Warning: 4 Dangers of Traveling to Research Your Novel

Filed in The Writing Life by on July 8, 2014 • views: 1059

Travel ResearchA couple weeks ago, I told you all about my trip to research my current work in progress (The Beached Ones).

Now I’m back home, the trip is over, and I’m processing the whole experience.

I thought it only fair to warn you—this type of journey isn’t for the faint of heart. It can be dangerous to your story and your career in the following four ways, but if you’re brave enough, I’d highly recommend risking it!

Danger 1: It May Screw Up Your Scene

First day, in the lovely little town of Harlan, Iowa, I spotted a plane that sits out in a field by itself. I was ecstatic. I had found this plane in my research, and couldn’t believe it was sitting there in front of me. The Internet had given me only a picture and a location—no additional information. Still, it was so perfect for the story I included it in one of my early scenes.

Now here it was, nose pointed to the sky, sitting out in a field by itself just as in the picture. After my initial excitement wore off, I realized that where the plane was located, in reference to the town, was going to throw a wrench in my scene.

It’s a big wrench. The plane is important to my main character, and seeing it provides him with some reassurance that a decision he’s made is the right one. In relation to the rest of the scene, he sees the plane when it makes most sense dramatically. But considering where the plane is really located, it no longer makes sense for him to see it when he does in the draft.

I tried to fix the scene that night. Big mistake. All I got was frustrated. This remains a problem I’ll have to figure out. My options: 1) change the scene so he sees the plane where it actually is and risk losing some of the dramatic effect, 2) leave the scene as is and have the location incorrect (I can hear the good people of Harlan complaining, if they ever read the book), or 3) take the plane out of the scene entirely.

Warning: Traveling to research your novel may throw some frustrating wrenches in your draft. Be prepared.

Danger 2: It May Make You Feel Worse About Putting Your Characters Through Hell

After that first day, I braced myself for more challenges, but my travels from then on supported everything I’m doing in the story. Lake McConaughy, Nebraska, was even more impressive than I had imagined. My trip there helped me pick out the perfect camping spot for my characters. Cheyenne, Wyoming proved to be one of the friendliest places I’ve visited in awhile, and I was able to roam around the hospital unhindered—even got a few good tips from the staff there.

One of the best experiences by far was breakfast at the Diamond Horseshoe Café. A little place you’d likely miss unless you were looking for it (highly recommended if you’re passing through Cheyenne), I’d found it online, but with few details. I wasn’t even sure it was still open. Still, it seemed a perfect setting, so I have a very critical scene happening there, one that affects all the characters deeply, and not in a good way.

I get emotional trying to explain what it was like sitting in that little café Monday morning having coffee and pancakes and envisioning the scene I had written taking place. This café has been going since the 1950s (it was a laundromat before that), and it’s one of those rare little American eateries where everyone is family the minute they walk in.

While eating homemade food and looking out on the hand-painted horses and cowboys on the wide windows, I learned about the couple in the far booth who come every day but Sunday, the waitress who just had a baby who won’t sleep through the night, the cook who thinks it’s funny to say he made an omelet instead of a cheese sandwich (just to freak the waitress out), and the best times of the year to go fishing in the area.

I sat there taking it all in and the scene became real for me. Bad things happen in my book. Yet I found myself caring about the people working there, the ones who live this life everyday, giving so much of themselves to townsfolk and travelers who come through their doors. I had to be careful not to show the emotions coursing through me.

Crap, I don’t want to hurt these people.

Of course, I’m not really going to hurt them. They suffer only in a file on my hard drive, but still, it feels real!

Warning: Traveling to research your novel will make it even harder  to put your characters through the necessary hell they must experience for your story’s sake.

Danger 3: It May Freak You Out

Though I can’t go into details about my final scene and where it takes place as that would give too much of the story away, I do want to convey what I can of my last day. I spent the late morning and most of the afternoon looking over the location, taking pictures, making notes, and jumping up and down because everything was working out so perfectly. The place was even more suitable to my final scene than I had imagined, so I came away that afternoon feeling elated, as well as a little overwhelmed as I had again, relived the most critical scene in the book while standing in the real place.

Mom and I decided to spend some time just goofing off. It seemed appropriate. We had a lovely lunch on the water, did some shopping, and explored the area. We ended up having so much fun that soon the sun was about to set. I had hoped all along to see my location once more in the evening light, as that’s when my scene takes place.

