September 4th, 2020

On the Road Again

By James R. Preston

Her name was Enheduanna and she was a writer. We’ll talk more about her later. 

Welcome to another installment of Writers in the Storm. This one’s going to be a little different. But with any luck, we’ll be On the Road Again. Come with me.

The most traveling I’ve done is to go downstairs to get a cup of coffee.

I’ve been home, and so have you. But we’ll get out of this, sooner or later, all of us with our lives touched in one way or another, and when that happens there will be opportunities. If you’re like me, you’re thinking about things you want to do when the masks are dropped.

Meanwhile, I’ve got an essay due.

So I thought... Technical article? Revisit adapting screenplay structure to the genre novel? Stretching the boundaries of first-person? How to keep track of all those electronic documents? Maybe it’s time for a break, for something different.

My face mask is hanging on it’s hook. We have canceled this year’s vacation. My cat is happy — I’m home. 

I don’t know about you, but I’m storing up things to do once COVID-19 has been defeated. What about visiting "writer" spots that will remind you of the thread that links you to those who have gone before? Moments you can remember when you’re sitting at the keyboard wondering where the story went.

And, of course, you’ll be thinking about writing as I am. Traveling – yes traveling. Traveling and writing. Those two can go together.

Her name was Enheduanna and she was a writer. She lived 2,300 years B.C.E., in Uruk, what is now Iraq.

Once upon a time I went to Great Britain. I’ve told that story here so I’ll just talk about the end. 

We visited Stratford-on-Avon and I stood outside Shakespeare’s birthplace. Very cool, but then I saw a framed poster advertising a performance of The Merry Wives of Windsor, and Charles Dickens was one of the volunteer actors, putting on the play to raise money for the restoration of the building. I still remember the chill I got. Shakespeare, Dickens, and me. In a very, very small way, me. I was part of that stream. 

When you travel as a writer it’s a bit different. You look at 221B Baker Street and think, yeah, Doyle told some good stories and maybe it pumps you up just a bit to know you’re following in his footsteps. 

So pack a bag, make sure the laptop’s battery is charged and away we go!

Vegas, baby!

Tim Powers, Last Call

On the way to Vegas on Highway 15 you’ll see The Mad Greek Cafe. As of this writing it’s closed due to COVID-19, but the owner says they are counting the days till they reopen.  Stop in, get a gyro, and think about Scott Crane and his friends in Tim Powers’ amazing Last Call. It’s a thriller, it’s a travelogue, it’s a story of Jungian archetypes battling for supremacy through Tarot cards. I’m not making this up. It’s a great read!

Hunter Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

"We were somewhere around Barstow, on the edge of the desert, when the drugs began to take hold." 

I have read that the merry-go-round bar in Circus Circus no longer serves alcohol, but still if you sit there can’t you just feel Thompson and his 300-lb Samoan attorney slugging down drinks? And the attorney loses it and is afraid to get off the merry-go-round? And the guests in their hotel are starting to look, uh, reptilian. Check out the merry-go-round bar and flash back to the 70’s. Skip the peyote.

San Francisco

Dashiell Hammett, The Maltese Falcon. There are — or were — walking tours so you can see some of the locales. The last time I looked there was actually one of the restaurants where Spade got his chops and baked potatoes. The tour can take up to four hours, so wear comfortable shoes. 

Los Angeles

Ross Macdonald, The Lew Archer books. Lew Archer looked down at the city lights and saw the seedy underside...

Forget that — let’s go out to eat! The Musso and Frank Grill, open since 1919, is still going strong. When they reopen, have a seat and order Archer’s steak with mushrooms and onion rings. (Take-out, anyone?) And if you’re doing Tinseltown, see about a Warner Brothers Studio tour.

Ross Macdonald weaves the movie business into many of the novels. As you walk the streets you can almost sense the comforting feel of your gat snug and ready in its worn shoulder holster.

Colorado

Stephen King's The Shining. This is a good one. 

Visit the Stanley Hotel at the entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park. Not only is the hotel the main setting, Room 217 is where Stephen King drafted The Shining. He renamed the hotel The Overlook and moved it to a somewhat more inaccessible location but this is the place. In 1997, it’s where King shot his own version of the novel.

