Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Souvenirs That Don’t Need a Suitcase

Today I'm welcoming Jane M. H. Bigelow to Terry's Place. Jane is a fantasy writer and part-time librarian in Denver, Colorado. She loves writing, traveling, gardening and music. She has one novel published and is wrestling the rough draft for a second novel in that Arabian Nights world, into submission.

I love traveling to faraway places. I love it in spite of the cost, the frustrations, and the need to remove my shoes (and sometimes more) at airports. I love it in spite of the other things I have to give up to do it. I love local travel, too. Denver’s close to mountain passes, historic railroads, and the annual sandhill crane migration.

One of the reasons I love travel is the way it changes my life, and my writing.

It shakes up assumptions I didn’t know I was making. Sometimes it’s only a little assumption, such as street signs. We directionally challenged persons rely on them.

A man in Morocco was puzzled when I asked about the frequent lack of signs. “But why would you need to be told at every crossing what the street is? It’s the same street!”

Indeed, one of them is. But what if you come in partway through? What if you’re wondering if you should turn at that cross street? He found this an interesting concept. Clearly, though, he was doing just fine without them.

Fortunately my husband, Robert, does have a sense of direction. Maybe he got mine, too. I manage. I just have to pay attention more in order to find my way around.

I don’t get to do international travel often. Where my writing’s concerned, I don’t need to. That trip to Morocco has influenced my writing for years.

You don’t have to come up with the time and money for long-distance travel to see differences. I’m a city girl. Colorado’s San Luis Valley is a strange and beautiful land to me, with different customs.

Last spring we’d gone down to ride the Rio Grande Scenic Railroad and to see the sandhill crane migration. I know that the rattling calls of the cranes at sunset are going to show up in a piece of my fiction someday!

When a man driving a pickup truck first stopped and walked over to where we’d parked, I wondered if we’d somehow driven onto private land. Not at all. He’d stopped to find out if our car had broken down. We were fine, in fact, just watching cranes glean the fields like stately aliens gathering data. I’ll use that kindness someday, though I don’t know where yet.

Writing’s rather like route finding, I think. There are certainly not many street signs when you’re plotting a novel. There are good resources on how to do it, but they’re like even the best guidebooks to a strange city. When you actually get there you may find that the street signs, if they exist at all, are down on the curb or embedded in the walls of buildings. It’s worth doing research in either case; it just doesn’t prevent surprises. Wouldn’t it be too bad if it did?

I knew that people grow roses for perfume in the valley of the Draa. I had no idea of how intense the scent would be, or how brightly the fields of single pink roses would glow in the sun. I didn’t guess how those pretty flowers would contrast with the massive adobe walls of the fortified dwellings.

Fantasy writing needs multiple sensory cues even more than most fiction does. Except in urban fantasy, the writer’s often trying to put the reader someplace that doesn’t actually exist and never has. The scent of roses or the stench of a scorched cooking pot, the sound of someone skidding on the sand that’s drifted into the streets: those make it real.

It’s a challenge and an advantage. Writers can weave the things our magpie minds have collected into a new world. The sandhill cranes and the perfume gardens don’t lie on the same continent, but they can come together in a novel.

Thanks, Terry, for letting me play in your yard.

My pleasure, Jane! To learn more about Jane, and to read the first chapter of Talisman, and to find buy links, go to her website, www.janebigelow.com.


Jan Morrison said...

Oh Jane - I love your descriptions and I do this too - not even neccesarily from foreign lands but from odd or even uncomfortable experiences. Going to baby showers in the suburbs (aaack!) or funerals of people one doesn't know that well or government meetings. There is always some treasure to be squirreled away.
Jan Morrison

Terry Odell said...

Jan (and others). Jane is having trouble leaving comments, and we don't know why. However, she's reading the blog and I'll post her responses.

Terry Odell said...

From Jane:


Yes, always! Playing visiting anthropologist in your own country is fun, if a little disorienting sometimes.

The late great Marion Zimmer Bradley said that it was quite safe to use real people in fiction. If you were accurate, she said, they never recognized themselves.


Pam Mingle said...

Well put, Jane! I think travel is especially useful for setting; it's much easier for me to visualize as I write if I've been there. And those indelible moments, some good, some you'd like to forget, can often be incorporated into a book. Thanks for the reminder!

Terry Odell said...


Thanks! It seems to me that the events I wanted to forget often turn
out to be extremely rich sources of ways to make life difficult for
our characters.


Ceil said...

Nice written, Jane. Your scenery descriptions are lovely. I must say, though, I was disappointed to learn that there are few street signs in plotting a novel. No wonder I haven't been able to find them!

Terry Odell said...


Yes, I keep looking for signs too. I find one about often enough to reinforce the behavior.


Maryannwrites said...

Nice post, I love the descriptions - the cranes gleaning the fields like stately aliens gathering data. Also got a good chuckle at the man in Morroco saying what do you need street signs for.

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Beautifully put! Wish I could travel more, but I definitely do it when I'm reading a book...I've traveled the world that way. :)

Terry Odell said...

Thank you, Maryann and Elizabeth. Sorry to take so long responding! I'm at my library job, and we got slammed here.

Sometimes armchair travel's the best way to go, Elizabeth.

From Jane

Sherry Gloag said...

An interesting post Jane. I love that you mention assumptions you didn't know were forming. I've recently come up against quite a few of mine that should have been ditched a while ago. Like you, instead of getting frustrated with myself, I'll suirrel them away for use in a future novel.

Terry Odell said...

Thanks, Sherry. Life's all source material, right? Or as someone I know says, "Live and learn, in that order."