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When Travel & Fiction Collide

Combine Your Passions to Create Something New

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Combine Your Passions to Create Something New

How My “Novel in Settings” Meshed Travel Writing with Fiction

By Eric D. Goodman

During a recent interview related to the publication of my new adventure thriller, The Color of Jadeite, I was asked what motivated me to write this novel. The question made me pause, in part, because most of my past work falls into the “literary fiction” category, making my latest a departure (or arrival) of sorts, from literary to genre fiction.

Normally, my response to the “where do you get your ideas” question is simple enough: the seed of a story, for me, almost always begins with either a character, a pictured scene (usually of dialogue), or an interesting idea.

For example, an earlier novel centered around the release of a private reserve of exotic animals into a community and how that event unfolded from a variety of perspectives. In that case, what inspired me was the idea of how a news story exists differently for different people.

Another novel was told from the point of view of a fetus, an idea born from my drive to come up with the most unusual narrator I could conjure.

But for The Color of Jadeite, I found myself describing it (unofficially) during the interview as a “novel in settings.”

 

 

I’ve written a “novel in stories” and a “novel in utero”, but a “novel in settings”, I realized during that interview, was something new—and probably something right up my ally.

Setting has always been important to me. One critic described the city of Baltimore in my novel in stories, Tracks, as a sort of character in itself. But I normally start with the idea or the characters and everything expands from that center. It was different for Jadeite.

I should mention that in addition to writing fiction and articles about fiction writing, I’m a travel writer. My enthusiasm for travel is second only to my passion for writing, and I try to take at least two or three international excursions a year.

Most of my travels take me to western and eastern Europe, from Portugal to Russia, Sweden to Italy, and anywhere in between. Aside from our home in the United States, Europe is where I feel I most belong.

However, we recently spent two weeks exploring China, and I was mesmerized by the sights. Our travels took us from Beijing to Xi’an, Shanghai to Hangzhou and Suzhou.

 

 

As we explored Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, examined the terracotta warriors and Jada Buddha Temple, cruised by canal to Suzhou’s ancient food market and wandered the Lingering Garden, I found myself repeatedly thinking “this would make a great setting for a novel.”

Such thoughts aren’t new to me. I can remember as far back as high school, living in Japan and taking notes about parks and houses and shopping arcades, imagining these descriptions as helpful in the pre-Internet, pre-hundreds-of-digital-pictures era.

In college, when studying in Russia, I remember taking notes in finite detail about the classroom’s floor, the desks, the wallpaper, what the professors and students wore when I should have been taking lecture notes. I would revisit these notes months and years later when I wanted to describe a unique place in a story.

And certainly, I’ve taken pictures and notes of unusual settings many times before, wanting to accurately describe them in travel stories or fiction later.

These days, the ease and abundance of digital photography fills in a lot of the blanks allowing for less wordy notetaking, but it’s important to capture the mood and feel, the smells and sounds, the emotion of a setting.

 

 

In travel writing, to portray the full picture better than a picture can. In fiction, to have more information to use or manipulate, to craft into a realistic scene.

I’ve been writing fiction all of my life, since an elementary school assignment turned me onto the craft thirty-some years ago. I came to travel writing later, in my early 30s. Although my history with fiction is much longer, I didn’t secure a NYC literary agent until my late 30s and saw the publication of my first novel at 40.

Although both travel writing and fiction—and even using locales from my travels in my novels—have been regular, ongoing parts of my career, it wasn’t until this trip and this novel that I consciously combined my enthusiasm for travel and travel writing with my zeal for fiction writing.

This is, perhaps, in part because much of my fiction is focused on dialogue and drama, the people and their situations, and it’s natural for me to place them in places close to home—where I’ve lived, where I know best.

A globe-trotting adventure thriller is a different sort of writing.

And as I toured China, savored the Temple of Heaven, relaxed over lunch in the Hutong, and thrilled at the scooter-rickshaw ride between tight cars in heavy traffic, the thought kept reoccurring: this isn’t just a great idea for setting a novel—these are ideal locations for scenes of a thriller. I could see Sam Shepherd, Robert Langdon, Sam Spade, Indiana Jones, Mike Hammer, or Cotton Malone running through or searching these places for clues or MacGuffins.

 

 

I found myself plotting out reasons for a character to be in this place or that. A stone tablet in a temple, a miniature jade statue in the hand of a large one, a chase through the busy, lit-up streets of urban Shanghai, an inscribed shard of terracotta from a warrior’s hem.

