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I’m an Alien

[This was originally published as a guest post on John Mierau’s blog]

Alien 2

(photo by rarebeasts)

As I write this, I have been an alien for over three years. I’m a Canadian, but I’ve been in Canada for fewer than two of the past 36 months. I live on a sailboat and since 2008 I’ve been traveling the world about as fast as a dog can run. Sometimes it seems hard to believe.

But all authors spend much of their lives as foreigners. In our stories we, like our readers, are visitors to the fictional lands we’ve created. But unlike our readers, we authors are the tour guides and as such we have to pay attention to the little things that the locals take for granted.

We need to spend some time in our stories, finding the best grocery stores, figuring out the local transit system and poking our noses into that hole in the wall eatery in the sketchy part of town. Each story is an opportunity for cultural exchange between the world we live in and the world of our characters.

Editor extraordinaire Ben Bova wrote, in the must-read The Craft Of Writing Science Fiction That Sells:

Your job as a writer is to make the reader live in your story. You must make the reader forget that he is sitting in a rather uncomfortable chair, squinting at the page in poor light, while all sorts of distractions poke at him. You want your reader to believe that he is actually in the world of your imagination, the world you have created, climbing up that mountain you’ve written about, struggling against the cold and ice to find the treasure that you planted up at the peak.

Writers all know that the key to writing success is best distilled as “butt in chair.” But there’s more to writing great stories than just pounding away at the keyboard. If you want to create a world in your story that is more real to the reader than her own comfy reading chair, you need to get away from the keyboard every once in a while and interact with the real world, especially the parts of the world that are strange. At least, strange to you.

Whether you write mainstream young adult fiction, warm-hearted Christian romance or hard SF space opera, you can get ideas for settings, plots and characters from engaging with people and places that are unfamiliar to you. Visiting a foreign country (or even a foreign part of your own town) can open your eyes to new ways of living, to new styles of dress or culture and to new people.

My attraction to travel is, perhaps oddly for a writer, based more on seeing new places than meeting new people. The humbling solitude of sailing the wide open sea of the Pacific, craning my neck to follow a tropic bird soaring past the peaks of Polynesia, listening to the endless animal song in the jungles of Central America – these are the rewards I seek from a life on the move. But, even so, I know that those places that were the most wonderful of all I’ve visited were made that way as much by the people I met there as by the grandeur of the landscape.

Fiction writing is all about character. Settings, especially in science fiction and fantasy, are incredibly important, but without the characters we love to live through, all that worldbuilding is meaningless. If we want to write compelling stories, we need compelling characters in compelling situations. And travel, at its best and its worst, puts us in a position of meeting all kinds of characters.

Many of the people I’ve met along the way have found their ways into my stories – a turn of phrase here, a hair-raising anecdote there. I’ve learned that the more people I meet, from as diverse backgrounds as possible, the better and more real my characters have become. Plus, people tell wonderful stories about their lives and their homes. Just as a writer must be a reader, a storyteller must be a storylistener as well.

The places I’ve visited and the people I’ve met there don’t show up unadulterated in my stories. I don’t have a story about spending 30 hours on a dilapidated bus in South America and I don’t have a novel set in the ancient Mayan capital of Tikal. But those adventures have given me ideas which do appear in my stories, disguised by the veil of fiction but made more real because of my experience.

This is what fiction writers ultimately do – distill the kernels of their own experiences into stories that, even though they never factually occurred, expose a core human truth.

I have the great fortune of having spent over three years as a full-time traveler, but you don’t need to sail a boat half way around the world to see new places and meet new people. Go for lunch with a co-worker you hardly know. Take a bus to the nearest city or small town. Visit a different church or take in a public lecture at the local college. Expose yourself to something different; don’t be afraid to be the stranger in the room.

Travel doesn’t have to mean expensive vacations. Travel means encountering that which is different with an open mind and a true willingness to learn about something new. And after all, isn’t exposing us to different lives and different worlds what great stories do?

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