As a bonus, check out the Country Boy Mine, setting for Michener’s Centennial

North Carolina

Delia Owens, Where the Crawdads Sing. This one comes with a caveat: Famous novel, millions of copies sold, and the setting of marshes and swamps is a big part of the story. However, one source says those swamps and marshes are more like Georgia or South Carolina. My guess is, if you love the book and visit North Carolina, the differences won’t matter. You’ll just soak it up and understand what Owens was writing about. 

Louisiana

James Lee Burke, The Dave Robicheaux books. If you are heading to New Orleans or Louisiana, you can’t do better than to read some of these fine novels. You can taste the gumbo, feel the breeze off the gulf and you will understand the powerful influence the setting has on his work. You’ll want to sit in the Cafe DuMonde with a beignet and a coffee. 

Florida

John D. McDonald, the Travis McGee books. Slip F18 Bahia Mar. This would not be complete without mentioning the home of Travis McGee, that knight in rusty armor, that slayer of savage fish.

As far as great settings, McDonald nailed it. And yes, there really was a slip F18. But remodeling killed it, and the literary landmark plaque has been moved. Nevertheless, it can be found and standing there you can feel the client approaching, looking for a “salvage consultant.”

You stand in each of these settings and feel that connection. 

While We’re Waiting . . .

My mask is still on the hook. Despite all of these inspiring places to visit and to think about stories and their creators, as of now we’re still locked down. Never fear! Here are a couple of virtual tours with literary associations.

Dan Brown, The DaVinci Code. emember how the story opens in The Louvre? With the horrific murder? Brown is a great researcher and he got it right. You can take a look online at the Louvre virtual tour site and study the results — there are usually multiple things going on. 

Preston and Child, Relic. Very creepy story (and an underrated movie) set in a museum based on The American Museum of Natural History. Click that link for virtual tours and take your pick. There are also guided events. Yes, human contact through your keyboard! Postscript: The AMNH is reopening in September. Check their website for details. 

Her name was Enheduanna. She lived 2,300 B.C.E., and she was a writer. She wrote poetry and hymns and she was, in fact, the very first writer to sign her work. She said, “My King, something has been created that no one has created before.”

Final Thoughts

“Ars longa, vita brevis,” 

— Hippocrates.

Translation: Life is short, art eternal. 

I think that says it all. And the tradition that you and I are part of goes on. 

Now it’s your turn. While our pets are happy because we’re always around, we need as much contact with other members of our species as possible, even if it’s electronic. I hope you have started thinking about inspirational places that connect to your work, or to the work of writers you love.

I hope you are looking forward to once again getting on the road. Keep reading and keep writing.

Have you perhaps been to Maui to see how Jayne Ann Krentz nailed it, despite changing the names? Or Sue Grafton’s twin-by-another-name for Santa Barbara? Share those experiences with us!

*  *  *  *  *  *

About James

James R. Preston is the author of the multiple-award-winning Surf City Mysteries. He is currently at work on the sixth, called Remains To Be Seen. His most recent works are Crashpad and Buzzkill, two historical novellas set in the 1960’s at Cal State Long Beach. Kirkus Reviews called Buzzkill “A historical thriller enriched by characters who sparkle And refuse to be forgotten.”

His webpage is www.jamesrpreston.com. He can be reached at james@jamesrpreston.com.

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31 responses to “On the Road Again”

  1. Terry Odell says:

    I sort of did it the other way last year. It was our 50th anniversary, and we took a tour of the British Isles. When we got back, I wrote a book set along our tour. Right now, we're hoping to be able to travel next year, because I have trips to Antarctica and Croatia planned.

    • jamesr403 says:

      Yeah, Terry! it seems like every square inch of Great Britain is inspiring. And, BTW, congratulations on your 50th. I envy you Antarctica; I've always wanted to see it. Was the hook fiction or a record of the journey?

  2. LauraDrake says:

    You've made me homesick for the road, James.

