Every Moment Of Every Day Is Writing Research — Especially When Traveling
Every time I step onto an international flight, I write down snippets of conversations I hear, what the food tastes like, what my environment sounds like, and details about what I am seeing. When I am abroad I add picture-taking to my efforts. I snap pictures of interesting-looking shops, dark alleys, monuments, cityscapes, and anything else which I might want to include in a novel at some point. I also take short videos of environments where the motion of the crowds or the sounds of the environment will add to the sensory details.
Readers crave excitement, escape, romance and thrills, but they also demand authenticity. That's why John Grisham's legal thrillers, and Marko Kloos' military science fiction novels do so well—both of those authors have lived what they write about. That, of course, leads to the cliché of write what you know. But, J.K. Rowling, despite the rumors, never attended a magical school. But she does live in the U.K. and the details of that knowledge show up in her writing.
You don't have to be a practicing lawyer to write a thriller set in a law firm, and you don't have to have been a soldier to write military science fiction set during a war. You do, however, need to do your research, and get practiced at capturing details of the world around you. To practice that, I advise you to document your life—especially when traveling.
Let's explore this concept with two versions of the same story about an adventure I had (true story by the way) at a concert in Japan. The first version of the story will be something literally anyone could write. The second version of the story is something only I could write, using the details from my documentation and memory.
Concert Culture Shock — Version 1 (Lacking Details - 1st Past Tense)
I went to Japan to visit friends and see a concert. I speak the language, but I am not native-level fluent. Thankfully Japan has a huge train network that can get me pretty much anywhere in the country if I take the right combination of trains.
As it turned out, finding the right combination of trains was harder than I thought it would be. I got lost a few times and barely made it to the concert venue on time. It turned out that the Saitama Super Arena wasn't actually in Tokyo, but instead it was in a neighboring prefecture right on the edge of Tokyo.
Walking into the venue, happy that I hadn't missed the Oribe Risa (LiSA) concert, I definitely stood out in the crowd, so much so that a Japanese news crew even wanted to speak with me. I eventually made my way to my seat following the section and row numbers on my ticket, the same as any arena in the US, and the concert started soon afterward. It was remarkable how different and yet similar going to a concert in Japan was when compared to the United States.
Concert Culture Shock — Version 2 (With Details - 1st Present)
Anyone who tells you that Japan's train system is easy is a filthy liar. Sure, it's easy enough to catch the Yurikamome line near the Ginza and ride that to the waterfront where the convention center and new tourist shopping district are located—because there are stops for it right next to the cluster of hotels in Minato-Ku sitting on the upper decks attached to hotels themselves, and it connects to zero other train lines, aside from Shimbashi station.
Even riding the subways or the JR-lines to get to Shibuya or Harajuku is easy enough with Google Maps or Navitime (Japan's version of Google Maps, for trains) on your phone to tell you which train to ride, and what platform to board from. Basically, if your travels will stay confined to inside Tokyo, usually you'll be fine with the trains. It also helps if you speak the language and can listen to the announcements of stations coming up, as sometimes you can't see the LED screens over the doors when the trains are packed. Pro-tip: in the warmer months, try not to get surrounded by the dudes. The ladies usually smell alright, the dudes tend to smell ... stale ... especially if it is an early morning train. (Japanese guys are expected to stay out late drinking with their co-workers after work, and oftentimes miss the last train home, which means they end up spending the night at the office, a bar, a bookstore, or a karaoke booth waiting for morning).
Having been in Tokyo for several days now, getting around fine, I am a little too confident of my navigational abilities. I also am not aware of the fact that the LiSA concert I plan to attend is outside the Tokyo area. Apparently that makes a big difference in planning trips, and I am an idiot. Can't stress that last point enough.
I hit the pavement roughly three hours before the doors will open at the concert venue. Yes, I obsessively pad my travel times when I am in a foreign country, yes it frequently causes me to be freakishly early when I arrive. No, I won't stop doing it. Making my way to the nearby Shimbashi station I dodge around the crowds and head for the sub-basement level, where the crowds are thinner. I've been to Shimbashi station a few times now. Granted, the first time I ended up there was because I missed my Shiodome stop on the Yurikamome line and had to get off at the end-of-the-line next stop down at Shimbashi—but hey, I was exploring.
