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New Ghost Stories III

For writers, international travel is generally a very good thing: even if you don’t write about your travels directly, encountering different places, cultures, and people gives you a certain perspective and insight when you come to write about your own.

There are however certain dangers, afflictions that can show up in a travelling writer’s prose, a sort of literary equivalent of 19th century Grand Tourists coming home with venereal disease. I’ve identified four of them below.

(The examples are invented, but the afflictions are all too real.)

1. A pedant writes…

This condition is particularly common among visitors to cities that have a strong and visible history, a typical example being Rome. The sufferer becomes so overwhelmed by the information they receive and research about the city that they need to pass it on to their readers, whether it belongs in the story or not.

Example:

The two new lovers arrived at the Trevi Fountain in Rome, and stopped to admire the elaborate Baroque craftsmanship.

‘It was originally designed by Bernini in 1629,’ he said lovingly. ‘But not constructed until a century later. It’s 26 metres high and 20 metres wide.’

‘I notice that people are throwing coins into it,’ she said, pointing at a coin glimmering in the water and hoping that he might continue to talk about it for ages. He sounded so erudite when he spoke; just like Wikipedia. She moved a little closer to him.

‘It’s funny you should notice that,’ he said. ‘They say that up to €3,000 are thrown into the fountain every day. The money has been used in part to subsidise a supermarket for the city’s poor. People often try to steal the coins, too.’

‘That’s very interesting,’ she said. ‘Now could you recommend me three hotels in the €50-€75 bracket, and perhaps share some useful weblinks?’

2. “I am literally the only person who has ever eaten a pizza!”

Or a baguette, or a croissant, or a frankfurter actually served in Frankfurt.

Example:

I bit into the pastry: it was sweet and fresh, not at all like the croissants sold in supermarkets at home. It was still a little warm from the oven; the pastry flaked lightly away as I bit, and drifted around me in a cloud of flour-based ecstasy that nobody who hadn’t been to Paris could possibly imagine.

I lingered for a while. I may have been a space detective sent back in time to capture the evil Marspirate CheLuck, but right now I was having my croissant moment.

3. “The Henry Miller rush”

This one is most frequently found in prose coming from Paris, where idealistic young authors go in search of poverty and cheap wine, in the mistaken and perplexing belief that sleeping under a stolen urine-stained blanket will somehow make a writer of them.

The symptoms visible in the prose are an almost complete lack of story, an impressive amount of energy expended going nowhere, a hint that there’s probably a very interesting rhythm underlying the prose, if only you as a reader can consume the exact same combination of cheap French wine and narcotics as the writer. Some extreme cases will also leave the reader with the slightly uncomfortable feeling that the author was probably sat naked at a typewriter when he wrote it.

Example:

I’m walking down the streets and they’re the wet streets, the wet, the rain-soaked, the boulevards under the torrents and the thunderclouds that aren’t like the ones back home but this is something new and different and I can feel it in my veins like back home and like where I’m going. Pierre told me once that the real wine, the good wine is like another thing, not wine at all but a way forwards, into your life and into yourself and Pierre was right, damn him, damn Pierre, damn Pierre with his moustache that cried in the winter back there in Avignon where I was before my trust fund ran out.

But there are other Pierres and I have other trust funds and the sky is grey like the mercy they showed him and maybe they’ll show me; like God’s mercy and the mercy of these boulevards that they call the boulevards of dreams, the old dreams, European dreams and hopes and I have my notebook in my pocket and two old pencils with the ends chewed and the leads blunt but my wits are alive under this rain; as alive as Pierre is no longer alive; as alive as the cockroaches in my garret that costs me three thousand euros a month, money I stole – I had to steal! – from the Trevi Fountain when I was there.

Now, let me tell you about the girl.

No. Let’s not let him tell us about the girl.

4. This story sponsored by Linguaphone

More of a technical problem, this, but some writers can get terribly unstuck when it comes to dealing with foreign languages.

Example:

‘Guten tag,’ said Berthold in German. Hello.

‘Hello,’ I said, using Gerthold’s own language: Guten tag.

‘Wie geht’s?’ he asked me: how was I? ‘I hope that you had a good trip, and didn’t have too much trouble with your passport at the border. The guards have been getting more strict later, since the recent political changes.’ He said all that in German as well, but I can’t be bothered to transcribe it.

‘Nein,’ I replied in the negative. ‘Es war nicht a difficult trip, aber it could have been shorter.’

There was a pause. Somewhere in the distance, ein hund barked.

So there you go: four conditions to watch out for when travelling with your muse. The cure, sadly, is almost certainly not less travel but much, much more.

22 Comments on “How travel can damage your prose”

  1. Lane Ashfeldt Says:

    Very funny, must retweet this.

    Less funny is my fear that a recently completed short story may have a touch of Linguaphone syndrome. Not published yet so I can’t elaborate here — but, Rob, any chance you might want to check over the relevant scene and diagnose?

  2. William Thirsk-Gaskill Says:

    I never read travel writing and I tend to avoid fiction set in exotic locations. Generally I can’t stand listening to or reading people who are trying to make themselves sound important. That gets very boring, very quickly. Two books I would give as examples of “exotic” locations that aren’t travel writing are ‘The Old Man And The Sea’ and ‘Captain Corelli’s Mandolin’. The location does come into both, but at no time does the prose sound like a travel brochure.

  3. Peter Schoenau Says:

    Indeed funny remarks but also a real danger to anybody writing – it is an easy temptation to take on the role of the tour guide or the wise guy who teaches you the stony facts of life.