    I've wandered through Margaret Mitchell's apartment in Atlanta (totally cool-she was so ahead of her time). I've stood outside reclusive Greg Iles home in Nachez to have my picture taken. I've been to the hotel King visited and got the idea for The Shining (Kubrick's version was filmed there).

    I'd love to visit places Pat Conroy and Ann River Siddons hung out...

    Sigh.

    • jamesr403 says:

      Margaret Mitchell's apartment! Oh, man. I bet you could just feel her presence, with those stacks of notebooks with the handwritten manuscript. If you haven't seen "Ready Player One" check it out and look for scenes in the Overlook. They're some of the best in the movie.
      Thanks, Laura.

    • Jenny Hansen says:

      Oooooh, Laura...I would love to visit Margaret Mitchell's apartment. And the Anne Frank museum. I've been to the Laura Ingalls Wilder house in DeSmet, SD and to the Raffles hotel in Singapore where all the cool American expats hung out, but I would love to go to some of these other places.

      • jamesr403 says:

        Raffles?! Oooh, Jenny, now I'm very envious. I bet you could just feel the history. Did you write about it? Use it as a setting?

  3. ecellenb says:

    I tend to get an idea and travel afterward. Once I woke up with one word in my mind, Shonto. I had no idea what it was, but managed to find it on a map. This led to a family adventure. I miss traveling, too. With good fortune travel will be less hazardous sometime next year.

    • jamesr403 says:

      Now that's interesting, Ellen. The word resonated with you and then you and your family tracked it down. But, did you write about it? Or was it related to another writer? Either way, very interesting. Yes, travel will come back in 2021 and 2022. Left Coast Crime Albuquerque has moved to 2022, but planning is underway. Thanks!

      • ecellenb says:

        I included it within The Adventures of Charlie Chameleon, Summertime, as a part of a family vacation. Due to that trip I have a permanent fear of running low on gas. LOL.

    • Jenny Hansen says:

      That's fascinating, Ellen. Where WAS Shonto?

      • jamesr403 says:

        Jenny, I think part of the game is figuring that out! I want to know how Ellen explained to her family, "Oh, this word popped into my head. Load up the car for a road trip!"

        • ecellenb says:

          Well James, I am weird Mom. Occasionally I have prophetic dreams. One time I got a good stock tip, but that doesn't happen very often. Our children are adventurous and my hubby is a gem. What can I say?! This was a memorable family trip based upon waking up with one word that refused to be forgotten.

      • jamesr403 says:

        Wow, Jenny, I'd love to do a Jack the Ripper walking tour. I bet it was creepy! One night in New Orleans my friend Janet and I did a Haunted House waling tour. Ill-lit streets, cobblestones; one woman fell but I caught her before she hit the ground. No ghosts, but the houses and their history were fascinating. Halfway through the walk, by sheer coincidence, we took a break at a bar owned by a buddy of our tour guide, so a bathroom was available. I'd recommend it, but wear appropriate shoes.

      • ecellenb says:

        I found Shonto on the map in northern Arizona. It turned out to be a Navajo reservation. We were using AAA Triptiks at the time. I compared the location on the triptik to the map and to me it looked like we should turn on a particular road, but Mom lost the vote to Papa and our girls, so we ended up on an old horse trail and followed the arrows painted on tires. LOL.

    • jamesr403 says:

      Eldred, thanks a lot. What you are describing is the flip side of the setting/writer coin. I, too, like to visit my settings (like the Huntington Beach Pier) for a refresher. Your comment made me think of something I read a long time ago about Sidney Sheldon (The Other Side of Midnight, The Patty Duke Show, I Dream of Jeannie, the list goes on). He wrote a novel and then spent a years visiting all of the locations. The article said if he described a meal in a sidewalk cafe in Venice, he'd been there and eaten that meal. When travel loosens up, wouldn't it be great to track down some of those places?
      Thanks again for sharing.
      PS No, I can't footnote that article. I must have been a freshman in college, reading everything I could get my hands on about our art and craft. If any WITS readers have seen the reference, I'd like to hear about it.

