I have the travel bug, which makes me a sucker for travel shows. And one of my favorite shows is Rick Steves’s goofy yet wonderfully accessible travel series Europe Through the Back Door.
The theme of the show is to introduce American travelers to Europe in a down-to-Earth way that doesn’t insulate them from the “real” Europe by installing them in five-star hotels and the middle of bus tours fifty-people strong. Rather, the idea is to get out and get your figurative hands dirty by doing things locally, with as much contact with the inhabitants and their culture as possible.
I’ve never been asked that hackneyed question of writers “where do you get your ideas?” or, at least, it’s been asked in a more subtle way. I don’t really think about it any more, because I’ve learned that ideas come from anywhere, at anytime. Ideas are the opportunistic catch of the fishing mind and they are malleable, furtive, and everywhere. You just have to be ready with the net.
I can say that, after a short trip to Key West, Florida, I’m more interested than ever in the concept of “setting as character”. Key West is so rich in history, personalities, and opportunities that you’d have to be made of wood not to see the story-telling potential in the place.
After walking around the streets and docks of the small island, story ideas and plot lines just started sprouting. I’ve already got a heist-caper halfway planned out in my head, thanks to the rich environment.
Seven-thirty a.m. in Georgetown, Penang and breakfast was an iced chai and a vegetable dosa hot enough to melt the paint off a car. I sat outside under an awning, wondering if the tiny vinyl chair, wilting in the tropical heat, would hold my weight until I was done. A dozen feet away, a Chinese man in a stained apron stood at a butcher’s block, lopping the feet off of dead ducks with a cleaver and dropping them into a white bucket. Every fifteen minutes, a young boy would arrive, put the feet in plastic bags, and take them to the market across the street. Exhaust from scooters put a gasoline tang in the air, but then a breeze from the ocean–never far away–would clear it away. Three-wheeled bike rickshaws pedaled by, flicking their bell every block, trying to attract custom. I watched the butcher wipe the cleaver on his apron as the sweat trickled down my spine and the small Malaysian neighborhood woke around me.