Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Photo credit: RoganJosh from morguefile.com 
How often are you going happily along in your routines when—BAM!—some misfortune or difficulty derails you? One's natural instinct is to get through, get out, get away from the hardship as soon as possible, looking neither to the left or the right.

But there’s another way to think about life’s rough patches—as opportunity.  This perspective is something I’ve been raised with, but didn’t always appreciate. A mishap with the plumbing in our hundred-year-old urban rowhouse was a poignant refresher course.

In early August 2009, I had a harrowing night when our third floor toilet’s water line broke. The problem went unnoticed for about 20 minutes, until the water started raining into the second floor through a light fixture and continued downward into the first floor and basement. The next few hours were eaten up with bailing, mopping, tamping down towels, laundering towels, running fans. The next morning, as I stumbled around, fatigued and worried a ceiling might still collapse, I couldn’t help but remember what my mother always says about these sorts of disasters: “it will make a good story later.”

If my life is a story, then it’s the messes, mishaps, and failures that actually make it interesting. Not that I seek these things out, but when disaster does occur, it carries with it the promise of bringing something ultimately transformative, maybe even redemptive. “It will make a good story later” makes me notice things I otherwise wouldn’t, from the shape of stains on the ceiling to the way my husband’s shoulders slump as he contemplates them.

Watching Mom over the years ferret away details in the midst of turmoil then transform them into captivating comic stories has been quite an education. Not only have I learned to see the humor potential in all things (and to never take myself too seriously), I’ve also gained a habit of attentiveness when life goes awry—a valuable skill in any writer’s toolbox.

As you come to grips with the possibilities of  “it will make a good story later,” you can begin to develop both a habit of attentiveness and a new perspective on what makes you truly the writer you are, with stories only you can tell.

Life’s interruptions to routine can be a creative gift to you. They put you in new places with access to new relationships and experiences. They force you to understand suffering, fear, frustration, anger, sorrow, and all other shades of negative emotion necessary to create deeply real characters that readers connect with.

Don’t panic when life interrupts your writing routine. Pay attention. It will make a good story later.

What hardships have made you the writer you are? What storytelling mentor has shaped your approach and how?
12:10 PM Laurel Garver
Photo credit: RoganJosh from morguefile.com 
How often are you going happily along in your routines when—BAM!—some misfortune or difficulty derails you? One's natural instinct is to get through, get out, get away from the hardship as soon as possible, looking neither to the left or the right.

But there’s another way to think about life’s rough patches—as opportunity.  This perspective is something I’ve been raised with, but didn’t always appreciate. A mishap with the plumbing in our hundred-year-old urban rowhouse was a poignant refresher course.

In early August 2009, I had a harrowing night when our third floor toilet’s water line broke. The problem went unnoticed for about 20 minutes, until the water started raining into the second floor through a light fixture and continued downward into the first floor and basement. The next few hours were eaten up with bailing, mopping, tamping down towels, laundering towels, running fans. The next morning, as I stumbled around, fatigued and worried a ceiling might still collapse, I couldn’t help but remember what my mother always says about these sorts of disasters: “it will make a good story later.”

If my life is a story, then it’s the messes, mishaps, and failures that actually make it interesting. Not that I seek these things out, but when disaster does occur, it carries with it the promise of bringing something ultimately transformative, maybe even redemptive. “It will make a good story later” makes me notice things I otherwise wouldn’t, from the shape of stains on the ceiling to the way my husband’s shoulders slump as he contemplates them.

Watching Mom over the years ferret away details in the midst of turmoil then transform them into captivating comic stories has been quite an education. Not only have I learned to see the humor potential in all things (and to never take myself too seriously), I’ve also gained a habit of attentiveness when life goes awry—a valuable skill in any writer’s toolbox.

As you come to grips with the possibilities of  “it will make a good story later,” you can begin to develop both a habit of attentiveness and a new perspective on what makes you truly the writer you are, with stories only you can tell.

