On Maps, GPS and Andre Gide

I never get lost, or only rarely. Few places turn me around, Portland Oregon being one of them. (I’m blaming the rivers and the volcanoes on creating a weird magnetic field that disturbs my sense of true north.) All my life I’ve arrived in a new place and managed to orient myself quickly, so that I’ve been able to get around with only my sense of direction and, when necessary, a map. These days, however, I’m beginning to feel like an anachronism every time I unfold my trusty, old fashioned paper map. In fact, I’m reminded of an episode of FRIENDS, when, in London, Joey had to place his map on the ground and step into it, in order to find himself.

Huinay Huayna, Forever Young, hung above the Urubumba River (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

Huinay Huayna, Forever Young, hung above the Urubumba River (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

Let’s face it, with GPS, Onboard computers in our cars, and smart phones, all of which will give you the best route to take from point A to point B courtesy of MapQuest, the art of map reading is certainly on the wane. Which makes me wonder what the loss of that art will mean to our world.

Sure it might mean less coffee-stained maps, probably fewer traffic accidents and certainly fewer arguments between couples lost on a Sunday drive, but what will it mean to how we see the world?

My fascination with maps has always existed. Travelling as I do, one of my first purchases for any destination is a map that is large enough that I can understand the relationship between places, and that I can see enough details so that I can also get off the beaten path. When I go travelling, I like to trace my route on the map as an indelible reminder of the places I’ve gone and the things I’ve seen. It also reminds of the immensity of experiences I haven’t had, and all the other corners and mountain tops and valleys and towns and people I haven’t seen or met. The map reminds me of the world out there that I’ve, ever so briefly, stepped into.

Thread seller - Marrakesh, Morocco

Thread seller - Marrakesh, Morocco

With the advent of GPS and TomTom etc. I wonder how that affects our relationship with the world around us. With a map we get context. We get how small we are in a much larger world, whereas the GPS and OnBoard Computers I’ve used reduce the world to one small computer screen that points us in one direction and that doesn’t foster those exciting tingles a map gives when you realize there’s an alternative route to the one you’d chosen—one that might be richer for the fact it isn’t the most direct route or the path that most people travel.

Maps have fostered my imagination since the first time one fell out of my parents’ National Geographic Magazine and since the first time I traveled with my parents from British Columbia to Quebec and my mom showed me a map of the continent. I was seven and the vastness of the landscape excited me with all the half-glimpsed things along our route. Maps gave me a sense of where we were in relation to where we’d been. Today they give me a sense of the greater world. Old maps show what the landscape once was and how it has changed. Maps even give a sense of how other cultures view the world differently than most North Americans do today

Path along the Yukon River, following the routes of explorers.

The French Author, Andre Gide wrote that “One does not discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a long time.” That’s what maps are all about, a guide to discovery and exploring something vaster , whereas GPS seems to make a journey all about yourself moving from point A to point B.

So for me, though GPS and MapQuest are great for short trips, I’ll muddle through with a paper map and my own sense of adventure. I’ll live by Gide’s philosophy and take a chance on getting lost or perhaps, like Joey, finding myself in the map.

So how do you prefer to travel? Are you map challenged or a fan? Do you depend on GPS when you’re travelling? Why?

That Research Thing

Ashes and Light - coverReaders of my books set in Afghanistan or Portugal and Burma often ask me how I got the details right. Of course the answer is research, and in all truth I can’t say that I got all the details right, but for me to write I have to have a sense that I have enough knowledge of the place and the culture to write it correctly, or as close to correctly, as I know how. Same goes for a particular time period or a specific piece of technical knowledge. This blog is about how I go about building the knowledge so that when I sit down to write it flows out of my hands.

1. Reading: I read about what I want to write about. I read fiction that gives me a flavor of how other people write about a location. I read non-fiction accounts, memoirs, biographies and histories. These both allow me to pick up the nuggets these writers gleaned about the place or culture. I’ll pick up cheap coffee table books from remainder tables at book stores just so I can look at the photos. This often fuels my sense of place. I haunt the history and geography sections of used book stores like Powell’s to find relevant writing about the place or timeframe, like for 1400’s Portugal for my upcoming book, The Cartographer’s Daughter. I’ll read the coffee table book if something captures my imagination. For example, I was living in Thailand and saw a small coffee-table book about Burmese Puppets. I picked it up and what I read spurred me to want to write a story about the puppets – I know, it’s a ridiculously esoteric subject – but I read that book from cover to cover and used it as a jumping off place to identify other information I needed to know.

