I don’t write fiction when I’m travelling, because I want to be in the new place I’m visiting, not focussed on words in my head. But then I miss not doing any writing, so I keep notebooks of impressions and scenes, wine labels, menus, descriptions, receipts.
When I’m home again, I sometimes get ideas for stories set in places where I’ve been. Months, even decades might have passed, but I have the fixings in my notebooks.
I like writing stories set in other places. When characters are immersed in a new culture they don’t understand, they’re forced to question their preconceptions—where they are and where they’ve come from. Before I even generate tension, there is tension.
A year ago I was planning a new novel, and started thinking about taking a trip to Austria with the specific aim of setting part of the novel there. I wanted to do research on a topic I wouldn’t be able to at home.
I wasn’t sure if my idea would work, but I wrote some query letters. My German is only semi-functional, so when I believed the person at the other end understood English better than I could write German, I wrote in English. I could offer only the thinnest of pretexts for disturbing all these people: “I’m a writer from Canada. I hope to write a novel...”
Some letters were never answered, though when I showed up on the doorstep—as I did—I was welcomed. One letter that I’d written in English requested entry to a sanctum where the practicants wore lab coats and gloves to handle fragile objects. An eminent person with many titles wrote that I could come with my film crew to shoot a movie. I decided to reply in my awkward German, thanking the distinguished eminence for generous permission granted. I wrote when I would be coming and what I hoped to see. As a footnote, I added that I would not be arriving with a film crew. I was writing a book. No movie yet. I wondered if I’d been stereotyped as a North American. All they want to do is make movies.
Usually my trips are ad hoc. Look about, check out the place, walk around. For this trip, every day was planned. At first, that felt constrained. Too structured. At the same time, I was seeing things I couldn’t have expected. I told myself to go with the flow. Keep an open mind.
I was allowed to touch to feel textures. Drawers were unlocked with a filigree key. People showed me techniques I would never have seen without their help. They were kind, if also puzzled. Why had I come all the way from Canada to watch them? Did I truly intend to write a book about the work they did? I took pictures and notes. I asked questions.
Now I’m home again and have a book to write. I’m curious to see how the notes and impressions I collected will reconfigure as fiction. I know I want to travel to do research again.
Alice Zorn’s book of short fiction, Ruins & Relics, was a finalist for the 2009 Quebec Writers’ Federation First Book Prize. In 2011 she published a novel, Arrhythmia, with NeWest Press. She has twice placed first in Prairie Fire’s Fiction Contest and won the 2013 Manitoba Magazine Fiction Award. She lives in Montreal, Canada and can also be found at http://alicezorn.blogspot.ca/. Her second novel, Five Roses, will be appearing with Dundurn Press in July, 2016.