said goodbye to each other in San Diego—she was moving there and I was helping her move, hence the reason for the trip—exactly 20 years after we said our final goodbye. Kathy died on September 1, 2015.

Twenty-one years later, as hard as I try to recall, my memories of that trip consist only of snippets of scenes—not a story, not a plot, and certainly not a story with conflict, change, and growth.

I know, though, that if I follow that road again, stand at the precipice of the Grand Canyon, search for a 2 A.M. hotel room in Las Vegas, and finally watch the sun set behind the Pacific, I’ll remember and our book will come.

I’m far from the only author who has ever traveled for a memoir—some to recreate memories, some to create memories, almost all to cope, to change, and to grow as a person. Cheryl Strayed for Wild and Elizabeth Gilbert for Eat Pray Love immediately come to mind.

But traveling for a book isn’t limited to nonfiction. It can be equally imperative to fiction.

Sure, at the touch of our fingertips we have Google maps, YouTube, Pinterest, Instagram, Facebook, and newspapers and television broadcasts from across the world, all of which allow us to virtually visit any place on Earth—or outer space, for that matter. Those virtual visits definitely help us weave necessary details into our work and even fact check our scenes.

But virtual visits aren’t the same as standing in a locale and seeing, smelling, hearing, tasting, and feeling what’s around us. For example, for years I read and watched news reports about the deadly air pollution in China. I didn’t realize how horrific the pollution was, though, until I stood on a hilltop in China, staring over miles and miles of farmland, and watched a lone worker guide a wooden plow behind a sorrel horse. In that rustic, rural setting, without a smokestack or car in sight, the pollution was so milky thick that I felt I could hold it in my hand as easily I could a gray ball of yarn.

As I think back to that day that sweltered with pollution, I recall the landowner who smiled at me. He seemingly yearned to have his photograph taken with me, as much as I yearned to have mine taken with him. After I returned from my walk through his farmlands, he reappeared, freshly showered and wearing a clean white shirt that matched my own. We stood next to each other as a friend quickly snapped our photo. Then it was time to go. But I didn’t want to leave this man. He was tall and lean. His eyes crinkled and twinkled in the hot, hazy sunlight. And there was something about him that seemed so familiar, something that pulled me to him, that made me want to hug him and hold him and never leave him.

I thought I knew then what it was. When I got home and studied our photo, I knew for sure. This tall, lean, smiling Chinese farmer with the crinkling, twinkling eyes resembled my not-so-tall, yet lean, partly Jewish father whose eyes crinkled and twinkled when he smiled. It was as though my dad had been reincarnated in China.

Remembering that is almost bringing a novel and plot into my brain.

Award-winning novelist Amanda Eyre Ward traveled to Brownsville, Texas, and San Diego, California, to research her fifth novel, The Same Sky, a story about motherhood, resilience, and faith. A reader can see the influence of those trips in her scene setting:

“The sun in California is different. Just as bright as in Texas, it somehow lacks saturation, plenitude. … And the air seems thinner, somehow, scented mildly with juniper and salt from a nearby ocean.”

A writer isn’t going to glean that sort of information from Google or YouTube.

But Ward also went to those border cities for her plot, because her plot is about the intersecting and conflicting lives of a successful American mom and a desperate immigrant child who illegally entered the United States without a parent to protect her. “Every kid talked about food. As most had faced starvation either at home or along the journey to the US, every corn muffin, cookie, and bottle of clean water was described in loving detail,” Ward wrote on her website.

“Why had they come? Many had been left with relatives who had died or could no longer care for them. Some had joined (and been tattooed by) a gang and then a different gang had taken over their town. They were hungry. They wanted their moms. They wanted to be adopted. They told me God had brought them, and God would find them families in the US.

“One girl’s story was so harrowing and awful that my stomach hurt every time she said, ‘And then it was night.’ I racked my brain for something to say to make her smile. She was from El Salvador and her journey to California was different from the journey of the girl in The Same Sky (who had originally been named Elena).

“Nevertheless, I told her that the girl in my novel was a girl so strong and amazing that she had made it to safety. I told her I would name the girl after her, and I did. Her name is Carla.”