Life’s interruptions to routine can be a creative gift to you. They put you in new places with access to new relationships and experiences. They force you to understand suffering, fear, frustration, anger, sorrow, and all other shades of negative emotion necessary to create deeply real characters that readers connect with.

Don’t panic when life interrupts your writing routine. Pay attention. It will make a good story later.

What hardships have made you the writer you are? What storytelling mentor has shaped your approach and how?

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

I don't know about the rest of you, but August can be a very chaotic month for me, with vacations and back-to-school preparations and a total lack of routine in far too many areas. My daughter's dance lessons are "drop ins" and her guitar teacher shifts days around, some church activities don't meet, while others are more frequent.

But even when I feel this scattered, I have a couple of routines that help me not lose all track of my writing.

Walk

Image by jorgeyu, morguefile.com
A fifteen to thirty minute walk first thing in the morning makes me more alert and helps me gather my thoughts. I bring no gadgets, no music, no companions. This is distraction-free time when I can just think.

An April 2014 study from Stanford University found "Creative thinking improves while a person is walking and shortly thereafter." They also noted "Across the board, creativity levels were consistently and significantly higher for those walking compared to those sitting."

The good news? It's the act of walking and not the environment that matters. So when the weather's horrid, stepping onto a treadmill can give you similar benefits.

Of course, there are also health benefits to a daily walk, including reduced cancer, diabetes and heart disease risk. And if you're struggling with low energy, short walks are the ticket to breaking the vicious cycle of lethargy (lethargy tends to breed more lethargy). A bit of sun exposure during an outdoor walk will increase your levels of vitamin D, an important nutrient that improves not only bone health but also mood (why that is hasn't yet been studied in depth, but depression can be a symptom of vitamin D deficiency).

A walk can also be a great afternoon pick-me-up, especially when you've hit a crossroads in a story and can't decide how to proceed. Let your mind roam as your feet do, and your creative mind will offer ideas and solutions.

Write longhand

While I have no desire to return to the days of all longhand composition, I do find it extremely helpful to do some longhand writing every day, whether note jotting, brainstorming, or free-writing. I've tried all kinds of warm ups over the years and longhand is the one that never fails to "prime the pump" for me.

Apparently educators and cognitive scientists have been looking into why longhand writing is so beneficial to our brains. Virginia Berninger, professor of educational psychology at the University of Washington, used brain scans in her research on the benefits of longhand. She found that "as your hand executes each stroke of each letter, it activates a much larger portion of the brain’s thinking, language, and 'working memory' regions than typing." Keyword there? The language portion of the brain is more actively engaged.

Another study of elementary aged children found "writing by hand improves students’ creative writing skills, and elementary students actually write more quickly by hand than when typing. Compositions are also longer when written by hand...."  My experience bears that out--when writing longhand I'm more apt to write more ideas and edit less. There's something about the flow of the physical act of moving a pen across paper that keeps ideas flowing. (For more on this line of research, see "How Handwriting Trains the Brain.")

If you want to get out of the vicious cycle of having nothing to say, try journaling about it with a pen and paper. Chances are pretty good that you'll have more to say about having nothing to say than you might believe. Then voila, you've taken the first baby steps away from wordlessness and toward expression.

What routines do you try to maintain in chaotic times? What benefits have you found from walking and/or writing longhand?
3:10 PM Laurel Garver
I don't know about the rest of you, but August can be a very chaotic month for me, with vacations and back-to-school preparations and a total lack of routine in far too many areas. My daughter's dance lessons are "drop ins" and her guitar teacher shifts days around, some church activities don't meet, while others are more frequent.

But even when I feel this scattered, I have a couple of routines that help me not lose all track of my writing.

Walk

Image by jorgeyu, morguefile.com
A fifteen to thirty minute walk first thing in the morning makes me more alert and helps me gather my thoughts. I bring no gadgets, no music, no companions. This is distraction-free time when I can just think.

