Reading (and Writing) on the Spot

by | Sep 15, 2018 | The Writer's Life, On writing | 8 comments

by August Thomas

I’m in the midst of packing for my UK book tour for Liar’s Candle.  Our living room is predictably piled with suitcases, too many pairs of shoes, umbrellas, adapters, and tiny hotel shampoos plucked from the dusty shelf where they usually age like vintage wines.  (Hello, suspiciously yellow solidified conditioner from Izmir, circa 2007.)  Since I’m traveling to multiple book festivals, where wonderful author talks will inevitably trigger a wild hardcover-buying spree, I’m sticking to a Kindle-only rule this time.   But luckily Kindle downloads don’t count toward your baggage allowance…
(Image credit:David Ring / Wikimedia Commons)
Choosing books for a trip often makes me think of the essay, “You Are There,” from Anne Fadiman’s splendid book, Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader.    Fadiman, the book lover’s book lover, opens the essay with a description of 19th-century historian Thomas Babington Macaulay reading Livy on the ancient site of the battle of Thrasymenus.  She writes,
“The moment I read that sentence, I knew that Macaulay and I were two peas in a pod…we were both hardcore devotees of what I call You-Are-There Reading, the practice of reading books in the places they describe.” 
Like Fadiman (and the Livy-loving Mr. Macaulay), I am a great fan of “You-Are-There” reading.  No matter how vivid the words on the page, there is a special through-the-wardrobe thrill in reading a story set exactly where you’re sitting.  
 Because they so often zigzag to exotic corners of the world, thrillers and mysteries are wonderful vehicles for “You-Are-There” reading – even if a hefty dose of Agatha Christie will keep you wide awake in your sleeper train, ears straining for sounds of the surely inevitable murder.   During my first trip to Moscow, I was so engrossed in Joseph Finder’s spy thriller The Moscow Club that I could almost spot his characters in the crowd when I put down the book and ventured out into Red Square.    

(Photo credit: Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy / Wikimedia Commons)

“You-Are-There” reading doesn’t only enhance the delight of a book; it can also enhance your vision of the real-life place, making you alert to details you would never otherwise have noticed.  For years, whenever I visited my godmother, I noticed a poem by A.M. Harbord about the joy of taking the night train up from London to Scotland hanging in her hallway.  The poem, called “At Euston”, begins,

“Stranger with the pile of luggage proudly labelled for Portree
How I wish this night of August I were you and you were me!
Think of all that lies before you when the train goes sliding forth,
And the lines athwart the sunset lead you swiftly to the North.

Think of breakfast at Kingussie, think of high Drumochter Pass,
Think of Highland breezes singing through the bracken and the grass.
Scabious blue and yellow daisy, tender fern beside the train,
Rowdy Tummel, falling, brawling, seen and lost, and glimpsed again….”

(Image copyright: de:Benutzer:Nicolas17 / Wikimedia Commons)

By the time I really was on a train to Scotland, many years later, the memorized lines ran like a melody in my head; the unfamiliar places felt as if I’d known them all before – all because of the old poem in the hallway.
But for a writer, if you have the luxury of choosing, how helpful is “being there”?  On the surface, this might sound like a silly question.  Of course it must help to be in the place where your book is set. And what a perfect excuse to travel, research, explore – and do all the other fun, non-sitting-at-a-desk, definitely-not-procrastinating parts of writing!  Plus, as Robin Burcell pointed out in her fantastic blog post a couple of weeks ago, on-the-spot research can transform the way you imagine a scene.
Still, I have always found it easier to write about the last place I was in, rather than where I am right now.  I wrote about Turkey much more comfortably after I left; now I write about eastern Europe from the comfort of western Massachusetts.  Is it the alchemical process of memory, which transforms the jostles and inconveniences of reality into atmosphere and drama?   Does imagination work better from a distance?  
What was your most memorable “You-Are-There” experience as a reader or a writer?  Do you find it helpful to literally put yourself in the middle of your story — or does distance make the mind grow sharper?
Don’t Miss a Thing!



  1. Gayle Lynds

    What a wonderful post, August. I haven't done you-are-there reading in a very long time, but my past is literature-ly littered with it. As a writer, I'm like you — I'm much better writing about a place in my books after I've had time to absorb and reflect, let the chaff fall away so the beautiful moments, or the subtle details, or the scents and sounds and blur of color have a chance to settle in me and then rise to the surface. At the same time, I love reading about a place after I've returned, because then I get a blend, and often a reminder of what I saw … and missed.

  2. Robin Burcell

    Unfortunately, I've only been to Europe three times, and each time I was on deadline, so there was no time for pleasure reading. It was all about snatching time to write when I wasn't out gallivanting. The closes I got to You-are-there reading was when writing The Bone Chamber, since I was specifically visiting those sights. (And as you know, travel changes everything, especially your fiction!) But I've also plucked a location from past visits to write about, only to find that my memory is fuzzy, which makes me wonder, August, if that's why it's easier to write about after having been there. The far corners of your mind, where imagination resides, fill in the blanks of that fuzziness with wonderful possibilities…

  3. Robin Burcell

    Oh, and great post!

  4. Jamie Freveletti

    I usually don't read about an area while I'm visiting-too busy being a tourist, but I do try to read before in order to get an idea of where I might wish to go. Hope the tour for Liar's Candle goes well!

  5. Lisa Black

    It doesn't usually work out for me, but actually having been to a place you're going to write about is priceless. There's no substitute for it!

  6. Karna Bodman

    What a great post, August –it made me reflect on books I took on trips that were set in just the places we were visiting. One that was really terrific was CAPTAIN CORELLI'S MANDOLIN – set in Greece during WWII — about the local folks trying to deal with Mussolini's take-over of their village and later endeavoring to survive when the Nazis moved in…fascinating to read that history while we were visiting that area. That book was later made into a movie and the locals told us they were very "upset with Hollywood" for not "telling it like it was." Oh well. Now thanks for this very interesting piece on "You are there reading!"

  7. christine goff

    "You are there reading!" I love the idea, but I'm in Lisa's camp. It doesn't usually work out for me. A lot of times I've read books on where I'm headed before I go somewhere, and I find I don't read much while on the road. The one time I did have lots of time to read was traveling Europe in 1975. My girlfriend and I spent 6 months backpacking 13 countries, using Eurail Passes (then you had unlimited travel for 3 months on any train going anywhere). It was a wonderful adventure, but the books I read happened to be the ones someone else left behind. The youth hostels served much like a truck stop book exchange-you drop off one novel and take the next. Jack Kerouac's ON THE ROAD was everywhere. Mostly I read guidebooks, write notes to self and–more recently–paint. Wonderful post. Have a fabulous tour!

  8. August S.C.T.

    Thank you — it's so interesting to hear everyone's different experiences! Definitely, it's a major (and often impossible) luxury to get the chance to check out your locations in person. (And not just for "exotic" places.) Chris, that trip sounds amazing. Hilarious that everyone was literally reading On The Road…