According to my Map Apps (Mapps) the most direct route to the Saitama Super Arena is to take the Keihin-Touhoku Line from Shimbashi station to Saitama-Shintoshin station. In Tokyo all of the train lines are color coded (the Keihin-Touhoku line, for instance is a teal green) and they have a one or two-letter code and a number for each station the line stops at (Keihin-Touhoku's letter code is "JK" in case you were wondering. It's a lot more useful than it sounds, trust me). My Mapps assure me that if I get on the "express" train on that line, it will magically bypass a lot of stops the other lines have, and will simply change what line the train is calling itself as it passes from one zone to another. I really, really, like it when the trains do that, as I tend to get lost when I have to switch trains.
My confidence starts to fade as I look around the upper upper deck of Shimbashi and cannot find a teal-green sign anywhere to guide me to the line I need. I head down to the next level, where the JR-lines are located, but still no luck. At this point I've burned through roughly thirty minutes of the 2-hour padding I was giving myself. The train ride itself is supposed to take about forty minutes (according to my Mapps), and I am starting to panic.
Hurrying out to the street level, I start asking random people if they know where the line I am looking for is located. The first two people I ask apologize but tell me they don't know. The third person I ask, an older woman who looks at me suspiciously as I approach her, but smiles when I speak to her in Japanese, points across the street to the entirely other section of Shimbashi station I had no idea existed.
Without any time to be embarrassed, I thank her and hustle toward the correct station entrance. I eye the bank of taxis parked nearby and seriously consider just taking a taxi. But, I took one to Haneda airport yesterday to visit Hiroshima, I know how expensive they are, and Haneda is considerably closer than Saitama.
Things go from bad to worse inside the station. I tap my Pasmo badge on the gate and charge down toward the subways. But I quickly realize none of the signs are showing the line I need. I hesitate. I can keep going deeper into the subway tunnels hunting for it, but if the line I need isn't down there then I am going to miss the concert, which was one of the main reasons I came to Japan. A quick glance at the time on my phone convinces me to give up and take a taxi. I head back out toward the gate and have a very fun (that is a lie) conversation with the gate attendant to let me out and cancel my trip off my Pasmo. Racing back out to the street, I aim for the bank of taxis I saw earlier.
Starting to go numb with panic I thumb open my Mapps trying to find the next nearest taxi stand, and pause. My navigation options to Saitama are now showing a new option. The train I was planning to take is long gone, but a new option has appeared. There's a JR (surface level) train on the Ginza Line that connects to a different train in Ueno which connects to Saitama. I know where the Ginza Line is!
As relief floods every pore of my body with endorphins I sprint for the Ginza Lina entrance down the street. Slipping into the last car on the train on the right platform I relax while clutching the overhead rail and watch the stations tick by on my Mapps as the kilometers between me and my destination shrink. I'm going in the right direction, I—
Why are we stopping?
The train stops at a station whose name I cannot pronounce, and something happens I haven't seen before, ever. Everyone, and I mean everyone, stands up and gets off the train. Leaving me sitting there alone and confused.
Panicking again I stumble out to the platform frantically scanning my Mapps for options. Where the hell am I? After I ask two guys nearby if the train will start moving again I am reassured for a minute when they tell me it will. I believe them for a whole thirty seconds before deciding to check my options again. There are about twenty five minutes left until the doors open at the venue.
Funny story, the train line I couldn't find at Shimbashi is showing on my Mapps as literally the next platform over. It goes directly to Saitama-Shintoshin, and it's leaving in two minutes! Hauling ass like I haven't since my first sparring classes, I crash into the nearest car on the platform and freeze. It's full of women who are now staring at me with a mixture of pity, curiosity and disgust. As the train starts moving their concentrated perfume scent closes in around me, and I realize I accidentally boarded one of the women-only commuter cars (Japan has quite a problem with gropings on crowded trains).
