On vacation to Carlsbad Caverns, I saw a sign that started my writing career. I was thirty-eight miles north of Roswell, New Mexico and passed an abandoned rest stop; the bullet ridden sign warned me to “Watch for Rattlesnakes.” At the end of that day, I began writing my first novel, Rattlesnake Lawyer.
You too can begin writing your first novel on your next vacation.
Let’s say you want to write a romantic thriller while on a European vacation. This is the Jet Set Era website after all. After downloading a few books on plot and structure for the long flight, you are ready to begin. The venerable book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell, offers an excellent discussion of the hero’s journey from the known into the unknown and back again.
You are on your own hero’s journey once you leave JFK. After you pass through French customs and rent a car in Paris, you will see the first road sign of your own–a sign that will probably employ the metric system. You know that you’ve left your familiar turf and that Europe will be a character in your own novel.
A long forgotten English professor told me to make “the extraordinary ordinary and the ordinary extraordinary.” How is your new locale like your home town and how is it different? Even before you leave the airport, you can begin the process. What are the bathrooms like? How are we going to get to the hotel safely? How do we communicate with the locals without getting the patented French sneer?
John Travolta and Samuel L Jackson famously discussed how a Paris Quarterpounder is called a Royale with Cheese. These little differences are the details that belong in your book to make it come alive.
When you check into your hotel, and wake up for your first full day, you need to make a decision regarding your novel. Paris can be a friend or a foe in your story. The city can bring your characters together or it can push them apart. Good drama comes from conflict– one character might love Paris, the other hate it, and the two must reconcile before the story ends.
In Joseph Campbell’s version of the hero’s myth, the hero is on a quest for something. In a romantic thriller, it is often some kind of computer file filled with secrets. Alfred Hitchcock called it “the McGuffin.” Usually, the hero encounters a variety of people, each more dangerous than the last before they can bring the McGuffin back from the bad guys.
As you wander around Paris, think of exciting settings for your characters to meet people on their quest. Perhaps they have a meeting with a hunchback in Notre Dame or femme fatale on top of the Eiffel tower. Even better, perhaps your protagonist should encounter the hunchback at the Eiffel tower and the femme fatale at Notre Dame. These scenes have been done countless times before, but if you keep an eye out for the little differences, you can make these scenes fresh and exciting.
Keep an eye out for interesting people who can become part of the story. The traffic cop with the big mustache, might be the double agent. The young couple walking along the Seine holding hands might be plotting to steal the Mona Lisa from the Louvre. Even the loud American tourists take pictures could be a part of your plot. Although if your readers wanted to read about encounters with American tourists who remind them of their next door neighbors, they wouldn’t be reading your book. Keep your characters as exotic as possible.
Take your protagonists even further out of their comfort zone. Get off the Champs Elysee and into the real France, the places the tourists don’t often go. I was once stuck at a New Years’ Eve party near Versailles, where I was the only person who spoke English. At least, I thought I was near Versailles, but I certainly wasn’t in a palace and the host, a punk rocker with a Mohawk did not resemble Louis XIV, even though he did have a miniature guillotine on his coffee table.
Getting lost can be a wonderful catalyst for your writing.
As you take notes along the way, you should synthesize them at the end of the day or first thing in the morning. Do this right away, or your can forget the little details that will make your story come alive.
On your flight home, start putting it all together. You’re writing a novel after all, so use your imagination. If you didn’t make it to the Louvre on Monday, don’t feel that your characters have to have the same itinerary as you. Aristotle came up with the three act structure of drama- the beginning, the middle and the end. Try to place the events of your last week in an appropriate part of the story. The Eiffel tower usually seems to be at the end.
When you touch down at JFK or your final destination, you need to make one more crucial decision about your story. Did your protagonists like their journey and wish to return, or like Dorothy, did they realize that there is no place like home? The character’s decision does not necessarily have to be the same as yours, but chances are that if you liked Paris, your main character will as well.
To be honest, you probably won’t get enough in a single one week Paris vacation to complete a novel. That’s the best excuse to return on another hero’s journey. Rome might be nice this time of year.
Here’s hoping that you too see a sign on your trip and start writing a novel of your own! I look forward to reading it on my next vacation.
Author: Jonathan Miller is the author of Lawyer Geisha Pink, Volcano Verdict, La Bajada Lawyer and Crater County: A Legal Thriller of New Mexico.