Previously, Ward had traveled to Cape Town, South Africa, for her third novel, Forgive Me, a story of love, memory, and motherhood. “That trip changed everything,” Ward explained on her website. “One night, I woke to the sound of dogs barking and loud voices and I had a sudden thought: you shouldn’t be here. You’re a mother now, you should be at home. Someday, I realized, my son could tell a therapist, ‘My mom left me when I was a baby and ran off to South Africa!’ I lay awake thinking, ‘Can I be a good mom and travel? Can I examine sadness and pain and still create a safe world for my son?’ It was a long night with the dogs and this tinny music coming from a bar nearby, and by morning, the book had changed and so had I.”

I don’t want anyone to think they have to make a special and expensive trip overseas to inform their work. Travel research can be incorporated into everyday life. That trek I took through the farmland of China was for a business trip that had nothing to do with my writing career. A business trip I made to Europe provided a solitary night in Paris that informed my Master’s thesis novel and its setting.

 Diesel fumes plugged my nostrils as I sat in the sidewalk café and poured mineral water over one measly ice cube. The incessant noise of the traffic almost drowned out the jet lag that rattled my brain…

I was angry that I’d picked a café on a street busy only with cars and no good looking strolling Frenchmen to distract my thoughts…

 I concentrated on the yellow headlights of the passing cars. I watched the flashing of the traffic lights. I felt alone and lost. In a foreign country killing time, wasting my life watching lights…

A random stroll with a Frenchman affected my plot as a variation of him became one of my characters.

A family vacation in New Orleans created more scenes and plot points, which I won’t share with you because they’re a bit like New Orleans—wreaking of spilled rum, mildew, piss, vomit, and nights better left forgotten … for my lead characters. In other words, they created action and conflict.

My point is that being there, standing there, where your scenes are set, where your characters are getting in trouble or falling in love or merely bunny-hopping, topless down Bourbon Street, they all create a feeling in your soul that translates to the words that come out of your fingertips.

In 2014, I interviewed New York Times bestselling novelist Sue Monk Kidd about her book The Invention of Wings, the fictionalized story of the very real Sarah Grimke, the 19th century daughter of a Charleston slave owner who disgraced her family by fighting against slavery, racism and sexism.

“I researched for six months and did nothing but read and travel to try to figure all of this out and then I wrote for three and a half years and I was continuing to research during that time too. So this was a four year effort for me,” Kidd said.

But the one thing that stuck with me—besides the fact that she outlines on butcher paper, which she wraps around her study—is the influence that traveling to Boston to stand by Sarah Grimke’s grave had on her and her book. Yes, Kidd could have seen on the internet a photo of Grimke’s headstone and noticed that the engraved words, “Sarah Moore Grimke,” were barely legible. I did that. Yes, she could have seen on that internet photo that the headstone was worn, pitted, and discolored from 140 winters. I did that. But only by standing there and seeing it in person would she have whispered in her mind, If you can hear this, Sarah, I want to do you justice. I want to do your life justice. I would love for people to know about you and your role and what you did.

I guess that’s why I’m taking this road trip this summer. I want to stand where Kathy and I stood and whisper into the wind and let my words drift out over the sea, “If you can hear this, Kathy, I want to do you justice. I want to do your life justice … because you changed me.”

SUZY SPENCER is an award-winning journalist and author of four nonfiction books — Wasted, a New York Times best-sellter and Violet Crown Award finalist; Wages of Sin, which was featured in the 2013 season of Investigation Discovery’sDeadly Sins; Breaking Point, a Book of the Month Club, Doubleday Book Club, Literary Guild, and Mystery Guild selection; and The Fortune Hunter, which was called “riveting” and “block-buster” by Globe magazine. In 2012, the Berkley Books division of Penguin published Suzy’s first memoir,Secret Sex Lives: A Year on the Fringes of American Sexuality. Secret Sex Lives was named a Publishers Weekly Fall 2012 pick, a Barnes & Noble editor’s recommendation, and a Writers’ League of Texas 2013 Book Award finalist, among other accolades. Suzy holds a Master’s of Professional Writing in fiction and screenwriting and a Master’s of Business Administration in marketing and finance, both from the University of Southern California, and a Bachelor of Arts in journalism from Baylor University.


Genres of interest: Creative and narrative nonfiction, memoir, adult fiction including contemporary fiction, upmarket fiction, commercial fiction, women’s fiction, and thrillers.

Available for: Manuscript critiques, content editing, developmental editing, first chapter evaluations, nonfiction book proposal edits, private writing coaching, media coaching.