Scenes of dialogue between characters began to form in my evening notes, interesting clues steeped in Chinese culture and history, and for the first time I was working on developing an outline for a novel while still exploring the place both for pleasure and for travel stories.

The Color of Jadeite is classified as a “literary thriller,” an adventure that takes the main characters, their sidekicks, and their rivals across China in pursuit of a jadeite tablet from the Ming dynasty.

I had my locations, my characters, and a plotted timeline for getting them from one place to another. I needed a reason for my characters to be romping across China.

What began as a MacGuffin—the jadeite tablet—soon became pivotal to the story, not only because this jadeite tablet that once belonged to Emperor Xuande was something everyone was after, but because it held a deep and personal connection with more than one of the characters. Poetry and treasure and history and legacy all romancing one jadeite artifact.

As normally happens, everything seemed to form, through the notes and the writing, organically, as though it was already there and I was simply discovering it. This novel, for me, went to show that the process can change and still bear fruit.

 

 

More importantly, it revealed that writing travel stories or an occasional short story isn’t the only way to make use of unique and interesting places I’ve traveled. It is not only possible, but enjoyable, to combine your seemingly unrelated passions into one.

For me, combining my exploration through China with my adventures in writing was an exciting journey in itself, and I’m gratified by the end result.

What’s interesting is that, as different as this novel is in style and plot from my other novels, my semi-conscious intention seems to be the same at heart: to bring people together and to promote understanding and compassion.

For such fiction, the idea or character normally initiates that wish—but for this novel, it came out of an appreciation for the places I was experiencing and a desire to bring these settings, feelings, the overall experience of Chinese culture and history, to an audience that may not be familiar with it.

Many, if not most, readers will likely come away with the feeling of having read an exciting adventure thriller, and that is enough.

But underneath that surface layer, in the dialog and background, the history and culture of China is interwoven into the novel. It’s great when you can learn something unexpected while reading a novel for pleasure.   

 

 

For me, it was a combination of travel and fiction. What will it be for you? A love of gardening could find its way into the center of a spy novel in which the hobby gardener is brought into the center of a plot against America.

A passion for wine could take a young winemaker to the vineyards of France or Italy in a new romance novel. A cigar aficionado could make cigars central to a smuggling operation for a crime novel.

A flair for finance could be invaluable to a novelist working on a drama about cybersecurity or a hacking of Wall Street.

It doesn’t have to be fiction, either. Just because you’re stuck in a job doing technical writing, advertising copy, or public affairs press releases doesn’t mean you can’t write about your own passions—family, cars, model airplanes, the ingenious strategy for getting the best streaming movies and television.

Test the waters with an article, then see if you have the desire to write a nonfiction book on the subject.

Whatever your passion, whatever your writing category, combining your interests with your writing in new ways provides an opportunity to combine your passions and create something new and interesting.

 

 

Eric D. Goodman is a full-time writer who lives in Maryland with his wife, son, daughter, and family dog. His most recent novel is the literary thriller, THE COLOR OF JADEITE (Apprentice House Press, October 2020). He is author of SETTING THE FAMILY FREE (Apprentice House, 2019), WOMB: A NOVEL IN UTERO, (Merge Publishing, 2017), TRACKS: A NOVEL IN STORIES, (Atticus Books, 2011) and FLIGHTLESS GOOSE, a storybook for children (Writer’s Lair Books, 2008).

More than a hundred of his short stories, travel stories, and articles about writing have been published in literary journals and periodicals. When he’s not writing, Eric loves traveling, and most of the settings in THE COLOR OF JADEITE are places he has visited. Founder and curator of Baltimore’s popular Lit and Art Reading Series, Eric can be found at www.Facebook.com/EricDGoodman, www.Twitter.com/Edgewrite, and www.EricDGoodman.com.

Learn more about THE COLOR OF JADEITE at www.EricDGoodman.com/Jadeite.html or order your copy at www.amazon.com/Color-Jadeite-Eric-D-Goodman/dp/1627202862.

We’d love to hear from you in the comments! How do you use “setting” to create deeper, richer, more believable stories? Let us know in the comments!

 

17 Comments
  1. PJ Skinner says:

    This rings a bell with me. I just finished a 7 book adventure series for adults called the Sam Harris Adventures. The settings are mostly in South America and Africa based on my 32 years working as a contract exploration geologist on remote sites. I renamed all the countries to avoid problems, just as I combine characters and change physical characteristics, but the situations and people’s reactions are pretty real. I just add some sort of mystery or artifact to the brew and off I go.

