Trekking, Traipsing, and Writing by Carole Howard

I caught the travel bug from my husband, the intrepid former Peace Corps volunteer.  Since I met him, this girl from the Bronx – who’d previously been as far as Niagara Falls –  has done her fair share of packing and unpacking, schlepping, trekking, and traipsing. Forty-odd years, fifty countries and counting.

Many of our trips were the “normal” kind – a week here, two weeks there.  But there was a two and a half year period in the 1970’s when we lived in West Africa while my husband had a Peace Corps staff job.  During those years, we lived in three different countries, but traveled to many more.  And then in 2000, when we retired, we took a series of 2-month volunteer assignments in Africa and Asia.

As it turns out, of the 50 countries I’ve visited, a disproportionate share – about 15 – are in Africa.  The others are spread out among Europe, Asia, Australia/New Zealand, and an itty-bitty bit of South America.

Along the way, I realized something I couldn’t believe I didn’t know before:  I’d always thought I was just “me.”  It turns out, though, that I’m an American me, having been shaped by the culture I grew up in.  If I’d been born somewhere else, I’d be someone else.  And if I didn’t spend time outside of the U.S., I wouldn’t realize things about my own culture that had been invisible to me before, because they just seemed normal, as in the saying “Fish never discovered water.”

And that’s one of the reasons I like to use exotic settings in my books.  It’s almost as if the setting is one of the characters:  what’s seems ordinary for the Africans is not ordinary for the Americans, and vice versa of course.

In my mystery, Deadly Adagio, the protagonist is the feisty wife of a U.S. Foreign Service Officer, living in Senegal, in West Africa.  (Yes, I lived there.  No, she’s not me.)  If the book were set somewhere else, it would have to be a different book.  Victim, murderer, investigation: all different.

Bargaining for baskets and fabrics at the market, squeezing into a crowded pirogue with women whose babies are on their backs while their bundles are on their heads, visiting the chief of a village and meeting his entourage, ruminating about the dramatic difference between American brooms and African brooms – those things are part of the fabric of the story.  Going to Macy’s, taking the Staten Island Ferry, meeting the CEO and her staff?  Nah, just not the same.

I love using my experiences in Africa when I write. They may not have molded me as American culture did, but they’ve become part of who I am and the way I see things now.  I try not to say things like, “Oh, that reminds me of the time I was in…..” too much, so it’s not tiresome for my friends.  But writing is a different story. Using those experiences in my writing is like looking at my photo album, but with the smell of the wood-fire, the sounds of the traditional Wolof greeting, the taste of the street vendors’ brochettes thrown in.

It’s better, much better, than a photo album.  Maybe I’ll “visit” Thailand next time.

When you’re choosing what to read next, does the setting influence your decision?


Carole Howard is the author of Deadly Adagio, recently published by Second Wind Publishing.


Filed under fiction, Travel, writing

11 responses to “Trekking, Traipsing, and Writing by Carole Howard

  1. Carole, as an early reader of Deadly Adagio, I can attest to the fact that you brought the African setting to life. It truly is another character in the book.

    I most often use the Catskill Mountains, where I once lived, as the setting for my books and short stories. For one thing, gritty mountain towns and murder seem to work well together. Also, writing about the Catskills lets me revisit a time and place that I loved.

    • Thanks, Anita. As to Catskill Mountains and murder, hmmmm, that puts the region in an interesting new light. But I know what you mean about revisiting a time and place that you loved. Who says you can’t go back?

  2. Such an interesting post, Carole. Because my former husband was US military, I too, have traveled quite a bit, but mainly in the European theater. And since I didn’t discover my roots until I was an adult (I was adopted), Scotland has become a draw for me. It’s interesting that we seem to want to revisit places and cututres we’re familiar with or to which we have a connection. There’s a passion that comes out of that and shows in our writing, I think.
    I haven’t read your book, DEADLY ADAGIO yet, but I look forward to discovering a part of the world of which I have no knowlege. I would be reading it through your eyes. My readers have told me that made their reading experience of my book special for them. Sounds like a good way to visit a far away land and culture. Good luck with your book and thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    • Thanks, Coco. I was interested that you said, “….we seem to want to revisit places and cultures we’re familiar with or to which we have a connection. There’s a passion that comes out of that…” Yes, yes yes! In my case, at least, I started out with no intrinsic connection to Senegal, but after spending time there, I definitely felt it and went back again and again. And, as you said, I loved writing about it.

  3. Welcome to Second Wind, Carole! You’ll fit right in — so many of the Second Wind authors are world travelers, which is so amazing to me. I’ve never been out of the USA. Haven’t even seen much of the USA, to be honest.

    Best of luck with Deadly Adagio.

    • Thanks, Pat. It’s great to be part of the Second Wind community. As to being a traveler, I guess I am. On the other hand, everyone I’ve ever met who lives in Colorado, when asked where they live, answer with that rapturous look on their face and a voice filled with joy. Sounds pretty good.

  4. Sounds fantastic! Love to travel myself, just never get much of an opportunity.

  5. Gretchen Gibbs

    Yes, I think that setting is extremely important, perhaps especially in mysteries. We read and see so many police dramas set in US cities that it’s almost necessary to have a different setting for the mystery novel to feel novel. And yours certainly does! Highly recommended. Gretchen Gibbs

  6. Thanks, Gretchen. I appreciate the recommendation.

  7. Pingback: Happy Any-Holiday, Wherever You Are, by Carole Howard | Second Wind Publishing

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