An April 2014 study from Stanford University found "Creative thinking improves while a person is walking and shortly thereafter." They also noted "Across the board, creativity levels were consistently and significantly higher for those walking compared to those sitting."

The good news? It's the act of walking and not the environment that matters. So when the weather's horrid, stepping onto a treadmill can give you similar benefits.

Of course, there are also health benefits to a daily walk, including reduced cancer, diabetes and heart disease risk. And if you're struggling with low energy, short walks are the ticket to breaking the vicious cycle of lethargy (lethargy tends to breed more lethargy). A bit of sun exposure during an outdoor walk will increase your levels of vitamin D, an important nutrient that improves not only bone health but also mood (why that is hasn't yet been studied in depth, but depression can be a symptom of vitamin D deficiency).

A walk can also be a great afternoon pick-me-up, especially when you've hit a crossroads in a story and can't decide how to proceed. Let your mind roam as your feet do, and your creative mind will offer ideas and solutions.

Write longhand

While I have no desire to return to the days of all longhand composition, I do find it extremely helpful to do some longhand writing every day, whether note jotting, brainstorming, or free-writing. I've tried all kinds of warm ups over the years and longhand is the one that never fails to "prime the pump" for me.

Apparently educators and cognitive scientists have been looking into why longhand writing is so beneficial to our brains. Virginia Berninger, professor of educational psychology at the University of Washington, used brain scans in her research on the benefits of longhand. She found that "as your hand executes each stroke of each letter, it activates a much larger portion of the brain’s thinking, language, and 'working memory' regions than typing." Keyword there? The language portion of the brain is more actively engaged.

Another study of elementary aged children found "writing by hand improves students’ creative writing skills, and elementary students actually write more quickly by hand than when typing. Compositions are also longer when written by hand...."  My experience bears that out--when writing longhand I'm more apt to write more ideas and edit less. There's something about the flow of the physical act of moving a pen across paper that keeps ideas flowing. (For more on this line of research, see "How Handwriting Trains the Brain.")

If you want to get out of the vicious cycle of having nothing to say, try journaling about it with a pen and paper. Chances are pretty good that you'll have more to say about having nothing to say than you might believe. Then voila, you've taken the first baby steps away from wordlessness and toward expression.

What routines do you try to maintain in chaotic times? What benefits have you found from walking and/or writing longhand?

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Photo credit: xololounge from morguefile.com 

Instead of dispensing advice this week, I'm seeking feedback from you, dear readers. This will be short but sweet because I'm heading to the Catskills with the family later this week, in part for my daughter to compete in an Irish Dance Feis. We figured we'd make a mini-getaway out of it.

I've been busily working on a productivity writing resource I hope to wrap up in the coming months. Among other topics covered will be brainstorming techniques. One that I haven't used much myself is listmaking, so I thought I'd ask you to share your experiences.

Answer any or all of these in the comments:

Do you use listmaking as a brainstorming tool when working on a new story? 

At what phase(s) of writing do you make lists? 

What kinds of lists do you make?

All thoughts/feedback helpful! Thanks!
12:02 PM Laurel Garver
Photo credit: xololounge from morguefile.com 

Instead of dispensing advice this week, I'm seeking feedback from you, dear readers. This will be short but sweet because I'm heading to the Catskills with the family later this week, in part for my daughter to compete in an Irish Dance Feis. We figured we'd make a mini-getaway out of it.

I've been busily working on a productivity writing resource I hope to wrap up in the coming months. Among other topics covered will be brainstorming techniques. One that I haven't used much myself is listmaking, so I thought I'd ask you to share your experiences.

Answer any or all of these in the comments:

Do you use listmaking as a brainstorming tool when working on a new story? 

At what phase(s) of writing do you make lists? 

What kinds of lists do you make?

All thoughts/feedback helpful! Thanks!

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

“Epistle” is a fancy word for letter or correspondence; coming from the Greek, it means “send news.”

