New places generate stories and characters
As writers, we often set stories in locations with which we’re familiar. With specific details at our fingertips characters can replicate our own experiences: going on a favourite walk on Hampstead Heath; browsing in a bookshop in Kew that is perfect for people watching; cobbling together a journey across London via foot, Uber and overground when the tube isn’t working. These types of details add authenticity to a story.
At some point however, it's necessary to head off into the unknown, either making up locations (always fun) or researching new places. Researching locations on-line can reap rewards but if you can, visiting is always better and much more fun. Writing accurately about a place shows your reader you can be trusted to tell an interesting and authentic sounding story: you’ve climbed Snowdon and now know exactly how busy it is on a warm day in August; you’ve taken the small boat over to St Michael’s Mount on a choppy day and can now describe what that feels like.
But aside from giving you facts, figures and feelings you can use in your writing, travelling to new locations offers something else, something quite remarkable - new characters and stories that you might otherwise never have considered.
Any new place is great for stirring the imagination. A new coffee shop will do, or a street you’ve never previously walked down. A new way home might lead you past an old church that begs for a story to be written about it. A trip to a museum might provide you with stories about the exhibits or people who work there.
Travelling further afield brings you even more stories as you wonder what kind of people live, work or holiday in a location. What kind of person would hide in Sicily or run away from Venice? Consider a character who has chosen to live in a remote Yorkshire village because she wants to hide for a while. Or someone who, as a teenager, kissed someone in Barcelona and has now decided to relocate there, just in case, all these years later, he’s still there. What about characters who loathe their partner for suggesting Athens as a holiday or Tokyo as a great place to raise their family? In any new place you visit, consider what kind of murder mystery could take place here, what kind of romance, what kind of happiness or sadness might reside here. What types of things have you noticed that could cause conflict? Each answer that comes to you is a potential new story or character.
I’ve been super lucky this year to catch up with some holidays. My imagination has had a whale of a time coming up with characters and stories I’d never considered before. In Istanbul I came up with stories about the people who feed the city’s stray dog population, the men who go there for hair transplants and the kids who line up to see Ataturk’s room at the Pera Palace hotel.
In Seville I made notes on a character who creates beautiful flamenco dresses for a missing daughter, a tour guide who always falls in love with their elderly clients and a man who longs to escape the endless heat and is obsessed with moving to Iceland.
And then I went to Iceland and wondered what stories I could create in a place where it's still light at 2am in June. What characters would embrace this constant light? What type of characters would rail against it? What about a character who becomes obsessed with creating darkness?
Stories and characters are as infinite as places. There’s always somewhere new to explore, always someone new to write about. Whenever you find yourself somewhere new, take advantage of this amazing opportunity, take a walk, observe the people around you, listen to what is or isn’t said, and see where your imagination leads you.