2. Maps: I’m a huge fan of maps. Maps give a me a sense of location and perspective. I recall traipsing around Venice, and it was the maps with the bird’s eye view that I first looked at when I arrived, that stopped me from ever getting totally lost in the maze of streets, canals and alleys. The same map put into perspective where Marco Polo’s house was and how that location within Venice might impact his view of the world. Maps let you identify potentialities in the location and they also show specific locations for events in your stories. Maps, I find, are an inspiration.

This is especially the case in writing historical stories, because maps not only show you the landscape back then, but they also tell you a lot about the culture, belief system and world view of the people. I’ll talk more about maps in a later blog.

Similar to historical fiction, when the story is a fantasy set in a fantasy landscape, I make maps up. Knowing where things are located and having place names in your head, allows you to build histories around those landscapes which are so important to making fantastical places real. It also forces you to think how long it would take to get from point A to B and about how the landscape would impact the characters who live or travel there.

3. Talking to people: Talking to people who are experts in their fields can help to get the details right. It can also be a source of inspiration with those odd facts that are so obvious to the experts, but no one else is aware of. These are jewels for writers, because they let readers in on the secret language of whatever this specialty is.

When I was writing about the Burmese puppets I had the good fortune to travel in Burma(Myanmar) and made a point of going to every puppet show in every town I travelled through. I made arrangements to interview the owner of one of the shows in Mandalay who spoke moderately good English and he referred me on to another man who made the puppets. It turned out this kind man was an ex-surgeon and spoke excellent English. He had been instrumental in providing information to anthropologists doing research on the puppets and kindly showed me how they were made, demonstrated some of them for me and even gave me a precious manuscript he had received from the anthropologists so that I could photocopy it for myself. You have to understand that at the time Burma was almost a closed country and that he was taking a risk even talking to me, a writer. Those items I treasure to this day and those unbound pages still have a place of honor on my bookshelves. They were also critical to a couple of fantasies and Karen L. McKee’s Paranormal Romance, Shades of Moonlight.

If you can’t talk to the people, you might be able to get in touch via e-mail. When I was writing my Afghan novel I was in touch with past foreign correspondents, and members of the military that friends helped me locate.

Writing about other cultures, it’s also important to talk to people of that culture. For my Afghanistan book I spent a number of coffee and lunches interviewing a lovely Afghani woman who was brave and interested enough to talk to me about woman in her culture, about her faith and about what was happening in her country, as well attitudes amongst her people towards the foreigners ‘liberating’ her country. These attitudes shaped my characters. She also provided me with small phrases and legends that are common in her country. These are also gold because they allow you to build in the real words and beliefs of the people.

4. Old Newspapers: If you are writing about a historical period where there were newspapers, or you are writing about another part of the world and can get newspapers in a language you can read from that time period, this can be an invaluable way to get a sense of the background events that were occurring in the location at the time you are writing about. Nowadays many major newspapers have their archives available on line. Reading the old papers can also spur inspiration regarding events that are reported and how your characters might have been involved or touched by the event, and can also give you a sense of fashion and language used ‘back in the day’. For example, a story about how bats had taken over the old Regina City library back in the 1920s led to an opening chapter of the first adult novel I ever wrote.

5. Library and Internet research: Having a local librarian as an ally can be a boon, because a librarian can suggest you try looking at books in areas you might not have even thought of. University libraries are also superb resources. When I was writing about Burma I wanted a specific book about the magic systems and the animistic spirit worship. There’s been very little written on the subject at the time, but there was one fairly comprehensive anthropological study. I found the book (a very old, falling apart version) and ended up photocopying the whole thing so I could have it available as a resource.

The internet can be helpful in finding old journals and photos of locations taken by other travelers. Blogs can be a wonderful source of information, both about the place and about the traveler’s reactions to it. I used old articles in The Economist and old travel journals about a very rough ride through northern Afghanistan to bring realism to my novel set in that country.

6. Travel: I try to travel every few years and I don’t go to resorts and I don’t do tours. I go to places I think I might want to write about and I spend my time poking around the back streets and absorbing the feel of the place. I spend time talking to people to get a sense of people’s attitudes. I’ll sit in a park and let people come to me. I talk to waiters and taxi drivers and vendors on the street – often with very limited communication skills because we speak different languages, but enough to get a sense of small bits of their realities—like the

Carmelita of Puno, Arequipa (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

Carmelita of Puno, on the Arequipa streets (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

woman who worked in one city in Peru, but who had left her children behind in another city because there was better money to be earned where she was – a hard economic choice the country’s situation had forced on her.

