Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Travel Tuesdays: How Traveling Informs My Writing

If you're a writer, all of your experiences influence your writing. Your childhood, family life, friendships, travels- everything that helped shape you as a person also helps shape you as a writer. This is as true for me as for any other writer.

I'm generally pretty reserved about sharing my publication aspirations here, but when I have, readers have responded. I'm also trying to push out of my comfort zone. Today I'll talk about how one specific trip has impacted me as a writer.

Back in the late nineties, I traveled to Niger, West Africa. While each of my travels has changed me or helped me grow, my interactions with children in a village outside Niamey, touched me in a deep and meaningful way. All these years later I can conjure up vivid images of my interactions without ever looking at a photo.

I used those strong emotional connections to write a fictional picture book manuscript about a young American boy who's traveling in Niger with his father. (Note: I have a notoriously hard time thinking of titles for my stories. I LOVE the title of this one, so I won't share it. I don't want anyone to steal it!)

The walk to the plateaus outside Niamey, Niger.
Ryan has heard that camels in Niger dance when the rainy season finally begins. He hopes he'll get a chance to see them dance. But as he and his dad hike up nearby plateaus, Ryan worries the rains will never come. He wonders how anything can survive without water for so long. The village boys he plays with along the way teach him more than the truth about the rainy season and camels.

Did the plot of this story happen to me? No. It's fiction. But the feelings and some of the events did. For starters, I was overwhelmed by the lack of water. Until then, all of my travels had been to places with sufficient (or even too much) water. I never appreciated my sweat until that trip. (It really does cool you!) So it seems natural to me that I would write a story about yearning for rain.

Did I meet local children? Yes. It's impossible not to when you're the only white people for miles and everyone stares at you. Kids run up to you out of curiosity. I also had some lovely interactions with children in a village on the way to the plateaus outside Niamey.

View from the top.
And here's the place that my travels most informed my writing. My sense of place. Everything I write is written with a naturalist's eye. Even when I'm not writing a "nature" piece, my observations of place creep in. Perhaps it's in a direct observation. Or perhaps it's how that place makes a character feel. Or what the environment represents to the main character. These are the details I cannot make up. I can invent a story about an American boy playing with Fulani boys but I can't fully capture how the environment makes those boys feel and how they interact with it unless I've been there. At least that's how it is for me. I know some writers can research a place carefully and capture a sense of place in their writing. My descriptions fall flat if I haven't experienced them.

How about you? Are you a writer? How do your experiences influence your writing? Parents and teachers, how do you help your students use their experiences to inform their writing?

One funny aside: While I was in Washington, DC last week, I ran into a guy I had met in Niger all those years ago (Hi Djimrao!). I couldn't believe it. The world really is small.

Related Posts:
Haying Experiences Turned into a Picture Book Manuscript
Adoption Insensitivity (Inspirations for another manuscript)


  1. Love this post! Personally, my experiences influence my writing in terms of what I've learned from them--what they've revealed to me, how they've changed me, how they've challenged me to change etc. I think students sometimes have a hard time writing from their own experiences--perhaps because they don't believe (sadly) that it's relevant or appropriate knowledge for the classroom. One way I've tried to encourage them to write from their experiences is to really focus on sensory writing--thinking about how something felt, smelled, sounded, etc.

    1. Thanks, Katrina.

      I agree. Sensory details can help kids get into their writing. Author/poet Lyn Littlefield Hoopes once told me, "The greater meaning is found in the details." (Or words very close to that). It's a great point to remember when writing- a way to "show not tell." A telling detail will reveal so much more than abstract statements.

      I'm so glad we found each other's blogs through the comment challenge! Thanks for visiting.