There is an old adage that says you should write what you know. And I agree – as long as you take the idea of ‘what you know’ very broadly. For example, there are many writers who have written novels about places they have only been to briefly or not at all. An obvious example would be any writer of science fiction. None of them have been to Mars, yet plenty of them have written about it. Less obvious examples are Franz Kafka, Saul Bellow, and of course, Shakespeare. A love of research and an active imagination can make travel really unnecessary when it comes to writing fiction. I wrote my first novel about Cambodia, A Clash of Innocents, after a first ten day trip to the country. I had never been there before, or anywhere else in Asia for that matter. But nonetheless, I was able to write a novel that rang true with many of my readers who already knew the country well. Why was that?
I would like to say it is because of my great talent and technique. But, it probably has more to do with a wide-eyed naivete which traveled with me on that trip. Everything I saw was thrilling. Everything I experienced felt life-changing. But when I was back home with my notebook on my lap, I was thinking more about the shared humanity that I found amidst the exotic sights and smells. As I outlined my plot and my characters, it seemed I knew them because they were based on all the humans I had met in my life on this planet thus far. I had kept my eyes and ears open without realizing it, and the result was a foreign orphanage full of adults and children which rang true. The more I returned to Cambodia, the more depth I was able to add to those characters and their surrounding landscape and culture. But it was my experience as a girl, then a women, a wife, then a mother, a writer and a teacher, that allowed it to happen in the first place.
So, why should a writer travel? Well, of course, should has nothing to do with it. Many do not have the financial resources that have allowed me to travel. But I find that, for me, experiencing a place with a conscious, wide-eyed naivete allows that door to creativity to open wider than it would otherwise. It has more to do with seeing, hearing, tasting and smelling than anything else. To write, I need to sense. Travel forces me to do that much more deeply. It takes me out of myself and my normal, and catapults me into the other. That is where my creativity lies.