Before I travel I think about where I want to go and what I want to see and a plan a general itinerary around that, but I also let fate take me where it will. There have been times when a chance meeting, or a wander off the beaten path, has allowed me to find something wonderful that takes the potential writing in a whole new direction.

So research for writing isn’t so much simply gathering facts and then writing about them, it’s about immersing yourself in a location or situation (even if you’ve never been there), so that when you sit down to write the place itself inspires what you are writing. I recall my Afghan book as one of the most difficult books I have ever written. Why? Because I had so many false starts on the book. I would start and get a chapter in and realize I wasn’t ready to write that story yet because I wasn’t filled with the sense of place and the culture. So I kept on researching and wrote other books and then one day I sat down and the book poured out wiht all the wonderful details in just the right places. And yes, there are probably errors in the book, because in a war-torn country there are places so remote that you just can’t get the information. So you know what? There are things in that book that arose purely from my imagination.

Because it’s fiction, folks. Remember that. Fiction.

Laid back in Ollantaytambo

Ollantaytambo sits in the Sacred Valley, northwest of Cuzco and is known for its ruins and its train station. You see this is the place most travelers to Machu Picchu go through, climbing on the train that will take them to Aguas Calientes and the bus to the famous ruins. It’s the place that the Camino Inca treks often stop for breakfast before hitting the trails into the mountains. I came here because it was (supposed to be) a quiet little town and because I am determined to go back to Machu Picchu and see the place as I didn’t see it before.

The town of Ollanta (as it is known to the locals) is apparently the best surviving example of Inca town planning available today.

Women at Ollantaytambo market (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

Women at Ollantaytambo market (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

Leave the Plaza de Armas and turn towards the ruins on the mountain, and the streets are narrow, cobbled and have irrigation channels running down the sides. Stone walls are crowned with cactus in a traditional alternative to barbed wire and broken glass and each house sports twin bulls on their ridgepole – the result of the Spanish saying a bull was more appropriate than the Inca symbol of the ‘puma’.

You can tell this town wasn’t built in this century by the way the traffic congests every time more than two cars get on the road together. Now picture a town converged on by tour busses, taxis, moto-taxis and the occasional semi, all trying to squeeze across a single-lane bridge and I swear entertainment in Ollanta is sitting under the lone tree in the Plaza and watching the mess reconfigure itself again and again in a kaleidoscope of vehicles.

Unfortunately I didn’t get to see as much of the town as I would have liked, because both my ankles are still crippled from the Machu Picchu hike, but I did try to get out daily and finagled my way along (between naps – hey, recovering here) as the lone tourist with a local association devoted to preserving the weaving arts in small villages up in the mountains.

Irrigation waterfall along the mountain road, Ollantatambo, (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

Irrigation waterfall along the mountain road, Ollantatambo, (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

We drove out in the morning, heading up a dirt road that stretched back into the mountains. The road rose, switching back and forth across the mountain sides following a small rushing river, the Patacancha, that was joined by innumerable glacier-fed torrents that foamed down the mountainsides. Green Inca terraces, some the longest in Peru, an old stucco church with thatch roof that I was told is one of the oldest in South America. There were donkeys and pigs and sheep and trains of pack horses headed up the mountain and views of people harvesting their papa (potatoes) laboriously by hand.

Off to the fields, Pumamarka (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

Off to the fields, Pumamarka (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

But best of all are the people. Not only are the people of Ollanta and environs friendly (they always have a smile, especially if you have one first), but this is a town where tradition has not yet been erased by globalization. Men and women both proudly wear their traditional clothing.

Nowhere was this more clear than in the small weaving town of Patacancha and the towns around it. As we drove in we could see the men in the school yard, bright orange and red clothing against the green.

Woman near Pumamarka (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

Woman near Pumamarka (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

At the weaver’s cooperative, there were 36 women dressed proudly in their heavy skirts, hand-woven button-embellished jackets, and small hats held on by beaded chin straps. According to my informant, these villagers are not seeing their young men and women leave the village and that seemed the case looking at the ages of the women in the group.

