I Guess You Had to Be There

December 3, 2015

These days it’s fairly common for mystery writers to combine their passion for mayhem with a second great love.  As a result, the amateur sleuth will often be found mulling over clues in a coffee bar or flower shop or bakery or in the company of a cat on a windowsill.  In my case, the second great love is travel.  Long before I pulled my first literary trigger, I had skipped my high school graduation to spend as much pre-college time as possible backpacking my way across Europe.  This was back in the hippie days.  My parents were not happy.

When I finally had the brainstorm to create a travel agent detective, I had already compiled a stack of memory postcards from five continents, along with hundreds of anecdotes, my own and ones I’d heard along the way.  I thought these would be enough to service a dozen novels, but it’s surprising how quickly my characters are using them up.  At first I was concerned by this extravagance.  Was I going to run out?  But then the realization came: this gives me the excuse to travel even more.  And it’s totally work-related, although I have not yet had the gumption to take off my worldwide jaunts as tax deductions.

But world travel is not always easy.  When money is tight or my wanderlust has trouble fitting into my schedule, I feel tempted to do my wandering not in person but on the internet.  It’s remarkable just how much detail you can get – Google maps, hotel layouts, local customs and diets – without ever leaving your writerly nook.  It’s been a life-saver, I have to admit, when my memory of a place gets a little foggy.  (Was there a flight of stone steps leading up to that Buddhist shrine or just a rocky path?)

A well-intentioned friend suggests that actually transporting myself to exotic locales is no longer necessary.  This is wrong in so many ways.   First off, it’s necessary for my sanity.  And my enjoyment of life.  And my marriage.  But disregarding all that, the reason travel is important in my writing is the same reason it’s important for everyone.  Because it opens us up to the unexpected, to the smells, the people, and the little detours that no tourist website can predict.

A great example was my latest adventure in South America.  I knew that I wanted to use this trip as the basis for a mystery, but I arrived with no preconceived notion of how the story would unfold.  One of my stops was Buenos Aires.  The Argentine capital held all of the expected allure: wide avenues, misplaced European architecture, great steaks and the tango.  But I found myself totally captivated by, of all things, graffiti.

Many cities, of course, are festooned with graffiti.  But what fascinated me in Buenos Aires was the passionate political nature of many of the murals.  The wounds left by the military juntas of the 1980s are on open display in the most unexpected of places.  And the idea occurred to me, as I stopped at a highway underpass and tried to analyze an angry painting full of peasants and prisoners and menacing soldiers, that this would work well in a mystery.  There could be something in a mural, some hint of past crimes, a visual clue that could find itself connected to a present-day murder.  It was something I never could have anticipated from a guide book or the internet, but there it was, on the wall of a grimy Buenos Aires underpass.

So, I guess I have to keep traveling.  That’s my point.  And my next adventure, you ask?  It will be a few weeks in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma.  Right now I know all the usual things; Myanmar’s rich history, its political isolation, the stories of Rudyard Kipling, and the ruins of multiple civilizations piled on top of each other.  The one thing I don’t know is where Myanmar will lead me – or, more precisely, where it will lead my travel-loving, crime-solving heroine, Amy Abel.  We’ll just have to wait and see.