Writing in Unexpected Places

I’ve been lucky enough to spend the last three weeks in Continental Europe, where I’ve done my fair share of eating, exploring, more eating, and lots and lots of writing (to the extent where I’m beginning to question whether or not this is in fact a ‘holiday’). I always carry around a pen and some paper with me just in case there’s something I’d like to jot down, and to my great delight, I’ve been writing practically nonstop in all sorts of wonderful and unexpected places, such as:

  • A car driving all around Belgium (this mightn’t have been as effective if I was also the driver)
  • Trains all over Belgium
  • St. Michael and St. Gudula Cathedral in Brussels
  • A not-so-yummy restaurant in Brussels
  • An uber yummy brasserie in Liège

Writing in these unexpected places has reinforced my love for penning thoughts on the go, and apart from boosting my word count, I was also able to capture a bunch of things that would’ve normally eluded me. I’m not talking about writing an entire novel on the go (though maybe there are some super organised people out there who can do that), but about writing snippets of things that tend to come more easily and naturally to us when exposed to a new environment—and these snippets, small and fragmented as they are, can be really useful in improving that poem or short story or novel you’re working on. Here are five reasons why.

1. The Five Senses
Being somewhere different allows you to take more notice of all the sensory details about a particular place that you’ll normally miss if you’re in your comfort zone. When you’re someplace new, write down all the ways in which the environment is engaging with your five senses (sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch). You might not immediately use these descriptions in your writings, but it’s useful to store them away for another time when you decide to set your piece in that particular place you’ve just described.

2. Inner Landscapes
Whether it’s because I’m in a foreign place with foreign people and languages, or because I’m simply overwhelmed by the flavours of a particular place, travelling always has the tendency to evoke a range of emotions in me that I don’t feel on a daily basis. It’s useful to jot down all these emotions and speculations on what’s triggered them, and then work those bits and pieces into a piece you’re working on in order to add more emotional depth and nuances. The final product needn’t have any relation to place/s you’ve visited, because it’s the inner world that’s most important here.

3. Drop Some Eaves, Sirs (and Ma’ams)!
Ever notice how some people around you carry the most fascinating conversations, particularly if you don’t know the context? Ever caught a snippet of conversation that would work brilliantly as a witty one-liner? Perhaps even had a conversation with a stranger, where you wanted to jot down bits of the exchange? I often find some of the best and most natural dialogue I’ve written are taken straight from conversations, either my own or bits I’ve borrowed from a handful of (sometimes unrelated) strangers. Travelling allows you to listen in on the conversations of a range of people, locals and tourists alike, so get eavesdropping!

4. Exercising Empathy
Good characterisation is one of the key elements of good fiction, and being in an unexpected place allows you to put yourself in your characters’ shoes and try to imagine what they would do and think. This can range from their instant reactions after arriving at the new place to the minute details of things they would hear and eat and see. Not only is this a good exercise in character development, but you might also discover some plot solutions you may never have considered before.

5. Impressionability
Visiting a new place, whether it’s a new country or a different town, will often leave you with many impressions (which can be both good or bad). Take note of these first thoughts and reactions you have before they settle into something more grounded. This way, you can return to the raw impressions you’ve captured and expand on them at a later time. It’s also useful to record how and why the particular novelty of a place has left such impressions, because you’ll want to emulate that same sense of impressionability through your words.


It’s important to remember that writing on the go isn’t about producing perfect prose or verse—what’s important is getting something down in words so you can revisit it later. You should also use whatever instruments you feel comfortable with, whether that be laptop, phone, or pen and paper (but make sure what you choose is easily accessible). And of course, even if the fragments you’ve jotted down don’t make it into your next literary masterpiece, you’ll still have immortalised a piece of your travels in your own words, and that’s wonderful in and of itself.

3 thoughts on “Writing in Unexpected Places

  1. I rarely leave the house without a pen and some sort of paper. Even if I’m just going down to the local sports club. Hoorah for eavesdropping on strangers!

  2. I love writing when I’m on holiday. One of my most productive times was when I spent five weeks in Greece. And the two best places that I wrote? The first was on a six-hour ferry from Athens to Naxos, watching the sun set in the middle of the Mediterranean. The other was in a small cafe in the main town of the tiny island Karpathos, looking out over the still clear water, on a forty-three degrees Celsius afternoon.

    :D

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