So the coop bought the women’s weavings and I took photos while we sat on a hill side under thatched huts and blue skies with the sound of the wind in the eucalyptus and the river running. Taking it all in, I didn’t feel bad that I couldn’t walk much.

At the Weaving Coop (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

At the Weaving Coop (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

Here in Ollanta, the culture and the past still lives and breathes and, if you sit quietly in the Plaza de Armas, both will pass you by – along with the traffic.

One of my new friends, waving goodbye (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

One of my new friends, waving goodbye (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

Puno: Leaving Things Unfinished

I wasn’t sure what I was going to write this blog about because I saw so little of the Lake Titicaca area, but perhaps that’s the point. Sometimes things get in the way of best intentions and we either can’t or just don’t get the job finished for whatever reason. This certainly happens in writing, when health or other life issues get in the way. So I guess this is my turn. Just in case anyone was worried, I seem to be fine. The high blood pressure meds seem to have done the trick and I am going to get checked out before the Machu Picchu climb. But that’s all fodder for a next post.

A village of the Isla Uros, Puno, Peru (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

A village of the Isla Uros, Puno, Peru (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

Let me tell you about Puno.

Puno sits on the shore of Lake Titicaca, running up the sides of a number of hills that roll down to the great northwestern bay of the lake. My bus arrived in the night, so we crammed three of us (from the bus) into a shared taxi to get to our various hotels. All well and good, until we left the bus terminal and headed into the streets. Think narrow enough two cars can’t pass. Think congested with cars, trucks, motorcycle-taxis that they call ‘chilos’, as well as bicycle rickshaws. And pedestrians. Don’t forget the pedestrians. Masses of them, blithely passing between the vehicles. In the night everything smelled like car exhaust , and the air was glossy with mist off the lake. And pollution. OK, I thought: this seems rather Dante-esque, but it was night and I was tired and so I let it pass, because I’d seen worse in other countries.

The next day, the day I finally saw the doctor, I went out for a walk. Grotty was about the best I could describe it. Now maybe it was me – I was unstable enough on my feet I actually got lost twice – and I rarely get lost, but the city seemed in a perpetual state of being unfinished. Everywhere you looked there were brick buildings with iron poles sticking out of the roof awaiting the next story. Even my guest house, which was up-scale on the scale of guest houses I’ve been staying in, had its courtyard dug up and the front entrance perpetually stuck in a heap of dirt-cum-mud.

FishingSailboat on Lake Titicaca, (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

FishingSailboat on Lake Titicaca, (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

Not impressive, to say the least. Not a place you’d want to spend any more time than you had to, even though the streets were filled with delightful ladies in traditional bowler hats and absolutely everyone I had contact with was wonderful. My plans for Puno had been to use it as a base to do research farther afield. I had planned to go out to one of the islands in the lake and live there a few days, but given how I was feeling it seemed like a particularly stupid idea to put myself that far from a doctor.

One of the knitting old men of Isla Tranquile, Lake Titicaca, Peru (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

One of the knitting old men of Isla Tranquile, Lake Titicaca, Peru (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

So instead I did what I never do: I booked into a – dare I say it – a tour. A one day tour out to Isla Tranquile. I figured there was no way they were going to stress me out, and I could at least see something of the lake.

Of course I was wrong.

A wonderful day – brisk wind, blue skies and the scent of wet mud you get from a marsh as we first visited the floating islands of Lake Titicaca. These are islands built of a layer of matted root and then heaped on top with reeds. Whole towns exist on these islands. And if you don’t like your neighbor, you just pull up your ten anchors and float away to Bolivia. Think about how easy ending a marriage would be!

From there we headed to Tranquile. I’m picturing a landing, a light walk and lunch. The real picture relates to the fact that Tranquile is basically a mountain. So we land, and I’m looking at an uphill climb. Way uphill. We have to reach the top for our lunch. And of course I’m carrying about 35 pounds of camera equipment that I will not leave unchaperoned on the boat.

Looking back own the flank of Isla Tanquile (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

Looking back own the flank of Isla Tanquile (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

At 14,000 feet this was not an easy hike, but the panting was worth it. Isla Tranquile sits in glacier-blue waters, its steep sides terraced with green, and laced with gold flowers. The sounds of birds and the call of children fill the air. The old men sit knitting (Tranquile is a UNESCO site for its fine fabric weaving and knitting) and its women constantly spin a weaving bobbin. You see them everywhere and they produce absolutely beautiful knit wear. The island is also famous for its gender roles. Men gain their worth by having a wife gift them with many handmade purses. The women cut their hair and weave it into a belt for their future husband. They also cut their hair to produce long falls that the men wear in ancient, Andean ceremonies. When you look at these faces, they have the same high cheek bones and hawk nose of the Incans and some say that Lake Titicaca is where The Inca – the first Inca – came from.