Epistle brainstorming is a method in which you write imagined correspondence by a character or even between characters. Since it’s imagined, you can conceive of exchanges happening slowly, as with postal-service mail or rapid-fire, as with texting or instant messaging.

Photo: SRCHEN from morguefile.com
The goal is to get characters speaking in their own voices. It’s a great warm up for dialogue. It can also help you figure out how your protagonist would think through and interpret an event so you can narrate it in your protagonist’s voice.

Epistolary exercises might also help you brainstorm back stories. Sometimes the act of telling a story to someone else can help clarify which details are most important.

You can also use epistolary brainstorming to interact directly with your characters to develop plots that feel organic and emerge from who the characters are. Imagine you, the author, are instant messaging with your character in order to ask deeper questions.


Epistolary exercises

  • Write a letter describing a pivotal experience that changed a character’s life.
  • Write a text exchange between the protagonist and best friend explaining a major plot turn.
  • Write a text exchange in which one character tries to pump information from another.
  • Write a love letter that lists the beloved’s most loved characteristics and describes the time s/he knew that affection and admiration had become something more.
  • Write a text exchange in which one character tries to hide information.
  • Write a letter in which a character summarizes his/her entire childhood.
  • Write a letter in which a character summarizes the events that led him/her to make an important decision or life change.
  • Write a letter in which a character describes his/her family to another character who has never met them.
  • Write a text exchange in which you ask your character his/her reasons for taking a particular action or his/her feelings about events or other characters.
  • Write a text exchange in which you ask the protagonist what s/he thinks should happen in the story—how s/he would prefer to tackle the story problem.
  • Write a text exchange in which you discuss your revision ideas with the protagonist.
How might you use epistles to explore your characters and their opinions, attitudes, beliefs and voices?
12:57 PM Laurel Garver
“Epistle” is a fancy word for letter or correspondence; coming from the Greek, it means “send news.”

Epistle brainstorming is a method in which you write imagined correspondence by a character or even between characters. Since it’s imagined, you can conceive of exchanges happening slowly, as with postal-service mail or rapid-fire, as with texting or instant messaging.

Photo: SRCHEN from morguefile.com
The goal is to get characters speaking in their own voices. It’s a great warm up for dialogue. It can also help you figure out how your protagonist would think through and interpret an event so you can narrate it in your protagonist’s voice.

Epistolary exercises might also help you brainstorm back stories. Sometimes the act of telling a story to someone else can help clarify which details are most important.

You can also use epistolary brainstorming to interact directly with your characters to develop plots that feel organic and emerge from who the characters are. Imagine you, the author, are instant messaging with your character in order to ask deeper questions.


Epistolary exercises

  • Write a letter describing a pivotal experience that changed a character’s life.
  • Write a text exchange between the protagonist and best friend explaining a major plot turn.
  • Write a text exchange in which one character tries to pump information from another.
  • Write a love letter that lists the beloved’s most loved characteristics and describes the time s/he knew that affection and admiration had become something more.
  • Write a text exchange in which one character tries to hide information.
  • Write a letter in which a character summarizes his/her entire childhood.
  • Write a letter in which a character summarizes the events that led him/her to make an important decision or life change.
  • Write a letter in which a character describes his/her family to another character who has never met them.
  • Write a text exchange in which you ask your character his/her reasons for taking a particular action or his/her feelings about events or other characters.
  • Write a text exchange in which you ask the protagonist what s/he thinks should happen in the story—how s/he would prefer to tackle the story problem.
  • Write a text exchange in which you discuss your revision ideas with the protagonist.
How might you use epistles to explore your characters and their opinions, attitudes, beliefs and voices?

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Book and Internet research can provide you will all kinds of wonderful facts and details, as well as stimulate your thinking about possible story events, locations, and people to inhabit your fictional world.

But this sort of research isn’t interactive. It also typically isn’t customized to your specific needs. Thus, you can spend a great deal of time wading through reams of information to get to the facts and details you truly need.

