My current work in progress is an as-of-yet untitled road trip novel.
Which means that I get to take my characters across the country and back again all the while keeping up the plot, the tension, the excitement, and the development. Which means that I can’t fall into a pattern of writing any of the worst momentum-killing scenes ever: characters stuck in a car.
But it’s a road trip novel, you argue! Characters have to be in the car! (Maybe too much of my undergrad writing workshop advice is sticking with me. Characters eating at a table, characters in a car, characters’ routines first thing in the morning — these are all scene-killers I’ve been warned about.) Yes, of course my characters have to be in the car. They’re on a road trip. How else could they be getting from point A to point B to point C to point W and back again?
This is the way I see it: the road trip itself needs to be a “character” in the novel. It needs to come alive and be a living, breathing part of the story, and not just stuck in the background.
Doing this is no easy task. I’ve gone on many a road trip. I’ve even driven across the country — which is what my characters are doing in this novel — twice. But that doesn’t mean I know the ins and outs of the highways of the United States of America. Enter my new best friend: Google Maps.
Yes, the anatomy of my road trip novel is stitched together with the help of Google Maps. I actually started out using my handy road atlas, the one that got me to California nine years ago, but it was lacking one major thing: an easy way to judge time and mileage. I needed to piece this trip together day-by-day and stop-by-stop.
There are two things in particular that I hope make my road trip novel stand out from other road trip novels. One is the inclusion of geocaching, which I’ll write about later, and two is the inclusion of museums. Once I made the decision that museums would play a big role, and once I realized that Google Maps was going to give me distance and times, I could start poking around, zooming in and out, searching, and pulling up directions to the places I’m sending my characters.
I haven’t been to a lot of the places in the book. I’ve been to some, and I’ve chosen those some because I’ve been there. But others have required my imagination and a little ingenuity.
For the most part, I don’t do enough describing “out the window” during the trip. My writing group brought this up, and on my next round of revisions, I’m going to flesh it out more. As I said, I want the trip itself to be a character, and if that’s the case, it can’t just be a series of stops and gos with no real meat.
There’s a scene in the second half of the novel where the group stops for a geocache in a midwest state and I needed a shallow body of water. I’m not great with geography and landscape but do you know what is? Google Maps. Maybe in the novel I don’t have to mention specifically the pinpoint on the map where this scene takes place, but I at least could use Google Earth and Street View to confirm that it was possible in that location.
That’s what I mean when I say ‘anatomy of a road trip novel.’ I mean that it’s not enough to just stick your characters in a car and have them drive. It’s not enough to say they’re stopping in West Virginia then in Indiana, then in Oklahoma. It’s more than that. It’s like I’m actually taking the road trip. I have highways and streets and towns and museums and hotels marked. I have a map growing in my mind and saved on my computer that shows the trip from start to finish. I have street view images and museum websites bookmarked. I even use my geocaching app now and again, just to make sure it’s a place where a cache might live (though I don’t use any real geocaches in the novel at this point).
All of this has to come together because otherwise it’s just a bunch of characters in a car looking out a cloudy window at a nondescript landscape for 250 pages. And who would ever want to read about that.