The Armchair Traveler
by Piper Maitland
When I sit down to write, I never know where my characters will take me—cliff top monasteries in Greece, a white clapboard house in Appalachia, or a four-story Italian villa. I really liked that villa. It was located on a private island between Isla Murano and Venice, and wild parakeets flitted in the olive trees.
But I don’t always end up in majestic settings. The sewers of Paris gave me a headache. An island near the Arctic Circle was too cold; reindeer walked down the main street, and the locals carried shotguns. I kept going, because grim scenery holds lessons, teaching me and my characters to find truth and beauty in unlikely places.
When it comes to story structure, I’m not much of a plotter or outliner, and I don’t pick locations in advance. While a setting is a critical component of fiction, it serves as the backdrop for a character’s inner geography. Sensory details create a fictional country, one that can be seen, smelled, heard, felt, and tasted. These elements should push the story forward, deepen the characters, and establish the scene’s tone. I’m not writing a travelogue, but I never know which image will be important, so I don’t censor myself—or the characters. The editing will come when the journey ends.
In Hunting Daylight, the armchair travelling took me to Marrakech. I’d never been to Morocco and didn’t know what to expect. As I studied photographs of the Djemaa el-Fna Square, I could almost hear the snake charmer’s music. The air was laced with smells of roasted lamb, mint tea, and peppery spices. The call to prayer began, a tinny, ethereal sound, and shopkeepers fell to their knees. I kept going, gathering colorful images as if they were spilled crayons.
Sometimes an imaginary excursion will feel all wrong, or I won’t know where I am. When one of my vampires picked up a machete and hacked his way through vines and bushes, I felt disoriented. Rain was falling in punishing torrents, then it abruptly stopped, and primates began chattering in the trees.
The character had brought me to a rainforest, possibly in the Congo or Gabon. Two places I knew nothing about. But I was pretty sure that the equatorial sunlight would penetrate the canopy and fry my vampire. Why was he here? Shouldn’t he find a more suitable setting? What about northern Denmark, preferably during the Polar Night?
My vampire refused to leave this unnamed rainforest. As he set off to explore it, I unfolded a Rand McNally map. A green patch in Gabon, Africa caught my attention. Few roads led to the Birougou rainforest. It seemed like a place of extreme biodiversity, danger, and isolation. Commercial jets didn’t fly over the nearby Bateke Plateau, and for good reason. If a plane crashed, rescue efforts would be thwarted by the forest’s terrible infrastructure. If my vampire wanted to be here, then he had a good reason. And I had work to do.
I write and research concurrently. I’ll jot down a scene, then study maps and photographs. Next, I’ll immerse myself in a country’s language, quirks, history, and cuisine. Meanwhile, the characters are looking over my shoulder, and when an image provokes them, I get excited, too, and I’ll race back to my laptop. Sunshine might be streaming over my keyboard, but I don’t see it. I am standing in a dark jungle, listening to the rushing sound of the Nyanga River.
From the safety of my armchair, I watch my vampire and his guide move into a narrow clearing. The moon is caught in tangled limbs, casting rippled light over the black water. Then I hear a splash. I spring out of my chair and raise a lantern. A sixteen-foot crocodile punches through the water, and its jaws crunch down on the guide’s shoulder. Now my vampire is having second thoughts about this location. He isn’t at the top of the food chain. What will he do? Fight or flight kicks in, and the vamp sprints through shadowy weeds. But something is wrong with this part of Gabon. The air has a dank, weighted feel, like the crypts in a New Orleans graveyard. This near the river, he should see the hulking shapes of crocodiles and hippos. The moonlight glints on bones, and some look human. The vampire runs farther into the unknown, and I’m right behind him. Neither one of us look back, not even for a second.
Piper serves up an extra-hot excerpt tomorrow, Feb. 12th, at dangerousromance.com!
Follow Piper on Twitter: @PiperMaitland.
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