For me it starts with an idea that kicks around in my mind, giving birth to characters, cultivating a plot.
The late Thom Steinbeck once imparted this bit of wisdom on me that he’d been told by his famous father, John, who wrote Travels With Charley, arguably the mother of all road books:
“You should carry a story in your head, live with it a while before trying to write it down. You should be able to take a lie detector about your story and characters before setting pen to paper.”
Only then, after months of scribbling notes about plot development and characterization, am I ready for the road.
Or so I thought.
I had planned a cross-country jaunt as the setting for my story. However, the day before departure (in late June, 2014), I had second thoughts and changed the itinerary.
My reasoning: Driving cross-country means too much time in a vehicle and not enough in the places that provide the aromas, flavors and sounds I’d want for peppering my prose.
More important, a cross-country drive is something of a cliché, and I felt that my idea for a novel deserved better treatment.
So I carve a new route that takes me from home base in Santa Barbara through Las Vegas, Nevada and into Park City, Utah—a twelve-hour drive—for the first overnight.
This establishes motion.
The essence of a road trip—and my novel—is motion.
Such motion needs to be conveyed to the read as if he/she is present, sitting in a car motioning along with the story's characters, overhearing dialog, enjoying the scenery, and witnessing every nuance.
Kerouac’s On the Road achieves this with “spontaneous prose”—part of the reason for its enduring success.
For my road trip, I take with me a friend who will partly form the character of my first-person protagonist. I want to see how this individual reacts to outside-the-box situations and unexpected events, reactions that will later become part of the story I write.
Now all I need to do is enjoy the ride; observe, and take lots of notes as our journey weaves from Utah to Jackson Hole, Wyoming and up to big sky country in Montana before veering southwest and rolling through Idaho, across Oregon, and finally alongside the Coastal Redwoods of northern California.
By the time I get home, I have a journal packed with detail and a mind stimulated by new experiences.
That’s when the fun begins; what Nietzsche called taking all that chaos and birthing it into a dancing star.
I know, from experience, that the time to write arrives when I can’t not write i.e. when a first line, or three, reverberate around my skull until, like a volcano, they erupt from my fingers onto a computer screen. Thereafter the words continue to flow like hot lava.
I write the way I road trip: end a writing session (or overnight somewhere) knowing where I’m heading next, so I will awaken in the morning with direction, excited to continue.
This—the writing—is the fun part, where I get to weave genuine setting with fabricated story, a marriage of journalism and fiction.
Restaurants, and the aroma of indigenous dishes, are woven into my story along with real people encountered along the way. Even random incidents become anecdotal to the plot, a verisimilitude that can never be accomplished by staying home and studying Google maps.
During the road trip, my friend/protagonist gets pulled over in Wyoming for speeding after he overtakes an unmarked police vehicle.
It goes into my novel.
A piece of jewelry I purchase in Boise becomes one of the story’s most poignant moments.
While traveling, in real time, I post captioned photos and commentary on this blog, named after the vehicle (acronymically, the COW) that I purchased just for road tripping.
The real reason I run this blog is so once my writing erupts I have a chronological photo essay for reference.
Although my methodology is to have plot and characters in my mind before rolling off anywhere, it can, of course, be done the other way round.
Take a road trip and be inspired by all the new stimuli and knowledge you encounter.
At the very least, bring your senses alive, clear your mind.
At best, you might stumble into the story of your life.
A road trip is a metaphor for living.
Because let's face it, we all end up at the same destination.
It is the journey. What we do, what we learn, how much fun we have, what we experience. This is what that truly matters.