Little did I know how important the timing would be. I mean, freaky coincidental timing.

Returning to that critical location, I parked at a different place to get some pictures in the evening light, and just happened to run into an officer of the law. He was patrolling, as is usual in this location, and I asked him some questions, needing to clarify a few things.

I soon realized that the muse had just introduced me to a very special person. He was one of those who reminds you what life is really about, after all the “bullshit,” as he would say, is shoved aside. When he found out I was a writer, he was happy to tell me what I needed to know—the title tends to invite people to open up, as everyone has a story.

Shivering, clenching my teeth to keep them from chattering (we were on the coast at night in June—cold), I ended up talking to him for a good twenty minutes or more, and during that short spell, got nothing short of gold for my story. Pure gold.

This man had experienced exactly what happens in my climactic scene. He told me details I never could have imagined. I listened as he conveyed case after case, what had gone down in each, and his role in it. I felt like TV’s “Castle” seeing the actual police investigation taking place, but it was even more surreal, as I hadn’t planned this meeting.

I’m sure you’ve had those experiences, where you just happen to run into someone you needed at the time when you needed them. Coincidence, synchronicity, the universe collaborating with you—call it what you will.

But this was beyond that. Not only was the officer a treasure trove of information I needed to legitimize my story, but he was someone who left a permanent mark on my psyche.

Most of us regularly deal with the minutia of everyday life. We take the kids to school, catch up on social media, perform our jobs, cook dinner, and brush our teeth at night. We worry about bills and the dent in the car and the weeds in the lawn and whether or not we have new wrinkles around our eyes. Only occasionally do we face the real stuff—life, death, and the tragedy in between.

This man, on the other hand, sees the real stuff going down every day. He witnesses the results of all the heartache in life, and does his best to try to turn it around in thirty minutes or less. He sees choices being made between life and death, and sometimes has to realize he can do nothing about it.

He spoke from the depths of that experience with a heart as they say in The Grinch Who Stole Christmas, had to have been three times the size of most. I’m still in awe of the challenges he faces on a daily basis, what he has to live with every night because of them, and how through it all, he hasn’t grown angry or bitter—hasn’t even put up his guard to protect himself—but has remained one of the kindest, most open people I’ve ever met.

Warning: Traveling to research your novel may freak you out, especially when amazing people just happen to cross your path and dump into your lap not only gold for your story, but real life lessons that stay with you forever.

Danger #4: It May Scare You to Death

During those twenty minutes I felt the world shift underneath my feet. I sensed a deeper meaning in this journey I’m on to tell a story that before was important to me, but now has taken on a greater significance. What happens between my (currently) private pages actually happens to real people every day.

I knew that, of course, on some level, but the officer helped me to feel that more truly in my heart. My characters are fictional characters, but they represent real people. The story is made up, but it is symbolic of real lives—lives that deserve to be honored.

“Well that’s what writers do!” you may say. We all know this. But I’m telling you, it’s different to look into someone’s eyes and feel it. To stand opposite someone and realize that you don’t want them to read your book at some point in the future and feel that you got it wrong—you let them down.

We all struggle with self-doubt (as I talk about in another post). We don’t know if our stories really mean anything or not. This whole journey, particularly the final step, has shown me that the story I’m striving to tell is even more meaningful than I imagined, particularly to the people who go through similar dramas every day.

Now I’ve met some of those people, I’m a bit terrified—am I up to the task?

I’m going to do my best.

Warning: Traveling to research your novel may have you shaking in your boots at the prospect of returning to the manuscript, because you fear you may not be up to the task, but likely that fear will serve to make the writing better.

Have you had a special experience while traveling to research a novel?

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Comments (6)

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  1. That traveling, Colleen, also helped you to write a better story, I’m sure. Now that I’ve swallowed about give hooks while reading this, I have to ask if it’s already published yet. Put me on your list for this book!

    • Colleen says:

      Ha ha. Thanks, Ann! I’m actually still working on it (in second draft now). My literary pub gets first look after “Loreena’s Gift” is out, so it will be awhile yet, but thanks for the interest!

  2. Marjorie Meret-Carmen says:

    Colleen, I am having a great time navigating your great website..
    blessings, Marjorie

  3. Elizabeth Brooks says:

    It sounds like you’ve had an intensely rewarding journey. I can’t wait to read your story now! xx