The Magic of Changing Places

Kate Flora: If this were any other March, my husband Ken and I would have recently completed our marathon drive to Florida, where we would spend the month. We would have spent those hours on the road listening to a novel—probably Dickens—and arrived at our rental with a sigh of relief. Alas, Sanibel Island, where we have rented for many years, was nearly destroyed by Hurricane Ian. So this year, because winter is too long and we feel the need to get away, we’re going west.

I’ve blogged before about the value of being in new and different places and seeing new things. There’s something about different weather and about temperatures that are different from New England in March that can be inspiring. So can seeing different vegetation, different animals, and different types of houses. Botanical gardens will have different plants. People’s yards will have different landscaping. Restaurants may feature different ethnicities. There is so much to observe in a new place, or a different one.

As a writer, I find these changes of scene particularly valuable. There’s a kind of brain reset that happens when I have enough concurrent days when I don’t finish my morning coffee and amble over to my small, crowded office where my unending to-do list confronts me. The light coming through the windows will be different. The views outside the windows will as well. There will be new smells and sounds and sometimes even the leaves on the trees will sound different when the wind blows.

When I used to teach writing (something I miss, by the way) one of the exercises I would give my students was to have them carry index cards with them (or a small notebook) and write down things that they observed. Often, at the second class, having been given this assignment, some of them would come in and say they hadn’t seen anything. I would ask if they used headphones or earbuds and usually got a yes. “You have to unplug,” I’d say. “Writers are observers.” And then I could tell that despite what their mothers had told them about minding their own business, their passion for writing was a license to be nosy.

I am sure that some of them were shocked. But being nosy is one good way to collect places, and characters, and voices. My writing partner, Joe Loughlin, used to say it was important to try and involve all the senses, and he was right. Another exercise I used to give my students was to choose a place and describe it three times, each time using only one isolated sense. It could be a revelation to aspiring writers to break the process out like that and see what they discovered. I called it “tuning up their observation skills.”

A few years ago, my husband was shocked when I started vacationing without my laptop. Before that, it always seemed that book arrived from my publisher either just as I was leaving for vacation or while I was away. And as some of you know, publishers always want the manuscript turned around in a week. I even carried it in my backpack on a hike through the Czech republic. I am not taking Mr. Laptop on any more hikes, but he’ll definitely be coming to Utah and Arizona with me. I hope he’ll have a good time and not try to be too productive.

So in a few days I am off. It will be so sad to miss lounging by the pool and long beach walks every evening just before the sun went down. I’ve worked on a lot of books on Sanibel over the years. Sometimes I wonder whether the warm weather might have mellowed Joe Burgess as he gets older and grouchier. Maybe someday I’ll go back and reread the whole series and see if those I worked on in Florida, or on Bailey Island, feel any different.

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9 Responses to The Magic of Changing Places

  1. jselbo says:

    Ahh – how far West? The description exercise – using different senses – love that.

  2. John Clark says:

    Have a safe trip. I like what I call conversation mining-listening to other people so I get snippets of dialogue and different perspectives. Travel is good for that, but so is listening to real Mainers…especially at town meetings.

  3. maggierobinsonwriter says:

    Have a wonderful trip. I just got a new laptop to take with me on our own western adventure in April. We used to rent condos in Clearwater Beach for a month or two at a time, and it never failed–despite me letting my editor know the EXACT dates of our trips, I’d always get a book to deal with. The only sun I saw was out the window.

  4. matthewcost says:

    Have a great trip and make sure you return with some new ideas in your bag!

  5. kaitcarson says:

    Have a great and safe trip! Looks like a fun itinerary. Sanibel is coming back. The lighthouse has been re-lit. Progress.

  6. Diane Morgera says:

    Great ideas, thanks!

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