This week’s blog post is by Luke Richardson, a writer of thriller novels and a total travel addict. He’s attended many of our community events, and has even presented live on this very topic, turning your travels into bestselling novels. You can read his latest novel here — for free!
I remember the moment I wanted my life to involve telling stories. I was in the back of a taxi in Mumbai, India. The sun had just risen, and we were hustling down an already-jammed motorway, past the tarpaulin-covered slums, towering crystalline towers, and bright colors of a country I had only ever seen in pictures.
It was my first time in Asia, and I loved it. The trip opened my mind — in the way travel so often does — and that was something I wanted to share.
It took several years’ more traveling, dreaming, and planning before I published my first novel in 2019. I’ve now written nearly ten thriller novels in two series. They’re fast-paced, page turning, and all set in places I’ve loved visiting.
It’s my dream that as you read, you’re transported to that place — whether you’ve visited it yourself or not — and share something of the experience I had in that Mumbai taxi many years ago.
Writing, however, didn’t come easily. It took effort, rewrites, editing, corrections, then more rewrites — and I’m still improving every day.
In this article, I’ll talk you through what to keep in mind should you want to turn your adventures into a page-turning, bestselling novels
Capturing the Setting Through Sensory Language
When my characters are walking into the dark backstreets of a far-flung city, I want my readers to be right there alongside them. Describing what your characters can see, hear, touch, or taste enables this. This sort of description is called “sensory language.” It can be very effective — but it can also be overused.
Here’s how I go about sprinkling just enough sensory language over the description, without bogging it down with loads of unnecessary detail.
I start by picking a few things that are ubiquitous in the setting. For example, in my debut novel, Kathmandu, I talk about the dust, the altitude, and the traffic — all of which are present wherever you go in the city. I describe these things multiple times through the novel, but in different ways. That way, the reader experiences that same thing repeatedly, just as the character does.
Here’s an example from Kathmandu. My protagonist Leo has just arrived in the city, and is struggling to get a taxi to his hotel.
Leo opened the door of a taxi, pushed his bag inside, and climbed in beside it, never letting go of the straps. The taxi, a pink and white hatchback, was covered with dust. The green digital clock on the dash informed him it was five in the afternoon. To Leo, it felt like the middle of the night. He supposed probably it was. He needed to find his hotel and eat proper food on solid ground. Then he’d get some sleep.
“To The Best Kathmandu Guesthouse,” Leo said.
The driver examined him in the rear-view mirror without responding.
“The, Best, Kathmandu, Guesthouse,” Leo said again, slowly.
The driver tilted his head to the side.
Leo exhaled. This was going to be more difficult than he’d anticipated.
“The… Best…” he started, sounding each word as though his pronunciation was at fault.
The driver snapped the flimsy gear stick forward, kicked the accelerator, and sent the car screeching from the curb. Leo fell backward into the worn seats and looked around for the seatbelt and buckle.
The pitch and ferocity of the engine grew until it sounded as though it were on the brink of explosion. Leo peered up from the back seat. At the end of the slip road, a wall of traffic sneered. The driver’s knuckles whitened against the steering wheel, and his head whipped from side to side.
The Devil’s in the Details
I love it when a reader tells me my book made them feel like they were there. I love it because that’s exactly what I intended to do.
The trick to this, I think, is all in the details. Getting those right proves that you were there — you haven’t just looked online!
This can include things like the color of the taxis, what the metro system’s like, particular phrases or gestures that local people use, common cars on the road, or anything else that stands out to you as you visit.
One thing I find useful is recording these on my first few days somewhere. When I’ve just arrived at a new place, I see all the differences. After a few days, they somehow become normal.
There are so many ways to do this. You can record these details by taking loads of pictures (don’t worry if they’re not up to your normal photo-taking standard — these are just for research). Video is great too, because it captures the sound and can help you get the distances right. Just making notes or voice recordings of interesting things as you walk around is great too.
As an example, in this extract, Kathmandu is revealed in more detail to the reader. It’s also becoming clear that Leo’s task isn’t as easy as he’d first hoped.
Across the road, market sellers unloaded fruit and vegetables from trolleys and carts. Leo had visited markets in Asia before, but still found himself smiling in fascination at the vibrancy of it all. He watched one man arrange his tomatoes in a pyramid, each a slightly different tone on the red-green spectrum. Another opened sacks of spices, which he laid carefully around a large pestle and mortar. At the edge of the market, almost opposite Leo, a man created bright garlands of flowers. Leo watched him threading yellow and orange petals on a string with a large needle.
