There’s nothing quite like traveling to encourage the creative spirit, and a few years ago I was fortunate enough to be able to backpack from Peru to Argentina, making stops in Bolivia and Uruguay along the way. Though nothing can replace experiencing a country Reading in Ecuador style, i.e. becoming a semi-permanent ex-pat, when one travels, the itinerant experience gets one’s mind out of its ‘comfort zone,’ and truly kickstarts whatever it is that you are working on into the next level.
Whether you write or not, experiences while traveling are invaluable, and here are three lessons that I took from my experience in South America, lessons that I was able to bring to the page.
1) Being an Outsider makes you more Empathetic – To get a storyline you need conflict, but to make interesting characters you must have them engender empathy from your readers.
There are few things that allow you to empathize with the human condition more than being a foreigner, a stranger in a strange land, as it were. Your surroundings are unfamiliar, the language is not your own, and everyone you’ve come to rely upon in your life is half a world away.
And yet … you find kindness. A stranger gives you directions, a shopkeeper tries to speak with you in your own language, or a fully-booked hostel operator calls his colleague at midnight to see if they have a bed available.
The empathy that you (hopefully) receive during your travels is magnified by a hundred, because you need it that much more. You feel the kindness in the depth of your being, and this is the kind of emotion that you need to inject into your characters. Your heroes might go above and beyond their own self to accomplish a goal, and although your antagonists might not be outwardly empathetic, it helps to give them an unselfish (albeit ill-conceived) goal to hang their narrative upon.
2) Spanish is only the beginning of the Latin American Experience, and this gives you insight – I met a few Aymaran women in Bolivia, and even met a Nicaraguan man on a Peruvian train who was headed to a summit of indigenous peoples. They spoke their second language of Spanish extra-slowly for me, and their world was not quite that of the known narrative of their respective countries. The tales that they told went far beyond what I was expecting from South America.
The literary lesson here is to ‘go beneath the surface.’ Whether you’re writing Western Sagas, Noir Mysteries or Harlequin Romances, there are quite a few ‘surface tropes’ that are ever-present, and often expected. The cowboy has a brawl in a saloon, the detective finds a long-legged blonde entering his office with a strange request, and the strong-chested romantic hero might do whatever strong-chested heroes are supposed to do!
Now think of the fact that Latin America has much more than just Spanish and Portuguese … there are 180 indigenous languages found in Brazil alone!
Your writing should explore this manifold depth of the human experience. It should have more than just cowboy brawls, long-legged mystery blondes and strong-chested Harlequin heroes. South America has hundreds of cultures, and every country has hundreds of different experiences. You should bring this variety to your writing. Your cowboy can be a former lawyer from New York City with a phobia of gunplay, your noir detective could be a secretly transgendered woman, and your Harlequin romantic hero could be … whatever would make them unique!
3) Anything can happen on an Island – During a stay in Copacabana, Bolivia, I was fortunate enough to be able to visit Isla del Sol, right in the middle of Lake Titicaca. One normally thinks of an island as floating in the ocean, often being its own country, but sizable islands can live in freshwater lakes as well.
When I toured the island, there was a sense of peace there – and also a sense of isolation. One could hide away from society on that piece of land, or even create a new society if a literary plot device allowed it!
In my second book, Spanners: The Fountain of Youth, the main character Phoe (pronounced ‘Fee’) is a Phoenix-class Spanner, and this means that her class of being is destined to fall in love, get her heart broken, die in flames, and then be reborn anew. In her latest lifespan she gets reborn on the Isla del Sol, and there happens to be a strange cult living there, one that raises her under harsh circumstances.
Such a cult doesn’t exist on the Isla del Sol of course, but it could – the island just has that feeling that it’s its own country, isolated from the rest of the world.
When you write an interesting setting into being, it doesn’t need to be an island. It can be a secret garden, a magical house that only children can see, or even a dream state within one of your characters. But if you bring that ‘world slightly apart’ feeling to the place, the one so present on Lake Titicaca’s ‘Isla del Sol,’ your narrative will reach heights (and depths) that you’d never thought possible.
So there you have it – traveling in South America can bring these experiences to the page, and that’s just the start. Whether you’re looking to write or do anything else, traveling gets you out of your comfort zone, and will ultimately help take whatever it is that you want to do … to the next level.
Jonathan Maas is a writer living in Southern California. He was fortunate enough to receive a 5-star review for his first book: ‘City of Gods: Hellenica’ from Reading in Ecuador, and has recently released his third book, Flare.