Many times you’ll get the very best information most quickly by speaking with an expert. A ten minute phone conversation might just save you from hours of trawling through page after page of useless information. And more often than not, an actual human being will have insider knowledge that will keep you from making embarrassing mistakes.

For example, a medical book might give you the correct terminology for a hospital procedure, for example, but that term is likely not the one bandied about among the hospital staff. Using the more formal term will make your information seem stilted and naive and could cause readers to lose confidence in your authority over your story world.

Finding experts

You need the right kind of expert who can speak to your story’s particular situation. Your family doctor might know the standard procedure for treating a broken leg, but his knowledge is likely limited to treatment best practices under ideal conditions. You know, in a clean, shiny hospital. But what about injuries in non-ideal conditions, when X-rays and surgery are not readily available? Your family doctor isn’t going to be much help—partly because he will fear opening himself to legal liability by dispensing advice that isn’t clinically defensible. Your better bet would be to find a military field medic, or a mountain climber trained in first aid—someone who has experience with non-ideal conditions.

A golden truth I learned in journalism school is that people love to be considered experts (well, eight out of ten; take into account a certain percentage of natural jerkiness in the general population). Start by approaching people you already know, and be as specific as possible with the kind of information you’re seeking.

Look! A plethora of experts! (Photo DMedina from morguefile.com)
Your friends and family just might surprise you in having a hidden expertise or life experience that would make them excellent resources to provide you authentic details. Staying curious when in social situations can yield amazing opportunities. The cousin seated beside you at your nephew’s wedding reception just might be a law enforcement officer, a Civil War re-enacter, a cancer survivor or oenophile. Even the charming flower girl might help you write a child character by getting you up to speed on youth culture today.

When you meet people, keep your radar attuned to where their interests, experiences, and training intersects with your story world and bravely ask questions. A simple request like “tell me about yourself” can turn a dull party into a research extravaganza.

I once got some amazing research done while at a church luncheon. I was seated by a friend who is a speech-language pathologist, and realized she might know something about speech problems in stroke patients, an element in my story. So I said, “I’m working on a story in which a grandparent has a stroke. What kind of speech problems might he possibly have?” That short chat was more focused and helpful than hours of reading. She knew in practice, not just theory, how patients behave and what the stages of recovery look like. That kind of information is pure gold.

This technique is great for those socially-demanding seasons when you shuttle from wedding to graduation to baby shower. Think about how your story might connect to every person you meet. Tap their knowledge and expertise as a professional, volunteer, hobbyist, or representative of an age group, family role, ethnicity or religion. And if the setting isn’t appropriate or convenient to have a useful chat, arrange for another time to interview them.

Your personal contacts might also lead you to other experts in their extended networks. The idea that every person on earth is “six degrees of separation” from any other person is actually pretty amazing when you think about it. Anyone you regularly cross paths with, from your mother to your plumber, likely knows someone who knows someone.

But don’t be afraid to take a leap and call or e-mail a stranger whose name you uncover while researching. The worst they can do is ignore you or say, “Sorry, I can’t help you.”

What kind of expertise would help you write your story?
8:25 AM Laurel Garver
Book and Internet research can provide you will all kinds of wonderful facts and details, as well as stimulate your thinking about possible story events, locations, and people to inhabit your fictional world.

But this sort of research isn’t interactive. It also typically isn’t customized to your specific needs. Thus, you can spend a great deal of time wading through reams of information to get to the facts and details you truly need.

Many times you’ll get the very best information most quickly by speaking with an expert. A ten minute phone conversation might just save you from hours of trawling through page after page of useless information. And more often than not, an actual human being will have insider knowledge that will keep you from making embarrassing mistakes.

For example, a medical book might give you the correct terminology for a hospital procedure, for example, but that term is likely not the one bandied about among the hospital staff. Using the more formal term will make your information seem stilted and naive and could cause readers to lose confidence in your authority over your story world.