  4. Eldred Bird says:

    I love this post. When I travel somewhere new, I like to seek out the dark corners I've read about in books or seen in movies. I'm lucky in that I can still visit many of the settings from my own books whenever I want. A lot of the action takes place on back roads and in the mountains and deserts right here in Arizona. Social distancing isn't really an issue due to the remoteness of many of the the locations. Still, I can't wait until the day returns that I can share the places that spark my imagination with others.

    • jamesr403 says:

      Eldred, my apologies. My response to your comment is listed under Ellen's. Put it down to operator error. Sorry about that! Scroll up & you'll find it.

  5. Jenny Hansen says:

    When I was in England, I went to many cool places I'd read about - Bath, Stonehenge, all through London. One of my favorite things was the Jack the Ripper walking tour. They take you literally through all of the Whitechapel areas and the guides who lead them are SO knowledgeable.

    Pro tip: DON'T go to the pub first for a pint - there are no bathrooms designated on the walking tour!

  6. barbdelong says:

    Love, love this post! I want to visit Hemingway's place in Key West! I believe the only writerly place I've knowingly visited is Stephen King's creepily-gated home in Bangor, Maine. I am such a fan!

    • jamesr403 says:

      Barb, the Hemingway visit would be nothing short of inspiring! You'd have to find the right bar & order a shot of tequila (or was it rum?) Next you could go deep-sea fishing, and then you could write like mad! I envy you seeing King's gate. I'm a huge fan, too. Does it really have bats in the wrought iron? I bet it does.
      Excellent comment. Thanks for sharing!

      • barbdelong says:

        The gate absolutely does have bats, and spiders with webs in the wrought iron guarding a wonderful old Victorian! Spooky yet cool!
        I hear if you go visit Hemingway's writing room, you'll meet the 6-toed cats that are descendants of his cat Snow White.

    • jamesr403 says:

      OMG! I'd love to see the gate. The six-toed cats, however, sound a little weird.
      Thanks, Barb.

  7. JL Nich Author SFF says:

    I used to live down the street from Oakland's Jack London Square, where the author of White Fang and To Build A Fire (which still makes me shiver today) and The Call of the Wild, spent time as an oyster pirate and worked on the wharf. I, too, drank a few beers at the counter where he often sat and wrote. The small and intimate interior of Heinold’s First and Last Chance Saloon still urges authors to put pen to paper. with its American articles and historical notes plastered on the walls. It's said Jack London ordered soup from the nearby restaurant (a mostly inexpensive dish with bread) and so thus did I. My pea soup was generous chucks of salty ham was delicious. As well the chunk of crusty bread and butter. Being in that place and staring at the pack of wolves, dark statues of stealth, that seem to be running across the square, is very surreal. And yet someday, one day, my own books will be honored just as much by someone. If only myself.

    • jamesr403 says:

      Mr. Nich, what a great story! And I blush because I, too, have been to Jack London Square years ago and felt the presence but I left it out of this essay. I'm glad you liked the soup and I'll be looking for your books to take home those honors.
      Thanks very much for a terrific contribution!
      PS I love the "dark statues of stealth."

  8. dholcomb1 says:

    I live near Baltimore, and I have been in the areas mentioned in the Tess Monaghan books by Laura Lippmann. In fact, as a transplant, I have learned a lot about the Baltimore region through Laura's books. I'm lucky to have met her several times at fundraiser events.

    I've been to Jack London Square in Oakland. If you're into classics, you may want to check it out.

    Chawton House in Alton and Jane Austen Centre in Bath to see the places where Jane Austen lived and wrote.

    I still want to visit the Margaret Mitchell house in Atlanta.

    I'll probably never get to these places, but maybe, I will.

    denise

    • jamesr403 says:

      Denise, those are all great places. See the above comment by JL Nich for Jack London Square.
      And now that I think of it, if you walk along the street leading to the Monterey Bay Aquarium you'll see multiple Steinbeck references. The fishing boats are long gone, as is the cannery (except what is preserved in the Aquarium) but his presence is there, waiting to be felt by a new generation of writers.
      My money's on you -- I bet you'll get to at least some of those places.
      Thanks for sharing!

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