    1. Thanks for sharing this, Aside from South America and Africa offering rich locations, your experience in contract exploration geology is unique. Have you found a way to incorporate that into your fiction?

      1. PJ Skinner says:

        Generally I used Sam’s new job as an excuse to get her into an interesting country ripe for adventure. In the Star of Simbako, Sam is working on alluvial diamond gravels and the story revolves around a missing diamond (as well as a missing husband and some gruesome local customs). I based it on my time in Sierra Leone just after the civil war. All of the books have a large core of truth mixed with the adventure. Geology is secondary but it appears when it is relevant.

        1. Interesting times, places, and subjects make for interesting novels.

  2. David Menon Writer says:

    This has been fascinating reading for me because many of my readers have said how much they enjoy seeing the setting of my stories as a character in itself. In my book ‘The English Visitor’ which describes how an English man flies out to Australia to find some peace after family traumas following the death of his father. It’s set in the northern beaches of Sydney and I’m thrilled to know that someone reading the book can be taken away to the other side of the world because of how I’ve described a setting. And I got the idea for the book from a visit I made to the town of Palm Beach, north of Sydney, which is a beautiful part of the world. I couldn’t not make it a character in the book although for my story I called it ‘Beachcliff’. So I know exactly what Eric means and I’ve been fortunate enough to do a lot of travelling, both in my former job as a flight attendant with BA for 24 years, and with much private travelling too. A good description of setting is vital in order to put your reader in that same place as your characters, almost as if they’re walking beside them. Thank you Eric – great stuff and you’ve already got me thinking … now where’s that note book?.
    http://www.silversprings-publishing.com

    1. Thanks for reading, David, and for sharing your comments. I always knew I wanted to write fiction, but there was a time before being fortunate enough to land a job as a writer that I considered working for the airlines as a way to allow more frequent traveling. Hope your note book is getting full.

  3. Jack R. Nerad says:

    As a true crime writer (Fatal Photographs) who has recently turned to fiction (the upcoming Dance in the Dark from E.M. Landsea Publishers) I have understood the importance of settings from the beginning. In Fatal Photographs, the true story of the murder of a bathing suit model, Los Angeles’ South Bay neighborhoods provided stark contrast to the dry lakes of the high desert where the crime was committed. Thus in writing Dance in the Dark I concentrated on places I knew well — downtown Chicago and northern lower Michigan — as the settings for the action. With the goal of making the suspense novel as realistic as my true crime work, using authentic settings is an important tool.

    1. “Write what you know” is a common word of advice to new writers, and it certainly applies to settings. My first novel took place, in part, in Chicago as well. I’m a big fan of using real places, too, and love when a reader recognizes a place they know in my work.

  4. Christa Polkinhorn says:

    I can relate! Traveling as well as reading and writing fiction are my passions as well. Fascinating article! Thanks for sharing.

    1. Thank you for reading, Christa. For those of us who count the days between traveling opportunities, this has certainly been a year for “armchair travel,” whether by reading travel stories or fiction set in interesting places.

  5. It’s always reassuring to someone who’s fairly fresh to being published (short stories for now) that the processes are similar. And I completely agree with the section about learning something new ‘by the way’. Literature should be fun but it’s even better when it’s also teaching the reader. As a writer of science fiction I always adored writers like Lem or Roger Zelazny who never underestimated the intelligence of their reader and still remember those occasions when reading their work I came across some obscure reference and understood it. And honestly those occasions when I was able to learn something new, had to look up a term in a thesaurus or read an article to get a deeper understanding, were just as fun.
    It’s a great article. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

    1. Thanks for joining the conversation, Piotr. Yes, it’s fun when you get the added bonus of learning something new while reading fiction for pleasure. Sometimes fiction can be more true than nonfiction in that way.

  6. Amy Alton says:

    I am also a travel writer and an aspiring novelist. Basically I wanted to write about my travel adventures in a genre I love (Romance). This was a great article, thanks!

    1. Thanks, Amy! I have a half-written draft in a drawer of a sort of love story set in Paris. A romantic location, but any location can be romantic with the right writing and chemistry. Thanks for reading!

  7. I love the ideas! Atmosphere is critical in my writing, as well as in the books I most enjoy to read. There’s something magical in the minute details of a distinct place or time.

    1. I agree, Amanda! I think I once had a character say “the devil’s in the details. But deliverance is there, too.”

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