September 8th, 2014

4 Unexpected Writing Lessons from the Galapagos Islands

1 of the 19 Galapagos Islands

1 of the 19 Galapagos Islands

I’ve just returned from the magical Galapagos Islands, where animals and birds like no others on Earth have no fear of humans.

Sea Lions on a Beach

Sea Lions on a Beach

I had trained for the experience by walking fifteen miles every week, working out with my trainer for balance, and some swimming. Still, it was the most physically taxing trip I’ve ever taken. Something happens to you when your body is stressed by unusual activity. You have to meet the challenge to gain your objective, even though you’ve pushed your muscles—and your mind-—to the limit. I realized this is true for writers, too. Here are the writing lessons that I learned in Darwin’s Laboratory.

1. If something is harder than you thought, re-evaluate how much you want it and decide what you’re willing to do to get it.

Panga Ride: Returning from Deep Sea Snorkeling

Panga Ride: Returning from Deep Sea Snorkeling

 I had to step into a Panga (aka Zodiac) to get to our eighty-three-foot boat. I looked at the little rubber thing bobbing in the water, saw the giant step from the dock down to the little box in the bow and then another giant step to the hull. No seats, we had to sit on the side pontoons. I seriously considered staying on the dock.

For the unpublished writer trying to sign with an agent and get a contract with a traditional publisher, every query, every pitch is like stepping into that bobbing Panga. No amount of experience saves you from an ungraceful fall in rough currents. No wonder so many writers never take the step or quit after many attempts.

But I’m not willing to stand on the dock—not when a writing adventure and wondrous publishing scenery abounds. I get to choose my experience, and now I understand that fully. I am willing to do what it takes to get my stories in front of readers. Our own Laura Drake sent out over four hundred queries before she signed with an agent. That’s  lot of Panga steps!

2. Train to get in the best shape you can.

For as much work as I did for six months before the trip, I have to admit I could have done more. My experience would probably have been easier if I’d made more effort in some areas. My mistake? I thought I was in “good enough” shape.

Newborn Sea Lion

Newborn Sea Lion

As a writer, that means writing. And editing. And reading. And classes. And more writing.

Everyone’s rate of development is different, so don’t judge your timeline with anyone else’s. (If you’ve ever gone on a diet with a friend, you already know this!) The important thing is to keep learning your craft. Keep expanding your skills. Finish your first book. Finish your second book—it will be better than your first.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking your writing is “good enough” before you’re really ready to publish. That heartache may disappoint you enough to give up your publishing dream. Get feedback from a critique group or a contest. Feel the joy of revising your words into something stronger, something better.

3. Observe the details in your life. Chronicle your own emotional challenges.

I took over a thousand pictures to help me remember details of birds, reptiles, sea creatures and plants. It was much more difficult to sit with my  terror of the next “dry landing” of the Panga on a rocky shore or the feeling of failure at struggling to climb into the Zodiac after the first deep sea snorkel. 

Details make a story. You can show the small changes in your characters with details. Instead of telling how your hero feels, you can show his

Blue-footed Boobies

Blue-footed Boobies

emotional challenges by the way he observes his surroundings and his reaction to the details you put in your descriptions.

Believe me, the exhilaration I experienced when I hopped out of the Panga onto slippery rocks from a rough sea without a misstep will appear in a book. My character probably won’t be getting out of a small rubber boat onto a deserted island, but that doesn’t mean I won’t be able to convey the feeling of successfully meeting a physical challenge despite almost crying when I saw what I was going to have to do.

4. Your life fuels your stories.

You don’t have to go to the end of the Earth to fill your tank. But you do need to fill your tank. New experiences or closer looks at your “regular” world provide the material necessary to craft your tales.  Of course, putting yourself in an unusual setting or some place that stretches your current skills may provide ideas you never would have found otherwise.

