Many, many thanks to those of you who reached out and offered your condolences on the loss of my brother. I really appreciate it. I am attempting to get back into a usual routine and so, without further adieu, a good old fashioned blog post on writing. . .
Whether we are writers or not, I think most people have a place they can retreat to – their thinking spot, the place where they go to make sense of the world. For writers, that spot does double duty as it often becomes the place we escape to when we need inspiration – when writer’s block is beating us down or an idea needs to marinate just a little longer. Sometimes part of the process involves just staring out a window for long periods of time without any interruption. This isn’t always easy to achieve when you have a job and a family putting demands on you – hence the need for a place to escape to.
Alfred Caldwell Lily Pool
It’s no secret that I love Chicago. I have many favorite thinking spots that I can haunt when needed. I can always walk along Lake Michigan, weather permitting, or venture over to Lincoln Park Zoo which has the added benefit of bordering the Alfred Caldwell Lily Pool and the Lincoln Park Conservatory, all beautiful places to sit and think and write. When I have the time to get out of town, I can hop a train and go to the Chicago Botanic Garden. If it happens to be the dead of winter or pouring rain when the need for a thinking spot arises, then the Chicago Art Institute or the Chicago Cultural Center offer excellent escapes and inspiration. But the fact is, even with all these beautiful, awe-inspiring Chicago spots, when it comes to a thinking spot for me as a writer, nothing beats a good old fashioned train ride.
Chicago Botantic Garden
One of the reasons I wanted to move to Chicago in the first place, and one of the reasons I fell in love with this city, is the public transportation here. It is just so easy to not have a car in Chicago. I haven’t driven in over nine years now, and I honestly don’t miss it at all. One of the benefits to taking public transportation that came as a surprise, however, was how great riding trains has been for my writing.
No, seriously. Riding trains has been great for me as a writer.
First of all, it is guilt-free staring out the window time. If I am rolling a new idea around or a problem I am stuck on in my WIP, what better way to pass a train ride than to stare out the window and think it over? It is time when I am not expected or obligated to do anything else. I don’t have to worry about cleaning the house or paying bills or any number of things that might be currently on my to-do list because I am on the train heading someplace I obviously need to get to, so therefore I am already being productive with my time. Because I choose not to drive, that means I don’t have to worry about traffic signals or inclement weather while I’m trying to get from point A to point B. All I have to do is get on the train and be cognizant enough not to miss my stop. So if you see me on the train, plugged into my music with a glazed over expression on my face, no need to worry – I’m actually “writing”.
If you’ve never ridden public transportation before, if you are a writer, you should really do it at least once. It is a great lesson in learning to write believable dialogue. Is it rude to eavesdrop on the conversation taking place in the seat behind you? Probably. But public transportation puts you in such close quarters, it’s often impossible NOT to overhear what’s being discussed right next to you. So if you find yourself on a crowded train, I highly recommend leaving the headphones off for a change and doing a little dialogue research. I personally think the best way to get a feel for real dialogue is to listen in on a conversation that you aren’t part of. On the train you get people from all walks of life talking to friends, lovers, children, coworkers. Try and formulate what kind of characters you are listening to and figure out how they know each other and what their backstories are. You never know when a train ride might develop into a full-fledged story for you. You might even overhear something that's simply too strange for fiction.
Aside from the free time to sit and think and the lessons in dialogue, one thing you’ll soon pick up on after eavesdropping on your fellow passengers is that the train also makes an excellent setting for a story. I’ve written several short stories that take place on either a bus or a train. It is a setting that changes based on the time of day – morning rush hour verses late night post bars-closing, for example. At certain times you can have the train almost to yourself, at others, you are packed in so tightly that you may learn more about the stranger next to you than you ever wanted to know. You’ve got wealthy professionals and you’ve got beggars. You’ve got retirees and students. You’ve got experienced riders and you’ve got tourists frantically realizing they boarded the wrong train ten stops back. People coming from all walks of life find themselves riding the train from time to time in a place like Chicago. As a daily rider, I get the pleasure of observing, taking note, and letting my story unfold.
So next time you’ve got a little case of writer’s block or maybe just need some great people-watching time for inspiration, I highly suggest you catch a train if you have one near you.
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