Which brings me back to Puno. I felt bad to leave the city without exploring it better. I climbed on the bus this morning feeling something of a failure, because I don’t like to leave things unfinished. Which is perhaps why Puno’s appearance that the whole place was under construction or reconstruction left me so unsettled.

But I learned from the guide on the bus that my perception was correct. Apparently the government of this department (state) only requires citizens to pay taxes on a finished house….

So I’m holding to that: Like the homeowners of Puno, sometimes in writing and travel it pays to leave things undone.

On the rooftop on the way to Isla Tanquile (2011)

On the rooftop on the way to Isla Tanquile (2011)

Biting the Bullet – or the ‘Oh *@#%’ moment

The other day, in the midst of planning my trip to Peru I had that old familiar rush of anxiety that I’ve had when planning for every other trip I’ve ever taken. It’s what I call the ‘oh shit’ moment.

I first came across this feeling when I was in my late twenties.  I’d foolishly decided to relive my teen-age years by climbing onto a set of water skis. There I was at the end of a whiplashing line skimming along the water so fast I thought I was flying. Then the ‘oh shit’ moment arrived and all I could think of was ‘what the heck am I doing???????’ and ‘this is going to hurt like heck if I go down’.

And I did. Hard.

But I walked away with most of my pride.  I’d tried it at least.

So planning a trip, or a book for that matter, can be a lot like the anticipation I had waiting to go up on those skis. I want to do it. I need to do it. But darn it, it can be scary.

I knew I was going to be whipping at the end of that line, just like I know I’m going to be stepping off of a plane into some place I’ve never been before. Some place I don’t speak the language or know the culture. Some place I don’t know if I’ll have the courage to get through.

Now that’s deep water.  For a lot of people, that’s when they stop.

But that, to me, is part of what travel is all about. I don’t live in the age of exploration and I don’t have the physical prowess to climb mountains—so I do this. Run off to experience other places and the ways that people live.  So the ‘oh shit’ moment is something to push through to prove myself.

In that way, each time I start a new book I find there’s an ‘oh shit’ moment. That’s when you open the computer to that blank page and say “okay, hands, start typing”. Like with the travel, I don’t really know where I’m going, the culture, or the characters I’ll meet, or if I’m prepared for the geography. Sure, I have plans, but we all know about plans.

I used to plot out everything just like I’d plan a trip, but what I found was it took the spontaneity out of the whole experience. I’ve actually found that I get frustrated when I plan a trip in too much detail, or when someone plans it for me.  Having an itinerary means I can’t stay that extra day or take the time to step off of the beaten path or listen to locals about the road less travelled. The same can be said of a manuscript. Sure, having an outline can give you direction, but does it allow your characters to have adventures you never even imagined?

Travelling alone without any itinerary other than I know I want to go to this list of places (and sometimes I have to choose between them) means that yes, there are frustrations and yes, things might not always go as planned, but you also get some enormous gifts. Like meeting the young woman at Burma’s Schwedagon Pagoda who told me her tragic tale of love gone wrong, or stopping at the side of the road in Cambodia to meet shadow-puppet-making orphans whose story was so sad I ended up crying, or having dinner on the roof of a Rajasthani house with a family I met on the streets of a small Moghul fortress town. I learned so much from those encounters. Things I never would have had if I’d stuck to an itinerary.

And the same thing happens with writing. Yes, there’s the panicked feeling of not knowing where a story is going, and the fear that comes when I think things like ‘Dear god, I have to be coming to a mid-point climax, but I’m not sure what it is’. But I live with the fear and then, suddenly, by magic the driving direction or the climax appears.  And it’s usually better than I ever could have imagined.

So when I feel that ‘oh shit’ moment when planning a trip, or starting a manuscript, or even when I’m caught in the middle, I remind myself that the ‘oh shit’ moment is more like the feeling the race horse must get in the gate: anticipation at the race. And wonder at what might be around the first turn.

The whiplash at the end of the line, or the gift of feeling like you’re flying.

And even if you fall, you had fun while you were trying.