Allison Amend is the author of the novels A Nearly Perfect Copy, Stations West, which was a finalist for the 2011 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature and the Oklahoma Book Award, and Enchanted Islands. She is also the author of the Independent Publisher’s Award-winning short story collection Things That Pass for Love. She joined Signature to offer some advice on how to ease the burden of creating a realistic setting in fiction writing through travel.
One of the hardest elements of writing fiction, in my opinion, is setting (apart from characterization, plot, endings, voice etc. In other words, it’s all hard). The goal, of course, is to make sure your readers know where your characters are in space and time, but also to make this information feel essential to the story. Too much setting, and the reader will skip the paragraph, too little and the characters will seem to float bodyless in space. When I am creating setting, I aim for the telling detail, the one or two little things that characterize the whole place (the synecdoche if you will).
But how to find those salient details? I think this is where travel becomes important. Uncomfortable travel. Travel where you don’t know the language, where the landscape is unrecognizable, where, preferably, there is little tourist infrastructure.
I live in New York City where I walk the same streets most days. Occasionally, a store will close or a restaurant will change owners, and it’s almost impossible to remember what had been in its place even a week before – though I must have passed it 200 times, and even patronized it on occasion. That’s the nature of complacency (and it’s probably necessary for our sanity. If we noticed every detail there would be sensory and memory overload).
Therefore, when I travel, I try to visit the unexpected, so that I can be jolted out of this complacency to see the world with fresh eyes, to pick out that strange significant detail that will make the setting come alive in a story.
Last year I visited China, but instead of visiting Beijing and Shanghai, I met up with friends in Zhangjiajie National Park in Hunan Province (the inspiration for the movie “Avatar”). Not only were the karst formations otherworldly (it really did look like Pandora), but we were one of two small groups of western tourists in the park. There were recognizable elements that are apparently native to all national parks around the world – souvenir stands (a McDonald’s at the top of a mountain?), difficult-to-read wooden sign maps (I have to turn a map around in my hands to read it), whining children, fried food, biting bugs. But there were parts that seemed utterly foreign: the entire park had paved paths; on summits, employees made homemade noodles and roasted meat on a stick (which turned out to be not the best hiking food); the Chinese practice different etiquette on crowded paths, and we attracted attention as though we were movie stars. Through comparison, I was able to pinpoint what made American parks so American, to see our national parks in a new way.
This is why I try to stay with people when I travel. (Also, I’m cheap.) By integrating myself into their daily lives, I am forced to examine the habits and choices I make daily, to step outside myself and see a life – my life – as an observer might. “Want to come visit me?” someone might ask offhandedly, and I’ll show up on their doorstep in Bamberg, Germany. “Can I come to dinner?” I might ask a new acquaintance, who lives in a conservative Syrian-Jewish family. What do they eat on Shabbat? “Want to meet me in Tbilisi?” a friend queried recently. I’ll admit I had to look it up (Georgia, bordering Turkey – they make good wine and like to eat dumplings with butter). I bought the ticket yesterday.