Writing about Travel in Fiction by R.D. Stevens

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RD Stevens

R.D. Stevens

It was whilst taking some creative writing classes that I first had the idea for my debut novel The Journal. I wanted to create a thoughtful, philosophical YA story that revolved around a young protagonist asking questions and searching for meaning on the cusp of adulthood. I thought that it would be interesting to try to frame this story in the context of someone going on a literal search, and decided upon the idea of a young man who goes looking for his sister who has disappeared in another country. When I considered the setting for the story, I wanted to set it in a part of the world in which, to add to his sense of discomfort, the protagonist would instantly feel out of place, and yet, at the same time, experience in a new way the wonder, beauty and amazement that the world can offer.

The challenge for any author in bringing a location to life, is to present it in such a way that is authentic, invites the reader into the space, and also acknowledges the subjective nature of our experiences. Any person that steps into a location brings with them their own past experiences, fears, likes and dislikes etc., and we never simply view places/people/events with neutrality. Accommodating for this in a story that is set in a foreign country can be a challenge, and it is important to remember that the book’s voice is only representing a perspective of how things are, rather than how things are in themselves, independent of all the baggage that we bring with us.

In trying to decide on the right location for my novel, I decided to draw from some of my own travel experiences as a backpacker. Around fifteen years ago, I spent two years travelling and working my way around the world. I was at the start of my twenties and it was an experience that I will never forget. Travelling on a shoestring budget, I began in Europe, travelled across Russia and China, moved down through Southeast Asia and into India before going across to Australia and New Zealand and, finally, into South America.

The JournalConsidering which locations I could try to best present in the ways I mentioned above, I instinctively felt that Southeast Asia would be the perfect setting for the story. There is such a rich depth of variety, colours, tastes, sounds and experiences in Southeast Asia that I felt it would be the ideal place to throw my protagonist, Ethan, in at the deep end. On my travels, I spent over six months in Southeast Asia and visited Cambodia, Thailand, Laos, Singapore, Malaysia and The Philippines. I wanted Ethan’s journey to be full of contrasts and change, so that it might replicate the inner journey he takes and force him to face questions about himself and his past, and chose to begin his story in a busy, bustling capital city and then take him out to some beautiful countryside and stunning beaches.

I decided that Phnom Penh in Cambodia would be the place to start, with the horrors of the Killing Fields and S-21 prison camp offering a stark contrast to the party lifestyle of the backpacker scene in the old Lakeside area of Boeung Kak (which I believe has since sadly been landfilled by property developers). I knew his time in Southeast Asia, as he traced his sister’s footsteps, would be brief and decided that the climax of the story would fit the excitement and anticipation of a Full Moon Party on Ko Pha Ngan. Opting for Ethan’s journey to begin in Cambodia, and end in Thailand, I wanted him to experience Laos as a counterpoint in between. These places can offer visceral experiences in which the beauty, awe and complexity of the world are never too far away, and they are also culturally different, and I wanted to try to bring that through honestly in the narrative.

In creating the world in which the protagonist, Ethan, inhabits, I drew from my memories of the backpacking scene: the conversations with strangers on bus journeys; the late night parties and philosophical discussions; the characters and personalities encountered along the way; the nature and intensity of the fleeting yet meaningful relationships formed in such an environment; the stunning beauty of some of the scenery; the pleasure seeking escape of being somewhere you might never be again; the desire to be individual and meaningful; the recreational drug use and the search for answers; the disdain for, and lack of understanding of, ‘real’ life; the often misplaced sense of helping others and ‘making a difference’ whilst there, and the impact that this industry can have on the world and those who have to live through it.

In The Journal, the setting acts as a character in its own right, always pushing Ethan’s boundaries and pressing him to do more to challenge himself to address the questions that he faces, in particular those about beauty, self-identity, privilege and his own place in this world. As any experience of a different culture and lifestyle should, my travels challenged me to consider many aspects of the world around me. For me, this became a challenge to try to tell a story about travelling, and to address some of the important questions that the travel industry brings with it. When writing about travel, the small details are always important, and the little things that you choose for the characters to notice can do much more to bring the reader into the scene than the generic big picture items. The world is a complicated, intricate place, and bringing it to life authentically through these details is complex and difficult, but, in my opinion, a very important part of a writer’s job and well worth the effort.

(c) R.D. Stevens

About The Journal:

The JournalWhat do you do when you lose the only thing that you truly care for?

Ethan Willis is a confused eighteen-year-old who struggles with the depth and uncertainty of life. It’s been six months since Charlotte, his free-spirited sister, disappeared in Cambodia. In a last desperate attempt to find her, he sets off to follow her trail around Southeast Asia.

Ethan idolizes his sister for her spontaneity and individualism, but finds himself unprepared for the colour and complexity that greet him on his journey. Thrown into this heady world of backpacking and clashing cultures, Ethan is confronted with the fact that Charlotte is not the only one who is lost.

With only a battered journal and some new acquaintances to guide him, Ethan is taken on a meandering passage through the countryside of Cambodia, into the remotest parts of Laos, and finally to the party islands of Thailand. As this expedition unfolds, Ethan must also look inward to address unresolved questions about his past and the world around him, not only searching for Charlotte herself, but for an understanding of why she left. Ethan will stop at nothing to look for Charlotte, but is he truly ready to find her?

Order your copy online here.

About the author

R. D. STEVENS grew up in Kent, England and, after studying for his Philosophy degree, escaped and travelled the world for two years. He worked in the charity sector briefly before training as a teacher and completing his MA. He currently works at a school in London and loves to write fiction, read books, and talk about existentialism. The Journal is his award-winning debut novel.

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