  4. Mira Says:

    The example of ‘the Henry Miller Rush’ is so hilarious that it almost defies the purpose…

  5. Katja Says:

    Haha! I’m currently struggling with number 1 in an article, so this couldn’t have come at a better time. (Note to self: step away from the guidebooks …)

  6. Jack Smith Says:

    I think following any instructions or set of rules on writing can be as damaging to your prose as traveling. You must get to where you are going on your own, without a guidebook or a list of dos and donts.

  7. Suzanne van Rooyen Says:

    I can definitely see the problems in the examples you’ve given but I think burning one’s passport is a bit extreme. I love to travel, experiencing new things which I do incorporate into my fiction writing when I can, when the story calls for it. I deliberately read books set in strange locations because that’s the best way to arm chair travel when the bank account is looking a little anemic.

    To be honest, I don’t completely agree with the sentiment of this article. The ‘afflications’ you mentioned are symptoms of bad writing in general. You don’t have to be a seasoned traveller to suffer from these afflictions and write badly.

  8. Rob Says:

    Suzanne, the reference to burning passports on Twitter was very tongue-in-cheek: hopefully the first and last lines of this post show that I’m very much in favour of travel!

    You’re right that these problems crop up in all sorts of writing. They’re just ones I’ve particularly noticed in the writing of writers setting stories outside their own countries, perhaps because they’re all in their own way connected with the way people encounter new things, be it language or environments.

  9. Suzanne van Rooyen Says:

    I totally understood you meant it tongue in cheek. Really need a humour or sarcasm font for online posts :/

    I guess I don’t feel the same since I’m not American so most of the literature I read set in the States is ‘exotic’ to me. I have set my own stories all over the world from the US (where I’ve never been) to places where I have lived – South Africa, Australia, Finland. Perhaps this perspective and the ability/desire to translate travel experience into prose depends on where you come from and what you view as ‘exotic’.

  10. Tru Says:

    I had to laugh at Example 1 given here. I’m a figure skating fan, and years ago I bought a small-press novel written by another fan and set during an imaginary Olympics in the near future. Although the basic plot was good, it suffered miserably from Pedant Syndrome. Nearly every time a character opened his mouth, a string of “interesting historical Olympic factoids” issued forth from his lips. They couldn’t run into each other in the cafeteria for breakfast without ending up talking about the year in which Olympians first had breakfast, the name and nationality of first Olympic athlete ever to eat breakfast, and the remarks he made after he ate that historical first Olympic breakfast. Literally everything they saw and did turned into an excuse for a character to parrot some tidbit of information the author had come by in the course of research. True, one of them was supposed to be a journalist, and some of the information was discharged in the form of “columns” he supposedly wrote for his newspaper. That was actually a comfortable context for them to appear in, because journalists do research Olympic factoids and work them into their columns when they go to a Games. But having every character, from athlete to janitor, deliver spiels of Olympic trivia in response to every conversational opening presented by another character was too much. I wanted to tell the characters “You know, I really don’t give a damn what the chairman of the IOC at the time had to say about the uniforms worn by the Upper Slobbovian team in the opening ceremonies in 1948. Please let’s get on with the story.”

  11. Christopher Says:

    As a confessed, obsessed traveler, I found this hilarious. A must read.

  12. Lisa at Wanderlust Women Says:

    So funny because it’s so true, especially 1 and 2

  13. Charles Lambert Says:

    These are a joy, Rob. Thank you.

  14. Kristian Jackson Says:

    The glut of “how not to write” articles published online has become a little overwhelming in recent months (and some of the advice given terrible), but this list is brilliantly observed. As other commenters have noted, it’s easy to find yourself falling into the above traps (and *ahem* I was very much in the process of falling foul of the second one before reading this) in the misguided belief you’re adding colour, when in fact you’re turning your work into a subpar travel guide. Great job Rob!

  15. m Says:

    Oh God, I’m in love with the Henry Miller rush, I’m going to get naked, I’m going to make him, HIM, grow a moustache, I’m going to stare at the sky. Pray for rain.

  16. Douglas Penick Says:

    Wonderful. And why not the bearer of bitter truths:

    “No one who hasn’t used the toilets in the Forbidden City can know what real squalor is.”

    And the sensitive sharer of contact with locals:

    “He held out his calloused hand, his eyes staring into mine with centuries of his country’s suffering.”

  17. How travel can damage your prose « Black and White World Says:

    […] across this funny but true article at The Fiction Desk – How travel can damage your prose. I’ve definitely seen more than a few of these examples for real. Share […]

  18. Cal Wallace Says:

    Fiction writers often advise that the reader should always be taught something in effective prose.

    There are some terrible examples above, but I’ve learned a few things.

    €3,000 in the Trevi fountain every day?

    I’m getting the next flight to Rome 😉

  19. Claire Gillis Says:

    Not done the urine blanket but did do a cat piss mattress whilst backpacking in South Africa in Journey. Did WONDERS for my inspiration 😉

  20. Jude Says:

    Ha brilliant, some good tips here, and funny, too. I think the first one is applicable to everyone, not just people who’ve been to Peru and Nepal and Australia. Only include interesting, worthwhile details – less is often more! Readers have great imaginations when given just a snippet of information.

  21. Catherine Says:

    Oh Lord I think I’m guilty of a touch of these! I’ve lived in too many places and unfortunately it seeps through.. Don’t even know where home is anymore!

  22. joy2elmundo Says:

    Great article. Hilarious! Going to retweet. As a world traveler and a writer I’ll have to watch out for this…

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