Finding experts

You need the right kind of expert who can speak to your story’s particular situation. Your family doctor might know the standard procedure for treating a broken leg, but his knowledge is likely limited to treatment best practices under ideal conditions. You know, in a clean, shiny hospital. But what about injuries in non-ideal conditions, when X-rays and surgery are not readily available? Your family doctor isn’t going to be much help—partly because he will fear opening himself to legal liability by dispensing advice that isn’t clinically defensible. Your better bet would be to find a military field medic, or a mountain climber trained in first aid—someone who has experience with non-ideal conditions.

A golden truth I learned in journalism school is that people love to be considered experts (well, eight out of ten; take into account a certain percentage of natural jerkiness in the general population). Start by approaching people you already know, and be as specific as possible with the kind of information you’re seeking.

Look! A plethora of experts! (Photo DMedina from morguefile.com)
Your friends and family just might surprise you in having a hidden expertise or life experience that would make them excellent resources to provide you authentic details. Staying curious when in social situations can yield amazing opportunities. The cousin seated beside you at your nephew’s wedding reception just might be a law enforcement officer, a Civil War re-enacter, a cancer survivor or oenophile. Even the charming flower girl might help you write a child character by getting you up to speed on youth culture today.

When you meet people, keep your radar attuned to where their interests, experiences, and training intersects with your story world and bravely ask questions. A simple request like “tell me about yourself” can turn a dull party into a research extravaganza.

I once got some amazing research done while at a church luncheon. I was seated by a friend who is a speech-language pathologist, and realized she might know something about speech problems in stroke patients, an element in my story. So I said, “I’m working on a story in which a grandparent has a stroke. What kind of speech problems might he possibly have?” That short chat was more focused and helpful than hours of reading. She knew in practice, not just theory, how patients behave and what the stages of recovery look like. That kind of information is pure gold.

This technique is great for those socially-demanding seasons when you shuttle from wedding to graduation to baby shower. Think about how your story might connect to every person you meet. Tap their knowledge and expertise as a professional, volunteer, hobbyist, or representative of an age group, family role, ethnicity or religion. And if the setting isn’t appropriate or convenient to have a useful chat, arrange for another time to interview them.

Your personal contacts might also lead you to other experts in their extended networks. The idea that every person on earth is “six degrees of separation” from any other person is actually pretty amazing when you think about it. Anyone you regularly cross paths with, from your mother to your plumber, likely knows someone who knows someone.

But don’t be afraid to take a leap and call or e-mail a stranger whose name you uncover while researching. The worst they can do is ignore you or say, “Sorry, I can’t help you.”

What kind of expertise would help you write your story?

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Photo by clarita at morguefile.com
If you’re suffering from serious stress, so much that stringing sentences together feels impossible, try taking a purely visual route to writing. Pick up your favorite writing utensil and doodle instead. It can be a wonderful way to brainstorm elements of your story.

The images don’t need to be great art. Go as silly or serious as your mood dictates. The goal is to get in touch with your the intuitive part of your mind. The jury is still out regarding whether certain kinds of creativity are consigned to a particular side of the brain (studies now challenge a right brain/left brain dichotomy when it comes to artistic, musical and literary skill), but research has consistently shown that drawing can improve memory, increase intuition, reduce stress, and raise levels of helpful brain chemicals. So, let's draw!

Exercises

Doodle floor plans and maps of your settings
Doodle building exteriors from your settings
Doodle interiors of important rooms
Doodle images of key scenes as panels in a storyboard
Doodle a key scene or image from an unusual angle
Doodle characters in their most typical pose and expression
Doodle a range of character expressions
Doodle characters’ wardrobes
Doodle favorite things for each character
Doodle family portraits and family trees
Doodle key memories for your characters
Doodle tattoos and graffiti your character might choose or create
Doodle characters’ dreamworlds
Doodle characters’ pets or livestock
Doodle chapter header images

Have you ever used doodles to brainstorm? Which visual brainstorming (aka doodling) exercise might you try? 
6:30 AM Laurel Garver
Photo by clarita at morguefile.com
If you’re suffering from serious stress, so much that stringing sentences together feels impossible, try taking a purely visual route to writing. Pick up your favorite writing utensil and doodle instead. It can be a wonderful way to brainstorm elements of your story.