Thankfully, this is one of the few times that I can play the gaijin (foreigner) card and it will help me. I stammer an apology and bow a few times. The women who had been staring in pity and curiosity wave away the apology and return to reading, chatting or looking at their phones. I guess it's obvious I'm a harmless dumb-ass? The women who were staring in disgust keep their eyes on me. Slumping my shoulders I turn to face the door while keeping both my hands in plain sight (very important in situations where one is male and in a place males are not supposed to be) on the too-warm and disturbingly slippery overhead bar and wait for the next station. I swear I hear some of the women laugh as I bolt out of the car at the next station and change cars.
When the train finally arrives at Saitama-Shintoshin roughly twenty minutes later my short shallow breaths have slowed down. My stress levels are still through the roof though. I hurry up to the street level and pause.
The streets are filled, and I mean filled with people. I glance at the time, and then back at the crowds in disbelief. The doors to the venue opened a few minutes ago. While there is still an hour until the show, I figured that by the time I stood in line to get through security and to my seat (if I can even find it), that the show would be starting. The only thing my Japanese friends had told me to be sure I knew was that, unlike shows in the U.S., Japanese shows start on time.
Apparently nobody gave these people the memo? People are standing around chatting, singing, sharing music, eating and drinking, and even lying down on patches of grass and napping. Almost all of them are adorned with shirts, armbands, shoes, backpacks, and hats emblazoned with LiSA's colors and logos. An impressive number of the women (and even some of the guys) are also clutching cute plushy dolls from LiSA as well. What strikes me the most is that almost everyone has a short scarf around their neck in black and pink (LiSA's colors). It's June. The weather isn't exactly cold.
Blinking at the crowds I march toward the doors with determined strides. No way I am going to let the lack of a line stop me from getting my dumb ass into my seat. The stands of merchandise call to me as I pass them. I want swag too, and it would help to brand myself the same way as everyone else, but I don't want to risk a line forming behind me while I shop.
I brace for language issues when I approach the unsmiling venue attendants who are checking tickets at the large ramp that leads down into the actual doors of the arena. My Japanese is decent, but not argue-about-the-validity-of-my-tickets good. Thankfully the woman who checks my ticket doesn't seem to be all that interested in me or my ticket. She scans the barcode on it, and then waves me through. That's that.
In disbelief at my suddenly good luck I slow down once I am through the doors and gawk at the decorations in the hallway that leads to seats. The arena is like any other arena in the United States. There are circular hallways around the ground, middle, and upper decks which lead down to stairs for every section. My seat is on the lower deck, in a decently-close section to the stage. I am in the home stretch. As my heart rate settles back to normal I look more closely at the decorations in the hallway. Unlike in the U.S. where every square inch of floor space is taken up with some form of retail or bathroom line, broken up only grudgingly by fire-code enforced gaps, this hallway is filled with flower displays, gifts, photos, signs, and obviously child-drawn classroom projects welcoming LiSA to Saitama. It's rather breathtaking that they both trust people not to knock over or steal everything, and that so many people, radio stations, politicians, school children and fans spent so much time and money to send all of it.
There are signs up everywhere saying no photos or cameras. But I'm sure they mean that just for the concert itself and not the hallway, right? I pull out my phone and snap a few pictures surreptitiously of the hallway as I walk, and a few selfies of myself as well. Have to document the moment, right? What could go—
Someone taps me on my shoulder.
I stop and turn around slowly. My mind is screaming through my mental index of Japanese words looking for the phrase, “You have to believe me, my phone has a mind of its own!”
A young serious-looking woman in a bright-red jacket that looks like a uniform is standing there staring up into my eyes with determination etching her expression.
I try to explain that I'm from out of town and don't know the rules. My Japanese is much worse when I'm nervous. She looks at me and tilts her head curiously, waving me to walk.
"Do you mind if I ask you a few questions?" she asks in English.
This is not going to end well for me. I say in Japanese that I don't mind (One must always be polite in Japan, even when one is screwed).
"Do you know where you're going?" she asks.