A truck pulled to a stop and sounded its horn. The driver gestured wildly. The man making the garlands gave three to a small boy, who ran across and handed them up to the driver. A few coins were passed down in payment, and the truck lumbered off, the garlands swinging from its rear-view mirror.
Opposite the café, a man raised a metal shutter to reveal a travel agency. Posters of lakes and mountains adorned the windows, hinting at the Nepalese beauty beyond the grimy, sweating city. Leo knew Allissa could have left Kathmandu. Buses to other towns, cities, or countries were cheap and frequent, and kept no records of the passengers they took. If Allissa had boarded one of these, there was very little Leo could do. She would be lost to him. Without reason, Leo found the thought saddening. He wanted to find her. Not just for the money. For the answers.
Notice how here, even though I’m not talking about traffic, I made sure to include a noisy truck. That’s the sensory description of the traffic that I focus on throughout.
The Story Is King
Great books are all about the story. As a writer, you forget that at your peril.
A book could have the best description, it could detail in intricate and poetic detail how beautiful the setting is, but if nothing happens, you’ve missed the point.
This is especially true for me, as I write thriller fiction novels, but it’s also the case in nonfiction books too. It’s essential that the events of the story drive the reader forward. The reader must be in some way invested in the plight of your characters — whatever that plight might be.
Consider this metaphor: the story is the engine of your book. All that immersive description is the beautiful body work, shiny upholstery, and kick-a*s sound system, but without the story, you’re not going anywhere.
A Classic Story Structure
What do The Wizard of Oz, The Matrix, and the James Bond stories have in common? They all follow a very similar story structures
In act one, we are introduced to the characters in their home setting. Dorothy’s in Kansas, Neo is messing around on his computer, and James Bond is chilling on a beach.
In act two, the characters are taken somewhere uncomfortable to fetch or do something. Dorothy goes to Oz, Neo lands in the “real world,” and James Bond heads off to a bad guy’s lair. Act two ends on a climax, in which the characters are almost certainly going to fail: Dorothy realizes the Wizard of Oz can’t help her, Neo must rescue Morpheus, and James Bond’s imprisoned by a chatty, gun-wielding Russian.
Thankfully, act three comes along, they overcome all these issues and are better, stronger, and wiser for it.
Now, I’m not saying your story needs to follow this structure, but readers often expect this.
You Can’t Edit a Blank Page
Finally, I’ll share with you this great piece of writing advice. It’s totally true: you can’t edit a blank page. Many very accomplished writers talk about their messy first drafts. You just have to get that first draft out, then you can start improving it.
Agonizing over the details is a trap we can all fall in to — be careful of it!
If you’re new to this, I recommend setting aside a little time each day and writing something. Don’t worry too much about the details — just get something down.
Then don’t look back until you’ve finished the story!
This week’s blog post is by Luke Richardson, a writer of thriller novels and a total travel addict. Luke loves imagining the characters in his books, discovering their motivations, and sometimes (but not always) delivering them the justice they deserve. More than that, though, he loves exploring the places his books are set in, which are as much characters as the people. Luke is based in England but travels as often as time and (in unfortunate recent times) other forces will allow. He used to teach English in a secondary (high) school but gave that up last year to focus on writing. He also works as a DJ in nightclubs, which he hopes to return to again before long. Connect with Luke on Instagram.
Read Koh Tao for Free
I’d love to give you a free copy of Koh Tao, the first book in my Leo & Allissa series. To grab your copy, visit my website.
The Travel Now Podcast
Packed with travel inspiration, the Travel Now podcast shares ideas about where to go, how to get more out of your time away, and tips on saving money while on the road. I share a combination of interviews, personal travel stories, and episodes recorded live while exploring interesting destinations.
If you’re looking for a place to start, jump straight into my episode on Kathmandu. Here, I talk about why a visit there inspired me to write the book and what you should expect should you make a trip there, and I share some extracts from the story.
Note: We love featuring our travel-loving members. If you’d like to write a guest post for this blog, send us an email at info @ thenomadicnetwork . com with the subject line “TNN Blog Guest Post.”