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JPC Allen Writes

Inspiration for Beginning Writers

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writing advice on technology

Writing Tip — Writing in Time: Road Trip as Writing Inspiration

roadw-4125391_1280I love to drive. I especially like to drive in rural areas. Highways get so boring. So it’s fortunate that I live in the U.S. and in the Buckeye State where there are plenty of rural roads to satisfy my wanderlust. Although road trips can happen at any time of the year, summer seems made for this kind of adventure. Below are three advantages to using road trips as writing inspiration.

Limits of Technology

If a car blows a tire, you either fix it yourself or wait for road service. There is no digital quick-fix, and that’s true for any car malfunction, making such mishaps perfect for adding tension to a story. Another technology plot point is for your characters to drive in a rural area that has spotty or no reception. How do the characters cope?

Even when technology is working, Something Can Go Horribly Wrong. I’ve had recent experience with this when my family and I drove to Blackwater Falls State Park. Because we made a detour to lay flowers on the graves of relatives in Shinnston, the GPS routed us a different way from the one we took two years ago.

As we approached Parsons, the county seat where the state park is located, I was surprised the GPS indicated getting away from the state route I knew would take us right to the park and plotted a course through a tiny town called St. George. Always ready to see new sights, I told my husband to take it.

The road out of St. George wound up the mountain, just like the state route, except that it was one and a half lanes with turns so sharp you couldn’t see oncoming traffic. At one point, the edge of our lane had crumbled down a steep cliff. My husband, a man without any Mountaineer blood in his veins, bravely followed the road and saw us safely to the top of the ridge, where we reconnected with the state route. He did wipe his sweaty hands on his jeans shorts all the time he was driving, though.

We still have no idea why the GPS would recommend such a route. But it’s a great plot point to remember if I’m writing about a road trip and the narrative begins to stall.

Fish Out of Water

“Fish Out of Water” stories are always fun and a great source of tension when you throw your main character out of her comfortable habitat. Maybe she’s accompanying her new fiancee to meet his parents in a part of the country she’s never been to. A new salesperson could be heading into unfamiliar territory. An aspiring writer drives into a new state to attend a conference. (This is slightly autobiographical.)

Family Commitments

We often endure great inconveniences and hardships for the sake of friends and family. Road trips fit that bill. They also give your characters plausible reasons to make decisions that under other circumstances readers might find unbelievable.

Great-grandma has died. Main character wants to go to the funeral, three states away, and is broke. So he grits his teeth and asks to ride with a cousin he can’t stand.

A quarreling husband and wife must endure a long drive to the graduation of a relative.

Trying to get to a wedding, a family accepts help from a passing driver when their car breaks down.

How would you use a road trip as writing inspiration?

Writing Tip — How Technology Ruins Suspense in Writing

laptopw1-3087585_1280When I mentioned to my brother-in-law, an ardent sf and fantasy fan, that I was looking for a new kind of mystery, he recommended two books from the 1950’s, The Caves of Steel and The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov. These mysteries, set in the distant future, feature human police detective Elijah Bailey and his robot humanoid partner R. Daneel Olivaw.

I like The Naked Sun better than The Caves of Steel but I almost put it down because of how technology ruins suspense. Bailey is asked to investigate, with the help of Daneel,  a murder on a distant planet settled by humans. Because Daneel is a robot, and this is an Isaac Asimov novel, Daneel is programmed with The Three Laws of Robotics. This means Bailey’s safety is Daneel’s first priority. It also means that in the first part of the book, when anything exciting, or even mildly interesting, is about to happen, Daneel’s programming kicks in and prevents Bailey from taking any action that’s even slightly risky.

The fun thing is that Asimov has Bailey realize his partner’s protection is hampering his investigation. He trick Daneel into inactivity, and then the plot gets more exciting when  Bailey is almost killed.

Smartphones are reality’s equivalents of Asimov’s robots:

  • Main character gets lost in a dangerous section of city. GPS to the rescue!
  • Main character meets mysterious stranger. Does online search for stranger. Mysterious no more!
  • Main character notices someone following her. Calls cops while walking!

In the book reviews I read, I find a lot of novels are set in the recent past — 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s. Maybe that’s because authors know how technology ruins suspense. At a presentation, author Karen Harper, who writes contemporary suspense, mentioned how she had to keep inventing ways to get rid of smartphones to place her characters in danger.

That’s one reason why I like country noir. Many rural places in our country still have no reception. While driving through West Virginia, on a major highway, my oldest lost connection with my niece because the mountains loomed so high above us. A few days ago, I met my cousin and her family at a state park. As the kids went creeking, I glanced at my phone. No bars. A perfect place for a bad guy to lure a good guy.

In my short story, “Debt to Pay” in From the Lake to the River, the teenage main character and his brother live in a small house in Wayne National Forest with no cell reception. This inconvenience is a key ingredient in my plot. I also had to think of a realistic reason for a character to have lost a phone. I don’t want to tell the reason because I don’t want to give too much of the plot away, but when I had other people read my rough drafts, no one said it was unbelievable.

What do you think? Have you read a mystery or thriller set in the present that convincingly works around smartphones?

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