Yes, once again, I’m about to do that thing I do, the long drive. It’s funny, but I seem to be repeating a childhood pattern (as we all tend to do). In my case it is the full-out cross-country road trip once a year.
My father is a peripatetic kind of guy. Because of various revolutions and natural disasters and immigration restrictions, his family moved from Leningrad to Tokyo to Mexico City before he was three years old. (We think we live exciting lives – but if you ask me nothing we do holds a candle to what our parents have lived through.) That sense of movement never really left Dad; he got into the U.S. when he was 15 and rode the rails all over the country before he was 18, and I’ve never seen him happier than when he’s behind the wheel of a car (“King of the Road” is one of our family songs).
Though when he married and started a family he put down roots in California, Dad and my mother are both educators, and at the time my siblings and I were growing up, schools still had those three-month long summer vacations. And we spent those long summers on the road, driving all over the country, different routes every year, because Dad and Mom thought that we should see the country. All of it. Intimately. You might even say, would definitely have said if you had seen how grimy we all got after two months on the highway, that we became one with it.
So some of my earliest and most enduring memories and sensations are – movement. Perpetual movement. Constantly changing scenery and huge contrasts: endless brutal deserts turning into palm oases. Towering craggy mountain ranges with pockets of ethereal fields of wildflowers. Geysers and glaciers… and grizzly bears trying to claw their way into the car.
And while there are other life lessons generally associated with the back seats of cars, I really believe that the back seat was where I learned how to write.
I don’t think it’s any surprise that I’m a sucker for big visuals in my reading and my writing, or that I crave stories that have a constantly moving pace and surprises around every bend. I definitely picked up those rhythms and preferences on the road.
But as everyone knows, road trips aren’t necessarily a thrill a minute. Especially in portions of, say, Texas, where the same kind of flat landscape seems to go on for days. Oh, right, that’s because it DOES go on for days. So I did a hell of a lot of reading along some of those stretches, and sometimes would read the same book several times in a trip, which was great training for writing, because with multiple readings you start to see the mechanics of it all. I could recite whole sections of my favorite thrillers and mysteries to my family. I also learned to make up stories to entertain myself. What if that car following us was full of CIA agents? (Oh, right – the car behind us sometimes WAS full of CIA agents. My father is a scientist, and Russian, and that was a suspicious combination when I was a child).
But what if they kidnapped us? What if I was the only one who could get free?
What if those dinosaurs in Dinosaur World suddenly came to life? (Okay, Michael Crichton beat me to that one)
What if there were real ghosts in that ghost town?
You have a lot of time for those “What ifs” on the road.
And God knows all that traveling – the national parks, the different cities, the museums and art galleries and reservations and ghost towns along the way, gave me a whole lifetime of fodder for different stories.
I’m eternally grateful for the traveling because it’s made me completely unafraid about jumping in a car or on a plane and going wherever I have to go to research a story. Not just unafraid, but eager for it. Especially writing supernatural thrillers as I do – the PLACE of a ghost story is sometimes the most important part of the whole deal. I always want to visit and explore the city or region I’m writing about, because it’s the best way to give a reader a true and complete experience. I need you to believe in the reality of the story – to feel and smell and hear things – so I can sneak in there and scare the pants off you.
All that traveling also prepared me for the author’s life – although I never would have known that going in. I don’t think anyone can possibly realize how much traveling is required of an author: not just the research, but the conventions, the book signings, the workshop gigs. It’s a wonderful gypsy life – you go to different cities every year for Bouchercon, Left Coast Crime, Book Expo America, the Public Library Association conference, Thrillerfest, Malice Domestic, Romantic Times – and all your friends are there, including your agent and editor, so you end up doing business in all these different cities. It’s a huge traveling circus, really.
And it helps me with dreaded book promotion that I have no problem driving all over the state – any state – to stop in at bookstores and sign stock. I’d prefer to be driven, but driving itself is relaxing to me, and a welcome break from writing, so I find it a great balance – exhausting, I won’t lie about that, but also rejuvenating.
I don’t panic if I get lost, I don’t worry when little things go wrong, and I really do end up enjoying the ride. And I never, ever forget how lucky I am: I always wanted the kind of life that would take me to new places all the time, and I’ve got it – in spades.
So, that’s going to be my Christmas vacation. And hopefully, I’ll leave all the not-so-optimal aspects of 2010 in the dust. I hope the same for all the ‘Rati.
Now it’s your turn. Are you a road tripper? Was there something else in your childhood that you think prepped you or turned you out as writer? Or, if you’re not already out there shopping, what are you doing for the holidays?