I reply in Japanese that I want to see the concert. My eyes plead with her to be merciful. How big of a crime could taking a photo in the no-photos hallway really be? Are they going to throw me out? Fine me? Jail? Kick me out of the country?
"Where are you from?"
I reply that I'm from the United States while thinking that's kind of an odd question for a security officer to be asking. I glance at her nervously and see her scribbling something into a little notepad.
"Is this your first concert?" she asks me.
Wait a minute. Is she really…I tell her in Japanese that I have been to many concerts.
A man I hadn't noticed before now leans in and tells her in Japanese to tell me to speak in English. He has a gigantic video camera slung over his shoulder. I look more closely at the woman in the red blazer and see the microphone in her far hand.
For the love of—It's a news crew!
Both relieved and annoyed at the same time, I start to relax. Now her questions make more sense. I am going to be the oddity on the local news channel. The one white guy in a sea of Japanese people at a concert in Japan. On the same level as local news coverage in the States of the guy who dances on the street corner really well with his sign for some local sandwich shop, kind of cool to see, but mostly a curiosity. I've heard that Japanese news media will sometimes want to interview foreigners when they attend primarily Japanese events (sumo, kabuki, etc.). Apparently those stories are true.
She is dancing me through the crowds with a practiced ease with her cameraman hot on her heels. I've already agreed to answer her questions, it would be rude to back out now. Plus, hey, local news star, right?
"We can't use our camera here. We'll have to take you on stage. Is that alright?" she asks, breaking into my thoughts.
I mean…I already knew about the camera rule. Is she just digging at me now? And, um, I really don't want to go up on the stage. Like, at all. I try to tell her in Japanese that I'd rather not go on the stage, but I don't think I get my message across, or she decides not to hear me. Most likely the latter option.
She asks to see my ticket, and I cannot think of a reason not to show it to her, so I do. I am mildly alarmed when she takes it out of my outstretched hand then confidently takes the lead and beckons me to follow. I glance at her cameraman, but he is studiously not looking at me. Shrugging, I follow her as she leads the way. I mean, hey, it's not like I know anyone in the crowd, and my friends will think it's wild to see me on the local news on stage at a major rock concert in Japan. I follow her down the stairs when she charges abruptly to the right, hurrying to take the stairs two at a time to keep up with her.
Unexpectedly, she stops and gestures to a row a little bit away from the ground level, and quite close to the stage. It takes every gram of my agility to avoid crashing into her.
"Your seat is there," she says, pointing down the row.
I nod, extremely confused. Did she literally just lead me to my seat? What am I, seven? What happened to—
"Can you come with me to the stage now?" she asks.
I swivel my head and stare at her for a beat. Why show me to my seat first if she wants to take me up on the stage? I open my mouth to ask her that, then close it when I realize I do not know how to ask that in Japanese, so I smile instead and shrug. Embrace the absurdity has always been my motto when traveling. I can't exactly argue with her anyway; she has my ticket, and I am not letting her keep that. I have no idea if anyone is going to challenge me to see it again.
Gamely I follow her down the stairs as she charges toward the ground floor. The eyes of the few people who have taken their seats are following our odd processional, but who can blame them?
The woman stops at the ground floor gate after showing her press badge to the white-shirt-wearing actual security staff member, who lets us through.
I'm actually starting to get kind of excited now. Are we going to go backstage? Will I be able to meet LiSA? This could end up being really cool, what if—
"Can you sit here?" she asks, gesturing toward a chair a few meters away from the gate.
"Sit?" I ask in Japanese. "I thought we were going to the stage," I say while gesturing at the main stage.
The woman shakes her head. And points to the chair again. "We cannot use our camera in the halls, but here on the stage is okay. Is here okay?" She asks me in English.
"Um, sure," I reply in Japanese, rather disappointed. Apparently her definition of stage and mine differed dramatically.
"Tell him to speak in English!" her cameraman again hisses at her in Japanese. I find that both odd and interesting. It should be clear to him at this point that I speak Japanese, so he must know I understand him, and simply does not care.