Hiking across lava rocks

Hiking across lava rocks

During the first half of the trip, when I was dealing with my terror of falling into the Panga or out of the Panga, slipping going up or down the steep stairs on the boat, or losing my balance on the lava rock hikes. By the end of the trip the crewmen were complimenting me—”You really did a good job getting out of the panga today” and “You aren’t having any trouble with the rocks on the hikes anymore.”

I began to think about two characters in a “normal” setting that brought out feelings of terror and fear of not surviving. I write science fiction, so the severe environment of the volcano-born Galapagos Islands spurred my imagination. I have the major plot, solid starts on both protagonists and the villain, the character arcs, the beginning and several scenes of the new book worked out in my head. I felt the exhaustion of my new characters when I fell into bed at night. In the morning I had more of their story.

Even though I’ve been writing for awhile, I never thought I’d get the gift of a new book idea on this trip. I just wanted to swim with sea lions.

Snorkel buddy

Snorkel buddy

I did.


And I did so much more.

Have you ever received unexpected writing lessons on a vacation? Or in your daily life? Have you taken a trip to “fill your writing well”?

Fae Rowen Fae Rowen

 discovered the romance genre after years as a science fiction freak.  Writing futuristics and medieval paranormals, she jokes that she can live anywhere but the present.  As a mathematician, she knows life’s a lot more fun when you get to define your world and its rules.

Punished, oh-no, that’s published as a co-author of a math textbook, she yearns to hear personal stories about finding love from those who read her books, rather than horrors of algebra lessons gone wrong.  She is grateful for good friends who remind her to do the practical things in life like grocery shop, show up at the airport for a flight and pay bills.

A “hard” scientist who avoided writing classes like the plague, she now enjoys sharing her brain with characters who demand that their stories be told.  Amazing, gifted critique partners keep her on the straight and narrow. Feedback from readers keeps her fingers on the keyboard.

When she’s not hanging out at Writers in the Storm, you can visit Fae at http://faerowen.com  or www.facebook.com/fae.rowen

 

33 comments to 4 Unexpected Writing Lessons from the Galapagos Islands

  • Wow, Fae, what a fabulous trip – in lots more ways than one! Since I’m on the last day of my Colorado fishing vacation, I’m going to think about what you wrote, and see how it can blend into my next novel…thanks for the inspiration! See? That challenging vacation of yours helped ME too!

  • I went to the Galapagos this February. Wasn’t it amazing!

    • Orly Konig-Lopez

      Oh Lynn!!! It’s been on my bucket list forever. My parents went several years ago.
      Happy to see you at WITS. 🙂

    • Fae Rowen

      I’m glad you had “The Galapagos Experience, ” Lynne. Did you find it hard to narrow down just one thing as your favorite?

  • Orly Konig-Lopez

    Great lessons, Fae!
    The idea for my WIP started on a vacation. Not the Galapagos and not a very challenging vacation, but somewhere along the 4 hour drive and watching the corn fields whiz by allowed my brain to relax and wander.

    Really, REALLY want to get to the Galapagos! Sigh. 🙂

  • Fae Rowen

    There is something about that relaxed brain that boosts creativity, isn’t there, Orly? And you’ll get to the Galapagos when it’s the right time for you. In the meantime, whizzing by cornfields is keeping you occupied with that new WIP!

  • Holly Robinson

    Fae, this is a fantastic post. I love the comparisons you made here between writing and adventure travel. You’re so right about writers needing to get out and experience the world despite the pressure on us to produce. I’ve made it a point to give my characters interesting things to do–anything from making pottery to raising Icelandic sheep–and I love doing the research to inform the writing, because those experiences really do sharpen and deepen the words I put on the page. Thank you for such a thought-provoking piece.

    • Fae Rowen

      Thank you, Holly. It wasn’t until this trip that I realized I’ve “graduated” to adventure travel in my bucket list quest. That connection brought some amazing insights out of cell and internet service!

