Writerly travels

Does your writerly brain stay ‘on’ when you travel?

Last month I was lucky enough to spend 5 days in San Francisco. Being a “native” Californian, of course I’d been to SF before, but it has been a while, so I took everything in with new eyes… and I noticed my writer’s brain was engaged. It’s a place that’s so rich in experience and history, it’s hard not to come away with ideas for places, characters, situations.

My hostess, a recently transplanted Iowan now residing in an apartment near Fisherman’s Wharf, thought it would be a kick to take a couple of the double-decker bus tours. The first one lead us all through the major areas: Union Square, Embarcadero, the Financial District, Chinatown, North and South Beach, and does a drive-by of Lombard Street. The potential stories found in that 45 minute bus ride alone were amazing: did you know any flat part of San Francisco is built on landfill, and much of the landfill is the corpses of ships that were abandoned during the gold rush? Did you know the history of the phrase “Sugar Daddy” can be traced directly to a statue in the middle of Union Square? Do you know which celebrities now call San Francisco their homes? Then we took the “Golden Gate tour” – and there I learned that Mark Twain said of San Francisco “The coldest winter I ever spent was the summer I spent here.” The incredible Presidio, which was the oldest US military base, is now being turned into private (rented – at $10,000 a month!) housing, and parts of it are being taken over by Hollywood to become studios for the guys and gals who brought us Star Wars. The Golden Gate Bridge has to be repainted pretty much continuously… when they finish one section, the others have all gone ragged looking. Many potential story ideas here.

But besides the great tours, I came back with some fantastic impressions of life in general in this new city. My hostess gets up each morning, walks to Peet’s (Starbucks is only for tourists!), grabs a coffee and hops on the trolley which she then takes to work. By getting on the trolley two blocks west of her apartment instead of the one a block south, she avoids the throngs of tourists who don’t know they have other options. On the ride to work, she passes the incredible Ferry Building where people shop for olive oil, bread, specialty mushrooms, chocolate, cooking utensils and then finish it all off with a glass of wine at the wine bar. Tons of story ideas there, too… And then once in her office, she has a glimpse of the whole hilly city, all its inhabitants, all its flavor. Here I have some color for my character’s life.

I took notes. I grabbed brochures and flyers and BART maps and napkins and took photos. I have a new folder marked “San Fran” and have included my scribbled ideas, memories, and questions on the cover while it protectively encases my memories so that I can dive in and bring up something wonderful sometime when I need inspiration.

So, what vacations have filled your head with writerly thoughts and ideas?