She doesn't blink, or acknowledge him. But she does lock eyes with me, and switches over to Japanese briefly. "Could you, please, answer in English?" she asks me in Japanese.
"Why?" I ask in Japanese, "I'm in Japan, right? It's okay, I can do it." I assure her. I haven't spent those years studying Japanese for nothing, right?
She seems tense but waves her cameraman to start, and he flips on a rather bright light and starts recording.
The questions come fast and seem innocent enough.
"How long was your flight?"
"When do you have to leave?"
"How long have you liked LiSA?"
"Do you like other Japanese bands?"
"How did you start listening to Japanese music?"
That one I have a hard time answering in Japanese. I am pretty good at concrete topics, but esoteric topics like when and how I got into a music scene are on a level I'm not quite ready for yet.
The cameraman lets the camera dangle from his hand, the light still on, and leans in again and tells her to tell me to answer in English. I do not understand the power dynamic between them—in the U.S. the on-air reporter is in charge: the camera operator works for them. I'm starting to get rather annoyed with him, but she looks at me imploringly so I nod. It was getting harder and harder for me to answer in Japanese anyway.
She starts asking questions again and I start answering in English. Both she and the cameraman seem happier. Japan can be…confusing.
Then they spring the trap.
"What do you think of LiSA? She's cute right?"
Oh hell no. No way am I going to say, to a TV news crew, that I (a Caucasian male) traveled half-way across the world to see a band because I think the lead singer and songwriter (an Asian female) is cute. Nope. Nope. Nope. Not that stupid.
I reply, in Japanese again, that I only like her music. I don't know anything about cuteness.
The reporter actually cracks a bit of a smile at my answer and asks me a few more questions, but camera guy looks…let's say irritated.
As soon as the interview is over we all bow to each other (because Japan) and they lead me back to my seat then they head back out to the hallway. Nobody in the area is looking at me in any way I can tell as I take my seat. But I am too busy texting my friends on Line (Japanese and Korean WhatsApp) to watch the evening local news to see if they see my interview. Unfortunately I failed to get the name of the news network they were from. Like I said earlier, I am an idiot. So, I don't have a whole lot of information to give them. I also don't have a lot of time left before the show starts. The seats are filling up around me fast.
Before I have a chance to catch my breath the house lights go down and LiSA takes the stage. The music is loud, and awesome, and I immediately find out what the scarves are for. Everyone who has one is waving them around their heads to the beat of the music while stomping their feet in time to the beat, and calling out in rhythmic call and response patterns which I do not know how to participate in. Those without scarves have hand-held lights they are shaking and waving to the same beat-pattern.
Fascinatingly, the chairs they had setup all around the stage (it's one of those stages that has a main stage, and then a deep bridge that cuts into the middle of the crowd like a fashion model catwalk) haven't moved. Everyone assigned to each of those seats is on their feet, but they are standing directly in front of their seat and they are not moving.
I have been to a number of concerts in the States, and I have been in the pit for a number of them. Trust me when I tell you that there is no honor, order or reason in there. It is every person for themselves. Even the ones with no actual pit at the floor level, with assigned chairs in that area, devolve into a seething mass of chaos once the first act takes the stage.
They don't roll that way in Japan. People are dancing. People are yelling. People are having a good time. But they are staying inside the little imaginary box in front of their assigned seat while doing it. I've never seen anything like it in my life.
Astonishingly, about 20 minutes into her set, LiSA calls for quiet in the arena of 37,000 people, and seconds (and I mean seconds) later, the entire arena is silent. You can't really appreciate that sentence if you are from a country where people aren't routinely just animals stuffed into slacks and t-shirts shuffling around pretending to have manners, like the U.S. To me, having a popular singer, on stage at a massive concert, call for quiet from the crowd and immediately getting silence is more astonishing to me than my close call with the media. Sure, crowds in the States will quiet down if the band asks them too, but that quiet will be punctuated about every half-second with someone yelling, "I love you," or worse.
LiSA then proceeds to tell us a funny story about her day that I only sorta can follow, but I get the gist of it. She then dives back into her set list, and the crowd carries right on dancing their seemingly choreographed dances to her songs. There's smoke in the air from the stage craft. LiSA is singing her heart out, and the crowd is thundering.