  • Proves no matter what you’re doing in life, be it driving past cornfields or swimming with sea lions, if you’re a writer, your brain is always in writer mode. Wonderful post Fae! Thanks for sharing your insights. Now I’m wondering if I can talk my hubby into a Galapagos trip. If I can’t, maybe I’ll just bring the kids when they’re a bit older, which means I’ll be a bit older so I better keep up my walking routine.

    • Fae Rowen

      Thanks, cerrissakim. Even if you don’t think a trip is in your immediate future, keep up that walking routine. It’s kind of like writing–if you let it slide it’s hard to get your mojo back. Good luck with the hubby talk!

  • Fae, this resonates in so many ways. I think that any life challenge and all new experiences, sights, people, unexpected stuff in life gives us a gift. A chance to open that one Christmas present all the way in the back of the tree. For me, that was the one gift my big brother always hid until I was done and it was always the one gift I wanted more than any other.

    Your gift to us today is your shared experience. How wonderful that you also got a story idea 🙂

  • I never knew getting in/out of a boat was so difficult.
    I had a Zodiac, it was incredibly stable. In fact, one can stand on the side of one of the inflated air tubes without tipping the boat.

    • Fae Rowen

      You’re right, C. Scott. My husband and I had a boat–and a Zodiac, so I had practice.But that was a dozen years ago. It was more about my fear than anything else. When I just “did it” I was fine, but when I thought about it, uh-oh.

  • Beige Wishart

    Fae,

    Stupendous scribing. You described my writing adventure. Good thing I went one step at a time. I never understood the work begins after the first draft. I want to get to the end of my writing journey, and now thanks to you, once I sign, I’m going to the Galapagos Island. Whoopi!

    Beige

    • Fae Rowen

      Yes, Beige, the real work comes after you type that first THE END. Once you sign, e-mail me and I’ll give you more information. There are a lot of ways you can visit the Galapagos- from staying at a hotel on one of the four inhabited islands to a cruise ship to a small, ten-passenger-cabins boat. There are even dive boats that just visit great scuba sites if that’s your passion. I chose a small 83-foot boat with sixteen passengers and two naturalists, and it was certainly the right trip for me. Good luck!

  • Woooo! A new book. That’s what I call a productive vacation!! Can’t wait to see you dig in. 🙂

  • Fae Rowen

    And I was just starting the second book in the PRISM series before I left. I don’t know if I can juggle two books at the same time like Laura Drake did this year!

    • You can do anything you set your mind to, girlie! I’ve always found that it relaxes my brain to be able to flit between two stories, but y’all know I have that bizarre ADD writer brain. 🙂

      • Fae Rowen

        I admire anyone who can concentrate on writing two different books at the same time. I can’t even read two books at once!

  • My goodness, Fae, I’m impressed with your guts. I have no desire to go on such a trip, but the ones I do go on–lots to New England–almost always spur ideas for books. Thanks for such an inspiring post. I FBed and Tweeted. 🙂

  • What an amazing trip this must have been – one you will always remember!

    • Fae Rowen

      That’s the truth, Deb. And I have enough pictures and video to remind me when my memory loses some of the details!

  • Barb DeLong

    You got me thinking about my walkabout Down Under last year – love those Aussies! Gottado something with that awesome camel jockey. Hmmm. . . .
    Great post, Fae! I’m a Darwin fan!

  • Fae Rowen

    There was a wonderful Aussie on the trip. We both had new cameras and were able to compare equipment. I think he got better pictures than I did! Uhm, camel jockey? I have to hear that story…Oh, the Darwin Research Center was great. You’d like all the history of his trip.

  • jamesr403

    What a great trip! Wow, Fae, I am impressed. The writing lessons alone are worth the price of admission. I especially like the “small details” tip. Thanks for a great post.

  • Fae Rowen

    Thanks, James. The first day I thought the Galapagos Islands weren’t a whole lot different from Hawaii, then we started the deep sea snorkeling and seeing lots of marine iguanas and baby sea lions!

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