The images don’t need to be great art. Go as silly or serious as your mood dictates. The goal is to get in touch with your the intuitive part of your mind. The jury is still out regarding whether certain kinds of creativity are consigned to a particular side of the brain (studies now challenge a right brain/left brain dichotomy when it comes to artistic, musical and literary skill), but research has consistently shown that drawing can improve memory, increase intuition, reduce stress, and raise levels of helpful brain chemicals. So, let's draw!

Exercises

Doodle floor plans and maps of your settings
Doodle building exteriors from your settings
Doodle interiors of important rooms
Doodle images of key scenes as panels in a storyboard
Doodle a key scene or image from an unusual angle
Doodle characters in their most typical pose and expression
Doodle a range of character expressions
Doodle characters’ wardrobes
Doodle favorite things for each character
Doodle family portraits and family trees
Doodle key memories for your characters
Doodle tattoos and graffiti your character might choose or create
Doodle characters’ dreamworlds
Doodle characters’ pets or livestock
Doodle chapter header images

Have you ever used doodles to brainstorm? Which visual brainstorming (aka doodling) exercise might you try? 

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

photo by deegolden at morguefile
If you're heading out on the road (or air or sea) for some much-needed rest and relaxation, you don't necessarily need to lug along your laptop to keep your hand in your writing. Just grab a small notebook and a pen, and you can easily use you leisure travel time to build a repository of details for use in a current or future project.

One of the most fun things to research through observation is setting. If you plan to set a story in your vacation destination, then any and every detail you can record will be useful. But even if your story world is quite different from where you're headed (i.e. science fiction or historical) you may find that observing real-world settings helps you think through key aspects of world building.

Pens ready? Here are some key things to observe and take notes on.

Topography


  • What's the lay of the land? Is it smooth and flat? Undulating with small hills? Mountainous? 
  • What is the quality of the ground? Rocky? Dry? Sandy? Reedy? Swampy? Muddy? Covered with sharp, stiff grass? Full of manicured lawns? Meadow-like? Lush fields of crops? Densely forested?
  • What bodies of water are nearby? Ocean? Sea? Lake? Pond? River? Stream? Creek? Wadi? Swamp?
  • What features of the land do you find most striking for positive or negative reasons? Gather sensory details about how they look, feel, sound, smell, and (where appropriate) taste.

Weather


  • Does the area have distinct seasons? What signs do you see to indicate that? 
  • How much does the temperature change in a given day? 
  • How humid or dry is the air? How does that make your skin and hair feel? 
  • What sorts of storms do you encounter? How does the air feel before, during, and after the storm? How does is smell?
  • What do you like and dislike most about the weather in this location? Gather sensory details about how the weather feels, sounds, looks and smells. 

Architecture 


  • What is the mix of public buildings? Mostly national chain stores, unique boutiques, or struggling mom-n-pop shops? Many office buildings or many factories? How diverse are the houses of worship? How well-kept are the schools?
  • What do most homes look like? How can you tell the prosperous neighborhoods from the poor ones?
  • In what era were most of the buildings built? How do older sections differ from newer ones?
  • What unique features seem adapted for the environment? (i.e. screen porches in buggy places, homes on stilts in flood-prone places)
  • What color schemes do you see most often? What kinds of furniture?
  • What buildings best represent this place? Snap some photos and gather sensory details of how the buildings look, feel, smell and sound.