There is a new dance or hand wave or stomp (sometimes all three) for each song. Clearly everyone else in the arena had several meetings together to choreograph all of this—and nobody invited me to the meetings. But that's okay, because it's awesome just being here.
The first version of that story is something literally anyone could write. It has enough details to be accurate. It shows a level of experience or research that rings as authentic to someone who has been to Japan, or has at least seen a few travel shows about the country.
The second version of that story is something only I could write—it is also chapter-length, whereas the first story could easily just be a setting paragraph to set the stage for something else. Length is also important, gauge and use appropriately.
For my detailed version I pulled in specific details about places I've been (and I have the pictures I risked going to jail over to prove it!), sensory details about those places, along with my own personal narrative about the event. I punched up some details which weren't as interesting (the women's only train car part of the story actually happened to me on a different day), and I cut out parts of the story which weren't as interesting (I spent an embarrassingly longer time in real life trying to find that damn train than I did in the story), but the core of the story is based on my real experience. I also told it in 1st-present, instead of 1st-past to ratchet up the immediacy of the story, which places the reader more solidly in the moment. That's not necessary, of course, but it is a handy trick if you want to write more of a thriller-type of a story.
The same core of my detailed story could easily be lifted out and put into a sci-fi story set on a space station. It could also be altered to fit into a Western or Romance. All I would have to change are some of the time period details and/or my motivations. Maybe I'm not rushing to get to a concert. Maybe I'm trying to catch my one true love before she leaves on the next train. Maybe I'm trying to escape the corrupt sheriff in a lawless western town. Maybe there's a bomb on my space station and only I can get to it in time.
It doesn't matter what the story is. I could take that little train-to-destination story and alter it to fit into damn near anything (okay, well maybe not a Kafkaesque noir drama about existentialism), and you can do the same thing with your own experiences.
Those details from your real life will add authenticity to your writing and they will ring true with your audience. Details sell your story. Con artists figured that out centuries ago. Story tellers are simply con-artists with nothing to sell (aside from our books!), but that doesn't make the need for a convincing story any less real.
Write down and record the details from your life -- especially when you travel. Traveling in foreign countries is a great way to evoke your story telling instincts. You will naturally engage an analyzing and detail gathering mode when you are in a foreign country. Because you aren’t familiar with anything you won't be able to operate on auto-pilot at all. (That's why you feel so tired when you travel, it stresses your body to be at that level of attention for that long.) In that state you will notice a lot more about your surroundings than you normally will. Use that. Embrace it. Make it your own.
I look forward to seeing it in your writings.
Robert D. McAdams
P.S. I found out later from my friends that the local news didn't run my interview. Several of my friends watched the various local news broadcasts that night, and told me they didn't see my interview, despite all of the channels at least mentioning the concert. When I told them the question the reporter asked me, they weren't surprised. They (in between laughing at me) told me it was a common narrative some of the news crews run where they try to play off the foreigners just liking how the women look in Japanese music scene, and they weren't in the country for honorable reasons, etc… Weirdly, Japan kind of encourages that whole thing, look up Japanese "Idols" sometime if you want to know more about it. But I didn't fit the format they were looking for, as they tend to do the interviews in English, then either dub over them in Japanese, or sub-title them for the news broadcast. Because I was answering in Japanese, and because I didn't fall for the trap question, I wasn't any fun :P
P.P.S. I rode the Keihin-Touhoku line back to Shimbashi, and it was indeed down there. About seven levels deep. No exaggeration. If I'd had a map, and some of the dwarves out of the mines of Moria to guide me, I might have found it on my way out. But in my panicked state, in retrospect, I am glad I decided to give up on initially trying to find it. Until that day I hadn't even known Japanese subways could go as deep as seven levels below street level. I swear, I think I spend about half of my waking hours in Japan underground :)
Author: Robert McAdamsFind him at www.mcadams-author.comTwitter: @McAdamsRobertDInstagram: @mcadamsrobertd