Culture


  • What kinds of cuisine are offered at restaurants? Ethnic? Fancy? Unhealthy or healthy? Generous portions or stingy? Is food generally expensive, mid-range or dirt-cheap? 
  • What foods do locals love most? (A grocery store visit helps here)
  • What do the locals do for fun? 
  • What activities seem most advertised and supported? Sports? Arts? Shopping?
  • How do the locals dress? Are they fashion-forward or backward? Do they seem to spend a lot of time on their appearance or very little? What sorts of outfit would fit in or draw stares?
  • How do the locals interact with one another and with visitors? Are they chatty or standoffish? Polite or brusque? Easygoing or high-strung and rushed?
  • What's the prevailing mood of the local population? Do they seem happy and hopeful? Angry and annoyed? Discouraged and listless? 
  • What features of the local culture do you find most striking? Snap candid photos of everyday activities and gather sensory details about how foods smell and taste, how venues look, smell and sound.


What do you  most enjoy observing and learning about in new locations?
5:11 PM Laurel Garver
photo by deegolden at morguefile
If you're heading out on the road (or air or sea) for some much-needed rest and relaxation, you don't necessarily need to lug along your laptop to keep your hand in your writing. Just grab a small notebook and a pen, and you can easily use you leisure travel time to build a repository of details for use in a current or future project.

One of the most fun things to research through observation is setting. If you plan to set a story in your vacation destination, then any and every detail you can record will be useful. But even if your story world is quite different from where you're headed (i.e. science fiction or historical) you may find that observing real-world settings helps you think through key aspects of world building.

Pens ready? Here are some key things to observe and take notes on.

Topography


  • What's the lay of the land? Is it smooth and flat? Undulating with small hills? Mountainous? 
  • What is the quality of the ground? Rocky? Dry? Sandy? Reedy? Swampy? Muddy? Covered with sharp, stiff grass? Full of manicured lawns? Meadow-like? Lush fields of crops? Densely forested?
  • What bodies of water are nearby? Ocean? Sea? Lake? Pond? River? Stream? Creek? Wadi? Swamp?
  • What features of the land do you find most striking for positive or negative reasons? Gather sensory details about how they look, feel, sound, smell, and (where appropriate) taste.

Weather


  • Does the area have distinct seasons? What signs do you see to indicate that? 
  • How much does the temperature change in a given day? 
  • How humid or dry is the air? How does that make your skin and hair feel? 
  • What sorts of storms do you encounter? How does the air feel before, during, and after the storm? How does is smell?
  • What do you like and dislike most about the weather in this location? Gather sensory details about how the weather feels, sounds, looks and smells. 

Architecture 


  • What is the mix of public buildings? Mostly national chain stores, unique boutiques, or struggling mom-n-pop shops? Many office buildings or many factories? How diverse are the houses of worship? How well-kept are the schools?
  • What do most homes look like? How can you tell the prosperous neighborhoods from the poor ones?
  • In what era were most of the buildings built? How do older sections differ from newer ones?
  • What unique features seem adapted for the environment? (i.e. screen porches in buggy places, homes on stilts in flood-prone places)
  • What color schemes do you see most often? What kinds of furniture?
  • What buildings best represent this place? Snap some photos and gather sensory details of how the buildings look, feel, smell and sound.

Culture


  • What kinds of cuisine are offered at restaurants? Ethnic? Fancy? Unhealthy or healthy? Generous portions or stingy? Is food generally expensive, mid-range or dirt-cheap? 
  • What foods do locals love most? (A grocery store visit helps here)
  • What do the locals do for fun? 
  • What activities seem most advertised and supported? Sports? Arts? Shopping?
  • How do the locals dress? Are they fashion-forward or backward? Do they seem to spend a lot of time on their appearance or very little? What sorts of outfit would fit in or draw stares?
  • How do the locals interact with one another and with visitors? Are they chatty or standoffish? Polite or brusque? Easygoing or high-strung and rushed?
  • What's the prevailing mood of the local population? Do they seem happy and hopeful? Angry and annoyed? Discouraged and listless? 
  • What features of the local culture do you find most striking? Snap candid photos of everyday activities and gather sensory details about how foods smell and taste, how venues look, smell and sound.


What do you  most enjoy observing and learning about in new locations?